Robert Reid barely survives a ‘howling maelstrom of transgressive audience behaviour’ in The Miss Behave Gameshow
As a life-long sufferer of social anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia, this was maybe not the best show for me. The Miss Behave Gameshow is an exhibitionist’s dream, and my nightmare. I came out shaking. I’m still shaking as I write this.
Remember late last year, when I wrote about consent and audience participation? You could say that these issues are pertinent to this show.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt more at risk in a theatre. I probably should have left once I realised it was getting out of hand, but there wasn’t any easy way for me to do that. I was sitting in the middle of a row three seats from the front, between a bunch of people who were demonstrating how much they were just loving it. I waited until the end (it’s only an hour, right, how bad can it get?) and made my escape during the coloured ball game, a shitfight that turned the Fairfax into a children’s ball pit.
The Miss Behave Gameshow, a participatory comedy cabaret presented as part of Midsumma Festival, arrives in Melbourne from a year and a half of playing in Vegas. The show’s well named, since misbehaving is what the audience is encouraged to do. And boy howdy, when they’re given license by the performers, do they misbehave. It’s described as “a night of riotous fun, part gameshow, part freewheeling disco party…no night is the same!” I should hope not. The night I attended felt a lot closer to the riotous than the fun.
English cabaret performer Amy Saunders as Miss Behave, and sidekick Tiffany (her excellently moustachioed and hyper-flexible assistant, Bret Pfister) lead the audience in a series of satirical parlour games that (again according to the marketing) makes “even the most conservative audience turn unruly”.
That’s a good thing? Why?
The performance takes place in front of a simple set. Signs made of cardboard and marker pen, strung together with string, hang down behind the performers, offering an equal mixture of snark and hope. “Meh to Apathy,” reads one. “That’ll do,” proclaims another. “Let’s not and say we did” is probably my favourite.
To me, cardboard is an inherently playful material: it allows a wide gap between representation and reality that gives players the space to invest their own imagination and become part of the event. The players in The Miss Behave Gameshow take that space and fill it only with themselves. Their “unruliness” seems to be the point of offering that imaginative space. I can’t help wondering how imaginative misbehaviour can really be. It seems pretty unimaginative to me.
We’re divided into two teams, the iPhones and the Others (except most of the others have iPhones too so we’re renamed the Apples instead.) The teams compete for points, which we are reminded are meaningless…except they’re not meaningless, they’re the measure of which team wins. In the context of the competition, the points are the only thing that is meaningful, and so they become the sole focus of our attention.
While this set up to an extent both models and mocks the unfairness of life, no one in this room seems to be listening for nuance. The games are simple parlour games: quick, easy to understand, easy to play, clever and even thought provoking. They’d be a lot of fun if they weren’t being played in a howling maelstrom of transgressive audience behaviour.
There is a lovely moment at the very beginning where Miss Behave directs us to turn on the flashlight functions of our phones and turn them towards her. The sparkly costume she wears glitters prettily, reflecting the sea of bright white pin points in the dark. It’s gentle, communal and beautiful. I should have guessed it’d be too good to last.
Popular songs punctuate the night, lip-synched by Miss Behave and Tiffany. Fragments of the familiar and the new: Madonna and Dua Lipa, Spice Girls and the theme from Round the Twist. Audience members are encouraged to sing along. To dance along. They give themselves over to the kind of abandon you find in a mosh pit, except that my experience of mosh pits (admittedly a long time ago) was that the dancers understood the chaotic order of the event. You only need to smash your head against the foldback wedge or step on your own hair once to learn how to stay safe, and how to keep those around you safe too.
You can’t play if you don’t feel safe, and I’ve never felt less safe while trying to play. This crowd doesn’t seem to understand that they are sharing this space with other people. For instance: the guy sitting in front of me who got completely naked in the audience, to win four meaningless points. The two women who tore off their bras and threw them on stage to win a point each. The acrobatics trainer behind me who threw her leg up over her head and barely missed kicking me in the face. The guest magicians from Las Vegas who got completely nude and ran into the seats to rub themselves over several audience members. The guy who mooned the audience from the stage…
I mean, it’s awesome that you’re all having a such terrific time, but I can’t help wondering, “Did I really give consent to all this just by sitting down in the front (as I was asked to)?” God help anyone who is a survivor of sexual assault, or who has anxiety or any other issues that might be triggered by their sudden and unexpected inclusion in a game to which they never really said yes.
This show was never properly signposted. “Nudity, coarse language, smoke/haze, extended standing, non-traditional seating” barely covers it. Try adding, “beware falling objects, constant shouting, complete disregard for personal space and a very good chance of uninvited touching” for a start.
