Opinion: Why I Hate (Being Part Of) Audience Participation

Adam Riches brings his acclaimed Edinburgh show, Inane Chicanery, to the Soho Theatre this week. Riches is famous, among other things, for getting members of his audience up onstage to play an integral part in his sketches feeding him fruit juice or taking part in an impromptu hair-cutting session. It can be seat-of-your-pants stuff in numerous senses. You never know quite how far he will push things and for many, including me, you can never quite unclench your buttocks during his set for fear that you are about to be selected. 

I'm one of those people who hates audience participation. Many people are up for it of course. In fact when Riches performs he probably has to be careful not to pick out show-offs who might want to be a star of the show. Picking the right person is a major skill in itself. 99.9 per cent the time I think he gets it right as does Nick Helm, who also does this brilliantly, though less often lately. Though funnily when I saw Riches' show in Edinburgh last summer there was a rare miscue and for a moment I thought I was going to be reviewing fisticuffs rather than comedy.

So why do I fear audience participation so much? Maybe it's genetic. My daughter won't even go to a show which includes, as she calls it "AP". Maybe it's to do with something buried deep in the back of my childhood memories. But I can't think what. In fact when I was at school I did a bit of acting so I'm certainly not afraid of being in front of the audience. And I'm happy to do public speaking now, which I know terrifies a lot of people.

I guess it's about control. About being in command of what is happening. I remember a Brian Gittins gig at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago when the anarchic comic tried to get Guardian critic Brian Logan up onstage. Logan was so reluctant he might as well have been nailed to his seat. Yet Logan is also an actor so he's hardly a shy, retiring wallflower. I presume it was more to do with wanting to be in charge and not be vulnerable. Maybe potty training is connected. Or maybe he just didn't want to be cast in a role without talking to his agent first.

But apart from the control aspect, I can also date my dislike to a bad experience at the Hen & Chickens Theatre in London about 15 years ago. It was a rare live show from Armando Iannucci and David Schneider and they pulled me out of the audience along with a few more men. Schneider explained quickly that we were supposed to be pretending to spin invisible plates. At least that's what I realised when I saw everybody else with their arms in the air, while mine were stiffly by my side. I'd misunderstood Schneider's instructions, scuppering their sketch as well as embarrassing myself. I still have flashbacks about this. I think I fear the same thing happening again. 

In a recent brief online exchange Adam Riches asked me what I disliked about AP and I think without spending years in therapy this is the nearest I can come to an explanation. It's fear of embarrassing the act as well as humiliating oneself*. I've heard that stage hypnotism works because punters picked out don't want the hypnotist to look like a dick so they play along with him even when they are not under any sort of spell. 

However, I should add that when I say I hate audience participation, I only hate it happening to me. I bloody love it when I see another poor sap dragged up onstage by Riches to co-star in his show. So that's why I shall be at the Soho Theatre this week. Though definitely not near the front. 

Adam Riches: Inane Chicanery is at Soho Theatre from January 22 to February 3. Tickets here.

*Update: Adam Riches has messaged me with this: "It should never be about humiliation though. That’s never in my or Nick’s mind. The fear of it yes, we both know that’s present in whoever we engage with, but we use that only for the tension to create the comedy within. I personally have never had any interest in making someone feel stupid. Only creating the funniest moment from whatever scenario I present, either through my script or theirs!"



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