It is reminiscent of a joke told by a 6-year old. But instead of “How is an elephant like a loaf of bread?”, I’m asking, “How is QAnon like Ratatouille: The Musical?” In addition to their shared context, both phenomena rising to mass consciousness in the late days of the Trump presidency and in the shadow of pre-vaccine pandemic lockdowns, both QAnon and Ratatouille: The Musical are both manifestations of participatory and emergent behaviours, made possible by web 2.0 collaborative interactivity. But whereas, the amateur artists of Ratatouille: The Musical created, well, a musical; the adherents of Q who elaborate the intricacies of the QAnon orthodoxy created an entire alternate reality.
QAnon is an apparently widespread American conspiracy theory, born in the dark corners of the web, that believes among other things, that Donald Trump has been chosen to save America from a deep state cabal of Satan-worshipping Democrats, who are also pedophiles.  Ratatouille: The Musical, on the other hand, was born on TikTok, and is an assemblage of lyrics, music, dialogue, choreography, set and costume design sketches, that re-imagine the animated Disney/Pixar movie Ratatouille as a Broadway-style musical.  In early January 2021, both QAnon and Ratatouille: The Musical seeped out of the virtual realm and into reality. Over the weekend of 1-3 January, a production featuring a cast of well-known Broadway performers, streamed on Today’s Tix. The event raised $1.9 million for the Actors Fund.  On 6 January, the day of the certification of the results of the 2020 election, a crowd comprised of right-wing ‘militias’ and QAnon supporters who believed that the election was ‘stolen,’ stormed the US Capitol building with the aim of disrupting those proceedings. Five people including Capitol police and protestors died. 
Ratatouille: The Musical is at its heart a crowdsourced work. Beginning with an a cappella rendition of an ode to the main character Remy the rat, posted by TikTok user Em Jaccs, other TikTok denizens augmented this initial song, Daniel Mertzlufft added orchestral scoring. Others constructed a set model, wrote and performed more songs, invented choreography, even puppets. Not only is it participatory, but the iterative recycling and re-imagining marks this as a potentially emergent phenomenon. There is no director, no producer, no playwright or composer. Apart from the inspiration of the original movie, there is no controlling animus at all. There is no gatekeeping. Every contribution is valid—even potentially contradictory or exclusive elements become enfolded into the sprawling motley whole. One notable characteristic that distinguishes the Ratatouille project from myriad other similar collective works is that there is a knowing wink, a sly pretense that this could in fact be, IS in fact, real. Rebecca Alter makes this observation in her history of the musical’s development on Vulture.com. She writes, “the specific appeal of the Ratatouille musical is the alternate reality of it all: It is not inconceivable that there is a timeline where Ratatouille: The Musical was announced as a big-budget, family-friendly production alongside the likes of Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid.”  Additional creative elements that project that reality include a (faux) Broadway-style yellow-header Playbill and video from a high school cast party at Denny’s. This is where Ratatouille: The Musical tips into performance--using mimetic representation to create (probably) alternate fictional worlds.
Pervasive games, or alternative reality games (ARG) invite players to participate in covert activities in a hidden universe existing in parallel with the usual mundane one. One of the simplest pervasive games is perhaps Assassins where a group of friends or co-workers are each given the name of another person in the group to “kill.” The kill, depending on the agreed rules, is accomplished with coloured dot stickers, water pistol, or simple touch tag. If you successfully assassinate your target, you take the name of their target and move on to your next mission. The winner is the last person still alive. The pervasive nature of Assassins arises from the extended duration and expansive boundaries of the game that takes place in the interstices of everyday life over the course of days or even weeks. There is also a critical element of being secret weirdos, as your kills cannot be witnessed by anyone else, especially non-participant bystanders. The foundational book on this subject is Pervasive Games: Theory and Design  by Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. They begin with Assassins and trace the proliferation of the genre through fictional-game-events like The Beast,  Shelby Logan’s Run,  and Uncle Roy All Around You,  linking at the end to the global TV phenomenon of The Amazing Race. These game-performance hybrids necessitate the imaginative invention of a separate world for the in-group of players within the magic circle.
By this logic, QAnon is a massive pervasive game. With its focus on discovering and decoding secret messages, the active logic of QAnon’s search for the ultimate truth is the same. In a September 2020 article in WIRED Magazine, writer Clive Thompson documents the insights of game designer Adrian Hon, who makes exactly this observation: “ARGs are designed to be clue-cracking, multiplatform scavenger hunts. . . .To belong to the QAnon pack is to be part of a massive crowdsourcing project that sees itself cracking a mystery.”  There is real pleasure in solving these perceived puzzles. The distinction however between the QAnon alt-reality narrative and that of something like The Beast is that in the case of The Beast, it is the fictional creation of Microsoft/Warner Bros to support the promotion of the film AI: Artificial Intelligence. There is an intelligence behind the game scenario. For QAnon, the hidden narrative that they seek to reveal is non-existent. There is no secret plan for global domination. There is no wizard behind the curtain. The truth is not out there. (Really.) Rather the ‘truth’ is being created iteratively by the seekers out of nothing.
What’s fascinating about this, then, is how this is an illustration of emergence in action. Emergence is a participatory phenomenon. Emergence doesn’t need a leader or a coherent narrative to get started, coherence arrives as a dumb product of the game mechanic, of the controlling algorithm. It is Internet-based social media platforms that provide the accelerator. Emergence algorithms require thousands, if not millions, of reactive local responses. Think flocking birds or colony building ants. Conspiracy theories are not in and of themselves participatory. They are the result, however, of a participatory emergent algorithm that produces the standard genre characteristics of a conspiracy theory (or a murmuration of starlings or insect architecture).
BONUS THOUGHT: Participation in conspiracy theories seems to align with feelings of powerlessness, perceptions of lack of control. It is not coincidental that paranoid conspiracy narratives tend to foster themes of control by elite “others.” (Sometimes radical socialist Democrats and Zionist globalist Jews, but also aliens). Mariah points out quite rightly that the musical theatre creators of Ratatouille: The Musical are also, within the realm of professional Broadway-bound musical development, powerless. Their pretense that their Ratatouille musical is real is a gesture of defiance that recognizes their outsider status.
 Roose, Kevin. “What is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory?” New York Times. 4 February 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-qanon.html
 Alter, Rebecca. “Broadway Is Closed but But Ratatouille the Musical Is Cooking on TikTok.” Vulture. 19 November 2020. https://www.vulture.com/2020/11/ratatouille-musical-tiktok.html
 The official Playbill for Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical. https://www.playbill.com/ratatouillemusical; Bereznak, Alyssa. “Anyone Can Cook: The Oral History of Ratatouille the Musical.” The Ringer. 31 December 2020. https://www.theringer.com/movies/2020/12/31/22206943/ratatouille-musical-oral-history-tiktok-trend-making-of
 Healy, Jack. “These Are the 5 People Who Died in the Capitol Riot” New York Times. 11 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/us/who-died-in-capitol-building-attack.html
 Alter. “Broadway is Closed.”
 Montola, Markus., Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. CRC Press, 2009.
 The Beast is one of the earliest known mass ARG. It was developed as a promotional event in support of the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence. It ran approximately 5 months beginning in March 2001 and reached upwards of 5000 players worldwide. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Beast_(game)
 Shelby Logan’s Run is the October 2002 Las Vegas iteration of a regular game, treasure/puzzle hunt, road rally called The Game occurring annually on the US west coast. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Game_(treasure_hunt); https://web.archive.org/web/20050720002159/http://www.shelbylogansrun.com/
 Uncle Roy All Around You was a combined online and in the street mixed-reality game produced by Blast Theory in June 2003 in London, UK. https://www.blasttheory.co.uk/projects/uncle-roy-all-around-you/
 Thompson, Clive. “QAnon is LIke a Game--A Most Dangerous Game.” Wired Magazine 22 September 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/qanon-most-dangerous-multiplatform-game/
 Roose, Kevin. “A QAnon Digital Soldier Marches On, Undeterred by Theory’s Unravelling.” New York Times. 17 January 2021. From a New York Times profile of a QAnon “meme queen,” the author writes, “What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. . . . New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/17/technology/qanon-meme-queen.html
This is an excerpt from a month long email chain between Mo Horner and research assistant Derek Manderson about Re: Current Theatre’s New Societies at the Kick and Push Festival in August 2020.
