Do we need more theatre in which audiences take an active role?

08.09.17 | 2 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, Uncategorized

Let’s posit two categories of theatre.

To be dramatic (that’s what we do, right?) we’ll call the first category “Sit-down-and-shut-up” theatre, meaning theatrical productions in which the audience is fundamentally expected to watch attentively but take no action that might disrupt the flow of performances or distract other audience members. This has made up the majority of what we call theatre at least since hissing the villain in melodramas went out of fashion. Yes, audiences are allowed to laugh or gasp or shift in seats at tense moments, and their presence and reactions do affect the overall experience; but they are mostly constrained to keep it very subtle.

We’ll call the other category “Don’t-just-sit-there-do-something” theatre, meaning theatrical productions in which the audience is more actively involved in the performance whether verbally or kinetically or in several modalities. These productions currently occupy a much smaller niche, but there are noteworthy examples. Sleep No More, during which audience members prowl a large, immersive environment, is probably the best known example; but One Man, Two Govnurs, in which audience members have brief conversations with characters, had successful West End and Broadway runs, and Stupid Fucking Bird, which uses similar audience conversation, in its case with actors who have sometimes nominally dropped out of character to engage audience, has had numerous regional productions. New York Company Three Day Hangover introduced a whole genre of adapting classic plays for performance in bars with audience members participating in ways ranging from playing brief speaking parts in shows to embodying playing cards in a game between characters.

More extreme examples of DJSTDS theatre are mostly more obscure. dog & pony dc’s Beertown, during which audience members are invited to pretend to be residents of an imaginary city and participate in a civic event, has had only a handful of productions and by its very nature can only support a small audience. LiveArtDC has licensed Three Day Hangover shows and created examples of their own cast in the same genre. Probably most significant theatre communities have generated a few pieces that invite active audience participation but are rarely heard of elsewhere.

Some productions sit on the border, but given how little DJSTDS theatre there is, they should probably be allowed into that bucket. Hand To God has been produced with audience members seated at tables and supplied with material to make their own hand puppets before and during each performance. That kind of activity may successfully put a DJSTDS frame around an otherwise SDASU show. Many theatre companies have been carrying out experiments with interactive lobby activities in an effort to create a more powerful total audience experience. It’s an open question whether that frame lifts a production out of SDASU, but it seems like valid ground to explore.

So hopefully we agree that this distinction exists and that the vast majority of theatre productions are in the SDASU bucket. Does this imbalance represent a problem? Put another way, what might be valuable about tilting the balance a little more in favor of DJSTDS productions?

Most theatre companies are at least a little obsessed with drawing in a younger audience, often framed in a question like “How can we get more millennials to attend plays?” The most frequent research and practical finding is that millennials are hungry for experiences, and however we may feel about it, attending a SDASU play rarely qualifies as an experience. On the other hand, participating in a DJSTDS show often does, and such shows often draw a younger average audience.

For this reason if for no other, it is probably in the interest of theatre communities to start shifting the balance between these two categories. The notion that by creating art with a different set of constraints playmakers might discover new artistic opportunities should also encourage a shift.

For purposes of discussion, let’s say that the current ratio of SDASU to DJSTDS is 97:3. That number is pulled out of the air but it doesn’t feel insane. Any error it contains is probably in the form of over estimating how much DJSTDS is out there. What might it mean to the American Theatre movement to shift that ratio to 8:2? Should that shift come primarily from replacing SDASU productions with DJSTDS productions or adding lots of DJSTDS productions to the total? Would shifting the ratio in that direction enliven the American Theatre scene or would it demean it? Should mostly SDASU shows with some kind of active surrounding activity qualify as DJSTDS? What other questions does this whole topic bring up for you?

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Pete Miller

IT and Arts leader, playgoer, board game player, home brewer.
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.
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  • Thanks for posing this questions Pete. They are near and dear to me for two reasons. First, because at present I’m making theatre that’s exploring all the boundaries of what you call DJSTDS (though whether or not I agree with the binary you set up we can discuss at another time). Yes—full disclosure I’m with dog & pony dc. But second, and more importantly, I consider myself an avid audience advocate in the artform, “field,” profession, or whatever we want to call the American theatre at large. And the American theatre needs to radically shift its perception of and relationship to audience. I think this is all captured in your statement “[the audience’s] presence and reactions do affect the overall experience; but they are mostly constrained to keep it very subtle.” The rules of interaction we’ve (unconsciously) insisted on maintaining over the past 100 years is stifling our creativity as artists and producers, and isolated the audience. In dog & pony dc we believe the audience completes our ensemble. I’m curious what would happen if every theatre artists in America always entered into a production with an eye toward the audience’s experience? I’m curious what would happen if we stopped thinking about the audience as a single, solid body but as individual people? How might that change our artistic choices? I doubt it would lead to an explosion of participatory theatre, but I posit that it would lead to more theatre experiences that felt inclusive and reflective.

    • Pete Miller

      You point up one of my ambitions that I didn’t even admit to in the piece. I think increasing the prevalence of DJSTDS experiences would also inform and raise the quality of many SDASU productions. I saw a new play reading a few weeks ago that included one incident late in the play in which the audience briefly became the congregation of a church in worship. We were invited to rise and sing a hymn together. By my classification scheme, that probably moved it into the DJSTDS column, but it was interesting to see that impulse express in the middle of an otherwise conventional play.

      Full disclosure: Of course my own experiences with dog & pony dc influence the high value I place on DJSTDS experiences, but that bias makes my point. Here I am, just an audience member, and a very small exposure to this kind of theatre is enough to turn me into a rabid evangelist for it. I think that speaks to its power fairly forcefully.