Audiences have always fascinated me. Who are these people who show up to witness our art on stage? What brings them? Where do they come from? Or, as a friend of mine’s four-year-old daughter queried, “Where do audiences live?” This question of course has plagued artists for centuries. Without an audience, our art is a solipsistic masturbatory act done in a dark room by ourselves. With an audience, our art becomes a unique, life-changing event in which our innate genius can suddenly be recognized by the masses. Ah, but as we all know, this acclaim comes with a price. To be a success or, God forbid, a “celebrity” means you have somehow made a pact with the audience devil, dishing out tasteless pap to millions of starving brainless mouths gaping for your “entertainment” spoon.

So what role should this fickle and elusive audience play in one’s creative process? No artist wants to create something that no one will see or respond to, but no (ethical) artist wants to be saddled by audience expectations and ridden around the room like an aimless pony. Years ago, after I had created my first few shows to the great acclaim of sycophantic family and friends, I set out to create something which would garner an audience—an honest-to-god audience of people I wasn’t related to or slept with. My theory for this success was to create a show that, in every way, sounded “different” from everything else out there—to break all the “rules” most theaters used to garner an audience. I did this in hopes of reaching a new audience of adventurous young people out prowling around late at night looking for something a little more challenging than going to a party or seeing a movie. Since I was 26 and essentially one of those people, I looked to my own artistic influences for inspiration: Italian Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Brecht, Grotowski, Fluxus, Environmental Theater, Performance Art, The Wooster Group, Theater of the Oppressed. I also looked to my nascent personal performance aesthetic for fulfillment: non-illusory theater without acting or pretending, audience interaction and participation, topicality, honesty, intimacy, affordability, and planned obsolescence. I wanted to create something immediate and unique enough to appeal to those young people like myself roaming around the streets of Chicago.

So I created an ever-changing attempt to perform thirty plays in sixty minutes starting late at night for an interactive audience who paid a mere one to six dollars to get in. The show was performed by a young ensemble of artists who wrote original plays about their current lives and issues, and who performed without character or illusion. Each audience member would roll a six-sided die to determine their admission ($1 to $6), be given a nametag by a host who couldn’t hear their name, be seated on stage and questioned by a moderator, and then finally released to their seats. I would start the show with a manifesto aimed at motivating the audience to take control of their lives and the world around them. They were handed a menu of thirty numbered titles and told to “order by number.” Their shouts would determine the order of the thirty plays to be performed that night. These plays were funny and serious and political and confrontational and abstract and just about everything you could imagine, but still unified in always being true and performed without artifice by people just like the people in the audience. We called ourselves “The Neo-Futurists” in homage to our artistic antecedents. These young writer/performers were exploring their actual lives creatively, right there on stage, with the audience fully integrated into the show. The show would run fifty weeks per year and each week old plays would be eliminated and new plays would be added to the menu so that, along with the random performance order, no two performances were the same. This show was called Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (30 Plays in 60 Minutes) and is still running every week in Chicago, twenty years later.

Thank God I had the preposterous hubris to walk around in 1988 and tell people “I’m creating a show which will run forever.” If I hadn’t had that kind of far-sighted over-confidence in its generative phase I’m sure the show would have lost everyone’s interest years and possibly decades ago. I was coming from the build-it-and-they-will-come perspective and it actually worked. Now, with over 6,500 Too Much Light... plays and fifty different full-length productions to our name, The Neo-Futurists are a nationally recognized “popular experimental” theater, and I revel in that oxymoron.

