Meet Mariah Horner and Jenn Stephenson. Both lovers of play and participation, we are fiercely interested in “upsurges of the real” in live performance. Thinking together for 10 years now, this research project marries Mariah’s experience as a site-specific and immersive theatre maker with Cellar Door Project with Jenn’s extensive scholarship on autobiography, theatre of the real, and metatheatre.
The focus of this research project is to collect, describe, and analyze live performances in which the audience become participants. For work in this genre, the participation of audience-players is absolutely central to the performance such that the performance cannot exist without an active, co-creative audience. Our specific focus is on audience play in a dominantly theatrical context, but we are seeing echoes of this same interactive phenomenon where passive consumption is being replaced by engaged contribution in everything from escape rooms to crowdsourced recommender apps like Yelp! to popular D-I-Y performance channel TikTok.
Why participation now? The contemporary desire for experiences that are “by me,” “for me,” and “about me” arises out of a confluence of disparate paradigm shifts. First, we might look to the advent of Web 2.0 circa 2004. In his book The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman identifies “uploading” as one of the key “flatteners.” Uploading speaks to the “newfound power of individuals and communities to send up, out, and around their own products and ideas, often for free, rather than just passively downloading the from commercial enterprises, or traditional hierarchies, is fundamentally reshaping the flow of creativity, innovation, political mobilization, and information gathering and dissemination.” The ability to upload gave everyone with Internet access their own printing press and broadcast channel. We all became content creators. And having been introduced to publishing our thoughts and feelings, our art, our music, our photographs, our ideas and innovations, we are not only accustomed to it, we expect it in all areas of our lives.
Another (perhaps unexpected) parallel manifestation of the rise of meaningful play is in thinking about geological time. We now live in the Anthropocene Age. The Anthropocene defines the current epoch where humans and our society are the dominant geophysical force impacting our planet, impacting the earth’s systems more than all other natural processes combined. Nobel Laureate Paul J. Crutzen, who popularized the term starting around 2000 and co-author, Will Steffen locate the boundary of the Anthropocene at the end of the 18th century with the invention of the steam engine and the exponential increase in atmospheric CO2 levels. This phenomenon which recognizes the centrality of human action on the environment on an unprecedented global scale finds a parallel in art works that also privilege human agency (specifically that of the audience) on the generation of artistic experience and meaning. We recognize that our actions have consequences, in both the realm of the changing climate and live performance with a porous space between art and audience.
Arguably, this is the moment when we all become players. The moment when the principal value marker is meaningful impact. This research project looks at how theatre-makers are responding to this audience impulse. The word “play” is central. Drama has long been connected to “play.” Latin “ludos” and English Medieval/Renaissance actors are players. Players of plays. Audiences in that context are not players. They are listeners and watchers but not players. A productive perspective for this research has been to think of these interactive dramas as games. In our context, audiences are players. They are active decision makers that drive play.
Participatory theatre performance game hybrids, or whatever you wish to call them, seem to be a very recent phenomenon, distinct from previous styles of “audience participation,” and in the last decade, this work is everywhere. The goals of this project are 1) to collect and describe performances in this mode; 2) to identify the dramaturgical structures at work in these works. How are they assembled and how do they work?; 3) to connect these dramaturgical practices to the making of meaning and affect. How do they mean? Are there particular stories or experiences that are particularly suited to participatory dramaturgies? And so, this is us: “play/PLAY: dramaturgies of participation.”
Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century 3.0. New York: Picador, 2007.
Steffen, Will and Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill "The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature," AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment vol. 36.8 (December 2007): 614-621.
Stromberg, Joseph. “What is the Anthropocene and are we in it?” Smithsonian Magazine (January 2013) www.smithsonianmag.com
Header: Bonjour Hi, co-created and performed by Burcu Emeç, Michael Martini, Nien Tzu Weng, Roxa Hy http://www.roxahy.info
Dr. Jenn Stephenson
Jenn Stephenson is Professor in the Dan School of Drama and Music and Associate Dean (Academic) in the Faculty of Arts and Science at Queen's University, Kingston, Canada.
Mariah Horner is a PhD student and theatre creator based in Kingston. Besides making her own work through Cellar Door Project, she's worked with SpiderWebShow, the Thousand Islands Playhouse, GCTC, Tactics, and the Storefront Fringe Festival.