You say participate, I say encounter…Let’s call the whole thing off.
The role of audience member in theatre currently takes two main forms.
The first form is participatory and it’s all the rage.
Being a participant audience member can mean: becoming a character in a live narrative, handling props, wearing a costume and being a member of a militia/choir/dystopian nation, choosing dramatic outcomes, shooting a gun, working the lights, cracking open a fluorescent baton, conducting the orchestra, writing the script, pressing buttons, singing, waving children at motion sensors, having your selfie blown up and projected to thousands of people and all possible manner of physical and emotional intervention and immersion in the event/concept/performance.
The second form, encountering theatre most usually means buying a ticket and watching actors deliver a piece of drama in a venue.
Encountering can pale due to the sheer novelty value, va-va-voom and occasional excellence of participation. ‘I’m going to pay twenty five pounds to sit in a seat in a dark space and
watch craftspeople deliver Peer Gynt’ feels distinctly dry when the participatory alternative is to run down the High Street with a flaming torch dressed as a troll while Bjork booms out of the back of a lorry, especially when it’s also absolutely free to wear the wicked hats with horns.
Both kinds of audience experience can live happily side by side but when one form begins to supercede the other in terms of both audience interest and economic expediency then there are some tough questions for producers to answer.
Have audiences had enough of high ticket prices in places they have to travel to, and do they want instead to be an active part of an experience which comes to them, and is often free? Is the whole idea of paying to watch theatre professionals at the top of their game old fashioned?
Theatre’s old and new have been built, and continue to be run, at public expense to house audiences watching works on stages. Actors, technicians, playwrights and directors are trained to work in these purpose built spaces. If the audience is less interested in the work on the stage than in the site specific piece taking place in a caravan in the car park then there is a clear dissonance.
Both experiences can be excellent or dire. Both can engage or repel.
At cost of sounding like an audience theorist with an axe to grind perhaps one can inform the other and the new golden age of (Fanfare or raspberry here if you wish to participate and internal rumination if you are simply encountering the blog experience) encounterpation can begin.
I like theatre spaces, love them in fact, love working in them and visiting them as an audience member and on both counts have a vested interest in seeing them thrive.
I want audiences to come to see I Love You Baby and am aware that working from the outset with an eye to audience engagement is crucial.
In preparation for this autumns scratch performances I’m chewing over central questions about who the production is pitched towards and how to make elements of participation- as it’s now understood- work inside a theatre venue (In order to attract an audience happily engaged by participation into an ‘encounter’ space). Traditionally this has been done through compelling writing and engaging performances and the aim is certainly to do that- but also to add a whole new layer of experience for theatre-goers whose expectation of visual and aural stimulation and control over theatrical activity is key.
At every stage of life we engage as audience, most usually in the context of social ritual, and its a collective experience. Everybody learns that it’s appropriate to make certain sounds when seeing a new baby, to chant at a football match, to smile and look delighted when watching someone else open a birthday present, and how to make the right noises and facial expressions for accidents and announcements, gauging the reactions of others around us and modifying as necessary.
Audience behaviour is society at its most conventional and least independent (As fascist dictators have always known to everybody’s cost) and this perhaps is one of the reasons why it’s approached with a degree of suspicion and fear. The praise or admonishment of the crowd is a primeval thing, ask any actor who’s been in a controversial play. Effective theatre in all its manifestations is powerful, and needs an audience, and is hard to control, there’s no getting away from that fact. (Retreating behind a cloak of non- hierarchical participation is in my opinion disingenuous as it simply means the auteurs directors and writers are hidden, let’s not kid ourselves that they’re not still there).
Theatre lives or dies by the reaction of the crowd. And a crowd being led by a story is still a crowd being led. A crowd or an audience given a decision, over life or death, or over the outcome of a drama, is very powerful indeed. We were all urging the Emperors thumb up or down in the Coliseum, we’re all urging Simon’s yes in the X factor and the roar of the crowd when the right choice- or the wrong- choice is made is the universal stuff of great drama.
Religious rituals are often active and physical, pilgrims encircling the haag are engaged in a visceral communal experience.
It’s possible to have an audience with the Pope and doctors still enjoy a healthy front row when operating in theatres.
We aim for a large house when getting married and perhaps an even larger one when leaving for the next room.
At both weddings and funerals the role of audience is clearly defined. In both instances encounterpationists wait for a very long time with good humour, listening, throwing things, eating and drinking and dancing, the sole difference between the two being the direction in which the flowers are hurled.
We know how to behave due to family lore and popular culture, the bulk of the UK population having gained most of its learning for these pivotal life events via Eastenders and Coronation Street.
Everyone knows where they are with these real life happenings where we’re called upon to be audience.
We know what to wear, what to expect, how to behave and that there’s usually something in all of them that is in some way, if not enjoyable, then certainly cathartic.
The issue with theatre and audience right now perhaps is that those expectations and the role isn’t quite so clear and rather than handing over the reins to the audience and balking the question, we need perhaps to make sure that what we’re delivering both inside the buildings and outside is something that people feel ownership and ease with.
Encounterpation will be central to thinking about engagement for I Love You Baby, and it starts with a firm promise never to use that word again.