It is impossible to write a review on “Death to the Audience,” because no two people will have the same experience. Instead, to write about this “twisted experiment” is to write about a personal encounter.
“Death to the Audience” is difficult to describe. It’s not a play in any traditional sense of the word. It has no plot, no dialogue or even a set order of events. Instead, it is more like a piece of performance art, exploring the line between audience and performer.
The show is already odd before it even starts. Most Knox students have seen the vague posters around campus and the emails in their inbox heralding the beginning of the “experiment” sent by “the Director,” junior Jon Hewelt.
When I walked in the door, I was handed my program, which was a completely blank folded piece of paper. In the theater itself, everyone tries to sit in the chairs that have been arranged on the black box risers, but as soon as we tried, the ushers would quickly tell us that the seats were reserved.
Every seat is reserved.
A few students, “friends of the director,” sat in the chairs, talking on phones or talking to one another. The rest sat on the middle of the floor in a huddled mass. The mood was congenial and slightly confused as students tried to figure out what they have gotten themselves into.
Then, the show starts. At first, nothing happens. The audience shifts nervously and waits for someone to tell them what to do. My own distrust of experimental theater made me wonder when I was going to have to do something awkward. Then someone started clapping.
I don’t know who started the clap. I am sure it was a planted audience member, but within seconds, it didn’t matter who started it because everyone was clapping. For the next 10 minutes, the plants clap, play clapping games and throw paper airplanes. The audience goes along with it, and we are just about to start trying experiments of our own when we are told that it is time for a five-minute intermission.
Then, the game changes. The audience is allowed onto the chairs and the “friends of the director” move to the center of the floor. They sit silent, watching the audience.
At this point, everyone in the audience has guessed what is going on, and they want to see what they can get people to do. Clapping and the wave both work pretty well, as does singing any song by Queen. (“We Will Rock You” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” both get their turn.) Oddly enough, attempts at “Don’t Stop Believing” failed, as did “Call Me Maybe.” Songs were easy since we all knew them, which is why the most successful by far was a rendition of Smash Mouth’s “All Star.”
At 8:30, a half an hour after this odd experiment starts, it ends quietly. The group in the middle leaves and a confused but happy audience follows.
After something like this, the first question people often ask is “what does it mean.” The show obviously tries (and succeeds) in breaking down the barrier between players and audience, that is true, but it also does something more. It breaks walls between the audience itself.
Instead of watching the play in the group they came with, people around me reached out to other groups, trying to convince them to start a new movement — it is easier to start something if you are not trying to do it alone. They band together in a way that audiences almost never do, trying to create a better experience not only for themselves, but for one another as well.