A couple of months ago, I saw Dean Moss’ Nameless Forest at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. I was offered the ticket by my aunt, who couldn’t make the date, and took it reluctantly, when I saw it was an “audience participation” piece. In fact, I put out a half-hearted invitation to a friend–who it turns out works with someone who has a personal connection to the company–and she jumped at the opportunity to go, thus sealing the deal which would otherwise have been missed.
I just stumbled on the entry in my journal from that performance, and it got me thinking about it again.
As a theater artist, the whole theme of “audience participation” strikes a certain dread, having seen it done badly so many painful times. So often these engagements begin with the wrong premise. Actors start exhorting the audience to GET UP!! or JOIN IN!! –failing to acknowledge the basic, fundamental fact that audience and performers enter the sacred space of the theater with different expectations. Even in street theater, performers and audience occupy a different psychic space. And, however you as a performer want to engage your audience, you must begin from that premise, that understanding.
Shortly after the performance, while I was still thinking on it, and trying to articulate what the company had done so right, I heard an NPR Science Fridays broadcast about the Sun. It mentioned the concept of differential rotation. The Sun is a huge ball of gas, rotating at its two poles at a rate of once every four days; at its equator, it is moving at a rate of one rotation every thirty days.
It struck me that that was exactly the concept that Dean Moss and his troupe understood: while all encompassed in the same body that is Nameless Forest, the performers are operating at the polar rate of rotation, while the audience is rotating at the equatorial rate–or vice versa–it doesn’t really matter how you frame it, only that you must understand this differential. The company approached the problem of the production with the right science, so their calculations were true, and the formula they arrived at worked.
They began by setting the right tone with the audience members they brought on stage. They were not overly friendly, they were not confrontational. They were direct, clear, serious, somber, kind. They made themselves trustworthy from the outset, aware of the surroundings and their unknowing partners, they made gently clear they were in charge. The dynamic their approach elicited, what it allowed the actor/dancers and the theater to set up–that effective use of/collaboration with audience, who could not possibly know what was happening, and yet were an integral part of the story–was truly remarkable. It created a kind of synergy, of sympathy, engagement, and interaction that truly couldn’t have been achieved any other way. It required the interaction of knowing and unknowing “performers.” And it was wonderful to feel how that reflected life. And to see what theater can do.
The link below is to Dean Moss’ site on Vime0–it doesn’t come close to the experience of seeing it in person, but it allows a peek. If Nameless Forest ever comes to where you are, go! Whether you join in or watch from the outside, I guarantee it will move you.