The fourth wall, theatre's invisible barrier between the audience and the performers, is something most actors are trained to observe at all costs. As a cabaret singer it's been my wont to dismantle that wall and get down and dirty in the laps of my audience. Audience participation can be a dangerous business. I'll never forget doing a corporate in Jersey walking around the tables crooning "Everybody Loves Somebody", looking for a nice lady to dance a few bars with. Spotting just the one, I offered my hand and asked her up. "No, no," she said, "I can't dance." "Of course you can dance!" I said, getting everyone else to give her an encouraging round of applause as I took her hand. "No, no, really I can't," she protested, but I took her hand anyway and started to forcibly pull her up from her seat. "No!" she said, as her eyes bore into mine, "I can't dance. I'm disabled." At this point I had two choices: gently lower her back to her seat and publicly apologise, or ignore her and carry on. To my shame, I chose the later.
In other moments of doomed audience interaction I have been told to "f*** off" (by a representative of the Arts Council no less), had missiles thrown at me, and had my inners torn out and fed to rabid dogs. The last one's actually a metaphorical description of an incident in 1990 when members of the Liberal Club in Scunthorpe didn't take to my Alec Wilder medley.
Once, in Ireland's National Concert Hall, I was singing Dean Martin's "Volare" and at the Neapolitan section decided to kneel on the stage and, in a rash gesture of romance, held my arm out towards a sweet old lady on the front row. She, with bandaged legs, returned the gesture by grabbing one of her crutches and pointing it towards me. It just reached. So there I am, singing a Neapolitan love song holding the rubber stopper on the end an Irish nana’s NHS crutch. "What would Dean Martin do?" I thought. Have a drink, probably.
Sometimes the audience can participate in a show without even realising it. I remember performing the classic "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" on the QE2. The lights dimmed, the room hushed, and as the band waited for me to sing the first line you could hear a pin-drop. Then, just as I drew breath, the magic was broken by a loud "Beep...Beep...Beep." We all look up wondering where the noise from coming from. Then I realised. An elderly gentleman in a motorised scooter had decided he'd had enough and was reversing out of my show. I wouldn't have minded but we suffered two more interruptions as he executed a three-point turn.
At least we get paid for all this kind of indignation. Danger money, you might call it. That is unless you suffer the deepest shame known to any club singer - being "paid off". This means they hate you so much they pay you to go away and leave them alone. This happened to me only once. I thought they liked me so much they were paying me early. Alas, no.
Audience interaction and the unpredictability that comes with it is of course part of the appeal of live theatre, and something that television and radio are trying cash in on. "We want to hear your thoughts,” they say, constantly nagging us to phone in, email, video-message and press red buttons. Does anybody really care? I’m not so sure. In the theatre you know instantly what your audience thinks, and believe me, a cheer or a boo has much more impact than a belated tweet.