As I explore the role of the Audience in improv this week, this game quickly came to mind. In some ways it’s almost more of a handle as there are few “rules” to the structure, but it’s a great dynamic to literally break the fourth wall during your shows. It’s title is essentially it’s description: Scene in the Audience.
A premise (often a location) is obtained. The team performs a scene that takes place predominantly or exclusively in the auditorium as opposed to on the stage.
Players receive the suggestion of a security line. After the transitional blackout, the lights come up on the auditorium where the players have scattered themselves through the audience. Player A is standing and calling.
Player A: “I thought you said you were going to hold my place!”
Player B is standing on the other side of the house, and with a gesture encourages those nearby to stand up as well.
Player B: (yelling back in return) “You know how I struggle with being assertive. I just didn’t want to have to keep explaining.” (Turning to an audience member) “And this lady reminded me that you’re not meant to hold places…”
The audience members nods and smiles.
Player A: “Well, that’s just great. Don’t think I’m going to give you any of this popcorn! Would anyone else like my former best friend’s popcorn?”
Player A offers some popcorn to a nearby audience member and starts to sulk…
There are many ways to approach this dynamic, but the major pay-off is obviously getting willing audience members involved. I’m including some possible strategies below. I’d caution players to make sure audience safety is front of mind. In general I think it’s a wiser approach to invite participation rather than mandate or potentially coerce it.
Traps and Tips
1.) Using the audience as people. This is probably the most straight-forward approach and is modeled in the example above. I’ve often seen some variation of putting the scene in a theatre auditorium or crowded space, which certainly honors the central conceit of the game. Here, players can define the audience as ill-defined masses, or endow various individuals or smaller sub-groups as characters with whom they can interact and play. If you’ve earned the trust of your audience, the potentials are literally boundless. A third improviser could enter and utilize other audience members as fellow security guards, the team could offer that the rock band is making a Canadian Cross in the hopes that some folks will leap into the roles, or players could try their luck at moving up through the line and accepting whether or not audience members will hinder or allow their progress. If you’re using audience members in this manner, it’s a powerful choice to truly let them make decisions that will influence the progress and outcome of the scene. Just remember to keep your audience safe.
2.) Using the audience as environment. This option opens up if you take the risk of exploring a location that doesn’t closely mirror a typical auditorium. For example, if your scene is set in a warehouse, audience members could now be invited to participate as other characters or environmental objects such as large crates, a conveyor belt or forklift. This can take some gentle coaxing and encouragement especially if you’re asking several patrons to work together to form something with their bodies, but it can be quite wonderful to experience strangers embracing the accepting philosophy if you’ve empowered them graciously to do so. Just remember to keep your audience safe.
3.) Using the audience as props. This is essentially a smaller scale variant of the above strategy, but you can also assume a Furniture approach to the scene. If you’re not familiar with this short-form game, it essentially involves using a fellow player’s body to create all the needed hand props and furniture. To return to our warehouse premise, someone could be invited to create a clipboard for a manager to hold, or a lunch pail, or a flashlight. Part of the fun can be then having these patrons follow you around in the scene to be reincorporated as needed. Be careful of merely naming large slews of objects in the hopes that audience members will know what to do. Especially in the early beats of the scene, you’ll need to provide some targeted guidance and instructions. Once the dynamic has been seen and learnt, it’s fun to be a little more open and risky in your object needs, but make sure you still have a scene amidst the game. And just remember to keep your audience safe.
4.) Using the audience as soundscape. In many ways this is the most user-friendly and accessible as some audience members may have mobility issues or a reluctance to offer up their bodies to the game (and rightly so). The key is, once again, clearly establishing your expectations when you invite the audience to play, especially at the top of the scene. If your setting is an ancient rain forest, referencing the relentless downpour pointedly is more likely to get audience members serving as your Foley artists rather than just mentioning it nonchalantly in passing. (It’s also important to have your technician in the loop as if they fill these needs the audience will be less likely to do so.) If you’re not using microphones as performers, also keep in mind that you don’t want to offer up a soundscape that you won’t be able to be heard over. As is the case with all the above strategies, once the audience has a sense of the “rules” you’re more likely to get participation both of the expected and surprise varieties. It probably goes without saying, but it’s important that any surprises are weaved into the mix.
5.) Using the audience for all of the above. This can be magical if it happens and builds organically. Don’t push for this as your scene will more likely shine with simpler and more expertly executed audience games that are earned and built rather than everyone grabbing at their own dynamic and sending the audience confusing messages and expectations. Bring your audience into the shallow end of the improv pool first to let them get a sense of the playful possibilities, and did I mention to make sure you’re keeping the audience safe once the scene takes off?
The beauty of Scene in the Audience is that it is such an open approach. I offer the above observations as possible strategies in the event you’ve never seen or experienced the game before. At the end of the day, your team will be best served if you make a strong initial staging choice and then work together to discover and develop how to best maximize the presence and creativity of the audience. In addition to my warning of keeping your patrons safe, I would also offer that it would be a shame not to tap into their energy and ideas once you are working amongst them as this is the unique promise of the dynamic. For this reason, try to avoid a scene that just happens to be in the auditorium but that doesn’t capitalize on this unique staging choice in any interesting way.
Connected Concept: Audience