I came to Ontroerend Goed’s “Audience” having seen them before at the One on One Festival at Battersea Arts Center, but knowing very little about this performance other than that I had some free tickets secured courtesy of the Twespians. But it’s not fair to say I had no preconceptions: in fact, I had a negative experience at my previous encounter with this troupe that heavily affected my mood going into this show. Last spring, I saw “Internal,” which B.A.C. described as “speed dating meets group therapy,” but I found it something verging on audience abuse. Admittedly, I was there to challenge myself (as part of a series of short shows that were billed as edgy), but I did not care for having a cast member share with nine strangers information I’d given him when asked privately to reveal a “dark secret;” I was offended and I interrupted his monologue to tell my side of the story (which had been recast to put me in a particularly ugly light), even though I felt that my speaking up wasn’t really part of show. But I was angry, and I wasn’t going to be treated like a fool in public by a total stranger.
Afterward, thinking about the effect they had on the other people I’d seen the show with – leaving my compatriots thinking they’d actually made friends or romantic connections with the performers – I was disturbed by Ontroerend Goed’s callous manipulation. They had broken the rules of interaction laid down as the Law Of The Theater, and caused my companions to think we were thus no longer in a theatrical environment dealing with actors, but were in fact dealing with “real people” who were actually talking about their feelings rather than following a script. Oddly, at the same time Ontroerend Goed expected us to continue following the theatrical paradigm, not speaking out of turn (certainly not challenging what was said on “stage” like I did), and generally letting the experience be run for us rather than directed by us and our wills.
To me, the scales were not weighted evenly. While I had wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone, I didn’t like seeing people’s heads messed with. And I was angry at the actor’s violation of my expectation of privacy and secrecy. He broke a social agreement. This caused me to break the actor/audience agreement. I felt in the end that we’d all been cleverly manipulated, that the evening had been something that was less performance and more social experiment, acceptable in the context of a “challenging” “One on One” experience, but on the boundaries of acceptability. I kind of admired it, but it has to be said, when I got to the Soho Theater, my guard was up. “Audience” was billed as “mischievous and exhilarating,” but my expectation was that it was likely to be manipulative and potentially mean, that at the least it might make me feel uncomfortable, but there was also a good chance that it could leaving me feeling angry, used, and possibly betrayed. And this was NOT how I wanted to feel at the end of the night.
And, I was determined, this time I would not.
This meant when I walked into the theater, I was feeling somewhat combative. I didn’t want to leave my bag in the strange little cloakroom; and I didn’t want to be somewhere that might lead the cast to pick me out for any kind of “special attention.” I wasn’t interested in the lecture telling us what proper audience behavior was; and I kept my distance (and refused to participate) as we were run through the paces of how to clap. As it turned out, I did get some attention, as I was featured in a video montage as the “brightest (dressed) person in the room;” but I wasn’t bothered by this (as I showed by flashing my devil horns at the video camera pointed at me). I’m easy to spot. (And for the record: it was what I wore to the office that day.)
By the end of the night, many of my negative expectations had been met. We, the audience, had been treated like mindless sheep, told what we were (leisured and healthy, as qualifying for benefits or having invisible disabilities did not fit in with the narrative any more than my brilliantly patterned clothing), and told how we thought, in an exercise that reminded me of the Riceville blue eyed/brown eyed class exercise or the Sanford prison experiment.
I believe Ontroerend Goed has an expectation of a certain level of response from the audience, and their goal is not just to wait until they get a response (basically, to see when someone will blink), but to coordinate this blinking over the course of the evening so as to move their show forward. In some ways, based on the video montage they showed at the end, I think they wanted us to see how easy it is to slip into the kinds of behaviors that allow things like the rise to power of the Nazis, perhaps because of the restraints caused by social conformity and, perhaps, the desire to “be nice” and not make a fuss.
It was clear to me from before that it’s our sense of restraint (as in, we bought a ticket and thus must follow the “rules” of behavior for an audience) that enables the actions I find offensive in Ontroerend Goed. They let themselves break the rules, but then rely on us continuing to follow them. I was not interested in this game and instead switched to the new paradigm right as they did. But they were unable to adapt: given rams when expecting lambs, Ontroerend Goed had to carry on trying to show how we were members of a unified, single-minded, easily controlled organism. The effect was weak and purposeless given the freedom we had claimed for ourselves. I fear, in the end, my combativeness and what it sparked upended the evening. Ontroerend Goed was simply unableto improv their way out of the mess I’d made.
The show made me angry, even though I realized in the end that I’d probably got upset over something that had no more meaning than any other scene played out on any other stage. But this time, at least, I didn’t walk out feeling like I’d been used. Was I manipulated? Probably. But the rest of the audience made me feel like we had held up the social contract with each other. I had not, this time, been betrayed; I told a mouthy actor we wanted to see a whole new world, and, as the rest of the audience shouted “I am Spartacus!”, this time we got it. Thank you, fellow audience members. I’d always hoped I wasn’t really all alone.
(This review is for a performance that took place on December 9th, 2011. Performances continue through January 7th, 2012. Another analysis of Ontroerend Goed is here; a review by Tipsy Hippo of Thursday’s show here. While I considered this show angry-making, it did lead to three hours of conversation afterward, which, given the show was just barely an hour, was a damned good return on investment. No one was physically damaged in this show except for my friend with hypermobility who had an actor shake her back out of alignment in an attempt to encourage her to stand up and dance to some sexist rap music. Ontroerend Goed, KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF OF THE AUDIENCE. You HURT her. I had to watch her shuffling in pain down one set of stairs after another all the way home because of your thoughtless assumption that anyone without a visible disability must actually be healthy. Don’t be so arrogant next time.)