The Drowned Man and the selfish audience member

Originally written on 29th September 2013.

So, having written both a description of my experience and a caveat for these blogs (I always feel there’s a greater likelihood of being misunderstood when writing things, rather than saying them), it seems like it’s about time to actually write (some of) what I thought about The Drowned Man.

There’s going to be a few posts about the show, but I want to start with one of my main concerns: that various elements of the show result in an audience who, rather than mutually sharing in a theatrical spectacle, instead compete against each other for parts of it.

Right from the beginning, both the masks and the request for silence isolated each audience member. For me, every other audience member became a faceless body* (just as I would’ve appeared to them) whom I had no relationship with and couldn’t communicate with. No audience member had a role, personality or purpose within the context of the show and so it was natural to look towards the performers as the only real ‘people’ around. It became easy not to consider anyone else’s experience of the show.

Following advice from a friend who knows the show well, I spent at least half of the performance following individual characters quite intently. Even without this advice, however, I think I would have followed a similar pattern, as following the actors seemed the main way to share in the structure and narrative of the piece (granted, wandering by yourself for the performance would still be a structure and narrative in itself, but I – like most audience members, I think – wanted to learn about the world’s inhabitants and their stories).

My technique of following certain characters closely, maintaining eye contact with actors wherever possible, and investigating spaces where no other audience members seemed to be did (in a sense) pay off. I had four 1-on-1s as well as some other brief moments of interaction with cast members. I spent the final fifteen minutes of a show constantly spoken to and accompanied by one actor, wrapping up the whole performance in a very satisfying way.

My habit of following performers closely wasn’t simply from a desire to have 1-on-1 experiences (I knew that if I went into the show purely hunting for such moments, I’d only disappoint myself). The production’s design was beautiful and I often enjoyed watching choreography, or a moment of madness, or a minor interaction, without various distorted white faces in my field of vision, reminding me that I too was just a faceless voyeur.

It was clear at moments during the production that I wasn’t the only one who was keen to follow actors closely, or the only one who’d value a rare 1-on-1 performance. Whilst following Wendy as she fled the scene of her crime, I became aware of a tall, well built man wearing a check shirt. We were always the two people closest to Wendy (though who was first behind her often changed) and, though there was never any physical contact or communication of any sort, occasionally an unpleasant competitive edge was clear. We both wanted ownership of this story, we both wanted to have contact with Wendy.

The 1-on-1s are the only time in the show where you’re not faceless (my mask was removed with uniform care and precision each time) – they’re the only time in the show where you’re invited to speak, where you’re spoken to directly. There are other points in the show where you might be acknowledged by a character (being hugged in a case of mistaken identity; being passed a note) but these, like the 1-on-1s, seem few and far between.

The lack of a relationship with the other audience members, combined with the rarity of truly unique experiences in the show (whilst everyone’s journey is individual, it would be entirely possible for your journey to consist of scenes that you’re sharing with numerous audience members – for me, part of the joy of shows such as this is discovering a secret or experiencing a moment that no-one else is party to) meant that it often felt like audience members were vying for the show’s more exclusive content. So many of us wanted to be included, to be drawn further into this world, but the opportunities for this seemed so rare, that we became aware they couldn’t be shared. We had to work for them. We had to compete for them.

Of course, competition isn’t a necessary consequence of productions that allow audience members to have unique journeys. As is probably clear, I personally prefer productions where audience members have more influence, are able to work together, to contribute to and change each other’s experiences – which preserves individual experiences for everyone but without any competitive edge. The audience get to be members of a community, rather than individuals who happen to occupy the same space.

This links in with various other aspects of the production (the structure of the performance, the information offered to the audience, the particular type of immersion that seems to be at play here) which I will discuss in further blogs, but to prevent things getting too messy too quickly, I’ll leave things here for now.

*I’m not saying the masks were used for this particular purpose – they definitely served other purposes throughout the performance – but this is a direct consequence of their use.

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