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Playing with your audience: Dan Deacon performs at Sydney Festival

Katie Davern analyses why audience and artist interaction is the key to modern performance.

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“Now I want you to raise your hand and look towards the centre of the room. Point that hand to that round looking thing on the ceiling where all the cords are, yeah that thing, and focus all of your anxieties on that point… now bring your hand to your face and try to get your pinky and thumb to touch at the back of your head.”

Aside from the giggles and quick side-glances, a Sydney Festival crowd queuing patiently outside the Aurora Spiegeltent less than an hour earlier suddenly became devoted Dan Deacon fans in a heartbeat. Amid human tunnels, audience dance offs and crowd-led improvised interpretative dance, Deacon made sure we kept our moves simple and easily imitable for optimal viewing when the night’s festivities were inevitably uploaded online.

This kind of audience participation during performance that Deacon invokes is not a new concept by any means. For the last 17 years, Chicks on Speed have been making a medley of multidisciplinary performance art where audience interaction is a priority, even creating an audience-friendly musical instrument called ‘Reactable’. Indeed, with their 2014 Utopia tour, the innovative group invited audience members on stage to dive into the creative process, allowing them to live compose and mix audio-visual scenes through six specially created apps. As their website details, this is all in an attempt to make producers and consumers out of the humble audience member.

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The idea of feeling included in a performance seems to have something to do with this audience focus. Deacon summed it up in a recent on-air interview with FBi Radio, just a day before his Sydney Festival show: “A performer always thinks of an audience as one group of people; an audience is the audience. Whereas an audience member doesn’t think about it that way; an audience member is one person.”

At their recent Sydney show, Big Freedia (aka Freddie Ross) and her divas endeavoured to make audience members feel slightly less self-conscious about their twerking with a helpful lesson in New Orleans Bounce prior to the show. “[It’s] to make people more aware of the style of dancing that I do and for some people to be able to participate with me when I call people up onstage,” Ross told The Brag.

Hip hop outfit True Vibenation aren’t scared of audience interaction either, when they enlist the help of audience members through their tortuous sounding ‘human drum machine.’ Selected audience members hook up to the machine, so that the touch of their skin makes the sound of drums – a human percussion.

It seems that unless you’re Kanye West, the days where a simple call and response ticked the audience interaction box are well and truly over. People want to be able to jump up on stage and have a carefree boogie with M.I.A. without death stares from buff security guards. The audience yearns for more than a stage dive and the chance of touching their musical idol’s shoe. It’s when an artist throws themselves into the centre of the crowd – Mykki Blanco style – that things get interesting. But even Mr. West gets audience participation wrong sometimes. There are only so many “Make a circle!” and “Everybody stand up!” requests audiences can take…

The days of being satisfied with only watching a flawless performance behind a silently acknowledged, invisible barrier between the audience and performer are wearing thin. If crowds wanted to hear music that sounded and looked exactly as it was recorded, then they would listen to it in the comfort of their own surroundings, and with far fewer sweaty bodies.

As Dan Deacon flamboyantly demonstrated, simply bellowing “How you doin’ Sydney?!” isn’t going to cut it for this audience member.

Photography by Alex Gillis.

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