Most days, theatre audience members troop into an auditorium, take their seats, and wait for the curtain to rise and the play to begin. They watch the plot unfold, but cannot change any of the elements. Not so in any audience mediated play, where the audience can decide which actor plays which character and even gets a say in the direction of the plot.
Singapore is set to see this rather novel play format in September, as Avant Theatre, led by G Selva, presents Hangman. The Tamil and English shows for the play will be staged on September 14, 15, and 16 at Stamford Arts Centre Blackbox.
The play is a thriller; its description reads: “In a twisted game of psychological warfare, can a guilt-ridden executioner withstand the sadistic manipulations of a cunning serial killer?”
While the basic premise of the play is the guilt that a hangman is supposed to experience, nothing else is cast in stone. Audience members can intervene to swap the actors playing the characters and even the situations in the play — they can do this ‘live’, as the play is being staged.
Bewildering as it sounds, this ‘shifting sands’ format brings out the best in the actors and thoroughly draws in the audience, according to G Selva. Speaking to Connected to India, he said, “Audience interactive plays and audience mediated plays engage the audience to be part of the performance rather than being a passive one.
“Also, such concept productions challenge the strength and capabilities of Singaporean stage artistes, which is another primary objective for attempting such an idea. This has been the motive behind many plays staged under Avant Theatre.”
The first time that this theatre company staged an audience mediated play was in 2012, but its experimentations go back longer than that. “Avant Theatre has always tried different performance concepts over the past 22 years, such as ‘total theatre’, where audience [members] view the process and narrative of a play through various mediums,” said Selva.
The company’s first audience mediated play was titled Twelve Angry Men, and it let audience members take a call on which actor would play which character. Selva explained the audience-led casting process: “At the entrance of the auditorium, the audience members could see the images of the 12 actors, and they were invited to choose who would play the character of ‘Juror 1’ and so on, until all the 12 characters were assigned.”
For the actors of Twelve Angry Men, it was quite a nail-biting wait — they did not know until the entire audience-led casting was over which of the 12 roles they would be assigned. That was not all; even after the show began, an actor might have to switch to a different character.
“There was one show [of Twelve Angry Men] in which halfway through the show, we asked a different set of audience [members] to assign new characters to the actors, who would then have to carry on as those new characters,” said Selva.
The success of this play showed “that our actors are more than capable and dynamic enough for such a concept theatre performance”.
In Hangman, too, the audience would be “empowered to swap the roles of actors twice during the play”. Initially, Selva wanted all the actors on stage to swap language as well roles, but now “one actor (Karthikeyan Somasundaram) will be swapping characters in both languages, and the other two actors (Raguvaran and Aric) will be acting in their respective languages, with character swaps at the cue of the audience”.
As for how the character swap would happen while the play was live, Selva said that there would be an online poll where the audience could vote. “When the poll reaches a certain percentage, derived from the number of audience members attending the show, the performance will be stopped briefly and the roles will be swapped for the performance to continue again. This is done twice.”
Besides bringing actors out of the comfort zone of well-rehearsed roles, these disruptive concepts also make the audience think more about the medium of theatre and cut through the digital clutter that fills everyone’s lives now.
Innovation, in general, is an essential part of theatre, not only to push creative boundaries but also to give the audience members a reason to keep coming back for plays. Selva said, “It is a challenging medium with much distraction from screen and social media platforms. In addition, ticket prices are relatively high for live performances compared to screen presentations. As such, constant innovative ideas and concepts where the audience has a say or input in the performance process gets them involved — they get to see a change that involves them, too, which excites them. When they are effectively engaged throughout the play, the audience feels satisfied about paying a higher price to watch a theatre performance, be it in any language.”
Subjects that lend themselves best to these novel play formats are those that go against received wisdom, feels Selva. “Audience mediated plays are most effective when the core of the play is an opinion that challenges the common perspectives of the actors in the play and the audience. I strongly believe that plays are about making one think while being entertained,” he stated.
About the physical setting of an audience mediated play, “it all depends on the treatment of the play and the director’s vision”. Hangman is set “in the gallows of an unspecified period, locality, country, and culture. Hence the seating arrangement does not impact the outcome of the play.”
The “minimalist approach” of the performance setting is also meant to make the play location-agnostic, he said. Next year, Hangman will travel outside Singapore and go to the Midsumma Festival in Melbourne and Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
To make theatre as a whole sustainable in Singapore in the long run, the “niche crowd” that offered steady support to Avant Theatre would not be enough, said Selva, though his company was “grateful” for that encouragement. He said, “We truly believe that the hand-in-hand relationship between dynamism on stage and effective marketing to attract new audiences is necessary for theatre to thrive and to ensure its long-term sustainability in Singapore.