Hi Jenn and Mariah,
My apologies for an email this late at night, but I just attended the opening night of Re:Current’s New Societies at the online Kick and Push Festival. WOW. It was so exciting for me to see a strong example of participation in a digital theatre performance. There is a lot to think about here in terms of the guide, in terms of digital theatre creation/translation, and in terms of the gamification of a utopian society.
Without spoiling, it sounds like there are a range of things that can happen in this show which affects teams of players differently. When I can find some spare time over the next few days, I’m hoping to get some more cohesive thoughts put together about my own experience which I would be happy to share if it’s of interest.
In any case, I had such a great time with this show and thought I should share while I’m still charged with excitement! I hope you are both doing well as the summer draws to a close.
You were certainly right about the participatory potential of this one! I’m curious what you think: Was New Societies really a game?
Looks like a game. Smells like a game. Plays like a game.
BUT - I’m fairly certain that it ends the exact same way every time. In war. One district is selected to be the “winner” and that district has to choose one other district to “save.” This ending is fixed and happens every time. For me, that fixed ending becomes a “phony multiplicity,” it’s not a real game, there is no real slack or wiggle room, all our choices make no difference. If it’s not a game but instead a performance or a work of art, then I do wonder about intentionality. Is this kind of inevitability the point?
This brings me to my second question. The players in my district seem to identify as a bunch of anarchists so it definitely felt like we were designing a society with potential! However, because of the fixed ending (the fixed ending that is war, even worse) New Societies is feeding us a participatory promise that we couldn’t achieve. The promise is: “Design your own society, however you want” but the range of actions are colonial and capitalist (ie, buy land, make decisions re: land ownership and Indigenous people, save money). Design your own society but no matter what you do, there is war.
I’d love to chat more with you about it!
So interesting to hear about your experience with the show. It certainly adds some new layers.
I should begin by saying that my group was the one to eventually “win,” which may influence my opinion. To me, it felt like a game because of the real-time decisions we needed to make which influenced the overall state of our society. My district was in the lead from the beginning, choosing to invest heavily in the supply storage early on and then quickly moving to establish societal advancements in favour of occupying land. Witnessing the rewards of our actions was a deeply satisfying experience, especially in the form of competition. When it comes down to it, winning is just fun.
If the selection of the “winner” is random, I think this show loses some major points in the game category. The construction of the experience is very game-like, but perhaps with a pre-determined ending, it is more of a performative game than a true game itself. I have heard that the “losing” districts must decide whether to revolt or to go in peace in the end. I wonder, if every group decided to be peaceful with the final decision, would there still be war? Perhaps a revolt is always the ending because groups of people will resist their political demise with war. And I felt that was part of the statement that the show was making. Can we truly create a Utopian society? Or is conflict eternal?
I was quite taken with the gamification of governing. The negotiations between a group of strangers about how best to rule a society was an interesting experience for me. There was one point where my district elected to limit families to one child because the alternative was allowing our people to starve or to deport a portion of our population. Talking it over with some friends afterwards, we debated whether that was the correct choice or not. The show, therefore, sparks some interesting conversations about governance and whether or not one can “win” at governing a society.
I think the container for participatory experiences is always going to be a challenge. Ideally, a true participatory sandbox would have allowed you to design a society to your exact specifications and given you more choice over how your society grapples with overpopulation.
I think in many ways, the game is guided too heavily. However, I personally am not bothered by some fixed options because I know that there needs to be a container. I’ve played enough “open-world” video games to know that the sandbox needs to end somewhere. What makes them fun and what made this experience exciting for me was that we made choices which had real-time consequences. One of my biggest thrills was feeling that I had “won” because of my choices and hearing from my friends that they had chosen to revolt against me.
Let me know what you think! Thanks for talking this through with me, I’ve been thinking about this show a lot over the past little while.
All the best,
I’m responding here but I also have an idea. I wonder if this little email exchange could find a place on the blog? I’ve been thinking about this show since I saw it and this exchange has been really rich in that thinking process.
My main concern with this game is what it asks us to do in order to “win” the game and be the “best” because you’re right, winning is fun. When asked if we would pay the Indigenous community in our district a tax for taking their land, it meant we’d empty our supply storage. We did so. In effect, this made us “lose” the game. That troubles me as an exercise. It’s positioning colonialism and land ownership as the way to “win”. It’s the same thing with your thoughts about “gamifying governing.” I think that is an interesting question, ethically, but the way they push us towards governing decisions that depend upon colonial instincts troubles me.
I love your thought "I wonder, if every group decided to be peaceful with the decision, would there be war?” That is a beautiful way to phrase it. A colleague of mine said the same thing. Maybe this show is a mirror. We will always choose war so there will always be war.
If this is the point, that our world (digital, game, or otherwise) will always present us with an inevitability of choice that leads to war, then my frustration feels like an intention from the artists. However, if the piece as a game, is trying to offer an experience that breaks apart that inevitability of choice, then I’m not sure it’s a successful experience.
That’s it for now,
I apologize for taking a little while to respond! I would love to make this exchange a blog post. I think the document reads in an engaging way, and it shines a light on an evolving process of deconstructing a participatory experience.
Here are some more of my thoughts to add to the conversation:
I think the colonial lens is an important notion to ponder. My district didn’t encounter an Indigenous community in our problem set, and so I only heard more about that ethical dilemma afterwards from other participants. As far as I understand it, “winning” in this container boils down to keeping enough resources in the supply storage to provide for the society, and paying attention to social advancements. I think the issue with this exercise arises when the Indigenous communities are entered into the container, and their presence forces the participants to decide between losing the game or winning through a colonial attitude. I agree that this mode of play is troubling, and the colonial undertones are problematic.
I think perhaps the win condition is worth pondering further. Although I initially felt that the winning and losing the game was critical to the experience, our conversation has sparked some alternative perspectives in my mind. There’s a reason that we consistently use quotation marks to indicate winning: there is no real winner. Even in victory, the “winning” society crumbles to chaos in the shadow of war. What if the statement here is that the game of governance cannot be won because there is no such thing as a utopian society? Inevitably, the imperfections and complications of co-existence topple the image of utopia. One of those complications which all colonial societies must confront is the harrowing past, present and future of stolen land. Maybe, the point here is that when faced with the truth about how our new society continues to displace Indigenous communities, we are forced to reflect on our own drive to win and how morality complicates this desire. We must “lose” and give up on utopia if we wish to follow our moral compass. Thus, the players are benefiting not from the game itself, but the frustration of colonialism and war in this container. This ultimately emphasizes the role of the player and the self-reflection that can only arise from participating.
You are totally picking up what I’m putting down re: the colonial choice. Colonialism as “winning” is an oppressive and dominant perspective and unless this game is self-referential enough for that to be the point, I find it a troubling exercise.
When you’re talking about the win condition, you get exactly to a point that Jenn and I got to yesterday in a meeting. Perhaps this awareness is the point. Our systems (colonial, land ownership, capitalism, central government, etc) are so pervasive, that regardless if we have free reign, we will always end up creating a society that looks like ours and is ultimately broken enough to end in global conflict. If it’s like a mirror, then this is an extremely worthwhile exercise. If New Societies asks us to witness the fact that capitalism, colonialism and war is so entrenched in our psyche, we will always end up with the same result, then I’m sold. If they are asking us to consider the fact that our current systems are leading us to inevitable failure, I see that…but I’m still grumpy.
