A personalized sermon on a cassette tape track, a meringue as communion, and a blessing from a Beanie Baby named ‘Goochy’: these are all things I received as an audience-participant at Holy Moly, created and performed by Jarin Schexnider . Holy Moly delves deep into Schexnider’s middle-class upbringing in Louisiana in the 1980s. This formative decade provides the context for her exploration into her relationship with what is ‘holy’ and sacred. When I entered the theatre, I was greeted by a full altar of items that were clearly important to Schexnider including a soccer ball, a number of stuffed animals, a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul, an egg cup, and a number of other trinkets, all interspersed with (fake) candles in small red containers. Schexnider arrived into the space wearing a brightly-coloured windbreaker over a 1980s bodysuit, under which were some workout shorts. They were also wearing sneakers which were important for all the movement they do over the next hour.
The show begins with Schexnider introducing herself and her family’s history. They grew up in Louisiana, with ancestors originally from Acadia who migrated south to become Cajun. It’s a story that is shared by many other folks. She then launched into a movement and dance section to upbeat remixes of 80s jazzercise audio tracks. Schexnider asked us a couple questions probing our readiness to ‘be our best selves’ and then based on the answers she gave us one of four different audio tracks via a physical tape recorder for me to plug my headphones into. The audio in my ears was a mix of Schexnider’s own voice, recordings from her childhood, and soundscapes. About a third of the way through the show, the audio track playing through my headphones invited me to stand up and explore the space. I was encouraged to move, stand, or sit wherever I liked. My track asked me to applaud for myself, and so I did. I watched a few of the other people around me begin to clap and whoop, garnering looks (more of curiosity than judgement) from the other folks in the room. I laughed out loud a few times and would hear a giggle from the person next to me a few seconds later as they reached the same joke on their track. These little shared moments created a sense of connection and shared experience, even as each of us was on our own individual journey, both literally and physically as each of us wandered the room listening to separate audio tracks through headphones, and emotionally. Even though we are separate in our own audio worlds, we collectively form the congregation for Schexnider’s personal ceremony. It is both a ritual we experience together and alone. You cannot be a congregation on your own. It is, by definition, a group experience.
As part of another ceremonial element, Schexnider approached the audience-participants with a small jellyfish stuffed animal. More specifically, it was a Beanie Baby named Goochy, its body about the size of my hand with tentacles dangling straight down below it. As she reached each of us, she shook Goochy in an arc beside my legs, torso, over my head, and then down the other side the same way. At the same time, the audio track playing in my headphones explained that I and my fellow audience members were receiving the blessing of Goochy, and to let her energy heal us. With Goochy, there is no negative energy, and I can feel healed. This section of Holy Moly is reminiscent of the sprinkling of holy water in Catholic ceremonies on the congregation during Easter. As part of Asperges, the Rite of Sprinkling, holy water is sprinkled upon the whole congregation at once with a brush or silver ball on a stick, a symbolic reminder of the more individual ceremony of baptism . Schexnider includes a lot of recognizably religious representations in this work. Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul serves as her bible. The body of Christ is a meringue instead of the (mostly flavourless) communion wafers or ‘hosts.’ This moment of sprinkling also vaguely reminds me of the practice of sound cleansing that crops up in many other faiths. The ‘csh csh csh’ of the pellets inside Goochy that weigh her down is a soothing, repetitive sound . Schexnider spends a moment like this with each audience-participant. During Mass, the congregation is sprinkled on as a collective by the presiding clergy member, as opposed to the individual ritual we see in Holy Moly, in which we are granted individual attention.
At first, I was surprised at how effective I found Goochy the Beanie Baby’s blessing. I think it was something about the repetitive motion with a satisfying sound that gave me and other audience-participants the room to breathe and just exist- almost reminiscent of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), the tingly feeling you get in your scalp and spine in response to some sort of auditory trigger . I know that breathing exercises and meditation don’t work for everyone, but I’ve found that it helps tremendously with my own anxieties, so when I was encouraged to take this quiet moment to focus on nothing but Goochy and the positive energy she was bringing, I did exactly that. I keep a lot of my stress in my shoulders and back, and after the blessing I felt those tensions relax. I did some deep breathing, and my heart rate slowed. Visualising that energy transfer while feeling the physical presence of the leader of this ceremony right beside me really helped make it so effective. Schexnider asked me to let Goochy’s energy heal me, and I felt healed. Take this moment out of its context and it becomes completely ridiculous. Shaking a Beanie Baby around my head and torso made me feel at peace? Really? But Schexnider told me this was a sacred moment, and so it was. I felt quite moved by it, and as I watched each of my fellow audience participants have a similar moment, I watched them be moved as well. Devoting time, a hugely precious resource in theatre, to each of the participants makes us feel special. We all crave that sense of care and connection. Schexnider spends so much of this show caring for her audience members so deeply and genuinely. Sometimes when a show spends a moment with just me, that one-on-one attention can feel like I’ve been put on the spot and become stressful and almost embarrassing. In Holy Moly, I never felt that way. Through my audio track I was able to engage and participate in the ceremony, without feeling the need to perform. Schexnider and my fellow audience-congregants felt supportive and open, and I returned that feeling when it was their turn to receive Goochy’s blessing.
This show was very open with its invitation. I could get up and dance, or not. I could receive the body of the egg (aka a meringue) or a blessing or simply return to my seat. The option to refuse was baked into its structure. I knew that if I had chosen to say ‘no, thank you’ at any point, there would have been no judgement from Schexnider or the other audience-participants. Schexnider began the show by propping open one of the doors to the theatre space and saying ‘That door? Always open.’ I’ve been to a lot of shows that try to have an exit like this, but it doesn’t always work. If I have to cross in front of a huge crowd as everyone watches me walk out and wonder why I felt the need to leave, it’s not a particularly safe exit. Coming back in is almost worse. I’ve already disrupted everything once and now I’m back to shuffle past and whisper ‘sorry!’ Holy Moly made that option to opt out feel like a viable choice instead of just something they had to stick in at the last minute as an afterthought. Audience safety is clearly a priority. This show was not a conventional performance on a stage for an audience. We as a congregation were there to engage in these rituals and receive blessings. There was no win-condition or even a specific goal we were trying to accomplish. I can’t ‘fail’ a ceremony like I could an escape room or game. The theatre space had been made sacred, and therefore there was a genuine feeling of safety that is often difficult to manufacture in traditional theatre settings. This ceremony worked because of its genuine nature. Holy Moly used these familiar symbols from Catholicism not to belittle those who still practice, but to recognize the power that they have. Schexnider ensured that this was a space that was safe for all audience-congregants to engage in these themes. In his book Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation Gareth White says that ”[t]o expose unconsidered thoughts or emotions in a semi-public space is risky, just as it is to display incompetence, inappropriate enthusiasm, neediness, distress or loss of poise.” . As part of the congregation, I am not on display or part of the ‘performance’. I don’t feel that risk to myself and my reputation that often comes with this participatory theatre. My participation is not part of the spectacle or integral to the show. If I choose to refuse or opt-out of any aspect of this piece/ceremony, it will go on without me and there is no risk of letting down my fellow audience-congregates or embarrassing myself.
In Holy Moly, I was a congregant at a service of the Church of Jarin. As congregants-audience participants, we spent the hour-long service/show engaging with Schexnider’s own relationship with ceremony in order to better understand our own connection to it. I was engaging and participating in practices that were sacred to her. This ceremony was a healing ceremony for Jarin that I was invited into as part of my own journey to, as she phrases it, “be my best self.” Schexnider encourages us to confront and examine what that best self looks like and use the show as a guide and prompt to think more deeply. Rituals, by definition, are a series of actions that have prescribed significance. All of the audience-congregants have agreed to engage in these rituals that, by themselves, are meaningless. But because we as a collective have agreed together that these actions have meaning, there is no risk of judgement as we engage with them.
