Julius Caesar - The Participant Experience!

It’s not uncommon these days for theatre companies to experiment with breaking the fourth wall and interacting with the audience, but to include the audience in the performance?  Although this is often seen in pantomime, it’s unusual for a drama.  OSC’s latest show offers this unique opportunity to be part of the action.

Eugene Clark

photo: Eugene Clark

I’m not going to lie - I was pretty stoked over the opportunity to check out Ottawa Shakespeare Company’s latest show, for a variety of reasons - not the least of which being the star of the show himself:  Eugene Clark.  I’m not a fan-girl per se, but I love a good zombie movie, and Land of the Dead was better than most and Mr. Clark’s character of “Big Daddy” ranks among the most memorable zombie characters ever.

But truly my excitement over this particular production of Julius Caesar, a show I’ve seen many times before, related to the unique vision of the director, Charles McFarland.  Timed, cast and set to draw an inevitable parallel to current events; employing multimedia in unique ways; and including the audience in the action - this is a show which takes some risks.  And I love risks.  As a lover of theatre, I appreciate boldness.  It can be a scary thing for those involved in creating it, but when it works, it’s a phenomenal experience for both the actors and the audience.

When the opportunity presented itself to be a participant in the show (get your Participant Tickets at the Centrepointe Theatre website), I jumped at it.  There are a limited number of Participant Tickets available every show - around 15 - so don’t wait to book yours.

After some minor confusion over the location of my Participant Ticket, where it looked like I might have to sit in a regular seat - GASP - it was found and I was directed to the Studio Theatre.  I had plenty of time to sit and wait; thanks to my paranoia over the unreliability of OCTranspo, I was at the theatre by 6:30 pm.  Participants had been asked to arrive by 7:00 pm with the following instructions:  Wear neutral-toned clothing, be prepared to be active parts of the mob (i.e. play your part to the fullest), and check in at the registration table in the upper lobby to receive your ‘Hail Caesar’ pin and instructions.

Julius Caesar pre-show

Charles McFarland shows us the stage and introduces us to the cast. (photo: R. Belford)

After a brief but convivial greeting from the director, we were led downstairs and through the stage doors to backstage, where we were able to hang up our coats and make last-minute trips to the bathroom.  Next we were led out to the stage to meet members of the cast, were split into two groups, and assigned our designated ‘handlers’ for the start of the show: Katie Bunting (Portia) and Richard Gélinas (Casca), who each also perform various roles in the ensemble.

For what seems like a confounding element that could have the potential to go horribly wrong, the participant experience is incredibly well organized.  We were given our instructions in chunks.  Before the show began, aside from assigning us our groups and a ‘home’ side of the stage, our initial tasks in the opening scene (and what an opening scene it is!), we were never given anything that felt like too much to handle or remember.  There was a really good balance of on-stage active time, observing from the side in seats (if you’re one of those people who wants the best seats in the house - these are those!), to moments backstage to catch your breath.  My one caveat would be that if this is your first time seeing Julius Caesar, be prepared that there may be times that the action is obscured from your view (or you may be briefly backstage), so if that is a concern, you may prefer a regular ticket.  Or better yet, go twice!

On the night I attended, the group was made up of about two-thirds kids.  I had a some concerns about whether this would cause the whole thing to go off the rails, but I applaud the company’s determination to make the show and experience accessible to all ages, even if it had an impact on the final product (which, quite frankly, is a risk with any participant, adult or child).  Whether the audience was able to successfully suspend disbelief at 12-year-old female ‘senators’, I don’t know, but you can read Allan Mackey’s review.  I will say that the children handled themselves very well, with the exception of an older boy who had a hard time during a few longer stretches of inactivity (playing with the smoke coming from the smoke machine, playing with a microphone stand and wandering around the balcony).

Here are a few observations and suggestions that I have on how to make the most of your participant experience:

  • Listen carefully and follow instructions.  This means on-stage and off.  Things are happening quickly and knowing where you need to be next and what you’re doing will be told to you once.  Maybe twice.  A lot of the time this happens on stage and is part of the action so be ready.  But don’t panic - it’s all fairly obvious stuff.
  • Participate!  Emote!  Be big when you’re supposed to be big!  Don’t hide in the back or the side when you’re told to fill the stage.  The more you get into it, the more fun it is for you, the more the actors have to draw from, and the more the audience will enjoy it.  BUT…
  • When it’s time to be silent - be silent.  One of the skills an actor is taught is to know when to be still.  For the most part, reacting is fine, but don’t be a scene-stealer or attention-sucker.  If an actor is giving a soliloquy and you’re fidgeting or chatting with your buddy onstage so the audience is looking at you instead of them - that’s a big no-no.
  • Have fun.  It’s why you bought the ticket, right?