Maybe the reason I’m grumpy is because I see a potential that wasn’t reached. I don’t see utopia principles as something inherently impossible. In a talk by artist and activist Syrus Marcus Ware yesterday during the Scholar Strike, he quoted Toni Cade Cambarayou by saying “it is the role of the artist to make the revolution irresistible.” In a moment when abolition, anti-capitalism, and the call for new structures is finally getting airtime, why didn’t New Societies offer the potential to “make the revolution irresistible,” find ways to allow participants (who are also citizens) to imagine and “play” a utopia with entirely differently systems that perhaps didn’t inevitably lead to war? It looked like that’s where it was going.
Sure - here I am rewriting the ending, which is bad dramaturgy. But alas! Maybe it’s because I’m studying a lot of abolition theory right now. We don’t have to lose, we can dream up and “play” utopia. It’s possible. There are other options than capitalism and colonialism!
That’s it from me,
New Societies is created by Re: Current Theatre and presented at the Kick & Push 2020. Created by Re:Current Theatre, with concept and direction by Brian Postalian. Performed by Sena Cagla, Howard Dai, Alexa Fraser, Evan Medd, Hannah Meyers, Brian Postalian, Pascal Reiners, Amanda Sum, Meagan Woods, Montserrat Videla. Dramaturgy by Evan Medd. Scenography by Christian Ching. Sound Design by Stefan Nazarevich and Liam Carsley. Stage Management by Laura Coons. Technical Direction by Kevin Kiju Kim and Mandeep Sunnerd. Read more about the show HERE.
Picture this. Four friends, a little drunk on Howe Island, sanitizing their hands to toss copies of new Canadian scripts over a bonfire. They haven’t seen each other in nearly six months. This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.
These new Canadian scripts are a part of Plays2Perform@Home, created by BC-based Boca del Lupo as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing recommendations that followed. Sold as a scripted “boutique box set,” P2P@H features four new works by Canadian playwrights, divided into separate books by character, and mailed directly to your house. The plays are intended to be “performed around the dinner table, picnic blanket or campfire this summer.” They ask “the audience to take a leading role in creating a piece of theatre with the close friends and family they have chosen to be a part of their “bubble.””
In the introduction to the printed scripts, Boca del Lupo Artistic Director Sherry Yoon and Artistic Producer Jay Dodge say they commissioned P2P@H to endorse the notion that “theatre is live, theatre is communion, theatre is something to be experienced together, in the flesh.” Although I resent the underlying assumption that digital arts can’t achieve ephemeral liveness and that P2P@H is, as playwright Leanne Brodie says, “an exciting counterpoint to the drive to take the performing arts online,” I appreciate that the concept and the results that follow are brilliant. With the forced six-month intermission from live performance, this boxset is exciting for theatre people and more than minimally tolerable for their bubble-mates who have been dragged into the exercise. (In one of the plays, a character description reads, “the person who least wants to read should read Symm.”)
Beyond the response to the pandemic in its performance form, P2P@H addressed the current context directly in its content. Each one of the three plays we read, Tara Beagan’s Super, Karen Hines’ Where does that blue come from? That robin’s egg blue?, and Hiro Kanagawa’s Negotiations, navigated the pandemic differently.
Tara Beagan’s Super had the players read for three supermodels stranded on a private jet, grounded because of capacity issues at the airport terminal. This was the lightest of the collection, playing with Indigenous Futurism and reframing the inequities of COVID-19 experiences by laughing at the spoiled rotten and rich. Karen Hines’ Where does that blue come from? That robin’s egg blue? peered into the cottage living room of a family dealing with the erratic behaviour of a sleepwalking child. This play says “pandemic” through the quiet reflection on what a resting space can mean for a family. When the family is tasked with writing a letter to the patriarch, lobbying to keep a cottage in the family, the play invites players to look at our surroundings with detail and intention. Whether it is actually a family cottage or a one bedroom apartment or a bonfire, many of us are intimately familiar with our homes and sheltering places. On the night we read this piece on Howe Island, the environmental references and natural setting of this piece especially resonated with our reading around the campfire. When the sleepwalking child Avery looked out the window and says, “I love it here” (I played her), the campfire players were quiet for a moment to listen to the cicadas and look at the moonlight on the meadow.
Hiro Kanagawa’s Negotiations asked players to participate in a formal exercise that kept very true to the realities of the pandemic. By playing characters that may or may not be themselves, readers are to negotiate taking their masks off, then to get a bit closer, and eventually to touch. This was definitely the most participatory of the set, inviting readers to fully put the script down and actually negotiate these boundaries. The similarities to everyday negotiations were poignant.
Besides the pandemic realities, this collection facilitated “upsurges of the real” through the space it provided readers to be themselves. We were only asked to participate in ways we felt comfortable. We were handed these four plays and were invited to embody them however we wanted and wherever we were. You could tell both in content and form they were directly responding to realities felt right here, right now. In her introduction to Jovanni Sy’s Pappadum, playwright Leanne Brodie says “think of this text as a little artistic sourdough starter… a gift from our bubble to yours.”
In this research project, Jenn and I argue that the works we are interested in are “co-created” by artists and the participatory audiences they invite into the fold. Sometimes, when I explain the project to people I tell them that these participatory pieces wouldn’t exist at all without the creative input of their audiences. Although in the book, Jenn and I argue that this is always the case anyway, the remarkable thing that happens in P2P@H is that the work has been emancipated from the team of artists to be inhabited more-or-less autonomously by the audience participants. It’s given to us like a gift. A little play (in both senses of the world) for us, handed right to us. Besides the playwright as artist providing the blueprint or the recipe (the script), the other artists we recognize as part of play-making (the directors, the actors, the designers) artists are not involved in the active co-creation of meaning here. Besides the play itself, the character descriptions, and the stage directions, participants are on their own, creating an entirely new relationship between artist and audience participants and a potential restructuring of the roles involved. It reminds me a bit of the ‘self-checkouts’ that have appeared at the grocery store. The role of cashier has been repurposed, but the store still can’t stock itself.
So - if the actors and set designers and directors aren’t involved in the co-creation of meaning, who’s doing that work instead?
Us. Why? In the same way that each piece touched on the pandemic in content and form as a microcosm, the whole exercise tailor made for our needs, right now. What do we need? Physical Togetherness. Easy, unprecious, physically present togetherness. Like Michael Wheeler posed on twitter, it isn't liveness that we're missing, it's something else.
P2P@H as an exercise needn’t be seen as a substitute for theatre, it is theatre specific to this moment. It makes space for a kind of embodied kinship that some traditional theatre doesn’t always allow for. I think felt more “gathered” in this group of four around a fire than I would in a room with a bunch of folks sitting, quiet, in the dark. In this case, the participatory turn feels like a hand extended to me in this moment. If we participate in this exercise, P2P@H promises a physically present togetherness fix that isn’t possible in a pandemic.
It also needn’t be seen as a substitute for digital theatre because they’re achieving different means. While both P2P@H and digital theatre can be live, P2P@H offers us good old fashioned physically present togetherness and gathering.
Audiences are well acquainted with the meal that comes out of the bourgeois theatre recipe: we pay $30 for a ticket, sit in the dark, and in return we are collectively moved, challenged, entertained and inspired by a live performance.
New questions about this exchange come into play in the context of participatory works.
Because many of the artists we’re musing over in the play/PLAY project are asking more of their participants in reception, shouldn’t participants get more in this exchange? If artists need my audience labour to co-create this piece, what do audiences get in return? Am I paying $25 to make your show with you? What are the expectations, on both sides, of this exchange?
