The Art of Aggravating the Audience

Written by Roger Danchik Ph.D.

Roger Danchik (right) in My Emperor’s New Clothes

Aggravating children is an interactive technique for children’s theatre. It is essentially an improvisational dramatic irony that works much better than it can be described.   However, before we dive off into the depths of aggravating improvisational performance, let’s take a quick look at one of the definitions of theater.

Any definition of theatre is a subject not only too big for this article but probably too big for a small universe. There are so many uses and descriptions of theatre that depending on where you sit philosophically on the dramatic continuum, you may define theatre as pure entertainment, as a human correction, as a chance to educate the masses, a force for social change, political propaganda, a big money maker or an art form that brings you closer to something important and basic in humanity.

However you define theatre, I hope we can agree that the basic unit contains an audience and an actor.  From there we can add a performance space and a few props working upwards to the huge Broadway productions that for some reason believe that sufficient money will buy art – a theory that is certainly the most historically disproven and yet somehow still compelling in our art form.  In another time and space, I would happily argue that it is the very substantiality of sets and lights – a concrete product for the producer’s money – that leads to the extravagant spectacles.

What I intend to argue here is that Children’s theatre can be fun and successful using almost no spectacle but incorporating the technique that I ruthlessly call “Aggravating the Audience.”  It is an improvisational method, or perhaps better stated as a series of lazzi (the planned scenarios of the Commedia Dell ‘Arte) responding to the audiences’ actions.  Using this method, we condense theatre to its performance roots – an actor, more or less playing without a script, to an audience.  An actor entertaining, performing, teasing and somehow creating an imaginative magic that has entranced throughout human history.

It is difficult to demonstrate a performance technique on paper but I will do my best.  As an example, let us imagine a scene where the two sympathetic characters, the young lovers, wander into the woods to find a rock under which something is hidden.  This scenario is common, but was brilliantly recreated by Aurand Harris in Androcles and the Lion, arguably the best-known children’s play in this country.

The aggravating technique for children relies on having the audience clearly knowing a fact or clearly seeing an object that somehow the characters on stage just cannot find or understand.  In the world of adult theatre this common technique is known as dramatic irony.  The monster in the closet that the characters don’t know about; the true killer in the midst of innocents, the hiding place of the secret cache of information, and so on.  It is so often used that many authors also tease the audience by dropping false hints and half information to increase the surprise at the end.

In theatre for children, the characters and situations are usually unambiguous.  The characters are sometimes known before the start of the play and it is usually apparent which ones are sympathetic and which are evil. If you feel some disdain for this obvious kind of writing then you are disparaging many great authors throughout history as well as Shakespeare.  The fun of this playwriting is the journey, not the secret revelations.

It is common in children’s theatre for the audience to know something the characters don’t know – “Which way to go”,  “Who is the bad guy,” “Where the gold is hidden.”   Unlike adults, children are usually perfectly happy to announce their information.  The technique of aggravating relies on these two conditions.

In this example, there is a rock onstage.  One rock, sitting in its solitary phenomenological loneliness on a bare stage.  Large rock or small rock, its presence is clearly impossible to miss.  The sympathetic characters enter stage right.

“They almost caught us,” says one.
“That was close,” says the other.
“Where is the rock?’ asks one.
“I don’t know,” says the other, “but we have to find it.”

The situation is set.  Our two sympathetic characters need to find a rock in order to triumph.  If the audience is already involved, they will immediately start pointing and screaming the location of the rock.  If they are not involved then it becomes the job of the actors to involve them.

“We’ll never be able to marry unless we find that rock,” one says.
“I can never find anything,” the other says.
“We’ll ask them,” says the first, pointing to the audience.
“Excuse me,” says the second, “has anybody seen a rock?”

This appeal usually works.

Now, even though the rock is perfectly visible and maybe only a few feet away, it takes the characters quite a few minutes even with the help of the audience to bumble their way across a perfectly bare stage to the designated object.  They might even inadvertently stumble into the audience.  Finally, they reach the rock.  The interactive dialogue might continue like this.

“The rock is here,” shouts the sympathetic character staring at the rock but speaking to the audience.
“Yes,” screams the audience.
“Here?” they repeat.
“Yes,” they reply again.

The character leans against the rock.
“I don’t see any rock.”
The audience screams.

“I’m what?” asks the character.
The audience screams.
“Leaning, I’m leaning on a rock.”  The character stands up straight.  “No, I’m not, I‘m standing straight up.”
He leans against the rock.  “Now, I’m leaning.”
The audience screams.  The characters listen carefully as the audience tries to point out the rock.