Audience predictions and expectations

Every playwright or theater company or artist in general would love to have their finger on the button of success and be able to push it whenever they needed to make some money or invigorate their popular acclaim. But as we all know it’s not that easy. I have always thought I just got lucky with Too Much Light...—it happened to be the right show at the right time performed in the right way. I have created a number of shows since then which I firmly believed in and was very satisfied with but which were ultimately unfulfilling to the public or which bombed in the eyes of the critics. Since I create a new show for The Neo-Futurists every year I have set out to produce in a pattern: in even years I produce something which I think will have popular appeal to a larger audience, and in odd years I create something more experimental, personal, and harder to market. Needless to say I have not always been correct in these gambits. I was correct in thinking a bleak endurance-based three-person deconstruction of King Lear called Lear’s Shadow was not exactly what everyone wanted to see, but who knew there would be an audience for a show exploring the life and methodology of shadow-box-making artist Joseph Cornell? A show called The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett As Found In An Envelope (partially burned) In A Dustbin In Paris Labeled: “Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I’ll Sue! I’LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!” would pull in an audience but an examination of relationships and water with the title H2O would not. Who knew a solo piece called My Father, The Chair would have eleven national productions in three and a half years?

Performing on stage in Too Much Light... almost every week has afforded me a unique opportunity to study audiences and their expectations. I often noticed our audience would come in all pumped up for a “laff-riot” of a show, only to be smacked with serious plays about AIDS and torture and death. Sometimes their preconceived notions that everything on stage would be “Hysterical!” even prompted entire audiences to laugh their way through personal plays about loss or homophobia or suicide—finding some perverse humor in what they thought was made-up pathos or parody. These were the most disturbing times for me—when I felt that the audience literally wasn’t listening except to reaffirm their expectations. I occasionally combated this reaction by writing and performing plays like Another Play Which Makes The Audience Hate Greg in which I lambasted them for laughing at things that simply were not funny.

Victimizing the audience

Eventually I created the full-length show Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (a comedy to end all comedy) in which, using the humor theories of Freud, Henri Bergson, and others, I set out to kill humor for all time by explaining it to death. In the show, Andy Bayiates, Heather Riordan, and myself would get laughs on stage and then repeat them and analyze them to see when the funny became unfunny, and vice versa. We put forth our own preposterous theory of comedy and then analyzed our theory using Freud’s theory as to why our theory had been funny. We even deconstructed very unfunny jokes by Milton Berle and explored hierarchical power dynamics in a series of lecture/demonstrations.

In one section called “Victimization as Comedy,” we brought an audience member on stage and convinced him we were going to humiliate him by putting my dick in his hand. Although we actually wound up giving him a rose a couple audience members almost dislocated Heather’s wrist trying to wriggle away. These audience member’s expectations—in contract to what the rest of the audience knew—created the scene and the humor. We even got away with a joke about Down Syndrome after which we made the audience feel REALLY BAD for laughing. Those clever enough to see what we had just done laughed at that manipulation as well. In the end, despite our intellectual attempts at killing comedy through explanation, laughter won the day when we devolved into a deplorable Benny Hill, pants-around-the-ankles, sex/rape chase scene which kept them laughing right up until the final butt-fucking joke and curtain.

In a number of my early plays, I literally cast the audience in the role of the antagonist. My concept was that the audience’s presence was what forced the actors to go through with their tragic, self-destructive onstage acts. My first college play (written during the Nuclear Freeze movement in the early ’80s and appropriately titled Angst) was set during the thirty minutes between the launch of all the nuclear warheads and Armageddon. The audience watches two people on stage try to find their way out of this predicament. The characters find they can stop time by holding their breaths and closing their eyes. Ultimately this stops working, but when they suddenly recognize the watching, breathing presence of the audience, they turn on them. The two actors order the audience to close their eyes and hold their breath in order to stop time, and the play ends.

My first big hit for The Neo-Futurists was K., my adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. Here too I used the audience as the antagonist, forcing some poor actor into the nightmarish doomed role of Joseph K. Lead actor Paul Tamney was stripped nude, forced to wear a Kafka shirt, handed the book of the play, and then reads his name and character in an audience member’s program. He makes his protests to the audience that this is all absurd and refuses to play the role but, just as in the hearing scene in Kafka’s original, the audience cheers him on and he discovers he likes the attention. Ultimately Tamney embraced his actor’s nightmare and decided to play the role of K. to the bitter end, becoming a pseudo-stage manager who drives the action of the play to its inevitable end—his own execution.

