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Audience Participation: When a Play Demands Your Involvement

By The Ensemblist
Mo Brady

I’m one of those theatergoers that runs away screaming at the idea of “audience participation.” I avoid improv comedy like the plague because I disdain being called upon to provide a suggestion. When attending the theater I like to be out of the line of the sight of actors, as catching the eye of one of the performers could take me out of the storytelling.

Yet I found myself willingly wrapped up in the proceedings of What The Constitution Means To Me. Performers Heidi Schreck, Mike Iveson and (on the night I saw the show) Rosdely Ciprian spend the show directly addressing the audience at Broadway’s Hayes Theater. This recognition into the story of Constitution immerses us so fully and warmly into the proceedings, I willingly felt a part of the ensemble driving the story forward.

I don’t mean to confuse this style of production with “immersive theater,” where the audience is brought into the physical world of the show as is the case with this year’s revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! It’s not even the same as Hadestown where the actors recognize the audience during the performance.

In the case of Constitution, the show feels impossible to run without theatergoers on the other side of the proscenium. It simply couldn’t exist without us.

That being said, the proscenium is hardly a confine for the actions of Constitution. Characters enter and exit through the audience and cues are yelled up to the theater’s booth. Without being physically transformed into anything other than the Hayes Theater, the auditorium feels a part of the set in Constitution.

This welcoming of the audience is not a unique theater construct. Earlier this season, Mike Birbiglia winningly included the audience in his performance of The New One at the Cort Theater. Like Constitution, this device never felt off-putting or exhausting. But while Birbiglia simply referenced specific audience members, Schreck includes the audience as a living, breathing force into her performance. She does not so much reference one theatergoer, as she includes us as one solidated entity.

Working together, the audience engages with Schreck throughout the performance to help her tell the story. At times we are asked to audibly cheer or jeer at ideas or statements, not as individuals but as a group. The moments where both happen simultaneously are thrilling as the room feels to vibrate with the power of connectivity.

Like the constitution of the United States, the script of What The Constitution Means To Me is a living, breathing document.

Several moments in the show included references to current events from the last week. The proceedings in Constitution feel so alive that it’s hard to tell where the script could end. At times its structure feels jolting, but the plot never missteps or feels unintentional.

When I saw the show, the performance ended with Schreck and Ciprian sitting on the edge of the stage to ask each other questions “provided by last night’s audience.” I spent a lot of time in the following days wondering if they were really questions provided by theatergoers or were simply a part of the script. In the end, I decided it didn’t matter because it made me feel something either way. And that’s the kind of experience we go to the theater for.

Audience Participation

Also by The Ensemblist:

Broadway’s Legacy Robe: An Ensemble Tradition

Women of Broadway: Friendship at King Kong

Published in collaboration with The Ensemblist

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