What do I take away from Holy Moly? Schexnider has created a ceremony out of holy moments from her own life. I was moved in my participation in her autobiography of holiness, but I’ve also been given a pattern to apply to my own life. Holy Moly reminds me not to take for granted the small moments of ‘holiness’ I can choose to find in the mundane, and to not disregard them no matter how silly they might seem at first glance. If I can find a moment of joy and peace looking at some sparkly dice, great! Taking the time to really enjoy and appreciate my morning cinnamon roll from the local coffee shop can be spiritual if I want it to be. These objects and actions have become more than just generally beautiful or enjoyable; I have the power to ascribe deeper significance to these moments for myself. Going to sit in the coffeeshop and beginning my day with a chai and a cinnamon roll has become a ritual for me; it puts me in a mindset where I am ready to read, write, and work for the rest of the day. It is comforting, but also a sort of ceremony. I am ‘performing’ a series of actions that I’ve prescribed for myself to better prepare me for the work ahead. Religious ceremonies prepare you for the spiritual and emotional labour you will go on to do. They are enacted reminders of what is important and that life has meaning. I might feel that my work is perhaps not so grand-–it’s not flashy to look at and the results are not immediately world-changing— but through ceremony I can assert that it is no less valuable.
 Schexnider, Jarin. Holy Moly. rEvolver Festival, 29 May 2022, Vancouver, British Columbia.
 McNamara, Edward. “Rite of Sprinkling with Holy Water.” External World Television Network, 13 February 2007, https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/rite-of-sprinkling-with-holy-water-4358.
 Ward, Kerry. “Fact: You can totally Cleanse Your Space With Sound.” Cosmopolitan Magazine, 9 June 2020, https://www.cosmopolitan.com/lifestyle/a32800580/sound-cleansing-home/.
 Lopez, German. “ASMR , explained: why millions of people are watching YouTube videos of someone whispering.” Vox.com, 25 May 2018 https://www.vox.com/2015/7/15/8965393/asmr-video-youtube-autonomous-sensory-meridian-response.
 White, Gareth. Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. pg 76.
#ThrowBackThursday. This post looks back to a live work made by SpiderWebShow’s Adrienne Wong and Mo Horner, Kevin Kerr, and Elki! Although this piece was made a few years back, it acutely speaks to a participatory dramaturgy as a rehearsal and creation technique.
Made for the 2019 edition of Theatre Skam’s “Skampede,” Crowd Source is a participatory spoof on a tech demo set in the woods on the Galloping Goose trail in Victoria, BC. I joined artists Adrienne Wong and Kevin Kerr to co-create this piece that aims to imbue participants with a “refreshed” gestural memory by re-embodying classic tech gestures in nature and unplugged. Crowd Source is framed as a cheeky beta-test of new technologies, heavily featuring puns about Twitter feed (bird food), livestream platforms (a bridge over a slow moving ravine), and reboots for a better signal (switching rainboots). The intention was a recognition of the body-as-device and a recognition of the potential that device has to connect with others. In order to beta-test this potential for connection, we needed our participants to volunteer their body-devices for a system upgrade.
After we led Crowd Source participants to our “livestream platform,” we invited them to close their eyes as we put on their “VR headsets.” We offered a brief head massage to everyone that gave us permission to do so, then, with nothing on their heads but the tangible memory of a soft massage, we invited participants to open their eyes to take in the Virtual Reality Experience we created just for them. We asked participants to touch their arms and legs, feel their virtual bodies, and notice the detailed stitching of the natural, “virtual” world. We then asked the participants to pick up a “plug-in” (a leaf, free downloads . . . anywhere in the woods) and begin to scroll through their device, imagining what it is they are looking for right now. If permissions were on and the device was set for sharing, they could even scroll through their neighbours’ devices. Finally, we asked the participants to “pair up” for a tethered application offered with the new install. Once they partnered up, participants were asked to focus on their partner’s camera lenses (their eyes) and try to see their own reflection in the lens. Once they found that reflection, participants were instructed not to move for at least 30 seconds so the image could be saved to their hard drive.
The piece actively sought an experience of defamiliarization or ostranenie, making the familiar unfamiliar to take extra notice of the characteristics that define an object, gesture, or experience. Crowd Source recalibrates our gestural relationship to our devices by asking participants to embody tech gestures with an ecological bent. By “scrolling” on a leaf or “focusing” on the eyes of a stranger, participants take notice of how gestural memory of technology exists in the body, this time emancipated from the objects the gestures usually populate. Next time participants aimlessly scroll through Facebook, perhaps they will remember the feeling of the leaf on their fingers. With an escalating level of intimacy, we invited audiences to engage with their bodies and physically interact with their neighbours to inspire a reboot in thinking about how we engage with technology through gestural memory.
In addition to this being a performance about fictional beta-testing technology, it is itself a beta. And like a true beta-test, Crowd Source changed significantly after it saw an audience for the first time. After the preview, we were told our ten minute piece ran closer to eighteen minutes and we had to make some serious cuts to the text. Before returning to the rehearsal room to start killing our darlings, I was caught off guard when Adrienne approached friends and strangers for their thoughts on what we should cut. From the personal and local experience of embodying the tech demo, participants told us to spend our focus on a cedar leaf because it represents the botanical identity of the province. (Who knew? I definitely didn’t.) One audience member reminded us to have an “opt-out” pathway for those who didn’t want to participate in the entire piece. One blind participant reinforced the need for us to do more thinking about gestural experience without sight. Anti-elitist and definitely connected to the title, this radical audience-dramaturgy, mobilized us to act and we shaved off ten minutes.
Audience are not only participants in Crowd Source, they are co-creators. In an excerpt from his seminal Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud believes this kind of work creates an “extraordinary upsurge in social exchanges” and Crowd Source employs these exchanges long before the performance itself.  Although there are certainly ethical dilemmas to unpack around repurposing audience labour as dramaturgical insight, crowdsourcing performance and performance in Bourriaud’s writing, is a revolutionary social practice. For participants, being involved in co-creation can be less about conquering a “territory” and more about a symbiotic co-creation. In his articulation of co-design, James Frieze alludes to experiences like Crowd Source, where the “participant is so involved in the making of the work that the distinction between producing and receiving is blurred.”  As creators of Crowd Source, we are facilitating their inhabitation more than inhabiting the piece ourselves, clearly blurring the lines between producer and receiver. Their bodies are the ones that are running through the machine; we’ve simply built the machine. If we’re asking participants to inhabit the machine to make it work, why shouldn’t they help us build it? After all, how many times do you hear “try it on your feet” in a rehearsal room? Participatory theatre like Crowd Source opens the door to artists inviting participation at earlier and earlier stages, testing variables and shaping the work in a co-creative fashion. How can we always invite a crowdsourced dramaturgy practice into the creation of new work? Are we interested in that?
Miguel Sicart (Play Matters) says that “play is an activity in tension between creation and destruction.”  Perhaps why Adrienne invited the audience into the dramaturgy is because it raises to our view the spectre of failure that is always present when creating live theatre, really positioning Crowd Source, from the rehearsal room to the performance, in productive tension between creation and destruction. It became clear that our participants were the dramaturgical experts. An audience member can tell us we failed or offer us a suggestion that causes us to fail, taking the success of the piece out of the hands of the artist even further. Is this relinquishing of artistic control a danger to craft and artists that employ that craft? Do artists risk the categorization of their work as too popular if they employ this structure? Does this degenerate the work itself, shifting the writing room to a kind of corporate focus group, forcing the artist’s to produce what people like rather than what makes them uncomfortable? Or, does it simply acknowledge that the participants are equal stakeholders here and should be treated as such from creation to production?
 Nicholas Bourriaud. Relational Aesthetics. Translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods, (Dijon, Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 14.  James Frieze, editor, Reframing Immersive Theatre: The Politics and Pragmatics of Participatory Performance, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 27.
