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You Too Can Be Johnny Utah For A Day

July 2, 2008

I'm generally not a great fan of audience participation sequences in theatrical productions. I'm all for theatre-makers finding inventive ways to engage audiences and get them invested and involved in productions. But most of the time, when it comes to making some poor unsuspecting schmuck get up on stage, the laughs are cheap and the audience members' parts are poorly integrated into the action.

Over the weekend, though, I caught one of the wittiest and interesting uses of audience members on stage that I've ever seen. The production was Point Break Live!, a theatrical spoof of the 1991 Kathryn Bigelow action movie starring Keanu Reeves as an under cover FBI agent who infiltrates a gang of bank-robbing surfers, led by Patrick Swayze.

The play's central conceit revolves around the fact that theatre budgets are tight, and as a result, Reeves isn't available to participate. So every night, the show casts a member of the audience in the role of FBI agent Johnny Utah.

People "audition" for the part and the cast selects the evening's Utah by asking the rest of the audience to clap for the person they most want to see play the role.

The conceit works because it plays off Reeves' unfortunate reputation as a terrible actor. The actor may have gone on to do great work as the lead character in the Matrix series and even reputedly pulled off a decent Hamlet in Winnipeg in 1995. But, with the possible exception of his po-faced rendition of John the Bastard in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado, his performance in Point Break is probably the most cardboard-like of his career to date.

As such, it makes perfect sense for an audience member with very likely no acting experience to read Utah's lines of cue-cards and play the action hero for an evening. The result is surprisingly clever and engaging. The audience member goes on a wild ride with the rest of the cast throughout the show. This includes being swung around above the audience's head in a harness in the scene where Utah and the surfers jump out of a plane (one of the most creative bits of staging in the show) and chasing a bank robber down the street outside the theatre -- we can see what's going on from inside the auditorium thanks to a live video feed.

Never before have I been so fully engaged in a show that makes such plentiful use of audience participation. It's no wonder that this scrappy spoof has garnered a devoted following since first being staged in Seattle in 2003. Since then, it's played in New York and Los Angeles and arrived in San Francisco in April.

Needless to say, Point Break Live is a lot of fun. And it breathes new life into the tired audience participation idea.

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