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Interactive Theatre Is As Entertaining As It Ever Was

Do Audiences Prefer to Watch or Participate? - Cwphdafong
Audience-participation performance is a modern term for an old idea reborn and recycled to keep theatre fresh: people just love to join in the action!

Immersive performance does not respect a separation, or 4th wall, between those presenting and those watching. It used to be called Forum Theatre, after the Roman Forum where the voice of the people was heard in debate. It means participation from audience either collectively or individually making suggestions or joining in by directing performers, which in turn influences the narrative of the performance, or may be a simple supportive role, like carrying props, making noises or holding information. It is more than a pantomime audience shouting out “he’s behind you”.

Location Often Determines Performance Style

Performance can take place in conventional theatre, concert or circus spaces. Often the audiences are passive in the sense they enjoy a show/spectacle, but do not contribute anything to its progress. They applaud or laugh and feed the performers in that way, but do not affect direction of the piece.

An exception to this was the 1934 play Night of January 16th in which audience members were picked to be a jury, with the ending of the show dependent on whether they found guilty or not guilty. In 1985’s Broadway production of Drood, based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished 1870 novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Rupert Holmes created seven possible endings, decided by audience vote.

Bertolt Brecht demanded that his audiences think and be separated from the emotional attachment of ‘culinary theatre’ which merely refreshes like a meal. He didn’t have alternative endings, but stripped away the traditional trappings of darkened theatre auditoriums and illusion to make actors and audience aware, thinking and responsive to the message.

Augusto Boal developed a range of theatrical experiments designed to spread a political message through games, improvisational exercises and public interaction. One such, with performers having a meal in a restaurant and using the presentation of the bill to set off discussion/argument about low wages paid to kitchen workers, was performance without the audience even aware they were witnessing theatre with a message, till invited to join the staged, heated discussion.

There are equally more unusual, even bizarre performance spaces such as streets, derelict/disused factories, warehouses, hospitals, schools, markets, railways/bus stations. These typically require interplay with audiences of some kind. These are often referred to as site-specific performances, especially when a performance is tailored to a particular, unique setting. These were popular in the 1950s and 60s and went under the name of Happenings, or Events.

In Chicago and Toronto and touring, the well established company The Second City is but one troupe who specialise in sketch comedy and improvisation drawing on audience input, rapid thinking and a sense of life’s absurdities. Also in Chicago, Supernatural Chicago blend true stories of local paranormal strangeness with improvised comedy, magic and psychic shows. Interactive Theatre Australia are another company mixing the scripted with improvised, bouncing ideas off/from audiences

Touching Is the Latest Must-Have Development

After watching, came joining in verbally if not physically. Now comes actual physical touching, hugging, kissing, stroking. In 2007 the UK’s Guardian reported on the way participatory theatre shows and the companies developing interactive performance have changed people’s relationships not only with theatre spaces, but with actors themselves.

In Six Women Standing in Front of a White Wall at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the audience were invited to touch or hug six red dressed women writhing, scratching themselves like affection-starved children. When touched/hugged, they blossomed. When physical touch stopped, they visibly wilted, mouths silently screaming. The audience was given power and responsibility: to extend suffering or mercy. In this way, the audience became a part of the performance, intriguing to watch.

Mark Ball, Director of the “London International Festival of Theatre”, believes technology is driving the current increase in audience interplay. It’s ubiquitous nowadays, integrated into creativity that means spectacle and entertainment now demand additional physicality.

Punchdrunk has become of the UK’s leading exponents of this kind of theatre. Their Masque of the Red Death allowed audiences to wander round an atmospheric house opening drawers, looking in cupboards. Founder Felix Barrett reckons that his love of unexpected spaces began in his childhood. Tunnels, disused underground trains, barges, dark corners of urban decay: all forgotten areas are grist to the creative mills of spatial-awareness performers, who absolutely demand participation.

Working exclusively with very young children and young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, UK’s Oily Cart, founded in 1981, create innovative, multi-sensory and interactive productions, developing work as it goes along in each performance. Dreamthinkspeak was founded in Britain in 1999, based in Brighton, and they “explore space, light, image, film, sound and text to create performance that explores how different environments can radically alter the relationship of the audience to the work being performed”. They stress they are creating accessible theatre as well, so this may be a slight variation on a theme of interplay.

Just as all performance is: a variation, a mix, a fusion, a new realisation of the old.

First published on Suite 101, 14 July 2010.

Photo: Do Audiences Prefer to Watch or Participate? – Cwphdafong

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