 Miguel Sicart, Play Matters (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 9.
At the beginning of June I took the train to Montreal to catch Manual, created by Adam Kinner and Christopher Willes, at OFFTA.  Presented inside Concordia’s Webster Library, Manual largely presented a familiar dramaturgy of participation as we are directed to look, really look. A gift from early-twentieth century Russian formalism, this is the ostranenie of the art frame that uses participation to displace the ordinariness of life. And what is not to love about really looking at a library. You will have to excuse my sentimentality, but as an academic who spends a lot of mundane time in libraries, the experience of aesthetic defamiliarization blossoms into affection and I am reminded by Manual that a library truly is an everyday miracle in action.
But apart from ostranenie, what other participatory dramaturgies are at work here? And what do they mean?
A couple things that are not happening here. Manual is not exploratory. We are not set loose in the library to choose an autonomous path.  I am attached to my guide Christopher. He asks me to silently follow him and I do. The other quality to notice about Manual specifically in my relationship to Christopher is that this is not an encounter (pace Nicholas Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics). The intent of the experience is not for us to meet each other. The focus of the work is not autobiographical. It is not about me as me (see Lost Together or 4inXchange) Likewise it is not about Christopher (see Trophy or human library experiences).  In addition to remaining almost completely silent which restricts verbal interaction, there is no mutual gaze; Christopher doesn’t look at me. He is either ahead of me or he seems to hover just behind my shoulder. We look at things together but we do not look at each other. Companionable, playmate, but ghostly. To describe Christopher’s function in Manual, Avery F. Gordon’s definition of a ghost resonates for me: “The whole essence…of a ghost is that it has a real presence and demands its due, your attention.”  Just as I am not “me”; Christopher is also not “Christopher.” And I mean this in the nicest way. Manual is not about confessing or sharing secrets. (Which is, to be honest, a relief sometimes.) But we are engaged in a kind of intimacy. We are playing a private game in a public space. We are secret weirdos. We are making secrets.
The performance begins with both of us looking at a notebook in Christopher’s hand. There are pre-written, penciled messages on a small palm sized spiral bound flip notebook. “Is this thing on?” I follow Christopher silently through the library trailing a metre behind. Initially I am attuned with heightened attention to the library-ness of the library. Look books! (Cool.) We play Follow-the-Leader through the stacks. When Christopher pauses to inspect the bookshelf, so do I. He points to a book title on a spine. (I can’t remember exactly what he picked but it amused me.) I choose a similarly quirky book title and touch it. He picks another one. So do I. Is that what was supposed to happen? Dunno. It is a silent improvisation. Throw the ball. Catch it. Throw it back. This is a very satisfying kind of co-creative partnership. A tiny game for two.
As it continues Manual opens other silent creative dialogues. At another bookshelf, Christopher presents a single piece of paper, and invites me to read with him, alternating sentences in whispers. I am wearing earpods and my voice and Christopher’s voice sussurates in my ears and in the auditorium behind my eyes. Next Christopher opens a book of abstract photography and choosing one image, he suggests that we play, you know, that game where you find images in the clouds. “A wrinkled piece of cloth,” he says. “The craters on Mars,” I reply. And so on.
In the final section, we take three giant steps backwards and we stand next to each other, facing a shelf wall—the sorting shelf—where books are collected awaiting a return to their proper order elsewhere. The books are a motley mix of all subjects, temporarily companionable side by side. Christopher and I too. He gestures for me to press play on the audio player. As his voice sounds in my ears, musing about the serendipity of books that have been pulled out and read, and then put back, I start to listen. Christopher takes another step backwards and then with a quick shift behind me, he is gone. (I know he is not really vanished, but like the audience to a magic trick my attention has been adeptly directed elsewhere.) Was he even here?
Why is the play called Manual? For a theatre scholar, this is always a good question to ask. Certainly, the show is manual, that is, tactile with your hands in a way that much theatre is not. Christopher’s hands are a prominent element in complement to his whispered voice. He flips the pages of his instructional notebook. In another extended scene, he also performs a kind of hand-choreography when he opens for me a series of books, deliberately turning to pre-bookmarked pages and slides sheets of cardboard to hide and reveal portions of the chosen pages. I did consciously remark Christopher’s hands—the skin, the nails, their texture and shade. A manual is also a book of instructions. Thinking specifically through the lens of participation, a manual is a ‘how to do stuff.’ And of course, participation is all about doing stuff. Usually things that we have not done before in places we have not been before. And as we’ve noted elsewhere, participatory audiences need instructions. The contents of a library—fiction and non-fiction—are manuals for everything in our existence, I suppose. The show itself then perhaps is a manual to the manual, an experience in how-to library. This is how you search—first you walk. This is how you choose books—try pointing. This is how you look—really look. This is how you read—let’s read together. Concentrate. This is how you put the books back—notice how they wait so patiently. It is a complete lifetime of libraries in miniature. It sounds trite to say so, since this is true of the accumulation of all experience, but I will never library again without thinking of Christopher, ghost of the library.
 Consider other works in our gallery of participatory performance like Landline or b side.
 Avery F. Gordon. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. University of Minnesota Press, 2008. p.xvi.
The wonderful whirlwind of the Participatory Dramaturgies Summit was beginning to settle in my mind when an email from Mariah rolled into my inbox, seeking some feedback from participants to inform future iterations of the gathering. I was eager to oblige; the three-day experience was delightfully productive for me. I was still buzzing from the ideas that pinged about our virtual meeting space as theatre creators, thinkers, and communicators pondered the unique affordances of participatory art. I quickly answered the first few questions on the feedback form, but a multiple-choice prompt soon stumped me with a relatively simple inquiry: would you prefer an online gathering or in-person?
After a moment of pause in the face of this commitment towards virtual or physical, I selected in-person and moved on. Meeting people from my bedroom was convenient, but of course, the pleasure of connecting in a shared space is tough to forgo when given the option. But then I circled back. When I started to reflect on my engagement in the various panel discussions comprising a relatively large portion of the summit, I was forced to contend with the power of the Zoom chat. I know; part of me hesitates to commit “Zoom” to paper due to my more jaded sensibilities. However, on the other side of skepticism is an opportunity to rethink participation in panel discussions and foster digital community creation.
Participants from the summit will likely remember the cheeky chaos of the first panel discussion, which saw the chat erupt after the speakers invited us to award them with points based on their contributions. The idea was to gamify the experience, giving the chat control over who would speak based on the overall value of their point totals. The trick: there was no limit to the number of points that could be given. For 20 minutes, the chat exploded as our little audience rebelled, questioned, and used this system to award unfathomable amounts of positive and negative points to see if our influence would manifest anything tangible. The result of this experiment was the creation of a digital community which immediately reminded me of a Twitch stream.  The streamers (panelists) focused on creating content while also addressing the chat community comprised of viewers vying for the attention of both the streamer and fellow viewers. Like many Twitch chats, ours was equally unfollowable at times; the feed quickly scrolled by as new comments rolled in, rivalling Lightning McQueen with their speed. I was confronted with the competing choices of listening to the panelists, reading the chat, or formulating a comment of my own.
Scholars have explored the implications of fast-scrolling Twitch chats, including a study from Nematzadeh et al. (2019) which labelled this experience as an overload regime: “If the frequency of messages keeps increasing, participants cannot handle the increased information load indefinitely, and so we expect that, past a certain threshold, an increase in information load will correspond to a decrease in user activity. We call this the overload regime.”  Indeed, it should be noted that some viewers were absent from the chat, acting as lurkers in the background whose presence was assumed but not demonstrated. Whether or not this was due to an overload regime would be pure conjecture, but I will say that several participants shared a feeling of exhaustion after the panel ended.
