Staff writer Diep Tran treks fearlessly into her cover story on immersive, audience-participatory theatre (“The Walls Come Tumbling Down,” page 30), bolstering her reportorial bona fides by assuming the role of a police sketch artist in the long-running Manhattan barroom melodrama Speakeasy Dollhouse. Her game encounter with the genre—a brand of theatre that’s hardly new, but seems to be proliferating afresh around the country—makes for lively reading. And, if you’re like me, it stirs the impulse to recount some audience immersions of one’s own.
It was back in 1971 as a twentysomething theatre junkie that I first ran across a performance that required more in the way of personal input than attendance and applause. The play, at the soon-to-be-defunct Repertory Theatre of New Orleans (where I was a sometimes apprentice actor), was The Elinor Glyn Liquid Memorial Love Regatta, devised and directed by June Havoc, in the second (and final) of the actress’s two seasons as the company’s artistic director. Drawing, no doubt, on her vaudeville roots, and celebrating a kindred spirit (risqué British romance novelist Glyn, who famously popularized the concept of “it,” as in “sex appeal”), Miss Havoc sent us audience members feeling our way one by one through a giant womb-like plastic maze, past a sonic wall of throbbing rock music, into small-group encounters with actors and each other—to what purpose or in service of what storyline I no longer remember. But my ideas about conventional theatrical geography and dramatic action were instantly and indelibly altered.
Years later in New York City, Miss Havoc’s participatory concoction came to mind as I followed Anne Bogart’s instructions to stroll a designated route in Washington Square Park watching for fragments of site-specific drama; as I traipsed after Anne Hamburger and her En Garde Arts crew, experiencing environmental theatre in and around city landmarks and architectural structures; as I marveled at the audacity of the late Rezah Abdoh, who once populated four blocks of the Meatpacking District with 60 actors and a mob of spectators for his indoor-outdoor happening Father Was a Peculiar Man.
My main regret, in terms of participatory theatre, was that I’d missed the lodestar of the genre, the Performance Group’s seminal Dionysus in 69, which crossed a line Miss Havoc would surely never have considered broaching: sexual interaction with the audience. Lo and behold, this past season I got the belated chance to contemplate the very template of avant-garde theatrical interactivity when Rude Mechanicals, the adventurous ensemble from Austin, brought its 40th-anniversary recreation of Dionysus to Manhattan for a week (see AT Jan. ’13). The production was captivating; and sure enough, my limits were duly transgressed, thanks to the attentions of a burly Rude Mechs actor who pulled me onto the stage for several minutes of horizontal interaction (his name will go unmentioned, but you wouldn’t have to call in Elinor Glyn to certify that this actor possessed “it”).
Interactive theatre isn’t going to invalidate curtains or prosceniums, but it’s a powerful and provocative trope that seems increasingly prevalent in the programming mix at U.S. theatres. Judging from the evidence Diep Tran offers in these pages, that’s a first-rate idea.