I also took this approach in my adaptation of Georg Buchner’s ageless Woyzeck for Greasy Joan and Company. Giving the show a carnival environment, I had a barker-like character (played by brilliant Chicago actor Guy Massey) forge into the audience in the lobby where he presented his puppet Woyzeck to do tricks. He then welcomed the audience in to see the production which was already in progress. My adaptation focused on cycles and ritual, repeating some scenes up to four times with different characters to emphasize the inescapability of doomed productions of Woyzeck throughout history. Finally Marie is killed, Woyzeck is crushed, and the ensemble take their bows, only to break off and reset the stage for the next inescapable audience.

The audience performs the show

My ultimate test for the audience came in my collaboration with Connor Kalista in a show called Crime & Punishment (A (mis)Guided Environmental Tour with Literary Pretensions). Inspired by a dream I had where Connor directed a show called Crime and I directed a show called Punishment and we collaborated on a show called and, we ultimately devised a environmental production where the audience was truly in charge. They would each come into the lobby of our theater, the Neo-Futurarium, each be handed a Walkman with earphones, and each be taught how to stop and start their cassettes when the recorded voice said, “Stop tape.” Then they would proceed into a large room where Connor wore a blindfold and was handcuffed to a chair, and the words “INNOCENT” and “GUILTY” were painted in ten foot letters on opposing walls. A fishbowl full of Polaroid photos was in the middle of the room and everyone was instructed by their Walkman to pick one out. They were instructed to quickly determine whether the person in the photo was innocent or guilty and to tape that photo to the appropriate wall. After doing so, the audience left the room and proceeded into the theater proper where I was found gagged and handcuffed to a chair. The performance did not start until the audience realized they had to free Connor and myself from our shackles. When they inevitably did, we cross-examined each other about our worst crime, then instructed the audience to restart their tapes.

Where everyone had had apparently identical directives up to this point, the audience now found that everyone had very different instructions on their tape with very different tasks to complete. These activities varied from committing mail fraud to burning money, from shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater to donning a black trench coat and going down the street to a liquor store where they touched all the merchandise and acted conspicuously inconspicuous. In fact we had prepared over 200 different activities for the audience to complete. Every audience member did have four identical tasks included somewhere on their tape: they all had to write out a confession to the worst crime they had ever committed and leave it anonymously on their seat, they all had to get their photo taken in front of a line-up wall (this was the source of the photos for future audiences to judge), they all had to put their thumbprint next to the crimes they had committed during their life-time, and they all had to find someone else’s crime confession, turn it over, and write what they thought to be an appropriate punishment. This information was all kept anonymous until the very end of the show when they had to tape their photo to their confession and post it on the wall for all to see.

I’d like to point out that throughout all of this the audience was completely in charge. Connor and I never directly told anyone to do anything. The only instructing voices throughout this show/event were our voices on tape. If anyone approached us during the show about what to do, we merely deflected them back to their tape. In effect Connor and I had created a show where we hardly performed—the audience itself was the only active force in the show, and it was due to their will and complicity that anything happened in the theater at all. While we did have a couple stodgy critics who refused to take part, choosing instead to sit passively and just to their tapes and watch the others perform, absolutely everyone else did what they were told—from going into a bathroom stall, pulling down their pants, unlocking the door and whispering “Hey, I’m naked in here,” to wandering about with an ax wearing a nametag which said “Raskolnikov” and asking “Has anyone seen the pawnbroker?” (A counterpart was wandering around with a “Pawnbroker” nametag asking if anyone had seen Raskolnikov).

Obviously there was a lot more going on here than merely asking people to perform transgressive tasks resonating issues of crime and punishment. From the beginning, Connor and I had embarked on this show to retest the sociological findings of Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo—that people will do whatever you tell them to as long as it comes from someone in a perceived role of authority. Essentially we had devised an audience obedience test. Milgram had conceived of his famous electric shock test and Zimbardo had created the Stanford Prison Experiment to explore why ordinary people had gone along with the barbaric directives of the Nazis. The difference between their test and our test was that theirs was blind while ours was quite obvious. We posted the finding of their studies in the stairway leading up into the theater. We had individuals write “I will do whatever they tell me” 100 times on a page, or copy a summarizing page from Milgram’s seminal book Obedience to Authority. We even went so far as to ask people to go into a small, cold, dark room called “The Rat Room,” instructed them to stand there and not speak to anybody, turn off their tape and wait for the end of the show. Some people were even given this as their first task in the show. And do you know what happened? They stood there in the dark and waited. After a few performances Connor and I felt so bad that we started poking our head into the room and asking what they were doing. They answered “Waiting for the end of the show.”

