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How Much is Too Much Audience Participation?

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It seems like the usual tradition of audience participation at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival has gone a little too far, leaving some audience members displeased and humiliated, according to BBC News.

Angie Brown writes in "Warning" You will be humiliated" about her boyfriend who was dragged on stage during the Wau Wau Sisters' act at the Fringe. He had to put on a ridiculous outfit and was told to dance. This lasted for 10 minutes out of the hour-long show -- then he was asked to remain in the outfit until the end, when he was dragged up on stage again.

This time, more people were taken up with him, including Brown herself. "I was given bubbles to blow and a glass of wine before the Wau Wau Sisters stripped naked and poured wine over themselves," she writes. "They ran amok on the stage covered in wine and then they were off. James was worried about driving home covered in wine and I was left embarrassed at how the rest of the audience would have been feeling having paid to watch me blow bubbles and drink wine."

Which is exactly the point that Fringe attendee Ken Brown makes, when he is quoted for Brown's story: Dragging people up on stage and humiliating them ruins the experience of the performance for not only the volunteers, but for the audience around them. Brown, who was in the audience for the Fringe show Meow Meow, told the BBC Scotland news website, "I feel it ruined the enjoyment of watching the show because I was worried I was going to be dragged on stage for them to make a fool of me."

It's not only the threat of humiliation that can make an audience member regret purchasing a ticket, but also the fact that they paid to see a professional performance -- not a handful of uncomfortable fellow audience members.

"At least eight people were taken on stage during the show and made to dance and as an audience member I didn't want to see them cringing and trying to dance as I had paid to see a performer," Brown continued. He suggested that all shows should say whether or not they're going to involve audience participation, so that people who are uncomfortable in that atmosphere don't waste their time or money. "There maybe needs to be a Fringe on the Fringe, where people can go and watch each other," he suggests.

I think that's a valid point. It's painful as an audience member to watch people who don't want to be on stage be humiliated. They become reluctant to do anything and can even make the show dull to watch, instead of being happily entertained from their seats.

I don't want to see other audience members dressed up in ridiculous outfits against their will standing stiffly on a stage arguing with the performer about whether or not they are going to dance, unless I'm aware that's what I paid for. If I knew that was what the show was going to be, I might still go for the laughs. At least the people participating would also be aware beforehand of the possibility of being taken up on stage, and would likely be more active and willing participants.

But audience participation has been part of the Fringe for a long time, and you can't just get rid of tradition. Plus, there are Fringe shows that have successfully integrated audience participation into their shows without making someone wish they hadn't gone to the theater at all.

Shows like the Fringe's Showstopper: The Improvised Musical draw large crowds, even though the entire principle of the show is based on audience participation. As a completely improvised show, audiences of hundreds of people yell suggestions as to the theme that the musical will take on for that performance. This is a safe way for an audience to be part of a show, without being unnecessarily singled out and humiliated.

The West End Glee Club is a Fringe show that pulls a bit of inspiration from reality TV in its use of audience interaction. Influenced in part by the U.K. hit The X Factor, the audience votes at the end of the show for one of the four singers to sing a solo at a fictional UK Glee Club Competition. These kinds of ideas seem more likely to result in drawing in audiences. Theatergoers can sit down to enjoy a performance, and be involved in a way that still lets them feel comfortable.

-- Alison Mierzejewski

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This seems like yet another example of performers showing open disrespect to their audience. And performers wonder why many people avoid experimental theatre. There's all too often a sense of entitlement on the part of the performer that the audience has an obligation to listen to them and go along with whatever they want to do to them, because artists are Very Special People. Especially when you ignore your audience member's firm "NO" and compel him to participate or be publicly humiliated (or worse, be publicly humiliated as his participation), you show that you neither desire nor care about a relationship with your audience as fellow human beings, but only see them as objects to be manipulated for your art (i.e. for yourself).

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