One area of special event entertainment that most audiences always like is audience participation. It is one of the most powerful and effective ways to gain audience support and enhance a performer's charisma. It is not, however, only a simple matter of asking the audience “how they are doing.” The more rehearsed and controlled the situation, the more effective it will be. Watch some of the old-time acts like Victor Borge and Danny Kaye to see masters at work.
Participation can take place in the audience (i.e. offstage) or it can take place on the stage. By going into the audience, a performer is in the audience’s territory and had better be well prepared for anything that may happen. Therefore, for this type of situation, all circumstances should be covered. That means that a set routine should be rehearsed (e.g. exact dialogue and participation actions), with escape plans for any eventuality, be it vocal inappropriateness (e.g. audience member swearing at the performer or no reaction at all), or physical abuse (e.g. audience member grabbing or touching the performer inappropriately). Proper technical preparation must be in place as well (e.g. adequate audio and lighting). Just “winging it” when a performer is in the audience makes the performance appear amateurish.
Audience participation onstage brings the audience into the performer’s territory and puts the performer more in control of the situation, although removing some of the intimacy of direct contact with a larger portion of the audience. Onstage participation can take several forms: rehearsed, unrehearsed, controlled, and uncontrolled. Once again, the more rehearsed and controlled, generally the better will be the performance. By rehearsed is meant that the routine is tested and perfected over the course of many performances (including all jokes, questions, and dialogue) so that the outcome is more or less standard, thus defining what may be considered a controlled situation. This type of routine might include anything from a set of questions and answers between performer and audience members (still in their seats), to an entire onstage performance by a group of audience members (e.g. dance number, hypnotism show, victims of a pickpocket, ventriloquist’s dummy). At the other extreme, is the completely unrehearsed and uncontrolled situation. Someone is invited to the stage to sing a song or to be interviewed by the performer. Because the routine has not been rehearsed and never been done before or perhaps tried once successfully (without rehearsal), the performer assumes that it will be successful again. Unfortunately, human nature often turns ordinary people into caricatures once they get on a stage and they suddenly want to take over a microphone or act up for their friends (one of the basic rules of performing is never give the microphone to someone else unless it is rehearsed). This is not a situation that endears a performer to the audience, but rather it makes the performer look even more inexperienced. I once employed a celebrity performer before he became famous who thought it would be a good idea to invite a friendly guest to the stage. The guest was drunk and refused to leave the stage, resulting in our having to find several very burly guests to remove him physically from the stage. It was embarrassing for the performer and undoubtedly became a valuable lesson for him on his road to the top.
In short, audience participation can be the most effective part of an act, but event planners and producers should be aware of the pitfalls and ensure that the performer(s) is in control at all times.