Audience Participation vs. Performer Protection: A Snapshot

I am sitting onstage with the Nash Composers Coalition—either at our inaugural concert or second; I can’t remember which—and we are almost through our set. The adrenaline is pumping, and despite the weight of carrying my gender on my back on that stage, I’m smiling. We’ve been riding the performance high all night, and spirits are high. As we round the bend into the last couple tunes, we call a free improvisation, with the title to be determined by the audience.

The first few suggestions are fine, harmless; they prompt thoughtful nods or friendly chuckles from me and my colleagues. They’re what we expect. Then someone—a guy, and by the self-satisfied tone of voice, it was probably a young or young-ish guy, though to my knowledge not one of my peers—shouted out something super sexual. I can’t remember if it was “seductive” or “foreplay” or something else entirely, but I remember the discomfort it brought to me immediately.

Hang on; I have to go look through those recordings now and see if I can find it. I want to get this right, and it’s a story I try not to remember.

Okay. It was the second NCC concert, in May 2017, and the guy’s suggestion, shouted so casually, was “Cerulean Foreplay.” On the surface, it seems innocuous, and you can hear the laughter from the men in the group on the recording. But I remember looking down the row, shaking my head as frantically as I could while retaining a respectful stage presence, and giving it a thumbs down that the audience could see (which, of course, prompted more laughter). And despite how supportive the NCC group had been prior, despite how willing they were to take on He Probably Just Likes You, in that moment, my band didn’t have my back.

Maybe (probably) they didn’t realize they needed to. Maybe (probably) they didn’t have the precious seconds it took to put two and two together and realize that hey, maybe the composer who literally just put a story about misconstrued foreplay (among other things) in this space doesn’t want it shoved down her throat by a strange man. Maybe (probably) they figured I would be more vocal about it. Maybe (probably) they didn’t entirely care what the piece was called because it was the end of second set and we could feel the finish line beneath our feet. And as much as it sucks that I have to think about all these things by virtue of who I am and most of them don’t, I can’t blame them for not knowing when they’d likely never been in that situation before. When they likely hadn’t taken a stand against sexual assault in the middle of a concert before. When they maybe hadn’t considered how different an experience women can have with the word foreplay than (allocishet) men can.

Before you write me off as needlessly butthurt, you have to remember a few things:

  1. I was one of two (known) gender-marginalized people in the group (of ten performers).
  2. I had premiered a deadly serious piece about bullying, misogyny, sexual assault, and domestic violence maybe an hour prior, on the first set of the same concert.
  3. Though I’m perhaps generalizing a tad here, allocishet guys typically have largely positive relationships with foreplay as a thing that happens to them. Gender-marginalized people, on the other hand, often have . . . less positive (and sometimes traumatic) experiences.
  4. Being forced into performing within a sexualized context as a victim of sexual assault is NOT FUN.
  5. Stating the obvious, but jazz + femme = hypersexualized.

So, to put it mildly, I did not want to improvise within that context. And that hurt, because free improv is where I get to be me the most. But that night, when I’d already exhausted all my emotional courage, some cocky young guy stole that from me.

That said, I wanted to highlight this particular moment because it happened in performance with a group I am supposed to feel very safe and welcome and supported in, around people I trust and care for, in a setting I might normally deem lower-risk. It happened on a concert where I was premiering work I still connect very closely to, that would shape my creative practice for years to come, that required a level of trust in the men around me that I don’t usually need to extend. Bad things still happen in seemingly good situations, and I want to make sure that’s clear. No one thing that I’ve experienced has been cause for a scathing condemnation of an entire scene or community. (They do, however, add up.) We still have lots of room for growth, and I want to make that clear—it might be difficult and necessary, but I’m willing to put in the work alongside everyone else.

Folks, if you ever find yourself in this situation, it’s hard to think on your feet. It’s easy to just let the tide sweep you along. Still, though, it’s important to look out for the wellbeing of your performers, especially if something sexually or racially charged comes your way mid-performance. You may be prepared to brush those things off, but they quite possibly can’t, simply by virtue of the fact that being onstage in anything other than a cis, white, able, male body already requires a great deal of emotional labor.

I probably can’t give you a list of best practices for these moments, but I’ve got a couple suggestions. First, whenever possible, read your ensemble’s body language (during rehearsal and generally before you take the stage together) so you know what normal looks like for them and can react accordingly if something changes. If you realize someone’s unsure or scared or indicating a vehement no, take an appropriate stand on their behalf. It could be something as simple as “let’s find something else” or “we don’t want to do that tonight.” Use your de-escalation skills, and be gentle and polite, but firm. It might not always be necessary, but some nights, you could make a bigger difference than you know. And remember: if you do, you really might not know it. Some of these stories don’t leave our own memories, but we don’t forget when someone goes to bat for us.

After all, participant consent is critical, both in foreplay (cerulean or otherwise) and on the bandstand. ♦

I wasn’t sure I was going to do this, but since I found the recording of the events that night while writing this post, I threw together a short (<5′) piece as a pseudo-response. I used Max/MSP, Logic, some sine tones, and the original audio recording of the conversation leading up to the improv and the actual music we created that night. That said, this is very far removed from that sound. If you’d like to listen, I’ve titled it Cerulean Fuck That and here it is on SoundCloud:

To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.