“Don’t you want to come out and do something else?” we would query.

“Yeah, but I feel like I shouldn’t.”

“Why?”

“Because the voice told me to stay here.”

“Whose voice is on the tape?”

“Yours.”

“Well why don’t you just come out?”

“I shouldn’t.”

“The voice also told you not to talk to anyone either.”

At this they would suddenly comprehend their wrong-doing, go silent, and stare off into the dark room. And, just as Milgram predicted, this happened EVERY SINGLE TIME. No one ever came out of the Rat Room for fear of screwing up the show. The audience apparently had an unspoken bond to uphold the show’s perceived intensions. If the Rat Room inhabitants had restarted their tape, they would have heard either Connor or my voice say “I told you not to restart your tape! Now turn it off, stand in the dark, don’t talk to anyone, and wait for the end of the show. Stop tape.” If someone, ANYONE, were brazen enough to go on at this point, they would have gotten directives that, since they were obviously rebellious and couldn’t follow any directions whatsoever, they should just forget the tape and go out and ruin the show. They were encouraged to steal things and vandalize the space, annoy people and mess up their tapes. No one ever got to this point. Crime & Punishment ended with everyone locked in a room with their confessions and photographs taped to the walls. They were encouraged to read each other’s information and discuss whether they felt this show had upheld or refuted the findings of Stanley Milgram and Phillip Zimbardo. We did this partially because we found that the post-show discussions and revelations of what people had done and been instructed to do were too fascinating to have the audience disperse before this. Of course sometimes this gave irate audience members a chance to assail us with fury over being locked in the Rat Room the whole show. But they always admitted that they understood the point.

The audience writes the show

If Crime & Punishment upset the audience even though they were completely in control, I wondered what would happen if I were their puppet. I decided to write a play completely dictated by the audience’s preferences. In 2007 I set out to give the audience the power to create the best show they possibly could. In the book Painting by Numbers, Russian conceptual artists Komar and Melamid solicited feedback from the public as to what attributes should make up their country’s most popular painting. They then painted their country’s most wanted and least wanted paintings. Based on this idea, I set out to do the same thing for American theater. My concept was to send out thousands of questionnaires asking Americans what they would most like to see in a play—in terms of plot, character, structure, subject matter, climax, tone, etc..—then I would create “America’s Most Wanted Play” based on their exacting specifications. I would also take the least vote-getting elements and create “America’s Least Wanted Play.” I would mount the two plays back to back in a show called You Asked For It! at The Neo-Futurarium.

My aim was to find out, if I gave the decision-making power directly to the public, what kind of show they would want me to write. (Obviously there was also a certain amount of comic mileage to be gained from staging America’s least wanted characteristics in the second play.) My aim was to receive over 2,000 responses with at least one respondent from each of the fifty states, and we actually overachieved our goal. Although our study was far from scientific or objective because we primarily distributed it through word of mouth, we were, in effect, successful in at least surveying our own audience and their friends to see what they would most like to see on stage. Would democracy really create a masterpiece or would too many cooks spoil the pudding?

Either way I thought we would have a fascinating study on our hands. As the statistics started to pour in, my fears were basically confirmed, even among a response group predominantly made up of young students and artists. Our audience still wanted their theater to be entertaining, realistic, and funny, and three of their top four desired settings were the dinner table, a café, and the kitchen. Had we returned to the era of kitchen sink drama? This conservative domesticity really surprised me since this study was not technically of middle-America but rather of the young and educated “elite.”