None of the other panels would reach that peak level of chat activity over the next few days; this was perhaps for the best, given the challenging cognitive load carried by such an experience. However, I’m grateful that the first one ignited our participatory spirit and cemented an engagement with the chat community. In the end, participating in the Zoom chat was one of the biggest positive takeaways for me. It was satisfying to see others engage with my comments or ideas, and I learned just as much from the group’s responses as I did from the speakers. Resurfacing that Twitch connection, I’ll point to an ethnographic study from Hamilton et al. (2014) completed during the early days of the streaming platform’s rise to prominence, which found that one of the main benefits of participating in the chat was sharing: “Another common reward is the gaining of knowledge and skills available from other community members. In stream communities, this often takes the form of game skill and knowledge, which may be uniquely available from the streamer or their viewers.”  I similarly felt that I was taking advantage of the expertise of this found community, and the trading of knowledge made the act of participating in the chat rewarding.
Some may worry that the chat could be a distraction, but in my own experience as a panellist, I found the chat to be more of a help than a hindrance. Fielding live questions from audience members with a microphone or from the panel mediator can be stressful because there’s less time to sort through ideas and articulate answers on the fly. In contrast, the digital chat allowed me to read questions from the crowd ahead of time, meaning thoughts could percolate in the back of my head before answering them. The chat also allowed for more direct bridging between the speaker and the crowd by offering opportunities to respond to the concepts and comments raised by viewers. I recall seeing a discussion about Overwatch  in the chat pop up during my panel that I happily addressed due to my interest in the game. Sharing my main character of choice and some thoughts on the meta took less than 30 seconds, but in doing so, I was able to contribute to community growth through a personal connection.
In another Twitch parallel, the chat also had a dedicated moderator as Jenn and Mariah traded panel and chat mediation duties. In Twitch, moderators can ban viewers if they post offensive comments, but they also serve as facilitators of participation. The same Hamilton et al. (2014) study mentioned previously found that “the role of moderators is not only to keep the discussion in line, but to engage viewers and promote participation and sociability. This most often involves greeting viewers, answering questions, and trying to connect personally with newcomers”.  As panel chat mods, Mariah/Jenn similarly responded to comments from viewers, asked questions and fostered this secondary discussion as necessary. The use of chat moderation helped legitimize the textual conversations and combat any fear that a comment would be disruptive or unwelcome. Under their guidance, the chat community thrived.
And so with all of this in mind, I returned to the question: would you prefer an online gathering or in-person? Don’t get me wrong, physical gatherings are lovely, and I would jump at the chance to flex my small talk skills and fully loaded dad-joke humour. However, in the face of mounting evidence, I moved my cursor and changed my answer. For a participatory theatre summit, I simply couldn’t resist the immediate participatory potential of the digital chat community and the relationships it built between panellists and viewers alike.
 Twitch.tv is a streaming platform where creators play games, chat and interact with viewers in real-time.
 Nematzadeh, A., Ciampaglia, G. L., Ahn, Y.-Y., & Flammini, A. (2019). Information overload in group communication: From conversation to cacophony in the Twitch chat. Royal Society Open Science, 6(10), 191412.
 Hamilton, W. A., Garretson, O., & Kerne, A. (2014). Streaming on twitch: Fostering participatory communities of play within live mixed media. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1315–1324.
 Overwatch [Video game]. (2016). Blizzard Entertainment. A team-based shooter with a vibrant online community and constantly shifting meta-game.
Ask nicely. Keep your hands to yourself. No means no. CW: this show contains scenes of domestic violence and strobe lights. Please note: participants are welcome to opt-out of this experience at any time. “Please dress warmly and wear sensible shoes.” 
Consent is understood to be ongoing, enthusiastic, and informed.
When doing pretty much anything with another person, asking for consent is necessary for good relations. In early lessons on sharing, asking for consent is one of the earliest ways we teach children to be good friends. As adults, we’re taught that healthy pleasure and intimacy require asking for and receiving a certain kind of robust consent. As adults (and as children, in different ways), having control over our body and our surroundings is necessary to our human experience. Once, Jenn told me her favourite thing about being an adult is saying no to things she doesn’t want to do. Giving and receiving consent can be liberating and clarifying for both parties in a relational exchange because in order to achieve consent, both parties must mutually agree to a given action.
As a legal concept, informed consent entered the vernacular in the mid 20th century and it is really only in the last decade that major theatres in Canada have adopted policies around content warnings as a method of asking for consent from their audiences. When content warnings are made visible to audiences in advance they offer an implicit invitation to opt out of the experience. Typically, this content warning takes the form of a list of potentially triggering things that will be shown. Sometimes, Bourgeois Theatre companies will offer a brief synopsis of the difficult material or a list of resources for people who may find themselves triggered by the content. This may well be sufficient when the primary mode of engagement in typical bourgeois theatre is watching and the audience is safely separated from the fictional world by a fourth wall. However, what happens when participatory dramaturgies move beyond the engagement of our eyes and ears with a fictional plot? What happens when we are asking much more from an audience-participant’s body or from their autobigraphy? The difficulties of achieving a more comprehensive relational consent for participatory theatre that meets the standard of being ongoing, enthusiastic, freely given, informed, consent are significant. But likewise, the potential risks for the audience-participant if this standard is not met are also significant.
As a strategy for good relations in participatory dramaturgies, inviting participants and collaborators to consent to everything that will be asked of them allows for a deepened engagement. When they are asked for consent, participants feel safer in the magic circle and are more likely to engage deeply in an experience when they know the rules, follow the handrails, or have a guide. In this context, what does success look like?
Consent is ongoing. Asking for and receiving ongoing consent requires a kind of constant checking in. Over time, it can be both reinforced and retracted. Ongoing consent acknowledges that people’s feelings may change in ways they can’t control. Although everyone should be doing this regardless, some participatory dramaturgies lend themselves to this check-in process better than others. In Tanya Marquardt’s Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep, participants text back and forth with both the character of Tanya and their alter ego/sleep persona X nightly for two weeks. Participants engage in conversations with Tanya about gender, sex, intimacy, nighmares, and dreams. Over those two weeks, we develop a meaningful and trusting relationship through the dialogic exchange. Jenn exchanged thousands of texts with Tanya/X, I added them in my phone as a contact. As audience-participants develop an ostensible friendship with Tanya/X, the conversation turns to trauma and healing. Tanya/X share some of their experience with trauma, and they invite texters to participate in a series of healing meditations. In that context, it was meaningful and necessary for Tanya to check-in. While I was texting Tanya, they would constantly ask me how I’m doing or what I needed from them to feel good. If I took a while to respond to a text, I would be met with a text that said, “How are you feeling? Are you ok?” More than simply giving participants the chance to opt out, Tanya actively sought from participants their ongoing consent. We were, not just permitted, but actually invited to revoke that consent without penalty. There were many opportunities for participants to check in on how they were feeling cared for and no pressure to respond to that text. Plus, inviting participation through text message makes the decision to opt-out easy. Like letter writing in the mail, texting is slow and extended. Jenn points out that in texting, time is elastic and spacious.
Consent is informed. To be fully informed runs counter to the essential quality of drama that unfolds in linear time as if it is spontaneous. A key part of the experience is bearing witness in real time to each fresh unexpected moment. An emphasis on linear and Aristotelian dramaturgy suggests that knowing exactly what’s ahead can undermine an experience. While being surprised and moved through the embodiment of a participatory dramaturgy is touching, informed consent requires participants to know what’s in store. In David Ball’s prescriptive guide to dramaturgy Backwards and Forwards, he insists upon discovery as a core dramaturgical principle. For Ball, “dramatic tension requires that the audience desire to find out what is coming up.”  How can asking for informed consent in participatory dramaturgies still centre the audience’s desire and discovery?
