by Zou Xin-ning
by Angus McPherson
by Chen Yen-ju
by Pawit Mahasarinand
by Lee Fu-ping
Audience participation has become a favourite in local productions in the past few years, and participatory theatre has been blooming. My day job is to plan, design and lead drama-based workshops or theatre productions. Irrespective of whether the role is that of a producer, dramaturg, planner of educational theatre programmes, acting coach or workshop leader, I am very interested in the participants’ immediate responses, behavioural patterns, states of mind, intellectual understanding and judgment. Therefore, I will list in this article some examples of audience participation I have experienced, in the hope that this will start a conversation about audience participation on different levels.
The audience came out and played
In forum theatre, the actors first enact a story about the situation of the oppressed, then invite audience members to replace individual actors on stage, using dramatic action or dialogue to change the situation of the oppressed, and to prompt them to experience and reflect on inequality. The joker, responsible for building bridges of communication between the actors and the audience, also uses the audience’s words and actions in stepping into the situation to inspire the audience to discuss and detect the antagonistic forces faced by the oppressed. This kind of participation, in which the audience first watches the dramatic content then acts to rehearse, respond, and reflect on the modes and implications of daily injustice, transforms the audience who engage in intervention on stage into “spect-actors”.
Invisible theatre enacts local themes, where the performance triggers immediate discussion and participation by the audience. Through prepared scripts and improvised conversations, actors of the invisible theatre perform relevant shows in public places other than the theatre, such as supermarket checkouts, roadsides, and subway trains―ideally wherever a large number of people gather and debate can be stimulated among those present (the audience). Although these are public performances, the performances are not pre-announced. Even during the performance, the actors do not reveal that they are actors. Therefore, it has characteristics of invisibility, like a real-life show with hidden cameras. The plot mainly focuses on local social issues, such as skyrocketing food prices, traffic congestion, and gender discrimination. Through exposition and guidance by the actors, the plot thickens into conflict. In the process, the onlookers are drawn into the events, triggering arguments with the actors or the other onlookers. They are witnesses to the events, but also participants, contenders, and problem solvers. This reflects another state of the spect-actor.
Watching and performing in parallel: infinite possibilities
The layout of the auditorium is changed where the audience is placed in the scene and becomes part of the performance text―this also is another form of audience participation. For example, in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies, audience members were encouraged to come on stage through the device of distributing many sofas around the set. During scene changes, audience members were encouraged to change positions: Those on stage switched to another sofa, those below came onstage or chose another seat in the auditorium. As audience members freely chose the position from which they watched the play, those on stage became part of the scene, transforming into the masses/people. As the plot developed, and one after another ruler (politician) fell in the political battle, audience members became witnesses to changing times. Moreover, the audience could, via Twitter, instantly feedback through texts and images which then appeared on the screen on stage. As the leaders were praised or rejected by the people and reigns changed, the masses became the key to the story, and co-performers in the show.
Using headphones, the audience listened to aural content and walked along different streets to different corners of the city. Rimini Protokoll’s Remote X series was staged in different cities and adapted to the characteristics of each city where it was performed. In a performance without actors, each audience member listened to the words of the “characters” and visited various urban spaces: dancing/moving in public places, competing on a running track, choosing at intersections to either turn left or right, gazing at passers-by. The street scenes became the stage design, and the pedestrians became observed actors. As the headphone-wearing audience formed groups, weaving back and forth through the city, they themselves became the spectacle and a focal point for the pedestrians, and subsequently the watched objects. There were no designated actors in the performance, and the headphone- wearing audience themselves became eye-catching performers. The pedestrians on the street were both the observed (performers) and audience watching the spectacle. The two identities of viewer and performer were simultaneously present and overlapped, which became the driving force of the performance.
