For many theatergoers, the mere words “audience participation” are enough to induce a cold sweat and a search for the nearest exit. Theatre maker Ant Hampton’s shows largely avoid that anxiety by making the performers comprise the entire audience and vice versa, via a technique he refers to as “autoteatro.” In “Etiquette,” which was part of the 2008 Live Arts festival, two participants were fed lines through a headset while seated in a coffeeshop; “The Quiet Volume,” in this year’s rechristened FringeArts fest, two people are given instructions via recorded whispers and written words while paging through books at the Free Library.
“The difference between autoteatro and what people are commonly scared of in terms of participation is that with autoteatro there’s nobody around who knows what should be happening,” Hampton says. “If you make a mistake or you’re feeling self-conscious, you know there’s nobody looking at you thinking, ‘Thank god it’s not me.’ Therefore there’s more charm to it than cruelty.”
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Several shows in the FringeArts line-up call on audience members to become part of the show, though not all of them are quite so intimate. In “The Living Newspaper: On Location,” Liz Magic Laser calls on viewers to join with actors to stage reenactments of the day’s newspaper headlines. Comedian Matt Holmes chooses a different partner from the crowd each night to co-star in an improv show in “Matt&.” And Nichole Canuso Dance Company’s “The Garden” commingles audience and performers in a self-guided journey prompted by an individual soundscape, leaving visitors largely alone to explore on their own terms.
For Hampton, “The Quiet Volume” was inspired by the act of reading a book, a solo pursuit suddenly made into a duo performance. “Reading a book can be seen in a way as a dramaturgical now,” he explains. “When you’re reading there’s a sort of present being conjured, something happening right in front of you that develops on and over the pages as you’re reading.”
Like “Etiquette,” the new show also plays on the tension between private and public space, as the small-scale performance unfolds in an open library during regular hours, surrounded by people going about their normal business. “Once you start reading you enter into your own hermetic bubble of concentration. Anyone who’s spent any time in the library knows what it’s like to come up for air from reading a book and realize where you are. In this piece, what's strange is that this bubble of concentration is pierced and leaks into the bubble of the person beside you. This is quite an unusual, maybe even perverse experience.”
"The Quiet Volume"
Free Library of Philadelphia
1901 Vine St., $15
"The Living Newspaper: On Location"
Plays & Players Theatre
1714 Delancey Place, $29
Mainstage at the Adrienne
2030 Sansom St., $12-$15
The Basement at the Power Plant Productions
230 N. 2nd St., $20