Audience interaction during shows may bother some people. Fed up with inconsiderate people at the theater, I even penned an article on how to be a bad audience member a few months ago. But Annie Arthur, the director and producer of Shakespeare Shakedown, didn’t mind at all when an audience member inserted himself into the ending of Romeo and Juliet.
The interactive production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which Arthur staged in a Lower East Side bar in 2010, provided audience members a unique way to view the story of the star-crossed lovers. During the final scene, a man in the audience had become so invested in the story that, when Romeo was about to drink the poison, he broke through the crowd, stole the poison from Romeo and said, “No! Don’t do it! She’s not really dead!”
Arthur said the man then drank the poison himself and acted dead, and the actor playing Romeo was unsure of what to do until one of Tybalt’s henchmen handed him a gun and said something to the effect of, “Just shoot yourself already!”
“I was thrilled,” Arthur said, describing this scene. “When I talked to the audience member after the show, he said that he really felt it was a ‘choose your own adventure,’ and he felt he as if he could actually change and affect the events of the play. I loved the fact he had the courage and felt like he could run up and do that in the middle of the show. To me it was a victory.”
This victory has led to another interactive production by Shakespeare Shakedown, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is staged in a loft in Brooklyn. Shakespeare Shakedown, which Arthur runs, provides theatergoers with a new way to experience these works of drama and acknowledge the audience’s effect on the performance. Arthur, the director/producer of the show, who also performs the role of Titania, is devoted to putting on interactive shows with the intention of honoring the audience’s effect on the performance.
“I want to acknowledge how a space, event, idea, or performance is affected by those who interact with it,” she said. “Even when I’m doing set design, I find a way to have the audience effect the stage. I’m discovering this is true in any work that I do.”
Arthur, who said that since she first began attending the theater at age four, she wondered what would happen if she entered the stage and started talking, and the moment at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet cemented her confidence that her techniques are effective. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, audience members are invited to play certain parts at the end of the show. This technique, she said, is risky.
“It’s at the very end of the show, and it will leave the audience with how they generally feel about the whole production,” she said. “Every night I wait with anticipation to see how the person playing Wall will choose to show their ‘chink.’ It’s always a delightful surprise.”
Arthur said she loves seeing performers and non-performers being given permission to act in a play and seeing their surprise at how much they enjoy being a part of the show.
“If i did the show for only one reason it would be that,” she said. “The opportunity to give someone the license to have a different kind of fun than they are used to and have them be surprised at how much fun it actually is.”
When adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream to an interactive format, Arthur gave the production a unique spin in casting, which she did without regards to the gender of the actors.
“I was happy to cast Bottom and Quince gender blind,” she said. “And as it ended up, Quince did end up being a female character and it’s been great. Tatania’s fairies were not intentionally all female, that’s just a product of who we most wanted to work with when casting came about. As far as the roles for the Lovers go, I think both Sara and Tatiana have done amazing work keeping their characters grounded and meaningful rather than sniveling and manipulated.”
Arthur said she enjoys working with Shakespeare in an interactive format, saying the production brings characters to life and grounds them in an approachable way. She described her production as “just doing Shakespeare” rather than doing “high brow Shakespeare.”
“We’re not acting as if its some high society honored text, we are just playing with the characters because they are real and fun and not so unlike us,” she said. “For many people this is the first time they really understand Shakespearean text. I think this is because we make it relatable in our performing of it. Additionally if you don’t understand something, you can go up to a character and ask them ‘Why did you just do that?’ and they will tell you, in character, exactly why they did it.”
The original script by Shakespeare lends itself easily to adaptation, Arthur said.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream lends itself to fun and has lots of characters that can interact with the audience easily. The fairies are a great example,” she said. “Additionally, in the original script these scenes are taking place at the same time and overlapping, so in that sense we are doing a very accurate representation of the show.”
When staging the show, Arthur and company cut down the text to include only scenes that took place in the forest or could be adapted to be in the forest as well as working a great deal with the actors on their background and character work.
“Outside of the scripted scene work rehearsals I had one on one sit downs with each of the performers every week to talk about their improv,” Arthur said. “Everyone created what I like to call a ‘secondary character’ for their own use. This could be a fictional best friend, favorite uncle, maid, employee, sister…any kind of person that you would be close to and would divulge secrets to. The idea of creating this character is to have a persona that could be put on by an audience member and then used for the performer to interact with.”
Interactive theater has been a popular ticket lately, with the MacBeth-inspired Sleep No More, the Alice in Wonderland-themed Then She Fell, and the 1920s-styled Speakeasy Dollhouse, inspired by a real-life murder of Frank Spano. Arthur credited popularity of interactive theater to the Internet, saying that people are accustomed to seeing something they like and commenting on it or interacting with it in some way, making it theirs.
“This desire to get in on the action is huge. And so the desire to create an environment where you are encouraged to play and partake is great,” Arthur said. “One of the best things about A Midsummer Night’s Dream and this kind of theater in general is that the guest can interact in whatever level they feel comfortable. They are equally rewarded for stepping back and being a voyeur as much as they are rewarded for getting up in the action and directly effecting the events. A group of friends of different levels of shyness or adventurousness can all find their desired level of interaction.”
Arthur hopes to continue working with interactive theater, with a new staging of MacBeth next, saying, “My hope is to continue to work with as many of the same actors again as possible and begin the forming of a troupe where we can do these shows in rep in various different settings. The goal is to have shows that require very little of their environment so that they can be done in flexible locations.”