It wasn’t until two days after seeing The Fever by 600 HIGHWAYMEN that I discovered why a performance piece that is heavily reliant on audience participation was titled something reminiscent of disease and unhealthiness. Gareth White writes in Audience Participation in Theatre, “The idea that empathy is an infection in the body by the emotional state of another person has been reinforced by empirical studies showing that when we observe another person’s emotional state, it is echoed in our own body” (127). Empathy is an infection in the body, it's like a fever infecting those with whom it comes into contact.
The audience is seated in one row on the perimeter of the space. One by one, certain people in the audience (‘plants’) stand up and ask people in the real audience to perform actions such as hold out their hand, put their face in their hands, mirror them, and stand beside them, among other things. The audience is drawn from their seats multiple times in the performance to partake in full-group activities such as running around the room or mirroring a gentle hand waving motion together as a group.
People readily got up from their chairs. When they asked for one more person to join, many times multiple people would stand up and join. There were even times when, after repeating a certain set of instructions, they simply stood or lied down until someone would come forward without prompting and perform the action. The performance was accompanied by music and lighting that transformed the room and space to a communal, otherworldly and deeply human if not humane experience. By prompting the audience’s participation and encouraging the mirroring of movement and community of the room, empathy spread like a fever.