“There’s a clock?” he asks seriously.
Screams.
“Do you need to know what time it is?” he asks helpfully.
Screams.
“Its twelve past time for lunch,” he offers.
Screams.
“A sock.”
Screams.
“I have a hole in my sock?” He pulls off his shoe, does a smell bit, examines the bottom of his foot and then shows it to the audience. “There’s no hole.” He assures them.
Screams.
“Oh,” he finally hears, “there’s a rock.”
Finally!  The audience screams.
The character turns and stares right at the rock, perhaps even touches it or bumps his nose into it.  He turns back to the audience.
“Where?”

All I have described so far is a stage, two actors and a rock.  This is as close to a bare stage as possible, no big moving glittering sets, no revolving lights, no tricks, no gimmicks and no spectacular effects.  Two actors and the audience interacting.

If this seems too easy or you just don’t believe the power of this technique, I would urge you to try it.  I have seen a couple of hundred kids, screaming and pointing with their right arms – except for one or two lefties – at a rock while the characters bumbled around, sat on the rock, stumbled over it without seeing it and in essence, kept aggravating them.

So, how does this end?  If you’re like me, it would go on until we all went home for dinner.  However, at some point even the slowest character suddenly discovers the rock he is sitting on.

“Look,” shouts the sympathetic character, “a rock.”
He turns to the audience.
“Did you know there was a rock here?” he asks.
The audience screams.
“Well, why didn’t you tell me,” he accuses.
Screams of protest and denial.

Any improvisational technique has flaws as can be seen on an “improv group” night at a bar.  Things don’t always work, audiences don’t always react and characters don’t always work together.  That is the “live” in live theatre.  It is the moment-to-moment fear, wonder, success, failure and continuance that is part of the mystery.  Children, however, have a way of accepting the rules of the game and can join in without embarrassment which makes everything easier.

Another issue is that you are moving away from the written script, or the script as the author penned it. This is a tricky question and one that certainly deserves its own debate.  However, one of the prime reasons for children’s theatre – in my biased view – is to delight and entertain the audience.  Even with a great and lasting play such as Androcles and the Lion, the actors and director must interpret it to get the best possible performance.

Now we have entered the rocky coast of “page versus stage” and who is the final arbiter of performance.  After writing an impossible to read dissertation on the subject I now simply use the following comparison.  A page of script is analogous to a page of music.  Those with the appropriate training, talent, imagination or who are simply gifted can look at it and imagine the performed grandeur.  The rest of us need the performance and performances often need a director to interpret and organize.

There is always interpretation, always critical argument, always discussion criticism, anger, hurt feelings and so on and so on.  Since as an artist you will be criticized no matter what your intentions or abilities may be, you might as well err on the side of joy and delight.

“There should be a note under the rock,” says the second sympathetic character.
“Let’s look,” says the first character.

With a lot of grunting, groaning, complaining, a broken nail by the male character and a showing of the bicep by the female character (always work against stereotypes), the rock is moved and there, lying in plain sight, impossible to miss is a large note.

The characters stare at the note for a few moments.
The sympathetic male looks at the female.
“No note,” he says.
“We’ll have to find another rock,” she agrees.
The audience screams.

The suggestion in this essay is to use the technique of aggravating the audience by having the characters simply be unable to see, do, find or figure out things that are totally obvious to the audience.  It is a method that tends to cascade once started; you may well have trouble ever getting the audience quiet again.

I believe that a children’s audience that is shouting, histrionically frustrated and cheering, is an audience that is involved and feeling that unique power of the theater, a power that film, television and whatever media comes down the technical pike will never equal.  This is the true power, the touchstone perhaps, of theatre: live actors using their wits, talents and abilities to involve and entertain a live audience.  Let us use and celebrate it.

Roger Danchik holds a Ph.D. in Educational Theatre from New York University and has taught in various situations, including local colleges, a juvenile detention facility and Harvard University.  He also spent many years working and earning his living in professional theatre, television, and movies. He is a produced and published playwright for children;  has founded and ran various children’s theatre companies; and, is a professional lighting and movie designer. 

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One response to “The Art of Aggravating the Audience

  1. What an interesting idea – and of course I can instantly see how an audience of young children would get it straight away.

    As a parent, I often like to wind my two year old up by pretending not to see something in plain sight. It’s such good fun.

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