A few years ago, I was an usher/ticket-taker for a one-woman show. Normally, I loathe one-person shows, but this one-person was one person I particularly liked, and I was all too happy to rip tickets and find seats for her tour-de-force performance.
The perk of being the usher/ticket-taker at a play is, if the play isn't sold out, you can take a seat in the audience for free and watch the show. On opening night, I did just that, and sat back comfortably to experience the performer's unique journey, or whatever is you're supposed to do at those things. The show was humming along, I was thoroughly enjoying myself, and then the actress (let's call her Diane) looked to us, hopefully. "And every night, we'd go to the bar and drink and sing! Who wants to come sing with me?" She happily scanned the opening night crowd, as I shrank in my chair. An uncomfortable murmur went through the audience. People busied themselves by looking through their purses, or fake-coughing. I prayed someone else would step forward when Diane's gaze met mine and we locked eyes. She looked at me pleadingly, I could almost hear her thoughts. "Come on, James," she looked to be thinking. "Help me out! Nobody else will! For god's sake, I'm dying out here!"
I broke her gaze. I fake-coughed. I pretended to be engrossed in my wristwatch. Finally, after what seemed like an hour of cajoling, a young woman volunteered, sang half the Flintstone's theme, and sat back down, to hearty applause. Diane finished her show to a standing ovation, and I caught up with her in the lobby after the show. We hugged and I congratulated her, and she said she was glad to see me, and we were perfectly nice to one-another, but we both knew what I had done or rather, what I hadn't done. I hadn't come to her rescue by simply raising my hand. I couldn't do it. I let her die.
Dream: Avoid audience participation forever.
Goal: Achievable. It seems like I'm continually running the risk of being called up on a stage to do some stupid thing, despite my complete lack of enthusiasm for it. However, there must be something about me that tells performers, "Yeah, that guy! He'll do whatever we tell him, nyuck-nyuck-nyuck!" But someone like my dad, for instance, whether it's his appearance or demeanour, you would never ask him to be part of a scene, shout out a suggestion. He'd look at you like you were crazy, and perhaps suggest you learn a trade of some kind.
Plan: Until I can manifest that inherent quality that says, "Please ignore me, this demeans us both", I will simply remove myself from situations that require audience participation. Situations like:
Improv comedy shows. A few words about improvised comedy: When improv comedy succeeds, it's like nothing you've ever seen. It's like watching a perfect golden orb fall out of the sky and split into two perfect halves through which an eagle majestically bursts forth, flies through a hoop of fire, and soars through the horizon, fast and free. When it fails it's like tripping over a dead fish and falling into a bucket of sewage. And based on what I've seen, and I'm sorry Improvisors, it fails 90% of the time, or more. A group of hilarious, zany comrades will get onstage and take suggestions from the audience to build a scene, with variables like occupation, activity, and location. It's like a live action Mad Libs with all the potential for embarrassing filth (eg. A gynaecologist going to the bathroom in Hell). And again, the best improv teams in the world can make this stuff fly, and everybody else dies slowly and painfully up there.
When I first moved to the big city, I took in a show at Second City, which is one of the most famous sketch and improv training grounds in the world. They had put together an SNL-style sketch revue and it was hysterical. I laughed all the way through, I couldn't believe homegrown talent was producing such amazing work. Then they invited the audience to stick around because after the sketch set they had rehearsed, they were going to do an improv performance! I stayed in my seat, delighted, and watched, disbelieving, as it all went to hell. This group of performers who, just moments earlier, had the entire audience eating out of their hands with their well-crafted comedy, were now a desperate showcase of zany tics and quirks and unbearable "look at me!"-type stunts. One guy lapsed into the worst Cosby I've ever heard. And anyone can kind of do a Cosby, you just sort of let your language deteriorate, but this guy was doing a ham-fisted, borderline racist homage and one of the other performers said, "Hey Dad, I'm dyslexic!" which was a take on Theo Huxtable, which is an always timely and hilarious reference. Now I'm not saying I could do this any better myself. Quite the contrary, I did improv in high school badly, and knew enough to never try again, but every part of me gets tense and queasy in the audience for one of these things. I see the naked desperation in a performer's eyes as they frenetically demand suggestions for something that might salvage a scene, and I just can't bear to be there.
Similarly, I can't participate in 50/50 draws, or raffles, or anything where a winner of something is announced over a microphone and somebody comes to the front to collect their prize. I will throw out or ignore any ticket stub, and forgo winning anything just to not be that guy, because everybody hates that guy! Think about it, if the prize is a good one and you win it, everybody's mad at you because they didn't get it for themselves. If the prize is bad and you win it, you're stuck with a shitty prize you have to carry around until you can re-gift it at Christmas. Either way, not worth the strife.
Speaking of strife, being on the other side of audience participation is no picnic either. For a few summers, I performed in shows for children. It was fun almost all of the time. They were funny, well-written shows, I got to be sing songs and goof around with a different group of kids a few times a week all summer long, it was a good gig. The only problem was that every show I did had a dreaded part in it where I, as one of the actors, would have to pick out a Mom or Dad to take part in a bit we were doing. I understand the appeal of that conceit. Kids think it's hilarious when grown-ups act silly, and it loosens to kids up sing along with the songs or do the wacky dances or whatever. But getting that first Mom or Dad was the worst job in the world. Dads plain didn't want to do it, or participated so grudgingly, looking daggers at me the whole time, that I suspect some of them are still mad at me, wherever they are. Moms were more game, initially, but so afraid of looking stupid that they would simply refuse to do certain things, leaving us hanging onstage, desperate for a way out. I always begged to cut the Mom or Dad parts, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. However, I must also thank the truly standout Moms and Dads who wore the crazy hats, did the silly voices, and gave it a hundred percent up there with us. You're the dream participant, and that's just your cross to bear.
I even chafe at orientation exercises at school or work. You know, those silly games where you say, "I'm Jumbled James, you're Devilish Dave, she's Boring Bernice" and so on. Or when a boss or team leader says, "Just tell us your name a little something about yourself." I always want to respond, "My name is James and I wish I was dead."
Sometimes I'm afraid that my reluctance to participate in something for fear of embarrassing myself or looking stupid is symptomatic of a larger problem. That I'm a misanthrope , and that what I'm actually afraid of is participating in my own life. I know this guy we'll call Pete who participates in life like he's gunning for a promotion. He pursues passion and projects, be they personal or professional, literally all over the world. He's spent his adult life travelling the globe, and not in a flaky tourist way either. He seems to establish all kinds of connections, make strides in a variety of industries, only to take off again for something new. By contrast, I had a dining companion last night (who's equally successful in personal and professional endeavours, by the way) say, "I think I'm just going to give up on the world." He's not a depressive or anything, but just meant that he's tired of hearing about how fucked up the planet is, the myriad of ways we screw up life for ourselves and each other. He's content to claim his corner of the world, with his husband and his dog, take necessary trips for work and family obligations, but otherwise draw the shades and live happily ever after. I think I vacillate between Pete and my dinner date. The part of me that winces, "Oh god, please don't call me up onstage, Diane!" seems to fly in the face in the joy I experienced singing silly songs and wearing a variety of wigs with groups of children every summer.
I think the difference is that I need to plan. When it comes my life, I'm willing to take centre-stage sometimes, but not to throw the script away. That's why, as hard as it is to face another big move, I'm so grateful to have Jonny, my favourite co-star, with me along the way. Goodness knows, without him, I'd be dying up here.