The Highs and Lows of Audience Participation

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by Steve Desroches

Top Image: Paige Turner, Miss Conception, and Miss Richfield 1981.

Everyone reacts differently, but the collective response of an audience when a drag queen steps off the stage to pick someone to be part of the show is palpable, and somewhat predictable. Some slink down in their seats or stare at the floor. Others tighten up, getting taller, while some begin to point at a friend. On some occasions someone makes a beeline for the bathroom to avoid the chance they’ll be chosen or raise their own hand looking for a moment in the limelight. Despite any anxiety it briefly produces, the results are often worth it, say drag performers Miss Richfield 1981, Paige Turner, and Miss Conception, all of whom utilize the interactive device in their shows at Pilgrim House, with much success.

“Truth be told, if I was in the audience I wouldn’t want to be picked myself,” laughs Russ King, who for almost 20 years has performed as Miss Richfield in Provincetown. “But there is a way to do it right and you really make a connection with the audience. That’s why I do it. It works most nights. You have to remember that everyone in the audience will quickly identify with the person on stage. They’ll feel, in a way, like they’re the ones up there. That’s why the rule is no one gets hurt and then it’s funny. You can poke fun, but keep it fun. Otherwise you may never get the audience back. That’s what makes involving the audience so scary and a thrill.”

Paige Turner

A hallmark of drag shows that makes them usually more cabaret than traditional theater is the absence of a fourth wall. But there is a gate, so involuntary audience participation is of course not welcomed. There’s only one star of the show and that’s the queen onstage. However, all three performers agree that they embrace interacting with the audience to form a deeper connection, making for a better experience, not only bonding themselves with those in attendance, but it makes the entire room become a united front of laughter and fun. The biggest rule is to not be mean and to not hurt anyone’s feelings.

To make it work they begin surveying the audience right away. It gets easier with time to find just the right people. The obviously drunk, anyone who is exceptionally hyper, and someone whom friends or a partner is pointing out are instantly a no go. Next on the nix list are grumps, chatty Cathys, the clearly shy, and those with grabby hands that tug on an outfit, or even commit the cardinal sin of going for the wig. Nope. Sit down. Bachelorette parties? It depends if they meet any of the above criteria, but getting married isn’t reason enough as that can take over the show and leave the rest of the audience out. The perfect candidate is someone who is chill, smiling, and having a good time. That usually means they’ll be easy to work with, take direction, and not take themselves too seriously. And it can lead to wonderful moments. Daniel Kelley, better known as the Showbiz Spitfire Paige Turner, in the past week has had magical moments onstage.

Miss Conception

“Some shows I can get men to take their shirts off, they just do it before I’m even done asking,” laughs Kelley. “I’m all about body positivity so I don’t make any jokes about how they look. When an audience feels respected and taken care of, things can go so well. The other night I had a 12-year-old boy on stage who was wearing Pride socks and sweatshirt and had his fingernails painted. He played tambourine on back-up during one of my songs and then I gave him a Pride flag before he left the stage. Everyone loved him and he was great. A few nights before a woman came up to me while I was barking for the show saying that I was going to be her first drag show and then she couldn’t stop talking about my eyelashes. I brought her up onstage and then gave her her own pair. The moment just worked so well for the show. With everything we’ve been through I’m finding audiences reaching out so much more. People want interaction, not virtual.”

In many ways involving the audience is paying respect to them, says Kelley, something that Kevin Levesque, also known as Miss Conception, agrees with. And the vast majority of the time it goes well. This summer Levesque pulls up four people to do the hand jive in an homage to Grease. Straight or gay, younger or older, everyone is having a ball nightly. But one time in Puerto Vallarta at the Palm Cabaret she pulled a man onstage and all was going well until she sent him backstage to put on a costume, one of those inflatable dinosaur get-ups. He never came out and then she noticed him sitting back in the audience giving him the middle finger and calling him an asshole as he’s claustrophobic and the costume triggered an anxiety attack. The man eventually stormed out.

“How was I supposed to know he was claustrophobic?” says Levesque. “I’m usually pretty good at reading body language, but I didn’t see that coming. But even when it goes wrong it can be right. I brought up a man who put a turtle costume on backwards so he couldn’t really do the dance. It was hilarious. The number got totally screwed up, but it was worth it.”

Miss Richfield 1981

Perhaps the biggest rule of thumb when working with an audience is you have to commit, no matter what. Staying in control is paramount and being able to handle anything an audience can throw at you is the key to success. If person after person refuses to go onstage or if someone changes their minds and runs back to their seat, you need to make it work, say the Pilgrim House queens. King says it’s like you’re driving a bus and if you just give up it’s like leaving your audience on the side of the road. You began the journey, you have to finish it, one way or another. Even if things go really bad.

“Oh God, years ago I brought this young guy up and there was a running joke about therapy and that this was actually an intervention for him as his mother had called me, so goes the set up,” says King. “And for some reason that night I pushed him about his mother and he finally says that she had passed a couple of weeks ago. It was as if all the oxygen left the room. It’s the only time I can recall feeling beads of sweat going down my neck and back. The setup for this joke was important as it keeps coming up throughout the show. You could hear a pin drop. It took me a few minutes, but I managed to save the show. And he was a sweetheart about it. But, oh God, even now I cringe. I’ll never forget that night.”

Miss Richfield 1981, Paige Turner, and Miss Conception all perform at Pilgrim House, 336 Commercial St., Provincetown throughout the summer. For tickets, show dates, and times visit pilgrimhouseptown.com. For more information call 508.487.6424.