'Audience Participation' or 'Assault and Battery'? Sometimes People Just Don't Want to be Kissed by Darren Criss
After writing my opening night review of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, it has since come to my attention that I missed a key detail. Apparently a man sitting in the orchestra section stormed out of the theatre visibly upset after the transgender character Hedwig, played by Darren Criss (pictured left), entered into the audience and kissed him during "Sugar Daddy."
I remembered seeing Hedwig kiss an audience member, as is customary in the show, but I didn't remember seeing the man storm out of the theatre upset. However, I'm also horribly unobservant, even to the point I didn't recognize that John Stamos was sitting just a few seats from me during the performance, but I digress. Sure enough, I checked out these claims by taking to twitter and saw several tweets confirming that the kiss and subsequent dramatic exit by the audience member did in fact occur. I'm not one to question random strangers on Twitter, so I'll accept this as #truth.
Audience participation has become so commonplace in plays, musicals, and comedy acts that a certain amount of attention from the cast should be expected (especially when the show is HEDWIG, I might add). But there certainly has to be a line drawn somewhere, right? Where is the line? I don't know. Everybody has their own sensibilities, but the man who didn't appreciate Darren Criss' salvia touching his face certainly isn't the first person to feel physically or emotionally damaged by interactive theatre.
I've compiled a few of the more interesting examples of past shows & experiences where some have felt that the line of "audience participation" slowly blurred into "assault and battery", "invasion of privacy", "false imprisonment", "negligent inflection of emotional distress", and sometimes even resulted in physical injuries. Without further adieu:
#1 - CATS -Rum Tum Tugger Once Got a Little too Frisky
In 1997, a patron of CATS sought $6 million in compensatory and punitive damages after Broadway veteran David Hibbard, who was portraying the cat Rum Tum Tugger, entered into the audience and tried to get a patron to stand and dance with him. The patron refused and Hibbard, in the spirit of a cat, climbed onto her seat's armrests and began pelvic thrusting to the music while exclaiming "Boom! Boom! Boom!" Hibbard, who was presumably dressed in a tight leotard and drenched in sweat from dancing, then briefly played with the patron's hair before leaping off her seat and returning back onto the stage.
The roughly 1,400 audience members in attendance at the Winter Garden Theater thought the exchange was funny, but the patron didn't. She sent the theatre's management a complaint in the form of a letter (click here to read a copy of the letter), and then sued the production after management offered an apology and two complimentary tickets to return to see the show again, a remedy her lawyer analogized to "offering someone another ticket on the Titanic."
It's unclear what came of the lawsuit, but CATS certainly didn't change a thing. Audience participation, pelvic thrusting, hair batting, and even licking are very much still a part of the CATS experience theatregoers pay for and expect when attending the show.
#2 - The Blue Man Group - Esophagus Cams & Foam Balls
In 2008, a man filed a lawsuit seeking $50,000 in damages after he was selected from the audience to participate in a stunt creatively called "esophagus cam" with the Blue Man Group. According to the patron, a performer pinned him to a table and forcefully shoved a dirty camera down his throat and the resulting video of the inside of his esophagus and body was projected on a jumbo sized screen for all to see.
This man claimed in his complaint that the camera's insertion caused him physical injury, and he suffered from severe emotional distress and nightmares because of the incident. As a result of the lawsuit, Blue Man Group was forced to reveal how their trick worked, including the fact that slight-of-hand was used and the camera never came close to entering the participant's mouth and a licensed prerecorded medical video was played for the audience, not actual footage from the participant's esophagus.
Then in 2011, another lawsuit was filed against the Blue Man Group when a performer shot a Nerf style gun at an audience member, hitting him with a soft foam ball. The man, who should definitely avoid going near any McDonalds play pits in the future, sued the group for "shock and injury to his nervous system", and "great mental, physical, and nervous pain and suffering." His case was quickly dismissed.
#3 - Chelmsford High School - Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions (the school assembly's inappropriate title, not my own.)
In 1995, two parents of students at Chelmsford High School in Massachusetts sued their high school after a bizarre mandatory AIDS awareness assembly subjected 15 year olds to some of the strangest "audience participation" tactics I've heard being used in a high school setting.
The parents complained that performers presenting the assembly told the students they were going to have a "group sexual experience" with "audience participation", joked to one student participant that his loose-fitting pants was "erection wear", and encouraged another minor to display his "orgasm face" to the audience full of his fellow high school aged classmates.
Interestingly enough, this lawsuit was dismissed. But something tells me the parents were far more outraged over the assembly than the students were, and I have to admit that I'm a little jealous since my high school never had assemblies even remotely this cool. The closest thing I got was The Imagination Machine (huge shout out to those guys, by the way; they do great work).
#4 - College of the Sequoias - Backstage Cabaret
In 2001, a female patron sued the College of the Sequoias Theatre in Visalia, California after she fell off the stage during a student cabaret production. As part of the show, audience members were seated onstage in an effort to immerse the patrons into the music. The audience member inadvertently stepped off the ledge of the stage and fell, landing on her hip.
A jury awarded her $52,380 to cover medical bills. Not nearly as funny as the previous examples. I hope she's okay.
#5 - Rosy's Restaurant and Nightclub - Irma Thomas' Show
In 1977, a nightclub featured a show by the Grammy Award winning singer Irma Thomas. One of the musical numbers included an "audience participation song" where the patron was instructed to stand on her chair. As you're probably expecting, the woman lost her balance and fell backwards. For some reason, the staff at the club thought it was a good idea to place her chair directly against a push handle fire exit, so she ended up falling out the door onto the street. The club ended up paying the patron over $18,000 to cover medical bills.
I personally feel most of these tortious claims are silly (excluding the ones where actual physical injuries occurred, of course), and I think the vast majority of theatre goers agree, but these incidents do raise important questions: How can directors, cast members, and theatre managers make audience participation an enjoyable and enhancing experience and not something that embarrasses them, ruins their expensive night out, and possibly even physically harms them?
Like the Berlin Wall in HEDWIG, when the fourth wall is hammered down, magic can happen. Unforgettable and unscripted experiences occur, for better or for worse. I know plenty of people who would pay good money to be kissed by Darren Criss, but there are also those who would rather maintain their privacy & space, and keep the barriers between audience and actor erected. How do you identify those people? I don't know; I'm not here to answer my own rhetorical questions.
One thing is for sure, though: when you visit the theatre you are on notice. One moment you may be humming along to "Old Deuteronomy", the next you may have a sweaty man in a leotard thrusting his pelvis in your face shouting "BOOM!" But, that's the strange beauty of the theatre, and I don't want it to change anytime soon.
Do you have a crazy audience participation experience, either as an audience member or performer? We'd love to hear it! Tweet it using the hashtag #AudienceParticipationGoneWrong.
(Photo credit: http://hedwigbroadway.com)