Giving up a level of stage control, and demonstrating the ability to get it back, are essential ingredients of stage shows that include audience participation. Singers teeter on the brink of losing control every time they take audience requests. On Broadway, Bill Irwin's "Fool Moon" had an entire audience participation playlet.
In one performance of the "Cabaret" revival, Tony winner Alan Cumming plucked a distinguished older gentleman out of the crowd to dance with him on stage, claiming later that he had no idea it was newsman Walter Cronkite.
Some theater shows rely more than others on the brinkmanship of audience participation. Large portions of "Tony & Tina's Wedding," "Flanagan's Wake" and "Grandma Sylvia's Funeral" have unscripted audience participation written into the show, and in countless dinner-theater murder mysteries audience participation is the entire raison d'etre.
During each performance of "Monty Python's Spamalot," which ran for three weeks at the Benedum Center, a volunteer "finder of the Grail" was brought on stage to join the cast in a musical number. And there's an audience-participation portion of CLO Pittsburgh's "Forbidden Broadway," running in an open-ended schedule at the Cabaret at Theater Square.
Pittsburgh actor Chris Laitta says her day job teaching adolescents at Rogers Creative and Performing Arts Middle School has helped her to manage the absence of control built into her show "TV Tunes," which is still in demand after a year at Theater Square.
"There's a freedom that kids have when they play, and when adults are given that, it's like getting a permission slip to be free," said Laitta. "You really have to watch the audience and see who will be your ally. I keep the lights on so I can see who's dying to stretch their wings and participate, and who might try to take control of the show. It's using your gut and reading the face of the person. You see into them."
Laitta says her experience controlling middle-school classrooms helped her to play Miss Frizzle, a teacher taking her students on a field trip, during a U.S. tour of "The Magic School Bus."
"The script said, 'Yell out if you want to have fun!'" recalled Laitta. "The people who wrote the show didn't know that you can't do that -- you can't completely abandon control and let them say what they want or you don't have a show. You need to have a control device. So I helped to write one into the script."
Joe Domencic, one of Laitta's co-stars in "Forbidden Broadway," learned to manage the absence of control during some 400 Theater Square performances of "Forever Plaid."
"In the middle of 'Heart and Soul,' we always welcomed a woman to come up and play on the piano with me," said Domencic. "We got all types -- little girls and women in their 90s and people in different states of inebriation. ... It's this unknown factor that keeps you on your toes and puts extra energy in the show."
Domencic said that sometimes, giving up the control pays back more than expected.
"One time [in 'Forever Plaid'] we brought up our spotlight operator's girlfriend," he said. "On stage, when she signed her name in the plaid book of life, she found a note from her boyfriend saying, 'Will you marry me?' He came down and knelt in front of her, and she said yes.
"[Audience participation] almost always works best when the person coming up doesn't try to ham it up, because what the audience loves is one of them, an everyday person, going on stage and being surprised and not being in control. That's what's funny. That's what they laugh at."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 31, 2006) In this Oct. 29, 2006 story about audience participation in theater performances, the name of the comic play "Fool Moon" was incorrect.
John Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1991.