Before the pandemic, participatory artists were already manipulating this exchange, giving tangible and intangible offerings to their participants in exchange for additional audience labour. Good Thing Collective’s Good Things to Do offered a meaningful demo in self care in exchange for a crowdsourced list of good things to do. Lost Together gave you a craft as a tangible memory of something you lost if you were vulnerable enough to share. Bonjour Hi paid participants real money if you made them sandwiches or folded their socks. In B-Side, if you placed a lemon, you got lemonade.
However, amidst the pandemic, these tangible offerings are harder to extend across the fourth wall. It’s harder to give and harder to get.
So what if instead, the artist offers me love? Not the abstract kind of love that I may feel from my seat in witnessing a bourgeois play or actual money like in Bonjour Hi, but actual personalized love. A real gift from them to me, specifically.
In the wake of the pandemic, many participatory artists are centering on this different kind of gift giving. These are not substantial or material gifts, but small, personalized, tailor-made moments of intense and genuine intimacy (in form and content) between participant and artist. “I see you.” “I love you.” “This is for you.” Me, specifically.
In Convergence Theatre’s pandemic phone-play series The Corona Variations, each of the short plays ended with an actual exchange of “I love you” between performers or between participants and performers. In some instances, as a listener, you’re a fly on a wall listening to two actors mend a dispute. Sometimes, like in a vignette by clowns Morro and Jasp, artists reach through the phone to say “I love you Mariah”.
Like The Corona Variations, many of the live participatory performances we have witnessed during the pandemic dramaturgically manipulate this exchange as a gift of individualized love. In order to give real personalized love, these artists use various techniques to build a genuine one-on-one relationship with participants. They get to know the participants by asking for autobiographical details. They tell secrets of their own before they ask participants for theirs. Many performances up the intimacy level by using the phone. Without a face-to-face visual, the voice is very intimate. A phone call isn’t spatialized as much as it’s embodied. It’s so close to your body it’s in your mind. These dramaturgical techniques build relationships that leave space for giving and receiving an actual gift.
In early May, I brought this sensibility to my own work as a site-specific theatre maker in a new piece by Cellar Door Project called To You. Created with Laura Chaignon and Kay Kenney, To You is a surprise birthday party disguised as a pop-up porch performance piece. We picked twenty households in the neighbourhood that we wanted to love bomb and we showed up on their porch to throw them a surprise party. We offered a pothos plant as a gift. We made cupcakes that we offered to participants but then ate them ourselves instead (#pandemicproblems). We danced to Whitney Houston together. Each performance began with a personalized story of the first time I (as Mariah) met the participant in real life. We relied on pre-existing relationships to build a more intimate relationship within the piece because in order to really give a good gift, you need to know the person receiving the gift. Although the driveway was a less intimate space than a phone call, embarrassing yourself on your street dancing to Whitney with a real friend is a real vulnerable moment.
In Outside the March’s episodic phone play Mundane Mysteries, the artists build this friendship from scratch. In the first phone call from the Ministry of Mundane Mysteries, your “inspector” asks you a series of random questions to get to know you before they solve your mystery. Besides the week of silly and playful antics, at the end of the experience, they too offer listeners a personalized gift.
For some context, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a real firebrand when it comes to dismantling patriarchal power structures. I told my inspector this off the top.
At the end of the final episode of the phone play, after she had solved my mystery, my inspector told me she found herself questioning the system she was working within. She wanted to imagine a Ministry that was run entirely by women. I asked her if she was an anarchist and she laughed. This final dramaturgical push towards the radical feminist agenda really solidified this feeling that this show was made...specifically for me. The show used my dialogue to fill-in-the-blanks like mad libs, but it also thematically intertwined with my own politics. At the end of the phone call, she thanked me for empowering her. Cue serious warm fuzzy feeling.
When Erin Hurley charts out the path from affect to mood to emotion to feeling in her book Theatre & Feeling, she says “emotions are relational: fear lies between the person and the bear.” Although physical distancing forcibly inserts uncrossable distance between participants and “the bear” (the art or the artist), these meaningful, personal and individualized gifts of love cross the space between. Although intangible, these artists are offering intensely personalized and genuine love notes in return for playing along. Like Hurley says, “feelings are stimulus responses and that they extend our perception beyond our own body and it's situation” and in this case, connecting us to a greater community that is apart, but together. Pandemic quarantine places strict limits on our body and its situation so feeling special and signalled out and loved is a gift.
#ThrowBackThursday. We decided that as interesting and all-consuming as the current pandemic moment is, the play/PLAY blog cannot be always mired in the present. And so, this post looks back to a play that I saw and wrote about in February. It is an example of one of the entries that we imagine will comprise the book in progress. The words that are in ALL CAPS indicate a page-flipping link to another (as yet unpublished) entry.
If (following our core thesis) participation is always about participation, what is the role of participation in bluemouth inc.’s Café Sarajevo? Presented in a black box studio space in Toronto’s Theatre Centre, the play is framed as a live recording of a podcast. Company member Lucy Simic, who is the daughter of a Bosnian-born Croatian, is being interviewed about her experiences during a visit to Sarajevo in 2016, twenty years after the end of the civil war that held the city under lethal years-long siege by snipers. The cast and all audience members wear bluetooth headphones for the entire show through which we hear the mic’d dialogue as well as background scoring and other sound effects. Gloria, the stage manager cues the beginning of each scene recording, counting down the beats until we are ‘on air’ with “four,” “three,” switching to silent hand gestures “two,” and “one.” The podcast situation centres narrative storytelling and alleviates any need or expectation for realistic scenography or indeed for any scenography at all. Freed from visual mimesis, space is created for audience members to be recruited as unrehearsed voice-actors. About eight audience members (chosen during the pre-show) have been given lanyards with name tags. At intervals, they read from scripts on music stands, performing dialogue in partnership with the members of the company. One is the announcer who reads the sponsorship credits at the top of the podcast. Others are locals met in Sarajevo-- including guides Dino, Samara, and Jasmin. Through this collaboration, we populate Lucy’s story, bringing it into our bodies. A curious effect of this kind of selective participation is that even though not every audience member speaks, those who do become our PROXIES. Having come out of the audience mass, they are of us. We feel through them and with them differently than we do the actors. Something similar happens when four audience members become soccer players representing England and Croatia in the FIFA World Cup. The rest of us standing shoulder to shoulder, our toes outlining a large white rectangle taped on the floor, are both the watching crowd and the game boundary. We use our feet to keep the ball in play, tapping it if it rolls near. The enthusiasm of the players is infectious and the audience group becomes energized. When the ensuing fireworks cause the cast members (and with them the audience soccer players who mimic them) to drop to the floor covering and cowering as if sheltering from explosions, we are immediately sobered. The abrupt plummet from our adrenaline high is stunning. It is a powerful effect born out of our proxy participation.
Another participatory feature of the performance-as-podcast is that the audience of about forty or so is entirely mobile. For each “scene” of the podcast, we arrange ourselves. Some people stand or lean on the walls, some sit on the floor closest to the actors. There are portable plastic stools. Then in the “off air” breaks between scenes, we are hastily herded into a new configuration elsewhere in the space. With each scene, we navigate and negotiate to find a space and a view. In addition to the live action, we are also given “cardboards.” These are handheld personal virtual reality viewers; little boxes with screens that we hold up to our faces. Inside are images of Lucy and Steven on their trip--on the steps of their apartment in Brooklyn, at Lucy’s mother’s house in Porec, driving down the road to Sarajevo, sitting in a café. We tilt our heads up and down. We turn around. Elbows akimbo we blindly bump, apologizing, into our neighbours. It strikes me that this exploratory combination of ASYMMETRY of our point-of-view positioning in relation to the actors and the accidental, but oh-so-polite incursions we make on each other as we continually shift shapes my understanding of Café Sarajevo.
