Abusing the Audience: How Far is Too Far?

“It is better to provoke a reaction than none at all” – or so goes the old adage. But is this really the case? During the last week there has been a bit of a furore about Dave St-Pierre’s new offering at Sadler’s Wells. Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! or A Little Bit of Tenderness For Fuck’s Sake (although some reviewers have given translated this as something a little more benign) has been causing controversy throughout the dance world.

The first I heard about this was a tweet from the Dance Critic Luke Jennings, who described his evening as ‘Vulgar, witless, repellent.’ Blogging for The Guardian, he explained further:

Further down my row a guy parts his arse cheeks to expose his anus to a visibly alarmed woman. Then he fixes on me, and tries to grab my pen and notebook. I hold on and he pulls my glasses from my face. Then deliberately, clearing his throat, he gobs phlegm all over the lenses, and with a sneer, hands them back to me.

I myself was not at any of last week’s performances, but by the sounds of other reviews (the Indie, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph) poor old Luke’s experience was, despite being the most grotesque, not the only bad one. There were a few who felt more positively (as here), but the fact remains that at one point during this performance one of the audience members was assaulted, which in the context of the street could be classed as a criminal offense, or at least something worthy of an ASBO.

Does the fact that this behaviour took place in a theatre auditorium, in front of an audience who paid up-front for the experience, mean that the performances can play havoc in such a way? A sort of theatrical diplomatic immunity to any offence caused? How far will this wild card take you?

Actively trying to provoke your audience is not new phenomenon of course. This piece is one in a long line of productions who have caused varying degrees of notoriety over the past century. It was the Naturalist theatre of the late nineteenth century (think Ibsen, Chekhov et al) which incited a variety of new-wave theatre experimentalists to use their audiences in a different way. Naturalist theatre, it was argues, did not need any input from the audience at all: audience members could snooze off in the stalls and this would not be to the detriment of the production. It reaffirmed the dominant ideology of the state, reproducing it in the theatre. If the stage was reproducing, as closely as it could, ‘real life’ outside, what was the point of it at all?

The Futurists are one of the many groups who decided to make a difference. Filippo Marinetti’s ‘The Variety Theatre’ manifesto of 1913 advocated the ‘the use of itching and sneezing powders, coating some of the auditorium seats with glue, provoking fights and disturbances by selling the same seat to two or more people’. They wanted to take the spirit of variety and cabaret theatre into the more conservative upper-class theatre spaces. The painting to the left is a fellow Futurist Severini’s work which literally puts the audience at the centre of the picture: here he paints a Parisian cabaret act. Audience members are virtually indistinguishable from the performers themselves, everyone is involved with the flurry and movement of the scene. The Futurist’s artistic aspirations did, however, have explicit political motivations behind them. Staunch Fascists, their manifestos celebrated the new-found brute force of Italy, its masculine strength and modern technical prowess at the expense of anyone lesser-equipped to match it. Attacking their audience meant to some degree politicising them, aggravating them into a state of powerful momentum and force.

But what could St-Pierre want from this close encounter with his audience? Spectators at the theatre are no longer expected to sit through endless productions which conform ideologically to the present governments view of what should occur: productions can openly question, undermine, rethink through the way we live our lives and positions in society. As Michael Billington highlights in his book ‘The State of the Nation’, the Blairite government actually subsidised theatre through the Arts Council that often critiqued the Blair government, and questioned its morals and decisions.

St-Pierre may be wanting to break the taboo of nudity and physical proximity by the onslaught of naked bodies into the audience but surely there is a more ethical and intelligent way of doing this than subjecting your audience to abuse? I suspect that to a number of the audience members this kind of social critique was not new – did he take into account he may be preaching to the converted?

The experience of Luke Jennings and the rest of the audience seems worlds away from my other recent experience of nudity and physical proximity, Adrian Howell’s The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding, which I blogged about a while ago. I was asked to read through a short document about the exprience I was to go through before I went into the room, and at all times Adrian make clear that I could say it was all too much if I needed to.

If we are to respect the performance, the audience needs to be likewise respected. There is a level of trust which performer and audience member enter in at the beginning of the performance: play with this as you wish, willingly humiliating or hurting someone will break this trust and ruin any ‘point’ which the performance is trying to make.