Two shows, David Gagnon Walker’s This is the Story of the Child Ruled by Fear and Radix Theatre’s TBD, use theatrical “rehearsal” embedded in the performance structure as a dramaturgical strategy to provide audience-participants with an embodied and informed preview. In Radix Theatre’s TBD, participants are asked to go on a three-week long experience, meditating on death, transformation and rebirth, beginning with the moment of their own (fictional) demise. Besides the heavy content, the participatory activities staged in TBD are notably invasive. For example, during the experience, actors put up missing person signs with your face on them in your neighbourhood. On one day, an actor in an featureless morph suit enters your house with an offer to help you with a household task. Participants are (with their permission) geotracked through their phone for the duration of the experience. To achieve informed consent, Radix Theatre is explicit as to what the performance will entail. First, participants fill out a waiver form before they start. Participants must acknowledge that “TBD will bring up notions of death or dying and that I am mentally and emotionally stable enough for this to occur.”  The waiver also asks about participants’ surroundings, “Do you live alone? If you live with others will they be comfortable with a TBD performer visiting your home a couple of times?” Second, before the performance begins in full earnest (before you ‘die’) there is an “intake day,” which functions much like a meet and greet. Participants meet each other and the acting company. A schedule is passed around. Radix Theatre lays out the tasks and scenes associated with each day of the experience in great detail, giving participants an arena to ask any questions they have. This reveal is not too too revealing because the point of the show is an experiential? meditative? exploration of death. The discovery of what will happen to you isn’t the point but rather, what you think about what happens to you as it’s happening to you.
There is a pre-show moment in David Gagnon Walker’s This is the Story of the Child Ruled by Fear that offers an invitation with similar intentions. In this piece, participants are asked to recite from a script with other audience members. The script itself, an autobiographical story written by Walker, is about fears and facing them. Depending on where the audience is sitting in the room, they are each cast a role and given characters to play (including a chorus). Participants are asked to read aloud with strangers, an anxiety-inducing experience for some. Participants are informed of what they are reading through the script in their lap. While the participants gain confidence in their collective reading, Walker’s “child” faces fears of his own. Formally, Walker models a kind of facing of fears through his invitation to participation and while his characters inside the play face fears of their own. In the first moments of the play, Walker asks two of his participants to read a scene and he gives them some directorial coaching. Readers are given an opportunity outside of the frame before the formal “reading” begins to warm up their voices. Because this piece is about fears and facing them, the participants’ comfort is of the utmost importance. Using a “cold read” as a recognizable rehearsal technique to hold onto, Walker invites participants to play “theatre” together.
In order to experience the full transformative potential of all three of the shows described here, participants need to feel safe. Participants feel safer when they are given the opportunity to give their informed and ongoing consent. In the case of these shows, the experience isn’t about the suspense of what happens next as it unfolds, but rather a personal and lived experience of the work as it happens. Being told about that in advance doesn’t spoil it because it can’t be spoiled.
 bluemouth inc. “Please Dress Warmly and Wear Sensible Shoes.” Canadian Theatre Review, no. 126, University of Toronto Press, 2006.
 David Ball. Backwards and Forwards: a Technical Manual for Reading Plays. Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. p.59.
 This language appears in the TBD "Waiver Form", as sent to us by Radix Theatre.
#ThrowBackThursday. This post looks back to a play that we saw and wrote about back in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although this show analysis speaks to a performance I attended in 2020, the Ministry of Mundane Mysteries continues to this day in February 2022! After two successful runs, “solving over 1000 cases in 233 cities worldwide,” the Ministry of Mundane Mysteries now runs their shows on-call, with a team of 25 actors available for booking anytime. You can register for this show here.
My mystery was “The Case of the Missing Cake Pan.” Launched in March 2020, The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries is a performance series imagined by Toronto-based company Outside the March to “spark connections through Telephonic Investigation.” In this live, episodic, performance for one, participants are treated to a tailor-made interactive play. Starring the participant, it’s a whodunit that unfolds over the phone.
The rundown. Each participant is responsible for thinking up their own mundane mystery. The door that won’t close? Radioactive running shoes? Unripening avocado? No missing socks though, “we’re socked out over here,” as Commissioner Mallory Murtaugh says in the FAQ on the Outside the March website. For six days in a row, at the same time each day, your mundane mystery comes alive through a zany cast of characters that draw you into conversation as you co-construct a personalized adventure. Throughout this adventure, nuggets from the participant are weaved into a structure predetermined by Outside the March.
This “fill in the blanks” style of performance, classified by Espen J. Aarseth as using a “configurative” user function,  relies on participants to insert responses to a recipe crafted by the artist. Similar to mad libs, the pleasure comes from a low-stakes participatory input into the work.
To accommodate the bespoke nature of each mystery, the plays follow a strict dramaturgical pattern that is common to every episode while leaving room for the insertion of unique autobiographical details. Developing an improvisational collaborative dramaturgy, Outside the March explores the balance between structure with flexibility. How big are the spaces I am filling? Will how I fill in my blanks change the direction of the piece?
Mundane Mysteries is built as an ordered series of checkpoints and pivotal moments that became identifiable to us as we compared our personal mysteries.
Phone Call 1: “The Interview.” The first call is from an Inspector from the Ministry, who is handling your case. Inspector Johnson interviewed me about my mystery, pressing for the names of any suspects or leads I wanted them to follow up on. Did I suspect my roommate? Then, you are asked a list of seemingly random questions. Where do I buy coffee? How long have I lived where I live? Because this first contact is framed as an intake interview, the imposition seems natural. They are leaving no stone unturned! My Inspector is trustworthy, thorough and insists she will do all in her power to solve this case. The phone call ends with the Inspector letting you know they will be in touch.
Phone Call 2: “The Informant.” The second phone call comes from a different voice. They call in a whispered panic. “I shouldn’t be talking to you. Don’t tell anyone.” In my case, the caller was an Australian man who used to work for Northside, my favourite local coffee shop. Clearly, he had done his research weaving in details about the Kingston coffee scene, the coffee shop, the Northside menu, and the women who run it. He then divulged that he believes they are behind this missing cake pan. This was my first lead.
Phone Call 3: “The Threat.” The third phone call comes from another new voice. At first, the caller purports to be a representative of a reputable business (Loblaws supermarket, in my case). They offer an easy solution to your mystery and invite you to close the case. “You don’t need a cake pan, anyway. You can buy your cakes from us.” As the phone call devolves, you learn they are not who they said they were and instead they work for the folks accused in the last phone call. My caller confessed to actually being a lawyer for Northside and threatened me with a rogue boomerang if I didn’t retract my accusations and call off the investigation . . . or else.
Phone Call 4: “The Stakeout.” In the fourth call, your Inspector finally returns, asking you for updates on the investigation or details on any weird phone calls you may have received. When you update them on what the two previous callers have said, they are unsurprised because they are calling you right now from a dangerous undercover situation investigating this very accusation. Whispering and afraid, my Inspector informs me that she is calling me from a hiding spot in the basement of Northside. She has ended up in a “boomerang room” (whatever that is). There is a loud commotion of percussive noise and yelling, and the call is promptly cut short.
Phone Call 5: “The Decoy.” The next phone call serves to throw your nose off the trail. This caller offers a weird, out-of-left-field solution to your case and encourages you to close the investigation with the Ministry. In my case, this fifth caller was an optometrist (?!) asking if I had heard the recent rumour circulating about people who wear clear framed glasses (which I do, as I had previously told Inspector Johnston.) Apparently, folks all over the world in clear framed glasses have found themselves unable to see anything square. With hesitation, I said, “Yes let’s”  and the phone call ended with the caller shouting, “She bought it!”
Phone Call 6: “Case Closed.” Finally, on the last day, you’ll hear back from your inspector, apologetic and embarrassed about the failed stakeout mission. They solve your case, thank you for your time, and play your favourite song to close the call. In my case, the folks had done some research about my roommate’s Mundane Mystery and blamed the case on her Inspector, Inspector Doyle. Apparently Inspector Doyle loves solving mysteries for us so much that he broke into our house, stole the cake pan in hopes that he would get to solve the case and look like a hero. Although he’s since been fired from the Ministry, they still can’t locate the cake pan.