The podcast-within-the-play overtly presents its key question: “What causes people to divide? Are these divisions part of our nature? Or is it something else?” In the early days of the Trump administration in the US, we are invited to “tackle the question of why that sense of togetherness feels necessary, even urgent.” In a telling scene, Lucy is discomfited when ordering coffee in a Sarajevo cafe, she calls it “Turkish coffee” when the guide Dino calls it “Bosnian coffee.” Lucy is unsure if she is presenting as simply naive or whether she has revealed some kind of unintended political bias and Dino is now judging her. Something similar happens in a conversation with Samara who deflects Lucy’s questions about Muslim tourists in Sarajevo. Samara says, “It is no longer appropriate to ask a Sarajevan what religion they observe. Or our nationality. If someone asks us, we just smile and say we are Sarajevan.” In the closing moments of the play, we return to a video from the beginning--a televised debate from 1971 between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. In this clip, Chomsky makes the point that power doesn’t imply justice or correctness and therefore it may be necessary to stage acts of civil disobedience to prevent the state from perpetrating criminal acts. Specifically in the context of the Vietnam War, his point is that illegal acts in support of anti-war views are right and proper. What, therefore, would constitute civil disobedience in the context of the Sarajevan civil war narrowly or more generally in the current divisive moment in US politics? How does civil disobedience counter sectarianism? The answer, the play suggests, lies in eschewing revenge and blame and embracing a kind of radical forgiveness; offering forgiveness even for the unforgivable.
And this is where the participatory dramaturgy of Café Sarajevo neatly underscores this point, bringing the play’s understanding into our bodies. Audience proxies create affectionate bonds between strangers as the volunteer-actors are valued as “one of us.” Regardless of how they perform and independent of any specific personal characteristics, simply by virtue of being a proxy performer, that person stands in for the group as a whole, and we endorse them. Likewise, the mobile, closely-packed, bumper-car audience, isolated by our headphones and (at times) our VR viewers, is constantly engaged in negotiation for sight lines. We are far from sectarian violence to be sure, but in this very gentle way, through proximal and social INTIMACY, we are reminded that we are in this together and need to find ways to share the space and accommodate everyone. Engaged in participatory co-creation, we are all Café Sarajevans.
Let’s start with acknowledging my privilege. I am living in a spacious one bedroom home with my best friend, a very amenable kitten, lots of food, and strong support systems if things get really scary. Because of this privilege, like many other people, I’ve had a multitude of feelings these past three weeks that I have spent inside. Some I am proud of, others not so much. I am anxious, whiny, bored, experiencing “flu-like symptoms,” tired, sad, worried for my loved ones, overwhelmed with check-ins, yearning for more check-ins and also . . . curious about what’s next.
Mainly, I think I am experiencing two things. The first, is grief. For tragedy and death, for suffering, for those who have loved ones far away, and for my recently unemployed friends.
This week, a mentor of mine suggested I apply to my PhD ASAP because the performing arts ecology is about to be truly rocked. I don’t disagree. In a recent Toronto Star article, it is predicted that theatres in Toronto are about to lose a devastating $500 million in ticket sales this spring. I am worried for many of these companies and festivals across the country that form the bedrock of the Canadian theatre community. I deeply admire and respect many of the leaders of these organizations and believe in many of their mandates. I will say though, I am more worried for the people inside them than I am for the institutions themselves.
Which brings me to the second thing I’m feeling. Curiosity? If you know me, then you know that in my opinion, capitalist systems need to GO. I am curious (and maybe even stoked) about what could replace neoliberalism and capitalist greed. (Aside: That said, fracking, pipelines, and land theft are still considered “essential work” in this country).
In a YouTube video that surfaced in mid-March called Coronavirus Capitalism, economist Naomi Klein talked about two routes that American economy could take during the next few weeks. The first route is a bail-out of major industries like hospitality, tourism, airline, big business, oil and gas -- industries that can be detrimental to the climate crisis and the disenfranchised. The second route though, is an investment in clean industries and Green New Deal. Two options: We could save industries of the last century, or we could try something new.
If we apply this perspective to Canadian performing arts economy, the question arises: Are some of these major theatre institutions “industries of the last century?” For better or for worse, they certainly rely on capitalist structures (subscriber bases, huge corporate donors, endowments, land ownership, etc) to survive. Brick and mortar institutions that have been around since the 1970s rely upon systems that have been in play since the 1970s to exist. Although this makes me uncomfortable to write, I’m more interested in investing in the “Green New Deal” of theatre than I am of saving capitalist institutions that have remained largely unchanged for 25+ years. Now that the capitalist systems they rely on have been put on hold, what are we making room for?
When I think about the future of the live arts, I am grieving but I am also . . . curious. We’ll think of something? It might take us a while. In the same way I hope that capitalism topples in favour of something else, I’m hoping we don’t resurrect old institutions before we invest and imagine an entirely new phenomenon.
I am not advocating for a shift entirely to the digital. The act of gathering live will remain paramount. In the likely case that this won’t blow over any time soon, people trapped in quarantine will be craving liveness and community and gathering more than ever. We are already seeing this with balcony singalongs and group fitness classes. Folks around the world are applauding for health care workers at a specified time each day.
Like the scheduled applause, the act of social distancing is one of the most global acts of participation in history. We won’t call it art but many people are certainly taking part. Participation works best when everyone is doing it. All you have to do is play along. Sometimes it’s scary and confusing, but it’s often for good. One billion people for common good. That is participatory work.
Because of this participatory effort in play over the last two weeks, I am unsurprised that Canadian artists who make participatory work are the first to begin to experiment with producing work right now - Outside the March, DLT, Convergence and Theatre Replacement had all announced new projects within a week of Ontario declaring a state of emergency. After all, these artists were already experimenting with the relationship between the audience and the art in their work. Theatre Replacement’s Bioboxes happened inches away from your nose. DLT’s The Stranger happened two steps behind the actor. Proximity is just another kind of distance. Suddenly these artists are working to connect and communicate from as far away as possible. How can we be close when we’re really far away?
So far, this work is lo-fi. Because many artists are being forced to adapt their practises quickly, the aesthetic is not precious. It’s raw and intimate. It’s your cat walking across your Zoom call. It’s talking over each other and audio that cuts in and out. There is no rehearsal. That’s what excites me. It’s entirely uncharted territory. Less of a rebirth and more of an emergent phenomenon. If systems we once relied upon (like capitalism and gathering in groups) have been disrupted, I guess we have to get creative. Sometimes, we have to make something with nothing. I don't think it's right to patronize digital work as "quantity over quality". Everyone is trying.
To be clear, in my opinion, this is not a crisis-tunity. This is a terrible thing that will make something new. To move forward we’re going to have to grieve but also we’re going to have to (eventually) pick ourselves up, innovate, and make new work for this new world.
J: Here we go. I’ve been thinking about our initial question: What does participation look like in the age of coronavirus? One thought is. . . you know. . . that it’s over. That participatory theatre is now essentially dead or has been damaged in some way that it will not recover. That’s a very apocalyptic view. But this is a really transformative moment and the kind of intimate community gathering that we were seeing in some of these shows: touching strangers, packing in together closely in small spaces, maybe that is now suddenly just . . . done.
M: When we did the show at the Grad Club last week, at first the show was about activism and then when we did the show on Friday, just as the quarantine restrictions were starting . . . everything changed. This show was now about the importance of gathering together. The lines didn’t resonate the same way. After the show people came up to us saying, “Thank you.” It was like the end of the world. It was like the last time we were gonna gather. I think you’re right, that’s it’s over and also that it was sacred. I think this is gonna change all theatre and all live arts, like you said, specifically the forms that we’re interested in.
J: I don’t think it does harm to our project, though. In fact, I think it makes the project wistfully, sadly, really relevant. There was this moment, this thing was happening.
M: In retrospect, it feels sacred. The thing we have lost.