Artists violate the conventions of the theatre, causing restlessness and unease in the audience, triggering fluctuating thoughts and participation through action, and extending discussion of the themes of the work. Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On features exceptionally long periods of light and darkness on stage at the beginning of the show, emphasising the fact that the stage has been empty for a long time, which allows the audience to experience the long passage of time. The DJ in front of the stage plays pop song after pop song. The amateur dancers sometimes move, sometimes freeze, and sometimes stare at the audience, smashing the audience’s expectations of dance performances. I caught this show at the 2003 Hong Kong Arts Festival, and spent most of the time observing the audience’s reactions: silence, sighs, whispering, laughing, getting up to leave, the sound of chairs scraping as people left, getting up and shouting at the dancers on stage, leaving and cursing everything on stage... The scenes on stage and below stage were juxtaposed in parallel, and actions and participation in the theatre extended to comments and reflections outside the theatre: the differentiation between fine arts versus popular culture, professional dancers versus the masses. Artists of every era use their works to question the times, challenging the viewing habits, stimulating the audience to think, discuss and act. Engagement, love, anger, rejection... How does one define performing audience participation? Is participation equal to engagement?
Beyond subject and object: an intertwined dialogue
Traditionally, the audience sits in the dark space of the auditorium, as if they were peering at the performance on stage. It is often regarded as an act that is passively receptive and accepting. However, the audience will find their own ways to connect to the situation of the virtual world of the drama, walking out of their own viewing experiences along the paths set by the creator of the work. When I worked for a theatre company in 2009, I invited Dr Tam Po-chi to construct a case study on the aesthetic responses of youth audiences towards The Insect Play student performance. The interviewed students not only immersed themselves in the world of drama, but could also reflect at the same time. In engaging in the drama production, they developed their own voices and interpretations through dialogue with the play and with society. For example, the golden tortoise in the play likes to conserve, prompting the interviewed audience to think of the human love of finance, speculation, blind pursuit, and how everything turned to smoke after the financial crisis. They were indignant at the cricket’s indifference and the hornet’s “eat the weak” mentality, recognising the parallels between the brutality of their own (human) behaviour and that of animals’, and further recalling different historical events, thereby reflecting on how they should situate themselves in contemporary society. The audience is in metaxis between dramatic fiction and reality. Through engaging in intertextuality, they interpret and comment on drama and the real world through comparison, association, understanding, and inference. The work becomes an intermediary, where audience participation skirts between sensibility and intellect. The creator is equal to and inseparable from the audience. Theatre is created by the encounter and interaction of production and viewing, which combines artistic creation and aesthetic experience. (Note 1)
The dramaturgy of “you in me, and me in you”
The examples of audience participation listed in this article barely scratch the surface of how artist and audience can encounter and converse with each other. Nor is this article trying to define different modes of audience participation based on these examples. Rather, it seeks to delineate the texture of the case studies, and integrate them into the relationship between audience participation and dramatic creation. Participation has become an important element of contemporary drama creation. Audience participation, text, space, props, characters, sound, light, technology, games…These elements are intertwined to construct works of art. That said, the audience has always occupied an important role in dramatic creation, from Aristotle exploring how tragedy leads to catharsis, to Brecht breaking the fourth wall through the alienation effect to prod audiences to reflect on society. Contemporary theatre audiences participate, experience, perform, reflect, satirise and solve social problems. The role of the audience has always been a central preoccupation of artists.
Claire Bishop summarises the different reasons why artists use the masses as material:
To challenge traditional artistic criteria by reconfiguring everyday actions as performance; to give visibility to certain social constituencies and render them more complex, immediate and physically present; to introduce aesthetic effects of chance and risk; to problematise the binaries of live and mediated, spontaneous and staged, authentic and contrived; to examine the construction of collective identity and the extent to which people always exceed these categories. (Note 2)
At the same time, the viewer is never a passive recipient. Actors and audience influence each other, participating in and creating artistic experiences together. The results of the aesthetic process can never be predetermined, but is transformed into different manifestations of the art of spectatorship by performance type, social culture, historical period. The multifarious forms of audience participation will be used to construct a “dramaturgy of spectatorship”, which will be key in the creation of contemporary theatre. (Note 3)
Note 1: Tam, Po-chi. 2010. “Aesthetic Response of Young Audiences: The Insect Play as case study”. Arts Education Research, No. 20, p. 67-95.
Note 2: Bishop, Claire. 2015. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, translated by Lin Hong-tao, p. 397. Taipei: Art & Collection Group.
Note 3: Fischer-Lickte, Erika. 2016. “The Art of Spectatorship”. Journal of Contemporary Drama in English, Volume 4, Issue 1, p. 164-179.
(Translated by Amy Ng)