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Born Yesterday

December 28, 2007

The experience of sitting in the audience at Cirque du Soleil's new show, Kooza, reminded me of the fallout from Hillary Clinton’s latest debates and rallies. In both cases, the audience was not what it seemed.

At one point in the show, currently playing in a yellow-and-blue stripped big top at AT&T Park, the clowns made a woman sitting several rows back from me disappear. She then reappeared from a trapdoor center-stage around half an hour later before returning to her seat. Later on in the show, a clown stole items from an old man in a suit (a pen, a phone, a watch, a necktie etc.) by befuddling him with a sleight of hand trick involving two yellow balls. Later still, a woman sitting in one of the best seats in the house suddenly found her chair lifted about 20 feet into the air.

Besides making us laugh, the audience participation sections should have felt dangerous, making the audience feel like any one of us might find ourselves suspended from the ground or short of our wallets at any moment. What spoiled the effect for me was the impression that the volunteers weren't volunteers at all, but members of the Canadian circus troupe, pretending to be unsuspecting punters.

Now I'm not the sort of person who pays much attention to conspiracy theories. I can't say for certain that the audience members selected to "perform" in the show were plants. But I'd be extremely surprised if this weren't the case. For one thing, some of the so-called volunteers behaved a little too much like people in the know. The old man selected for the sleight of hand routine in particular seemed to be going through the motions. There was no surprise in his eyes. His hands seemed to be on automatic pilot, as if following pre-learned instructions. Add to this the fact that you'd have a lawsuit on your hands if you raised a real audience member (not to mention one sitting in the VIP section) 20 feet in the air and they fell out of their chair in shock, and the fact that the woman who was made to disappear and reappear wasn't sitting in her seat during the second half, and the fake audience participation case looks strong.

Like the people who felt duped by allegations that Clinton takes questions from planted audience members at her rallies and debates, I felt similarly let down by the possibility that Cirque du Soleil's audience participation schtick might not have been real at Kooza. It may not be news that politicians and circus clowns use fake audience members. They’ve no doubt been doing this for years. It’s just that they’re usually better at maintaining the illusion.

The ironies and metaphors at work in this idea addle the mind. Kooza was a performance in which reality was exposed. The debate was reality in which performance was exposed. Performance and reality were so closely intertwined in both experiences that it's hard to separate truth from fiction, especially since the hard facts concerning the possible deceptions at both events are still, like the lady in the 20-foot-high chair, up in the air. Funny how clowns and politicians have so much in common.

According to the Kooza website, the show "tells the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world." By the end of the production, this character wins a crown but his favorite childhood toy, a kite, slips from his hand and flies away forever. It was dark, cold and wet when I left the big top. It had been a strange day. News of the murder of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, rumors about the plant at the Clinton debate in Florida, and my experience at Kooza all mingled in my mind. It's been ages since I last felt such an acute feeling of lost innocence as I did at that moment.



  • I am so glad to see this blogg. I had the same feeling after attending the show. The woman that was randomly selected was sitting next to us, in a single seat by her self. She also did not return to her seat after intermission. This made us think she may have been a plant. That made me start suspecting the whole show, Did the high wire act seem to fake a slip and almost fall in your show?

    By Blogger Jumper, At January 1, 2008 at 11:07 PM  

  • thanks for weighing in with your thoughts, jumper. not sure about the high wire act. for me, the issue isn't so much to do with the fact that there may have been plants than to do with the fact that they showed. the company didn't go far enough with the "ham acting" to make the revelation of something that is normally kept hidden from the audience look like a clever artistic conceit. so it all just seemed a bit strange and potentially underhand. messing with audiences' expectations can be a great, provocative thing in theatre if it's handled expertly. it stops us from getting too comfortable, being too passive, sitting back on our laurels etc. in politics though, seems like people have to constantly meet audience expectations, which is a very boring predicament for politicians to find themselves in indeed.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At January 2, 2008 at 7:37 AM  

  • I may have a show that is the perfect remedy to this ill feeling-and no plants I promise! And yes, everybody is in danger of being involved in this show.

    It comes back in March, let me know when you guys want to come. All I ask for in return is some of that fantastic beer.

    By Blogger christiancagigal, At January 4, 2008 at 2:26 PM  

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