The question of consent... | Frisky & Mannish on the perils of audience participation

The question of consent...

Frisky & Mannish on the perils of audience participation

Hello. We’re Laura Corcoran and Matthew Floyd Jones, two people who absolutely hated audience interaction as children, now making a professional living interacting with audiences as Frisky & Mannish. 

Are we evil sadists? Not really. We just didn’t get jobs in conventional theatre, so we had to slip in the back door of cabaret and comedy, genres in which you are expected – nay, practically required – to be present in the room, alive and connected to the audience. 

We can’t even remember a time when we weren’t dry-humping our way across the seats of all the cabaret bars of London, stealing drinks, licking bald men’s heads and picking four nervous giggling types to come up and be sorted by a puppet hat into one of our houses: Melanie, Natalie, Nicole and Shaznay. 

If someone had called us out on it back then - which no one ever did - we would’ve likely defended it as an utterly legit way of creating electricity in the room, and boasted that we were of course sensitive enough to detect unwillingness. 

Ten years on, in the current climate, we’re not sure we’d be so confident. To borrow a potent contemporary phrase, should we have asked for and received ‘affirmative consent’ before subjecting anyone to anything?

Talking to fellow performers and audience members, we’ve identified some common positives and negatives when it comes to participation. The perceived pros are that it creates a unique, exciting frisson with an element of risk, and it allows complete nobodies a moment of celebrity they’ll remember for the rest of their bleak anonymous lives. 

The cons are more numerous. 

Many audience members are so anxious about being picked on that they don’t enjoy the show. Conversely, a few are crazy desperate to be picked and can end up derailing the show, either through drunken over-excitement or by purposefully trying to steamroll over the performer’s plans. 

Some have a disability which may be invisible to the performer and lead to actual physical pain. Some have even sued for damages (so keep your public liability insurance certificate to hand, performers) And it’s really not as simple to opt out as you might think. 

Okay, so you’ve got hundreds of people staring at you in tense anticipation as a manic-eyed performer asks you to say or do something. Are you gonna feel completely confident to sit back and say no? Are you really? Wouldn’t most people feel coercively shamed into playing along so as not to ruin the night?

Now, if you fancy yourself a provocateur whose creative output is all about transgressing, you may actively want to put an audience member on edge. Or if you’re a PC-baiting snowflake-hating anti-safe space bull, then you probably don’t give a crap either way. You’d say: ‘For Christ’s sake, don’t sit in the front row if you don’t want to be picked on,’ or ‘Jesus, if you don’t make it clear you’re not into it, how are we supposed to know?’ (Classic victim-blaming moves, both.)  And of course it’s not exactly a crime to make someone slightly uncomfortable for a few minutes. 

But if, like the two of us, you’re a glazed Christmas ham who just wants everyone to be happy all the time, then it’s probably something you think about a lot. How do we achieve a vibe of fun spontaneity without giving a few randoms an anxiety attack?

Well, the cliché among many comedians is that a participating audience member should be made a hero instead of a buffoon. And certainly the flood of joy that seems to fill the room when the picked person rises to an occasion of some kind is often giddy with euphoria, so it makes sense. 

We indulge in participation material for this exact reason. But we rely almost entirely on our instincts, on body language and eye contact, to gain permission. And let’s be honest, if we’re spinning a number of plates in our heads – what material’s coming up, where’s my light, is my wig still on? – and frantically scanning the audience for a possible good sport, are those instincts going to be accurate? 

If you make an approach to the wrong audience member by mistake, allowing them to opt out can then make finding the right sort of willing volunteer nigh-on impossible. The first interaction sets the rules of the game for the whole room, and reticence is catching, leaving you only the most gung-ho (and often least-lovable) volunteers to engage with. So you’ll be more likely to modify or soften your approach to get the best from your first choice. Not exactly dealing in willing consent, eh?

There’s also the issue of exactly what consent is being given for. It may be impossible to get proper consent without giving away the punchline, or ruining the fun of the progression. It may also be true that until a participant has begun the game, they may be less willing to agree, whereas once they are playing, and hopefully enjoying the interaction, they feel comfortable going further. 

To sacrifice a nuanced, delicate dance into a strict black-and-white yes-or-no decision placed in the hands of the person with the least knowledge and skill does seem a massive shame. But in order to protect the vulnerable few from potential trauma, is it a trade-off that needs to be made?

That trade-off is already happening. Many seasoned and skilled no-fourth-wallers have effortlessly enveloped acquiring consent into the act, and made a game of that in itself. Others are modifying the material to ensure maximum flexibility for the audience member to dictate the limits of play. 

For ourselves, where in the past we would have been trying to control the situation with a firm hand, simply trying to find the ‘right’ people to serve an existing structure, now we are looking at how we can create the material more spontaneously with the audience member, and rely on our skills to turn whatever they throw at us (or indeed, don’t throw) into enjoyable moments for the whole room. And therefore, once they consent to joining in, they can decide what it is exactly that they’ve consented to. 

Because let’s be frank: if observing the basic principles of respect and kindness are incompatible with our pre-planned bit, then we need to write better bits.

Live entertainment is an exchange, and audiences are never truly passive in that they are always required to respond in some form (ovation, preferably.) 

That exchange will always contain a potential risk, but as long as the power balance is not skewed uncomfortably in one direction, we say go forth with your flexible and exciting participation. 

And if it doesn’t work, never blame the audience member you picked. It’s always your fault, even when it’s theirs. 

Ask yourself, do you rely on coercion and peer pressure to get the person involved in your ‘bit’ to play, however gentle? Then it’s time to take a look at it, and find a way to establish, beyond ‘instincts’ and ‘vibes’, that everyone is willing and having fun.

Frisky & Mannish will be performing their new show, PopLab –  with considered and consenting audience participation if any – at the Palais Du Variete at Assembly George Square Gardens during the Edinburgh Fringe and then on tour. See

Published: 24 Jun 2019

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