In a New York Times review of the Ministry of Mundane Mysteries, Alexis Soloski gave the show a rave review, insisting that the show “let me be who I am (a harried writer and home-schooling flop who might be drinking too much right now) and met me where I was, usually at my kitchen counter, slicing apples for the children’s lunch.”  Because this dramaturgical structure feeds into the drama and the well-recognized narrative of a “whodunit,” Outside the March inspired participants to assume agency through small pieces of autobiographical information and spun it into a wild adventure that made the listener feel “seen.” Soloski’s review captures that sense of personal care in an anxious time, The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries “asked about my world, listened and then let me slip free of it, at 10-minute intervals.” 
 “The Ministry of Mundane Mysteries,” www.mundanemysteries.com.
 Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997), 64.
 “Yes, let’s!” is a common technique used in improvisation drama games. One person proposes an activity: “Let’s squawk like chickens.” And the expected group reply is “Yes, let’s!” Followed by everyone commencing to squawk. The ethos of “Yes, let’s” is core to collaborative improv where any truth established by one person becomes so for all others. It is a willingness to accept any direction and to endorse it as the new reality.
 Alexis Soloski, “There’s No Place Like Home (Theater),” New York Times. 16 April 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/16/theater/immersive-home-virus.html
 Soloski, “There’s No Place Like Home (Theater).”
We are overjoyed to announce the inaugural play/PLAY: Participatory Performance Summit! Taking place from 7-9 April 2022, this summit is an invited gathering of artist-creators and scholar-researchers of participatory performance in Canada. As the first “event” imagined by the team behind play/PLAY, the summit will be hosted by Jenn Stephenson and Mariah Horner with support from production manager Dylan Chenier and stage manager Christina Naumovski. Our goal is to offer summit participants a space to meet and talk with other artists and researchers, present work, and participate in engaging debates on participatory performance. The intention of the summit is to bring together a select group of artists and scholars who share an interest in participatory theatre events in an interactive gathering.
By participating in the virtual summit over Discord, participants will have the opportunity to:
Why are we doing this? First, we’re eager to get the artists from our gallery and the writers from our reading lists in conversation with each other. Over the last four years, while we were collecting and analyzing over 70 participatory shows in Canada in an online gallery, we were simultaneously researching and writing a scholarly book on participatory dramaturgies. As we continue to populate our gallery, we realize we’re watching a community of real experts in the field creating and thinking in real time. We know you, you know each other. Plus, everyone has been so open with us! Strangers are answering our cold calls, artists are sharing archivals, and scholars are sharing nascent ideas in interviews. We have felt a great sense of camaraderie and generosity from the artists and scholars in this cohort and it’s time to bring everyone that we have learned from and with together. As we continue the project of writing this book on participatory dramaturgies, we are excited to put our own principles into practice and participate in conversation on these topics together.
Besides the fact that we believe this group simply needs to connect with each other, we are eager to experiment with conference structures during the summit. During a conference panel about participation and immersion in 2020, artist and friend of the Summit Alex McLean wished that all panel talks started after the introductions and biographies. He put his finger on a desire of both artists and scholars to spend more time looking deeply at our participation practices together, moving beyond surface descriptions of our own work, and instead getting into connections and extensions. We are eager to open a space for these artists and scholars to grapple with shared issues and interests. After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant social isolation, we have felt a real need to play and disrupt in a collective. Because we both work at the intersection between artist and scholar, we know about the value that comes from deep analysis and a dynamic creative commons.
At this time, participation in the Summit is fully subscribed, but if you would like to learn more, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out some of our confirmed participants here and read more about the summit here.
A very common point of focus in participatory theatre performances is on the singularity of the audience participant. I’ve written elsewhere that a recurring marker of certain types of participatory theatre is that it is not only created by me (through my participation) but also for me and about me.  The pull to autobiography is strong. And you can see why. If the audience-participant is asked to do something or give something, all they have immediately at hand is themselves—their physical labour, their ideas, their opinions, their ability to solve puzzles, their personal history, etc. In a show like Lost Together, autobiographical play is crafted by and for a solo audience member. In 4inXchange, we share autobiographical details in a small group of four. Even in larger audience groups, like TBD or Foreign Radical or Intimate Karaoke, although we might be surrounded by others, the focus of my experience still solidly lies on me as an individual. My placement in relation to the participation of the others is sometimes serial and sometimes parallel but in every case we are separate.
This, however, is not the case in two recent participatory performances I witnessed. Instead of the personal focus of participation as autobiography, in these shows we are amalgamated, we blend together, we are interchangeable, we are a collective. Our individuality is purposely effaced. My self as self is irrelevant.
The first of these shows is Saving Wonderland. Presented online as part of the Next Stage Festival, Saving Wonderland blends dramatic storytelling with choose-your-own-adventure decision making and escape room puzzle-solving. The show uses a range of tech platforms including live-action Zoom broadcast, audience chat, and a game app for our phones. The premise of Saving Wonderland is that when Alice visited Wonderland previously she broke it somehow—time is looping and the storyworld is disintegrating— and only Alice can fix it. What is central however is that all of us in the Zoom audience are collectively Alice. There is only one Alice and it is us. The characters address us as Alice. When presented with a puzzle to solve or a choice to be made, we use the game app which works like a poll. The majority vote determines our choices. Similarly, for the puzzles or other digital tasks, if most of the group gets the right answer, we are successful. It is entirely possible to do the show as a disparate assemblage of pure majority rule. On the other hand, on the night that I participated, a leader emerged in the chat and directed our voluntarily coordinated responses, saying “Let’s pick the Red Queen.” or “I think the answer depends on a Fibonacci sequence.” (I, for one, was happy to follow Jackson’s lead. He always knew the right answers.) Either strategy is fine, but whether we remain aloof or choose to consult, the app operates to funnel our input into the oneness of Alice.  (The app game task where we each have to mash the on-screen button as fast as we can but without going “over” speaks especially strongly to our role in an invisible collective.)
The other show with a similar collective audience character and mode of participation is David Gagnon Walker’s This is the Story of the Child Ruled By Fear.  The play is a poetic fable of the journey of the eponymous character of “the child ruled by fear.” Here, a small number of audience participants, (perhaps six or eight people) sit near the front at cabaret tables each equipped with a reading light and a script marked with highlighted section. When their turn comes, each of these participants joins in to read a character. The creator, Gagnon Walker, serves as the Narrator. Audience readers play different characters but also significantly they all, at different times, give voice to the Child. The rest of the audience is also invited when cued to become a chorus. My favourite speech of the chorus is: “We are real. We are real. We are real.” The effect of this collective reading is perfectly described by the show’s promotional blurb which describes the experience as “a playful leap of faith into the power of a roomful of people discovering a new story by creating it with each other.” And so it is. The suggestion emerges that at some point in real life Gagnon Walker might be the child ruled by fear, but then through our dispersed and collective voicings so are we all. We all have fears and sometimes we can be brave and sometimes we can’t. The play evades a simple answer. Nevertheless, the true outcome is that in the end, we have all partaken in a collective journey to create something that we don’t know how it goes, and we journey together with generosity for the risk of participating. The result is a kind of vulnerable rough beauty.
 My article “Autobiography in the Audience: Emergent Dramaturgies of Loss in Lost Together and Foreign Radical” is forthcoming in Theatre Research in Canada 43.1 (2022).
 Spoiler alert: The ending for my play-game experience (which was different from Mariah’s) returning us all as Alice to a blue-sky morning on the riverbank before we ever meet the White Rabbit and before the start of the events of the book Alice in Wonderland. We are told by the Cheshire Cat that the only way to really save Wonderland is for us not to enter in the first place. (See blog post from on 19 July 2021 being unwelcome.) This is emotionally bittersweet but also astonishing in terms of game play and participation. Essentially we are being told that the way to “win” is not to “play.” (!!) We do not belong in Wonderland.
