Features Catherine's Comments Published 18 July 2012

Breaking Away From the Herd

Reshaping audience and performer relationships.

Catherine Love

During a rehearsal session I sat in on last week, there was an odd moment. Having spent all morning moving from place to place around the rehearsal room, never settling in the same spot, the four of us watching the actors found ourselves all lined up in chairs against one wall. We were suddenly, in the crudest of senses, an audience. And that shift immediately asked new questions.

Audiences can be tricky beasts. As one of the theatremakers in this particular instance commented, it is safest to assume that the moment you expect an audience to do one thing, they will do the opposite. Extreme examples immediately jump to mind, such as the rogue audience member who made a run for it during recent interactive show 66 Minutes in Damascus, startling performers by breaking out of the immersive world that they had meticulously crafted. But this difficulty can also be as basic as the herd mentality that plagued dreamthinkspeak’s The Rest is Silence during the performance I attended at Riverside Studios, as the audience stubbornly moved en masse from corner to corner in the open space. Old habits die hard.

With the soaring popularity of immersive and interactive brands of theatre, however, these habits are beginning to change. But while such work might be implicitly shifting the relationship between performers and spectators – who may also be recruited as performers themselves – it is debateable to what extent this movement is driven by a desire to critically prod at and reshape that relationship. Despite what the marketing material might proclaim, physical proximity does not equate to collaboration or even understanding; an audience member can be just as distant from the material when clasping a performer’s hand as when gazing up at them from the shadowy safety of their seat.

My mention of 66 Minutes in Damascus, which along with The Rest is Silence was part of this year’s LIFT programme, is not coincidental. This immersive piece of theatre evokes the experience of being detained and interrogated by the Syrian secret service, a description that already sets ethical alarm bells clanging. It’s impossible to make a judgement call without seeing the piece myself, but there is something inescapably sticky about volunteering to be kidnapped and handing over money for the privilege, as though political persecution is just another thrill up for sale.

This is clearly far from the intention of the piece, but I would suggest that it is in danger of either creating such an enthralling experience that this takes precedence over the content, or embroiling its audience members in a preoccupying state of concern about the adrenalin-pumping gratification they might be getting from a reconstruction of events that are horrific and very much real. If these dangers are realised, then neither instance does a great deal to serve the purpose of the work.

At the other end of the interactive spectrum is overnight performance Hotel Medea, another extreme experience for participants, but one propelled by the aim to “look after” its audience – so much so that it offers them pyjamas and hot chocolate. Co-creator Jorge Lopes Ramos’ solution to the dual issues of coaxing audiences into interacting and mapping that interactive behaviour onto what works for the performance that he and his team have sculpted is to preface performances with an audience “training camp”, in which nervous theatregoers are schooled in what to expect. On a more subtle level, something as simple as being offered tea and biscuits by the performers, as we were as we filed into Greyscale’s recent show Tenet, immediately and almost imperceptibly alters the atmosphere, as can the very nature of the performance space.

Establishing the right environment for theatregoers to begin to shed some of their layers of protection can be valuable – and I speak as a theatregoer who sometimes arrives at the theatre considerably layered up – but turn that comfort up too high and they might as well be ensconced in the stalls. If it’s just about an enjoyable experience then fine; as You Me Bum Bum Train has proved, experience in itself can be overwhelmingly transformative. But the very act of upturning a relationship that is usually accepted without question raises the possibility of something vastly more interesting and knotty.

Taking a few steps back, perhaps I short-changed 66 Minutes in Damascus. Because, by the sounds of it, this is a piece of theatre that is aware of its own difficulties, and arguably by placing its audience in a problematic situation it forces them to think more deeply about the theatrical techniques of the piece and the reality that it is rightly or wrongly attempting to depict. The troubling dissonance between the thrill of the experience and the realisation of that thrill’s ethical implications is itself a catalyst for thought.

I am reminded of another challenging moment from this year’s LIFT programme, in which one of the performers from Back to Back Theatre, an ensemble of actors with disabilities, bluntly asked whether the audience had come along to see a “freak show”. Because of the way this question was framed within the piece, it was greeted by little more than a collective squirm, but there was a palpable frisson that in a different context might have been intriguingly harnessed. Sometimes the best way to engage with an audience is to provoke them, provided that provocation is intelligent enough to avoid sending interaction spiralling into a bitter slanging match.

In a piece which also touched upon the distinct discomfort attached to 66 Minutes in Damascus, Lyn Gardner last week argued that “artists need to think hard about the ethics of the way they use the power they have over audiences”. Artists undoubtedly need to be aware of their responsibility towards audience members, particularly in the vulnerable situations opened up by the advent of interactivity, but what of the responsibilities of the audience? Just as they morph into political detainees or guests of Medea, can they also take a role in crafting a more searching and genuinely collaborative partnership?

When an audience member can break away from the herd, look right into a performer’s eyes, engage again with that dynamic we so often sleepwalk through – then there’s the possibility for something truly exciting.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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