From an exchange from my stalled novel The Chameleon Mirror, on a theatre technique conceptualized by the character Alain Pinon.
‘Mme. Nanty,” Lain said, “have you ever thought of incorporating the audience into a performance?’
She was intrigued by this: “What do you mean? Breaking the fourth wall?”
‘No, no; lots of shows break the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall is just breaking down the barrier between you an the audience, not necessarily talking to an audience, but acknowledging the unreality of the performance — I have a sort of an extension, to perform the unreality, that is to say, when an actor or actress acknowledges or speaks to the audience. That’s breaking the fourth wall. I’m talking about breaking the floor.
‘Not only do you break the barrier between the performers and the audience, but you confuse the audience as to what is a performance and what is real.”
‘How would that be done?’ I asked.
‘First, you plant actors into the audience. They do this on shows in America to give the performance more weight, especially when the show is inherently fraudulent. Like mediums, a person who uses cold-reading to pretend to gain access to an audience member’s dead mother or father…’
‘That’s awful!’ I said. ‘How do they get away with that?’
‘That’s the thing: they get away with in broadcast more than they do with the audience before it’s broadcast, because the studio—the people producing the show—have actors intermingled with the audience. They have lines and costumes and no one, no one outside of the production staff knows about it. The idea could work to even greater effect in honest theatre. You plant actors in the audience and mix them. Give them parts to play, lines to read, and audio or visual cues to bring them into the performance. You do this and you take away the idea of deafness, the idea that the performers are separate to the audience or blind to them. The actors could use this to great effect. Think about it: what is never questioned in a performance?’
I couldn’t think of anything. I’ve read critics, and not all of them were like Lain.
‘When someone fucks up,’ he said. ‘If an actor fumbles a line, or stutters in a meaningful scene, everyone knows they’d never intentionally fuck up. Incorporate that into a mixed audience, and you have a basic premise to break a floor: an actress is on stage—let’s say that it’s Renette here, may I call you Renette? Okay, thank you. Let’s say mademoiselle is on stage during a great, long monologue. She’s doing it perfectly, and there’s a member of the audience—a very vocal and proud fan of the piece. Let’s say I’m that guy, and I see her fumble the lines. I start shouting her down, and she fumbles more and more. Finally, she loses her shit entirely and runs into the crowd and beats the fucking shit out of the guy.
‘That’s when someone throws something, another actor joins in, and in minutes, you’ve got a crowd in chaos and only half of them know it’s not real. What would the person sitting next to me feel? Real fear. When you see something performed, something supposed to scare you, you’re never really afraid because you know you’re not in danger. You add to that, bring twenty, fifty actors into it, and have frustrated staff take to the crowd to kill them, what do you have? Fucking fear. You have a broken floor.’
‘Why do you want to scare people?’ mother asked. ‘Wouldn’t that make them, I don’t know, leave the theatre?’
‘Why do we go to the theatre?’ he asked. ‘We go to experience feelings. Of course some people go to be entertained, for an escape from the real world, to escape into fantasy. Some people go to the theatre to more intensely feel the real world, or at least become more aware of the things that matter about it. Think about it: when do you most care about someone in a show? The moment they lose the person they love. Their father, their mother, their spouse. It’s about fear and desire, at its core, every play, every drama, is fear and desire in contrast with hope and reality.
“When do you care about someone the most? When you think they’re going to die. When do you want someone to stay the most? When you find out they’re going to leave. When you’re scaring someone, without them knowing, you’re teaching them to love and to love more and to love harder. Why scare them? Because when they’re clued in on the joke, when they find out everything is A-okay, they will never feel greater relief, because there is no such relief in life. In life, when someone leaves a stage with a pistol and shoots ate real people around an audience member, the cadavers don’t jump back up and bow and let her know that it’s okay, it’s all okay, nobody is hurt. Because in those situations, those people are fucking dead and nobody gets back up, not after that. You break the floor just to show them how real the floor is, how vulnerable it is, how precious.”