 Mariah and I were all set to fly to Calgary to see this show as part of the High Performance Rodeo festival in January when the Omicron variant of COVID caused all live performances to be canceled. The creator very generously shared an archival video with us.
Roger Caillois (Man, Play, Games) identifies the randomness of chance or what he calls “alea” as one of four core categories of games.  In opposition to ‘agôn’ or games of skill that engage players in direct competition, alea involves no skill at all. Both agôn and alea are premised on equality; but whereas equality in agonistic competition is about fairness in the rules so that either player has the same chance of winning, equality in alea manifests in contingency putting the players in the hands of fate or the universe. The player in a game of chance is entirely passive and whatever happens happens. The only determinate action the audience-player makes is the decision to begin to play and then subsequently to end play. In between, active choice is between random, superficially identical options - do you go through the door on the left or on the right? - or the choice is to activate the randomizing mechanism, rolling the dice, or similar. The choice is heartless. As Caillois writes, “It grants the lucky player infinitely more than he could procure by a lifetime of labor, discipline, and fatigue. It seems an insolent and sovereign insult to merit.”  Either the audience-player chooses directly in this kind of desultory fashion or defers choice to a non-human participant.
The morality of gambling as an affront to the Protestant work ethic and possible social damage of addiction aside, it is worth thinking about how choices with unpredictable seemingly random outcomes generate aesthetic understanding since this is a common dramaturgical strategy for shaping participation. How does alea mean? The audience plays the game but we are merely the conduit of fate. We spin the wheel but choice is external; the mechanism is the dominant driver rather than the player. The universe is the playwright. This feeling of passively ‘letting it ride’ can be pleasurable if the stakes are low and the attitude not too existential. Sometimes the effect is a hopeful sense of being safe in the hands of Providence, that things are as they should be. Sometimes, by contrast, being subject to randomness is a desolate peek into the abyss; we are adrift in an uncaring universe. Nothing matters.
In the Dungeons & Dragons themed participatory show Roll Models,  randomness manifests in the repeated rolling of the dice. Just as in the table-top role-playing version of the game, the dice operate in this “live action” version to determine the outcome of an audience-player’s asserted prospective action. “I will cast a spell to throw a magic net on the dragon.” Roll an “8” and you are successful. Roll an “18” and perhaps you not only avert the danger but you may also be rewarded when the dragon becomes a friend and ally. Roll a “4” however and you might find yourself in the net instead. Part of the improvisatory narrative skill of the performer who acts as the ‘Dungeon Master’ host character is to interpret the raw number generated by the dice, translating that information into context-specific (also usually absurd and hilarious) dramatic exposition. Greg Costikyan in his book Uncertainty in Games notes that among the sources of uncertainty (performative uncertainty of player skill, puzzle solver’s uncertainty, hidden information, and so on.) randomness, which many players despise, has some particular strengths, notably “it adds drama, it breaks symmetry, it provides simulation value, and it can be used to foster strategy through statistical analysis.”  Actually, the dice are a pretty good substitute playwright. Perhaps the possible message here is simply a reminder of the unpredictability of the universe. It is a truism that even the best plans, enacted by highly skilled characters might fail, or conversely, the unconsidered shot in the dark by an unprepared novice might succeed.
Humans also introduce randomness into participatory performances. Another way that contingency appears is as a branched narrative or experience. For example, Monday Nights is actually four plays in one. The performance is divided into four strands from the very outset when the first task of each audience member is to inspect the contents of four gym bags. From these autobiographical assemblages, I pick whose team I want to be on. In the moment of choosing, the other three branches vanish. Others will follow those paths but they are closed to me. I can see the other teams across the court but I watch from the outside and cannot access their experience. This melancholic regret of the path not taken is always embedded in any choose your own adventure schema. In Monday Nights, the dominant feeling is a sense of belonging, attachment to my captain and the other audience-players who made the same choice. I am on the red team. Do I wonder what it is like to be on the blue team? Perhaps a little.
By contrast, the regretful wonder of what might have been is the principal theme of Outside the March’s play Love Without Late Fees (Tape Escape). The central conceit is that the immersed audience is running a video store dating service called “Six Tapes to Find the One.” A series of escape room style puzzles activates the branching mechanism. Audience choice is indirect. Successfully solve the puzzle and rent Mr. Holland’s Opus and our couple Matt and Sarah do one thing. Fail to solve the puzzle and rent The Shawshank Redemption and Matt and Sarah’s relationship takes a different track. The effect here of alea in the creation of thirty-two unique endings is to remind us that the journey of a love relationship can indeed feel like an exercise in serendipity. If this or that hadn’t happened we wouldn’t have met. Randomness is a life quality that we recognize. Love relationships are really like this sometimes. And so the flip-a-coin branches replicate a real-world situation. The audience then plays the role of “the universe”; our puzzle games are part of a superior ontological realm that somehow determines the romantic fate of the would-be lovers. This game mechanism stands in as a simplified parallel for the impossible-to-comprehend complexity of the world.
The impossible-to-comprehend logic of the universe made manifest in games of alea is adapted in Foreign Radical to comment on the Kafka-esque arbitrariness of bureaucracy, specifically the all-powerful surveillance of border control. Badgered by a maniacal game show host, the audience-players are compelled to answer revealing questions with public actions, dividing ourselves into four corners of the room based on yes or no responses. “Have you watched online pornography in the last twenty-four hours?” “Have you signed a petition critical of the government?” “Do you use encryption to mask your internet use?” “Do you own a pressure cooker?” The answers to the questions are not random; they are autobiographical confessions. But the consequences of the answers are random. Based on their answers, certain members are banished out of the room. Is this a reward or a punishment? Do I want to go there or stay here? The underlying value system is purposely opaque. We are at the mercy of a game we cannot comprehend, unsure if we are winning or losing.
Beyond game structures that mimic the contingency of choosing this or that to create meaning, the basic situation of audience participation is a prime source of randomness. In her list of reasons that drive participatory art, Claire Bishop notes that not only does participation create a more egalitarian or democratic base for creative engagement, there is an aesthetic benefit in the greater unpredictability of input via audience contributions. The benefits from greater diversity of randomness as well as the pleasures of surprise and serendipity are held in balance with reduced coherence resulting from less artistic control. Participatory works built as a series of one way gates or are “on rails” manifest relatively low randomness and relatively high control. One way to provide guardrails is by providing the audience-player with a script. In the case of shows like Red Phone and Plays2Perform@Home (both produced by Boca del Lupo, Vancouver), there is literally a script. In Red Phone, the audience-player enters a standalone red telephone booth. Inside the booth is a teleprompter-style screen and a red telephone handset. Talking to another audience-player in a second, somewhat distanced phone booth, the two of you perform a scene, voicing dialogue. Within the tight parameters of the scripted task, each version of the experience looks (at least from the outside) nearly identical. Meaning lies in how the players, now transmuted to actors/characters, collaboratively navigate both the fictional relationship unfolding line by line in real time and the real-world partnership of smoothly making a thing together.