J: Sacred. And we have already seen and collected a lot of the work of that moment. We have enough data that if we didn’t see any more shows we could continue. It would be like a historical book. Which is kind of weird. But still ok I think? I think we should try and do exactly what you understood when the Grad Club show changed its mood. We should think through what that kind of work meant, which we can now see more clearly now that it’s gone.
M: You said your first thought is: “It’s over. It’s dead.” I’m curious about what the second thought is.
J: Oh the second thought is. . .well a couple of other thoughts. . . but the second thought is: What fills the gap in the short term? The impulse to participate doesn’t go away. The same founding circumstances we identified are still relevant. We still live in a Web 2.0 world. We still live in the Anthropocene. Those drivers still exist. So then what does participation look like if we’re not present in body?
M: A few weeks ago we talked about the definition of participation as taking part. For the past few days I’ve been obsessed with the arts and culture response. And the notion of taking part. Now, we are taking part with such a bigger group. Because . . . the internet. When my roommate and I did Choir!Choir!Choir! online last night, both of us were weeping because these were songs we had just sung with C!C!C! at the Isabel last June. This time, nine thousand people tuned in online. It was a cool triple lens of “wow participation is over” but “wow it’s beautiful it happened” and also “wondering what’s going to fill the gap.” When we’re participating in a kind of recreation of a gathering, I can see both “this is a new gathering” and “I’m also happy that I did the first gathering too.” It feels like a memorial.
J: Because it is about the things we’ve lost and trying to recreate but also feeling the nostalgia. So, yes we might watch NTLive streaming but we’re not just watching it as a standalone artifact, we’re watching it as nostalgia for live theatre.
M: Yes! Exactly! And I even felt that last night, I felt amazement and nostalgia at the same time. Like “Wow the internet is amazing!” but also "remember when this was real life?”
J: Yeah. So I think that’s really interesting. It will be really interesting to track how live arts industry will try to fill the gap. We’re already seeing some livestreaming. I saw Theatre Replacement is going to stream MINE tomorrow night. Um, so there’s that, C!C!C!, so I think we should just track those things. Starting with this moment of cancelling everything. The cancellation of live is first.
M: Oh yeah, new catalyst. New epoch. As of three days ago, every theatre in this country cancelled things. But you’re right, some new things have popped up. But we still have a different nut to crack. Or I guess the same nut to crack. Artists have to figure out how to actually interact without live presence. Last night with C!C!C!, the reach was very obvious, the warmth of understanding there are many people across the country doing this, that was very obvious, but interactivity still felt near impossible.
J: Could you see or hear other people or you just knew they were there?
M: You knew they were there. But we couldn’t interact. The C!C!C! dudes were trying to keep up saying, “Oh, hi Ann from Sault Ste. Marie” or “Oh you wanna hear this song?” but you couldn’t feel interactivity.
J: And also the joy of C!C!C! is all of the voices rising together. What’s that term I learned in first year psychology? Psychic effervescence? That’s why we sing together in religious settings because voices rising together . . . there’s something in it that’s moving.
M: And that kind of work had to happen in imagination last night with C!C!C! There were a few songs, like classic songs, that they would stop playing and say “your turn” and then they would be quiet on the stream for a second.
J: Oh wow.
M: And Laura and I were singing in our apartment and I could feel the work of this effervescence but it had to happen in my brain. It still happened though! I still got chills thinking . . . how many people are doing exactly what we’re doing right now. But that was an imaginary work instead of a felt thing in real life.
J: So the other thing that struck me, apart from wondering about the response of the arts and culture industry, is that through social distancing, self isolation, the mass migration of everybody “home” over the last few days, we have witnessed a huge act of global participation.
M: That’s true! And social distancing doesn’t work unless everybody does it.
J: Right. So we’ve been talking about democracy as our big example of participation but this is it.
M:I also just reread your draft entry on emergence for the book in progress and one of the things that struck me is how emergence relates to theatre participation versus how it relates to the biological functions where it appears is that these kinds of pattern shifts take a lot of time. In order to actually make a new pattern of movement it takes . . . duration?
J: Either duration or many many iterations.
M: At the same time?
J: Like an algorithm that runs really really quickly has many many many repeats so it is time dependent but sped up.
M: So then . . . I feel like this global quarantine moment is the closest that I can fully understand to this being an emergent behaviour.
J: Right yes, I think so. Because something different will come out.
M: It’s not about returning to normal. It’s exactly what you talked about in that entry about how complexity emerges.
J: Right at the end of that article I talk about phase change? I think this is phase change. You know, it’s like we’ve suddenly dropped the temperature and as humans our behaviour is still the same, but because of the phase change we’ve produced some kind of different thing. Like turning water into ice. And I think the reason we can consider this to be an emergent phenomenon, which is exactly what that entry is trying to get at, is scale. Just massive, massive scale. I don’t know, a billion people are participating in social distancing? That makes a new phenomenon, it makes . . . something. I don’t want to call it art, but it is a participatory experience.
M: Can we think of any other times besides epidemics or pandemics where like a full global shift happened? War?
J: War, yes.. Maybe at the next level down from that . . . watching the Olympics? What other phenomenon gets millions of people to do the same thing? Millions and millions of people travelled home and then stayed home. And so now all of us are in our little home pockets.
M: Speaking of that, capitalism is a big hurdle to overcome with this major global ask: Stay at home. Don’t work. Don’t go anywhere. I feel like everyone’s act of staying home is an acknowledgment that all of the systems are going to change now.
J: There is something in that. We’ve said this before, you can’t participate alone. So here is a thought: Even though we’ve been saying that participation is imbricated in neoliberalism and individualist entrepreneurial capitalist thinking, participation also resonates with socialism because it’s collective. You have to be with other people, you have to be in sync with other people in order to participate.
M: All of this just keeps bringing me back to the same question. What does art look like that only exists within these new circumstances? Social distancing I mean. These new circumstances are not a glitch but a feature. It’s not about how we’ll do the things we’ve done in a new way, it’s about doing a new thing. And like I said, maybe it’s because I am an artist and maybe it’s because I am positioned in a way that my next two projects can allow for social distancing. One of them is foldA. This is going to be a huge year for SpiderWebShow and foldA.
J: This is a huge moment for foldA.
M: Is it ever. The festival is perfectly positioned to ask the critical questions of this moment. What can we do because we have these digital and virtual tools? What does participation and gathering look like without presence? Or what does your digital body do? It’s a totally different reframed question. The pandemic is going to really change lots of sectors but really really change the live art sector for sure.
J: And I think this is where we do have a big chasm now in our work. We will have to treat some of it as historical. We’ve encountered now a hard stop. England, 1642. The theatres are closed. Period. Now what?
M: We’re positioned in a network of a lot of artists who . . . Like Landline! Landline could still happen almost exactly as it happened.
J: Oh sure. You don’t have to meet. You get to walk. Walking is still good, you can walk outside.
M: It’s almost like there was a cohort of artists that were preparing for this! I’m surrounded by fear and anxiety from some artists, and optimism from others. Or at least an acknowledgement of change. It doesn’t feel like the end of something but . . . it sounds so corny but this is the start of something . . . else? It reminds me of everything you said about CdnStudio. CdnStudio didn’t work if you tried to rehearse a well-made play in CdnStudio. BUT if you embrace the glitch and the delay and the mess of it you’re going to make something new that requires it to exist. That’s kind of how I feel about many of the artists that we think about . . I don’t feel as worried for them as I do feel for the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival.
J: I agree with you. I think a lot of the artists that we’ve been working with are going to jump the gap.
M: I think so too.
J: I made a list the other day about which plays we’ve collected - exactly what you said about Landline - which plays we’ve collected could go ahead as is, more or less. Archive of Missing Things, totally. Landline. Even something like Zuppa Theatre Co's This is Nowhere, even though there are live scenes interspersed, they could be video they could be . . . there are other ways to do that. The main mechanism of This Is Nowhere, the scavenger hunt walk bit is still good. I mean some things yes, some things no. That’s what is interesting about this. Now we have maybe a different categorization of participation?
