Accidents make me proudest. Of course, accidents shouldn’t make me proud because they are, after all, accidents. So maybe pride isn’t the emotion. Gratitude. Accidents make me feel gratitude. But I’m proud of my gratitude for those accidents. All very non-Buddhist, probably, but anyway.
Regardless, lately I’ve been feeling special pride about a part in my show. It came from a rehearsal, years ago, back in the Early Years of Butt Kapinski. I was trying to make sure the people watching the rehearsal understood what I was saying, and I asked them if they were clear, but because of Butt’s speech impediments, it came out as “queer.” And it was funny, but it also ended up being incredibly important thematically, as the show developed to be queer, the character is queer, the audience is queered.
So at every show there’s a moment early on when I ask the audience, Is everyone clear (queer)? And I wait for everyone’s delightfully-multilayered affirmation that yes, they are clear, and also, yes, in a way, they are queer, or willing to be for the course of the show.
It’s not unusual that someone pipes up at that point and says they’re not queer. It feels defensive, but not necessarily aggressively so, just testing. So I clarify for that person that I’m really making sure that they are CLEAR, as in, comprehending what is going on (but yes, it still comes out like “queer”). And at that point, they tend to give in (or on rare occasions, realize that this is the wrong show for them, and duck out, god bless).
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about consent, and I realized recently that the reason why I love that “Is everyone queer” moment so much, and why I’m so grateful I accidentally found it so many years ago, is because that is a moment that seems to get consent from the audience. It’s not conscious on their part, necessarily, but I do think this moment is one of the reasons why everyone gamely plays along. They just feel asked, somehow. And they feel like they’ve said “yes.”
Now, just because they’ve said that they’re “queer” does not mean that they have given consent to do the other crazy things that I ask audience members to do. They have not agreed, in that moment, to hit or kiss me, to sit on other audience members, and so on. I have to get consent for those things too.
That’s more complicated. That’s about sensing, hinting, approaching with caution. If you’re paying attention, you can tell who’s up for it. There are those who are sitting there looking delighted, those people are definitely up for it, and maybe too up for it, depending on what you need from them. There are those who are really focused on you, you can feel their intense level of presence with you, those people are up for it too, but they may not be as crazy-from-the-word-go as the first category. Sometimes this second group is the best group, because their level of playing along is a bigger surprise. Then there are those who are kind of with you. They might give you what you want, but they’re more of a gamble. And of course there are all the shades in between these groups. Audience members are individuals. I have to treat them as such.
“You also get away with doing what you do because you’re a woman,” a male comedian friend once said to me. “I’m so jealous of you because of all the things you can do to audience members that I can’t.”
And he’s right about that! Ha ha ha, patriarchy! When it comes to getting away with unbelievable levels of audience interaction, female performers can wipe the floor with their male counterparts! We win in this arena, girls! Centuries of being oppressed has made it far easier for us to dominate our audience members and have them like it! It was all worth it, after all!
But really, it’s also about the fact that if there’s one thing I would like to believe I do, I pay attention to my audience members. It is the most important thing I do. It is the most political thing I do. It is the only way I can combat the gazillion performers who have given audience inclusion a bad name with their tiny-ego-inspired abuse, their wah-why-aren’t-you-laughing-audience-it’s-your-fault, their conception of their audiences as authorities to be undermined. It’s not that way anymore, bros! Your audience is not your parents who didn’t love you enough! Your audience wants to be your friend, and you who bulldoze and energetically-assault because you think it doesn’t matter or because you think it makes you a big man, you scar audiences for the rest of us. You make them all afraid when they don’t have to be.
It’s not just a gender thing (even though it often is). A woman could still be a bulldozer, hypothetically. It’s just that she usually isn’t. Because consent is something a bitch knows in her bones. So female performers do tend to naturally be more gentle in this way. And men can be subtle if they want to. I’ve seen plenty of that. They can’t do all the things that a woman might be able to do, true, but they can dance along that spectrum, they can flirt with the same boundaries. They just have to be cautious motherfuckers. In this and all things, dudes!
There is a mistaken assumption among some performers who interact with the audience that by buying a ticket and sitting down, audience members have given consent. But they fucking haven’t. They agreed to sit down and passively absorb entertainment and clap at the end. They did not give consent to be hauled up on stage or to be made fun of or to any way be a part of your show. That’s not to say they won’t, I’m just saying, they haven’t yet.
There are loads of ways to get consent, right?
Just get it, that’s all I’m saying.
Deanna Fleysher is a comedy artist, teacher, and director devoted to audience inclusion. She is currently at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in Australia where she recently won an Innovation Award. While there are no Naked Comedy workshops currently scheduled, Deanna plans on holding one this spring. Read this for information and to contact Deanna to express interest in upcoming workshops.