This is a shame, since there are good thoughts, important thoughts, in this show. “Life isn’t fair, so think for yourself”, or “life is a game you can’t win or lose, you can only play, so you might as well enjoy it”, or “the opposite of black isn’t white, it’s privilege.” If you’re not drunk and losing yourself in the moment, at best you might have caught a fragment of those ideas. If you are, you haven’t heard anything besides: “Do anything for a point.”
And there are also moments that feel like genuine connection, such as a Shazam that Riff sing-along game where we all join in, not quite ironically, with a whole hearted chorus of John Farnham’s You’re the Voice. Despite the teams, the competition and the hyperactive atmosphere, it feels like we’re united: “We’re not gonna sit in silence, we’re not gonna live with fear… woah, oh oh, oh oh oh…” It’s weirdly anachronistic and, at the same time, a sentiment that feels deeply, urgently relevant to the temper of today.
But these possibilities are swamped by a nearly non-stop torrent of shouting, cheering and screaming from the audience. It’s very clear in Tiffany’s dance number, which called for quiet but never got it. I don’t know if the irritation that crept across Tiffany’s face while trying to do the routine was real, but it sure was real on mine.
To be fair, this behaviour is encouraged from the stage and by the format of the show. Oh, audience, you poor brainless beast, led on to behaviour that in other circumstances might quickly be condemned. On either side of me, before me and behind, people danced and waved their arms around, knocked into me, got in my face, bounced against me. They talked to me constantly because they clearly had no ability to read social cues like “I’ve got my arms crossed, I’m hunched over, I’ve never responded to you once and I’m turned as far away from you as I can without being straight up rude.”
The monstrous id of the audience is a bottled Erlenmeyer flask on a bunsen burner, and when it boils over there’s a real sense of danger. The night feels on the edge of tipping over into violence: it doesn’t feel like it would take much to turn properly ugly.
The Miss Behave Gameshow brought back memories of being the only sober person at the party. The Arts Centre website encourages us to “Make a night of it, pre-show drinks available from the Fairfax Studio bar!” There’s also a bar inside the Fairfax auditorium where we can get more drinks. I’m not sure that the performers’ encouragement of the front row audience members who had collected 13 drinks before the half way point reflects the most responsible serving of alcohol. Also, maybe a Down That Pint game towards the end isn’t the wisest thing to play with a Friday night audience that’s already pretty fucking bastarded. The guy who won that game didn’t seem super steady on his feet to me.
The two performers are terrific, I’ll give them that. On a less madness-fuelled night maybe I’d have been able to enjoy them more. They were charming, entertaining, witty, sharp and, despite everything, very likeable. The Friday night Melbourne audience though… And really, that’s down to the performers. The level of sheer Don’t Give A Fuck hedonism released from the audience in the name of “joy” (I guess?) wasn’t inclusive or empowering. Well, it empowered the exhibitionists amongst us, of which there were many, but do exhibitionists really need more empowerment?
What does this say about us, beyond being a sad reflection on the thoughtless competition of the hyper-tribal human animal? I’m reminded of the old joke about the Non-Conformists Oath. “Repeat after me: I promise to be different, I promise to be unique, I promise not to repeat things other people say…”
I hope some audience members wake up in the morning, remember and regret. Maybe some walks of shame will be happening on the way home from the theatre tonight. The guy who stripped off in front of me, and moments later was telling his friends, “oh god, if there’s anyone from my funding bodies here, I’m fucked”. The woman further back who threw her bra over our heads to get it on the stage and then sheepishly asked for it back almost as soon as she’d taken it off. Yeah, well, I’d like to say maybe you should have thought of that beforehand, but the nature of this event discourages thinking beforehand.
Yes, it was a Friday night. Yes, it had been 45C in Melbourne that day and everyone was probably a bit stir crazy. But it’s the performers’ responsibility to ensure that the audience understands that fun is only fun if everybody is having fun. It’s the performers’ responsibility to ensure that, as participants, we care for each other – not just for our selfish sense of abandon. If we’re not capable of playing well together, because we’ve been given a whole bunch of booze and encouraged to misbehave, then it’s the performers’ responsibility to make sure everyone in the room is, at bare minimum, safe.
I can’t really recommend this show. I guess if you’ve ever found yourself in a fight with a crowd of football hooligans thinking “this is great but I wish there were more sequins”, then this is the show for you.
God help the 9.30pm audience…
I was fortunate that an old friend of mine was also in the audience and saw me from across the room. As I was leaving, she grabbed me, took me outside and talked me down. I’m sitting on the train typing this now, and my hands are still fucking shaking. My head hurts now and I feel nauseous from anxiety. So I think I’m done.
The Miss Behave Gameshow, performed by Amy Saunders and Bret Pfister. At the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne as part of Midsumma Festival. Until January 27.
Nudity, coarse language, smoke/haze, extended standing, non-traditional seating