M: Like pre and post.
J: Pre and post. Or there’s the bodily kind and there’s a non-bodily kind. Or there is the interpersonal kind or interpersonal presence. I will have to think more of this but I think there is a new category that we haven’t considered. And what is the vision?
M: I think in the next few weeks it will be a slightly clumsy adjustment of doing traditional theatre on the internet. Let’s livestream it! It might be a little clumsy. Then I think in six months there will be a whole new birth of kinds of live performance that can only exist with distance.
J: I think you’re absolutely right. Because people are so responsive, people are adaptive, people are imaginative. Things will change.
M: I do wonder how the feedback loop will work.
J: How does the feedback loop work when it’s not just talking together? I’m thinking about Lost Together, how do you hand over the artifact? How do you give something across that space, now that there is a space. How do you pass the input back and forth and digital is one way. Maybe we’ll see mail? Maybe we’ll see like . . .phone in radio shows? Maybe they’ll be . . . I don’t know.
M: Well this is a good segue! Did you see what Daniele from DLT announced online?
M: Theatre on Call. He is organizing a group of artists to do a phone theatre festival. He’s thinking about how we bridge this distance. All of the art we’re going to make is going to both acknowledge it, celebrate it, complicate it. It’s not surprising to me that an artist like Daniele, who is already experimenting with what distance means, is the first to close the gap. Because proximity is also just distance. These artists have been playing with how close someone can get . . . it’s not surprising to me that these artists are the ones that are wondering instead, how far can you get?
J: That is really really smart. I really like that idea. Ok, write that down.
M: One more thing I want to talk about on this recorded phone call. I mean podcast. I mean, blog. Whatever this is. So we’re losing bodies. Like the body magic of people . . . I mean I just re-read your Cafe Sarajevo piece and . . .
J: It’s totally about bodies and proximity and “oops I bumped into you, pardon my elbow.”.
M: Pardon my elbow, how close can we get when we kick this soccer ball. I’m curious about how artists are going to capture the interactivity. I’m also thinking about how artists are going to capture a mass of people, in a way that is more meaningful than a view counter?
J: How will we know that people are nearby?
M: I don’t know if this is my coping mechanism or because I am an artist but also because I’m a socialist probably. I know that everything is going to change and I am in a moment of being aware that this is going to get worse before it gets better. But I’m really in a moment of intrigue of what “better” is.
J: I’m really curious to see what it will be.
I first became aware of the luminous artwork of Anne Louise Avery when she started to appear on a regular basis in my Twitter feed, retweeted by a friend. Avery, who from her Twitter bio, is writer and art historian, based “mainly” in Oxford, perhaps a professor at the university there.
Each day Avery posts a tweet where she creates a short poetic vignette based on an assemblage of three images. Usually one of the images is a photograph of an animal, a fox, bear, otter, mouse, or similar. The other two images might be paintings, a landscape scene (rural or urban) or an object still life, typically but not always in a late 19th century/early 20th century fin de siècle style. In a reply to her own tweet, Avery provides citational references listing the title, creator, and provenance of the works that she has chosen. The vignettes themselves personify the animal depicted as they often pursue human activities like baking scones, serving tea, playing draughts, digging in the garden, or catching the train to London, writing in a journal. Each tweet garners upwards of 600 likes. Clearly, Avery has a devoted following.
I too followed @AnneLouiseAvery through January and February. To say the vignettes are charming does not do them justice. They are tiny evocations of joy, of melancholy, of friendship, of a kind of wistful quiet happiness. They are beautiful. I admire the craftsmanship that Avery invests in these gems. They lift my heart.
After a few weeks, it became apparent to me from some other tweets Avery interspersed with her artworks, that she was tending to a sick child in hospital, her son, not very old, the diagnosis uncertain. Then, around the end of February, Avery’s Twitter feed was inundated by dozens and dozens of tweets created by her followers that replicated (as best they could) her own poetic and visual style.
It was an outpouring of solidarity, of love from strangers, and sincere wishes for her son’s recovery and her own well-being in a time of personal crisis. Social media has often attracted this kind of spontaneous expression of community. But what struck me here as worthy of comment is that rather than just a message, Avery’s followers gave her back her own art as gifts. They collectively chose to communicate via participation as artists. They appointed themselves responsive fellow creators in her own special mode, sometimes using some of her own characters and mimicking her voice, as an homage to what she and the work mean to them.
What is remarkable is that this art became participatory. It was not participatory from the outset. It evolved. Social media created the basic conditions of possibility, first for Avery to share her visual poems with hundreds of strangers, and second for that community of readers to cohere with a common mission, themselves becoming artists of affectionate reflection. In Twitter parlance, “this is the content I’m here for.”
As a self-identified nut for participatory and immersive work, I am floored it took me this long to see Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. Set in the sprawling McKittrick Hotel in NYC, Sleep No More is an immersive movement-based funhouse adaptation of Macbeth and in fall 2019, this research project finally afforded me the opportunity to catch one of the most commercially successful immersive performance in the world.
After dinner and drinks with a friend, I headed to Sleep No More alone. My friend refused to give me anything besides a reassurance that knowing me, I’d love it. I wasn’t afraid of going alone, I was told this was the way I should consume this piece anyways.
When I enter the McKittrick Hotel, I am given a white mask and a playing card. While I wait for my number to be called, I am invited to purchase a cocktail. Once my number is called, I enter an elevator with twenty or so other players and I meet my first and only explicit guide.
He lays out the rules:
He then encourages players to “be bold,” and kicks us off the elevator, free to independently roam the sprawling 6 floor hotel.
I’m giddy at this point, ready to explore and happen upon a secret. I wander around some rooms, poking through drawers, dipping my hands in tepid bathtubs and daring myself to open every door I find. About fifteen minutes in, I still haven’t seen any actors.
I wander all the way to the top floor and find myself in a room that looks like a hospital ward with 12 or so beds in two rows. I notice that under one bed, there is a man doing a stylized movement sequence. I’m joined by another curious woman and because we can’t see his face or his mask, we wait and watch. He emerges from under the bed with his white audience mask on backwards revealing his face. Then he gestures for me and the woman to follow him and he slides his mask back on, concealing his face.
The adventurer in me is ecstatic. Not only have I found an actor to follow, but he’s incognito. He’s an actor, posing as an audience member. I boldly follow him around the hotel.
Myself, the incognito actor, and the other woman enter a small study. He closes the door behind us. He takes a lab coat off the wall, puts it on the shoulders of the woman I am with, and sits her in a chair. He touches the middle of her back, doubling her over her knees. This happens three more times. Then, he bolts and I run after him. For the rest of the night, I lose him and then find him again, staring at me from across the room under his audience mask. He waves at me as I chase him through crowds, up and down stairs, and into closed rooms.
Then, he blows through a door that was clearly a backstage door and because of the reaction of the folks in black, who promptly eject him back out again, it dawns on me.
This man wasn’t an actor.
Suddenly embarrassed, uncomfortable, and unsafe, I leave Sleep No More 45 minutes early. My experience was spoiled in a particularly sinister way because this audience member preyed on me when I was told to follow my nose and explore dark corners. In her book Performing Ground, Laura Levin says at her first time at Sleep No More, she was “less disconcerted by the eerie music, taxidermied animals, and bloody bodies than finding myself in a room alone with a bunch of masked men given license to do whatever they wanted” (Levin, 84). Yup. “Be bold,” the man in the elevator tells players.