Works that incorporate improvisation, by contrast, feature high randomness and low control. Dice are not the only source of alea in Roll Models. Although there is a traditional audience, four audience members are invited to become role players. Each one creates a fantasy-adventure style character; they are paired with an actor who plays that character and who is effectively their live avatar. Through their role-play quest, the players make choices and declare their intentions, (with success or failure determined by the dice) the actor-avatars are challenged to realize those actions. In this way, Roll Models centrally locates the values the randomness of audience input as the catalyst for its core understanding. Costikyan notes that not only are endings uncertain in games (unlike in drama) but the journey to that ending is also uncertain. “Uncertainty is in the path the game follows, in how players manage problems, in the surprises they hold.”  It is precisely that this grappling with uncertainty is the source of pleasure in Roll Models. The audience-players are randomness generators; they are part of the game mechanic generating ‘friction’ for the actors. They are basically more sophisticated dice in human form. The appeal of the show then, and indeed its raison d’etre is to generate joyful laughter not only at the absurdity of the ad hoc plots but in the virtuosity of the actors as they frolic in unpredictability. In the secondary audience, we thrill to the successful struggle in their performative acrobatics to respond to the unexpected twists of the plot and to bring it all together (somehow) in the end. Their victory over the obstacles of alea is our delight.
 Roger Callois, Man, Play, and Games, Translated by Meyer Barash (Urbana and Chicago, University of Chicago P, 1961), 19.
 Caillois, Man, Play, and Games, 17.
 Roll Models was presented 18-26 August 2021 in City Park, Kingston ON. The show was conceived and performed by Alicia Barban, Joel Blackstock, Tyler Check, Callum Lurie, and Sayer Roberts.
 Greg Costikyan, Uncertainty in Games, (Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press, 2013), 86.
 Costikyan, 13.
CW: colonial violence
As thousands of unmarked graves of children who were held captive at Canada’s residential schools were unearthed in July 2021, Dr. Alan Lagimodiere, the new Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations minister in Manitoba spoke publicly for the first time. In this speech, Lagimodiere says, “the residential school system was designed to teach Indigenous children the skills and abilities they would need to fit into society as it moved forward.” At the time, many white settlers in so-called Canada were finally unlearning this dangerous lie, grappling instead with the truth that this state-sponsored educational institution had explicit goals to “kill the Indian in the child.” Wab Kinew, the leader of Manitoba’s NDP, interrupted Lagimodiere, approaching the podium saying, “I am an honourary witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I listened to stories of the survivors and I cannot accept you saying what you just said about residential schools.” More than listening to testimony, being an official Honorary Witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) comes with an active commitment to tell the truth about colonial violence in so-called Canada. “Witnesses were asked to retain and care for the history they witness and, most importantly, to share it with their people when they return home.”  Notably, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation asserts witnesses must commit to participating in a future where the genocide of Indigenous children is not forgotten or misunderstood. Kinew’s active interruption and correction of Lagimodiere’s narrative illustrates this commitment to participation that includes the destruction of false narratives.
While Kinew’s intervention did not occur in an explicitly theatrical context, it serves to illustrate the participatory capacity of performing witnessing as an act that changes both the participant and the world. Historically, some theatre theorists have articulated both the potential and outcome of this act of bearing witness as an activist element of being a spectator. Sometimes this activism is framed in moral or educative terms. In the introduction to his 18th century play The Robbers, German theorist Friedrich Schiller articulates the power of bearing witness as a preparatory practice for avoiding vice. Schiller says, “if I would warn mankind against the tiger, I must not omit to describe his glossy beautifully marked skin, lest owing to this omission, the ferocious animal should not be recognized until too late.”  For Schiller, theatre provides the space for audiences to safely bear witness to a metaphorical tiger, so that they will be ready for the dangers of immorality they will meet in real life. For Kinew, Schiller’s tiger is the testimony he heard. Where Schiller only expects action in the outcome when he shows his audience the “tiger,” witnessing as a dramaturgy of participatory theatre encourages action from the moment you first meet the testimony or the tiger. As a witness to the TRC, Kinew heard testimony with the intention that he is prepared to fight for (in Schiller’s case, against) what he heard. So, how exactly can this witnessing act be theorized as an active invitation into the future?
Indigenous writer Samatha Nock unpacks the subtle differences between listening and witnessing. Nock insists that “too often we think that the act of listening is equal to the act of witnessing.”  She describes listening as a passive endeavour. By contrast, she says that when we “witness a story we are not only present physically, but emotionally and spiritually, to hold this story in our hearts.” When we witness a story, “that story becomes a part of us,” and “you have entered a very specific and powerful relationship that exists between the storyteller and the witness.”  Witnessing is an active and ongoing invitation to participate in relation, it’s a contract between the witnessed and the witness, signed by the act of hearing testimony.
For our colleague Julie Salverson, a scholar of witnessing, “to be a witness, I must find the resources to respond. It isn't only passing on a story that matters; I must let the story change me. This makes me vulnerable in the face of another's vulnerability. I participate in a relationship. But to be present in a relationship, I must have a self to offer. Tricky territory. Who, right now, has the nerve to reveal themselves?”  Salverson also asserts that “courageous happiness”  is a resource to activate witnessing. Where Nock names the agreement as “relational,” Salverson says that “witnessing is a transaction that is personal, social and structural.” 
Salverson cites the work of Roger Simon and Claudia Eppert who claim that witnessing “demands (but does not secure) acknowledgement, remembrance and consequence. Each aspect presents different obligations.” These three moments of witnessing: acknowledgement, remembrance, and consequence are a map of activity from which participatory witnessing is charted. Acknowledgement is the awareness and confirmation of what is being witnessed. Remembrance “commits a person as an apprentice to testimony.”  As an apprentice to testimony, the witness agrees to be employed by testimony; an apprentice signs a contract as a novice committed to work. Remembrance marks the changing of the witness. The third term, “consequence,” is about obligation, about what we do with the knowledge we perhaps wish we did not have.”  Consequence marks the changing of the world. This is what Kinew does when he steps forward to speak.
Trophy, a work of solo storytelling, created by Sarah Conn and Allison O’Connor, materializes this three-part path of witnessing as theorized by Nock, Salverson, Simon and Eppert and exemplified by Kinew’s interruption. Marketed as “an episodic performance and living installation built around stories of transformation,”  audiences of Trophy are invited to roam through a “pop-up Tent City” of simple white tents. Each tent features the live recitation of an autobiographical story from a person in the community who experienced great change. After audience members listen to the stories of transformation, they are invited to write their own stories of change on coloured pieces of paper and attach them to the tent. “How the installation evolves is determined by the public’s interactions with it,”  Conn and O’Connor say. This visible and participatory manifestation of witnessing, I hear your story and it changes me (and the tent!) means that “the experience of Trophy becomes an expression of all participants’ stories, and a compelling exploration and conversation about how we all experience change.” 
Witnessing is a core participatory dramaturgy. Bearing witness is a participatory dramaturgy that signs a deal to continue to participate beyond the show. Witnesses are not participants in “spectacle or escape, or passive avoidance, it is the deadly game of living with loss, living despite the humiliation of trying endlessly, living despite failure.” 
 “The NCTR Supports Honorary Witness and invites Minister for further Education,” The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. July 16 2021. https://nctr.ca/the-nctr-supports-honorary-witness-and-invites-minister-for-further-education/
 Schiller, Friedrich. The Works of Friedrich Schiller: Early Dramas and Romances...translated from the German. George Bell & Sons, 1881, p xiii.
 Nock, Samantha. “Being a witness: The importance of protecting Indigenous women's stories,” Rabble. September 5 2014 https://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/samantha-nock/2014/09/being-witness-importance-protecting-indigenous-womens-stories
 Nock, “Being a witness.”
 Salverson, Julie and Bill Penner. “Loopings of Love and Rage: Sitting in the Trouble,” Canadian Theatre Review 181, (Winter 2020): 37. doi:10.3138/ctr.181.006.
 Salverson, Julie. “Taking liberties: a theatre class of foolish witnesses,” Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, (June 2008): 246.
 Salverson, “Taking liberties,” 246.
 Salverson, “Taking liberties,” 247.
 Salverson, “Taking liberties,” 248.
 “About Trophy,” https://www.thisistrophy.com/about.
 “About Trophy,” https://www.thisistrophy.com/about.
 “About Trophy,” https://www.thisistrophy.com/about.
 Salverson, “Taking liberties,” 253.