And for those of you who aren’t sure about being thrust centre stage - I should note that there was a woman on the night I went who expressed the same concern and was having second thoughts.  The director gently encouraged her to give it a try and pointed out that she could always go sit in the audience for the second half.  She did not take him up on that offer and participated for the whole show.

Reena and Eugene

photo: R. Belford

All in all, I would dub it a positive experience.  And the icing on the cake for me was getting to meet “Big Daddy” after the show.  (No Participant Ticket required for that one, folks - you can meet him in the lobby for autographs and photos!)

Allan Mackey’s review of the show.

Have you been a participant?  We’d love to hear about your experiences.

If you bought a regular ticket - did you think audience participation added to or detracted from the show?

Reena Belford

About Reena Belford

Reena Belford is a sometimes actress with a passion for promoting and supporting Ottawa's local theatre community. She keeps Production Ottawa's calendar (Ottawa's most complete theatre calendar) up-to-date and is a semi-regular contributor and writer.

What people are saying:

  1. Allan Mackey says:

    Well I totally didn’t go into the audience participation much in the review but I’ll say here that while the children may have felt slightly out of place in some of the standing around bits (like on the balconies) but in the real crowd scenes everybody blended together as they were supposed to and it looked, as intended, like a mess of people. I didn’t feel the children stood out at all in those.

    • Reena Belford says:

      That makes sense. I suspect those are the moments that you’re more likely to spend time thinking about it and any disconnect. Personally, I definitely wouldn’t exclude them - I think it’s a good choice. By allowing anyone to participate, as well as offering deep discounts on tickets, OSC is making good on their promise to make theatre accessible. And an interesting note: When asked how many people in our group had acted and been on stage before, most of the kids put their hands up. So I really like the idea of young actors getting the opportunity to take part in a professional production.

  2. Having now done it, I will reiterate your advice, Ms. Belford: SEE IT TWICE. Like you, I saw it as a participant. Like Allan Mackey, I saw it from the seats. (Actually from the “Patrician” or reserved seats.) Both experiences are different, and both have advantages.

    Not surprisingly, the seated audience gets to see all the action. They get to see the initial dialogue between Cassius and Brutus where they try to suss out each other’s real thoughts while trying to avoid the label of “treason”. While this was happening, the participants are behind the scenes getting their instructions for their cheers for Caesar, so they get only a vague impression of what’s going on. It sounds like conspiracy, but it’s just an impression.

    Another example is Cassius’ storm scene. From the seats, the audience can see that he’s actually playing with the storm surge. This was lost to me on the sidelines.

    Onstage too has its advantages. The scene where Antony circles the crowd around the body of Caesar is a much more powerful experience onstage. When Antony whips Caesar’s suit jacket off the body revealing the bloody rents in his shirt, we were taken aback and shaken. (When I watched from the seats, the participants looked aghast.) Yes, I know it’s fake blood and a live actor, but the suspension of disbelief is very strong a mere metre or two from the “body”.

    The other example where being onstage is superior is the killing of the poet Cinna. The brutality of his murder over mistaken identity produced a strong visceral response in the participants. (When I saw it from the seats, the participants brought to mind the slaying of Kitty Genovese. They stepped back in horror.) Strong stuff.

    In even the most intimate theatres, I’ve rarely been so close to the action, and NEVER with such strong affect (and effect).

    There’s a third advantage of being a participant, which you didn’t state outright. For all the murder and mayhem onstage, the overall experience is…

    a whole lot of fun. The interaction with our guides, ASM Louisa Hache, Katie Bunting and Richard Gelinas and with the actors to whom we were assigned was both exciting and conspiratorial. My wife and I exited the theatre with a real buzz.

    I’m glad I saw it both ways.

    It’s also affordable to do so. The participants get the amazing lowest ticket price (made possible by two anonymous donors who wanted to make the play accessible).

    Yes, indeed, see it twice.

    • Reena Belford says:

      You’re so right! The guides were were all smiles, very friendly and encouraging and as participants we got a lot of thumbs up and ‘way to go’s after each sequence. And the same from the other cast members, both upon greeting them before the show, as well as after the show as we exited. The end result was that I felt very much a part of the cast, not an interloper. They seemed to be as excited to have us there as we were to be there - which was a great feeling and really added to the experience. (And although I singled out Katie and Richard, I should note that pretty much all of the ensemble cast directed us at some point, so it was really a group effort.)

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  1. [...] with audience members getting to experience the show from on stage with the actors. I’ll leave Reena to talk about that since she was in the thick of [...]

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