I wrote to Sleep No More detailing this experience but no one got back to me. On the subreddit r/sleepnomore, there are fanatics who detail potential tracks to guarantee a one-on-one with an actor. On Gawker one can learn “How to Find All the Nudity in Sleep No More” In a Buzzfeed expose about Sleep No More, actors detail abuse they experienced from audience members during the show. It is disturbing.
Some artists we have studied categorize their work as “ambient performance,” work that exists inside a worldA that is visible and continues to turn outside of the narrative. Zuppa Theatre Co’s This is Nowhere functions this way, as an audience roams around downtown Halifax constructing a blueprint for the future. The excitement of wondering “is this part of the show” reframes and animates the regular world inside and outside of the frame, This is an exciting kind of work for a participatory audience. The audience can control how they explore, what they look for, and what trail they are following. There is an additional energy behind discovering what is intentionally constructed and what is happening IRL. However, my experience at Sleep No More also tells me that this feeling can be anxiety inducing.
When Laura Levin recounts her own experience in Sleep No More, making reference to these blurred lines between “reality and illusion” and the “explicitly sexualized” kind of “voyeurism” that the show encourages, she quotes Director Felix Barrett saying that Sleep No More tries to “‘make the audience the epicentre of the work...so they can control it’” (Levin, 83). But in this case, I was controlled by someone else.
This audience member co-opted and hacked Sleep No More to play his own game, using the free environment to craft an experience in parallel with the intentional experience of the creators. Many of the case studies that encourage ambient exploration invite this kind of choose-your-own adventure reception. Think mirror mazes, ball pits, and parks. Children often play like this by using the given circumstance of a space and inventing their own game. Grounders works exactly this way. In Sleep No More, this freedom to play means “be bold” and many aspects of the show’s design encourage, perhaps dangerously, this kind of play - masks, darkness, being alone, vast space, non-linear plots, and alcohol. Freedom fosters innovation.
This person in Sleep No More played an alternate game. This is different than opting out. “Hacks” like these are layered on top of circumstances provided by the artist. In Landline, some folks hack the performance to text their scene partner for the entirety of the experience, rather than listen to the audio prompts provided. Both Archive of Missing Things and This Is Nowhere encourage free exploration that is not limited to the explicit goals of the work.
The difference between those hacks and what I experienced in Sleep No More was interference. This man took advantage of my curiosity. He put me at risk and affected my experience. Where some work invites a kind of choose-your-own alternative adventure, this person chose my adventure for me.
Levin, Laura. Performing Ground: Space, Camouflage and the Art of Blending In. Palgrave Macmillan. 2014.
If you were to purchase a video game today, there’s a good chance you would open the case to find a disk and a promotional pamphlet. Notably absent is the rulebook, practically archaic nowadays with the prevalence of gaming culture and the perceived decrease in attention span. Who has time to read a whole book? With enough prior knowledge, the game should be easy enough to figure out as you go. Theatre similarly comes packaged without a rulebook because, of course, we already know how to play the role of the spectator. We know when to applaud, when to be silent, and most importantly, we stay in our seats.
Alexander García Düttmann remarks that “it belongs to the rules of the game of art” that one does not interfere with the stage proceedings, and there can be great comfort in accepting the ensuing action is out of our control. However, participatory theatre flips on the house lights and throws the audience a controller. It’s time to become a player. While exciting, this position is often a vulnerable one; as we shed the familiar skin of passivity in favour of agency, we are forced to question the expectations placed on us in this new role. What am I supposed to do? How can I be a “good” participant in this event? What if I do something wrong and ruin the game? The risk of embarrassment or failure often generates apprehension in would-be players. Janet H. Murray raises some parallel concerns about risk inside fictions in her book on immersive game-play, Hamlet on the Holodeck, exploring how we can “regulate the anxiety intrinsic to the form.” As she notes, “suspense, fear of abandonment, fear of lurking attackers, and fear of loss of self in the undifferentiated mass are part of the emotional landscape of the shimmering web” (135). However, we are not doomed to remain lost at sea as we navigate the murky waters of participation. Emerging to answer the outcry for help is a new theatrical role which accompanies us on our journey, gently pushes us onto a safe pathway and critically, teaches us the new rules. Enter, the guide.
Much like how Navi accompanies Link in the iconic game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the performative guide exists to ensure the success of the player. As an adaptive role that shifts in appearance and design with each show, the guide can appear in a variety of forms. This is unsurprising given the evolving nature of participatory theatre’s structure and content; however, I posit that in successful participatory performances the guide consistently surfaces to combat the player’s risk of failure. In Monday Nights, the guide appears in the form of a coach who encourages audience members to become active figures in a basketball game. The potential for embarrassment here is strong, especially with spectators who feel unathletic or uncoordinated. In this instance, the guide builds a supportive team environment that celebrates participation and minimizes risk through unconditional cheering. By eliminating insecurity, audiences can grapple with the purpose of their participation and appreciate both the value of teamwork and the bonding nature of the game.
Tape Escape, though entirely different from Monday Nights in its construction as a participatory experience, also utilizes the guide to great effect. In this video store escape room-performance hybrid, groups of players are accompanied by a store employee. As a natural guide, the employee utilizes an intimate knowledge of the space and an approachable nature to assist when necessary. With puzzle solving at the forefront of the experience, frustration and the risk of offering incorrect solutions can plague players. This poses a significant problem because the story is revealed through each solution, and as such, the performance exists in the interactions between the players and the space. Therefore, an inability to navigate the surroundings directly relates to a lack of progression in the show. Here, the guide steps in to mitigate the difficulty level by providing hints and store insight when players are struggling. Much like a real store employee would assist customers in finding DVDs and offering recommendations, the guide facilitates a meaningful experience for the players. Though the focus remains on the player’s wit and relationship to the unfolding story, the guide alleviates the appropriate amount of pressure to provide a rewarding challenge.
Although the form of the guide may change, the role is unified by the widening of theatrical directions of communication. Thinking about communication and metatheatre, Sławomir Świontek first proposed that we understand theatre through “vectors” of performance that carry information. These “meta-enunciative vectors” run perpendicular to each other; one is actor-to-actor (or character-to-character) inside the fictional world, the other crosses the so-called fourth wall, sending information to the audience. Fig. 1 demonstrates how participation modifies these “vectors” by allowing players to send information back, establishing a communication loop between actors and participants.
The guide hovers on the line between the actual world of the audience and the fictional world of the performance, which Jenn Stephenson identifies as “worldA and worldB,” respectively. In Monday Nights, we recognize the guide is a coach both within the play and the world of the audience. We already expect guidance from this figure, and so the facilitation of participation is natural. The same can be said for the store employees in Tape Escape, who offer players excellent customer service. In both cases, the guide exists and behaves exactly as one might expect in our world, while also playing a role in the evolution of the performance. The guide approaches the audience in worldA, and once a familiar relationship has been solidified, the transition into worldB becomes possible.
The key here is that the guide is not the central figure, but a role which encourages the audience to become active figures themselves. It is through this transformation, and only through this transformation that participatory performances can create the biggest experiential and dramaturgical impact. I hope that as participatory theatre continues to grow, the guide will prevent paralysis from the risk of participation by facilitating meaningful play that is equal parts entertaining and aesthetically satisfying. We all have the capacity to be players, we just need a little help to play the game.
Griztner, K., and Alexander Garcia Düttmann. (2011). “On Participation in Art.” Performance Research, vol. 16, no. 4 (2011): 136-140.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
Stephenson, Jenn. “Meta-enunciative Properties of Dramatic Dialogue: A New View of Metatheatre and the Work of Slawomir Świontek.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, vol. 21, no. 1 (2006): 115-128.
Świontek, Slawomir. Excerpts from Le Dialogue Dramatique et le Metathéâtre. Translated by Jenn Stephenson, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, vol. 21, no. 1 (2006): 129-144.
White, Gareth. Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
*This research was generated as part of a University Summer Student Research Fellowship (2019) funded by Queen’s University.