Seeing the rather middle-of-the road answers that were winning the criteria for the “most-wanted play,” my initial thoughts were to see how stereotypical and uninteresting I could make the script, while turning the least-wanted play into some sort of experimental masterpiece. Unfortunately, my survey had forced myself into a corner—the least-wanted play had such outrageous restrictions that it too became a preposterous scenario for a play. It had to have its climax at the beginning of the play, have all the action off-stage, have the central conflict be man vs. nature, and be primarily informative (versus entertaining). Abstract, nonrealistic interaction between characters—a threatening doctor, an idiotic boss, a heroic alien, and an evil royal—had to be in a ballpark, an opera, an airplane, and a hospital. Most difficult of all, it had to have no conflict whatsoever. Try turning that into a brilliant script!

I forged on in the face of adversity. I came up with the idea that the characters were to sit on stage watching an opera of questionable authorship based on events that had previously occurred to the four of them. These events were: flying on an airplane before it crashed into a ballpark which was transformed into a make-shift hospital for the four survivors (the four characters). Therefore the climax of the play (the plane crash) had actually occurred before the play had ever started and the conflict was essentially nonexistent throughout. I made the performance style even more abstract by having all of the characters only move when they spoke, freezing whenever they were silent. Both this play and America’s most-wanted play (which concluded with God taking credit for the terrorist attacks of September 11 because he wanted to redesign the architecture of New York) could not stand alone without the questionnaire findings themselves. I found ways to integrate the audience’s demands into the performance by ringing a bell every time an audience demand was met, and by including a long pre-show Powerpoint presentation of the survey findings.

One of us, one of us, one of us...

Ultimately You Asked For It! was not really what I would call a successful show. Neither of the plays stood on its own, which was my hope—they needed the requirements for them explained ahead of time in order to show how “clever” I had been in fulfilling my audience assignment. This was not what I had hoped for. So, like any good artist... I blamed the audience. Why didn’t they fill out my polls with uniformly mundane sensibilities for America’s most-wanted play, and given me fascinating, controversial, abstract inspiration for the least wanted? Would it have been different if I had had a broader swath of the American public respond? Would it have been different if, instead of culling America’s least wanted elements, I had been able to glean America’s most unwanted characteristics for a play? Perhaps. Or could it be that my own preconceptions for my findings had gotten in my way? Just like audience members whom I had lambasted for having expectations for Too Much Light, perhaps my expectations for You Asked For It! had taken me down.

To this day I am haunted by the image of a group of Northwestern University sorority girls coming to see Too Much Light. They all leaning forward and looked down the row to checked with each other before laughing at anything. They had to act en masse for fear of standing out as individuals. This kind of “group think” has always fascinated and horrified me. What causes a group of people to respond collectively vs. individually? How does an audience respond when given a certain stimuli? How does one person behave in front of the group if singled out? How do two? What if one of those people is me? It’s these sociological questions that motivated me to go into theater initially, and they continue to inspire my research into audience interaction and participation. It is said that all good theater directors end up in anthropology and perhaps this is my fate as well. But I have to figure out how to kill humor first.

So how much emphasis should a respectable theater artist place on the audience? I think the answer lies in the tenets and inspirations of Neo-Futurism. Be yourself on stage and create actual, unreproduceable events to be explored with the audience. What is unique about live theater that distinguishes it from any other art form? Why do you do theater? What personal answers do you wish to glean from it? Always remind yourself that the audience is merely a collection of individuals like yourself who get swept away with mob mentality. Never condescend to them or view them as any less educated, intelligent, or inspired than you are. Let them be in control and see what happens. They may not behave the way you expect, but why is that? What were your expectations and what were theirs? What if, rather than dispelling their reaction as aberrant or detestable or something to be changed, you go with their response and create an entire show to explore it? If it challenges you and continues to ignite you artistically, there must be something there which you are exploring in yourself. Something I have always said in defending Neo-Futurism from charges of self-indulgence is that I have found that the more we specifically, honestly, creatively we look at ourselves, the more universal our art becomes. Give the audience this chance as well.