Don’t pick me! My fear of audience participation

6 mins read
Nina Conti

The sun may not shine, T in the Park may not have any decent acts, but one thing is for certain this summer in Scotland – in August the Fringe will come to Edinburgh. Every year the city fills up with performers of all varieties, and the thousands of people who pay to see them. I will be one of them – however, I will probably have a bit more trepidation than most.

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love the Fringe. I love its carnival atmosphere, and the buzz of noise and colour. I love exploring the beautiful city of Edinburgh. But unfortunately, there is one factor that prevents me from completely immersing myself in it, and that is my fear of audience participation.

I know it seems stupid. I don’t actually have that many fears. Heights don’t tend to faze me. If I see a spider in my room, I put it outside with no fuss. But the idea of being dragged from my seat and put on stage in front of a bemused audience makes me break out in a cold sweat.

This fear hasn’t stemmed from anything in particular. However, it has grown steadily worse as I have got older. As a child I used to perform on stage in a youth theatre group – I got a buzz from the adrenaline of a good show. But back then I knew what I was getting into. The fear of the unknown, of attention being focused on me unexpectedly, is what turns my stomach.

It is this fear that has stopped me from seeing my favourite comedians live on stage. I love watching comedy on television because you’re secure at home, protected by the barrier of the screen. By actually going to their shows, you risk being exposed to ridicule by the people you have paid to make you laugh.

A few months ago I plucked up the courage to see Adam Hills – not exactly the most biting of comedians, I know. But even then I watched with horror as he made members of the audience tell jokes on stage. I was relieved to be safe up in the circle, rather than in the stalls.

If an Adam Hills show takes me to my limit, you can imagine that it doesn’t take much to make me cringe. Much as I am enchanted by the magic of Derren Brown, seeing him in real life would be my worst nightmare. His shows, both on television and on the stage, are wholly based on audience participation. He ‘reads minds’ and anticipates how people react to certain situations, and then builds his performance around this.

Something else I can’t cope with is Nina Conti’s ventriloquism act. At first glance ventriloquism seems like a safe bet – It’s just about the performer and their puppet, right? Not when it’s Nina Conti. She brings audience members on stage and straps a mechanical mouth over their face, making them ‘speak’ and controlling them like she would the puppet.  I can’t even watch this when it’s on television – I can only picture myself being the unlucky soul with hundreds of people laughing at me.

A weird fear? Definitely. A bit pathetic? Probably. Loads of people love the chance to bathe in the limelight. But I have never been fully comfortable being the centre of attention. I’m shy at heart, and would rather be a spectator than a participant.

So what am I really afraid of? Humiliation, for sure. It’s very human to dislike being laughed at. When you perform on the stage, you are accepting that the worst might happen, and you might not pull it off. Audience members have no such understanding – they are unexpectedly thrown into a situation that they have to try and navigate without messing up.

When I go to the Fringe this year – like I do every year – I will attempt to relax and enjoy it, even with this fear constantly in the back of my mind. I just need to pick my shows wisely. Most of the time it is perfectly fine. But I know that whenever a performer scans the audience looking for a volunteer (or as I see it, victim) you just need to avoid eye contact and hope for the best. Either that, or buy a ticket for the middle of row Z.

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1 Comment

  1. Amy, I know exactly what you mean. I have the same fear There are show I won’t go see, just because there is 1 in 1000 chance I would be picked to go up on stage. Circque de Soleil and the Blue Man Group are good shows, if someone asked me to go or gave me tickets, I would not go. Just because of that 1 in 1000 chance. Mortifying, terrifying. It’s irrational, I know. If I know what I’m getting into, okay, maybe.

    If someone approached me before the show, asking me if I would participate, I would have to think about it and it would depend on what it was, probably then, the answer would be no, unless they handed me a few hundred dollar bills or if they supplied me with four or five large margaritas beforehand. Don’t even hint about me going to see Rocky Horror, that’s even worse, with the devirginizations. I am NOT going to get up on stage and imitate a sexual act, which are meant to humiliate! NEVER in a 1000 years! That is absolute Kryptonite to me!

    Nina Conti. I know. I’ve seen her on tv and I watched her videos. I was thinking I would NOT want to be there but a funny thing happened. I was talking to a Facebook friend who was in glee club and theater in high school and she’s very outgoing. She works on a pirate ship that takes people on cruises, she acts the part and gets people involved in skits. I didn’t think I would want to do that, until she told me that she wants to be picked out of the crowd when she goes to the Renaissance Faire. She likes doing it. I thought I could learn something from that. In some odd way, I feel safe when I think of that. I think people would be laughing at the situation and not me per say. That makes a big difference. I hypothetically put myself in the front row of Nina Conti show. Deep breaths. It’s okay .It’s okay. Oh God, she’s walking off stage, she’s coming this way, she’s getting closer, closer. She’s in front of me! It’s me! Oh no! Would I do it? I would have to put my brain on auto pilot. Maybe, just maybe. I would like to think I would so I could get over this fear.

    It’s curious though, I can get up to sing and play guitar, I crave doing that, even in front of total strangers. I think it’s because I’m know what is going to happen. Even though I may miss a chord, I can just keep going. I’ve learned to do that over the years of playing.

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