This research project has taken me to New York City and Montreal, to empty warehouses and to Dufferin Street to a bust a move in the middle of the afternoon. I’ve been handcuffed to a wheelchair, graffitied a room to the tune of Bach, and sung Alanis Morissette into a woman’s uterine cavity. My body has done as much work in grappling with participatory dramaturgy as my brain.
Jenn and I embarked on this project in the beginning of 2019, cataloguing the growing canon of Canadian participatory experiences while attempting to capture how and why creators are inviting audiences into their work. We are interested in work that would not exist without the audience engaged in play. We are interested in ways that artists invite this participation, to what ends, and the sociopolitical zeitgeist that has blurred the line between the artists intention and the audience’s involvement in meaning-making. So far, we have attended more than 70 works that speak to this practice.
We also went to Banff.
Jenn was invited by Adrienne Wong to present on a panel at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity’s Digital Summit about Interactive Audiences with some regular offenders in this body of work - Milton Lim, Pratim Sengupta and Alex McLean. In this post I’m going to speak to other aspects of the conference but you can read more about Jenn’s presentation here.
The three days we spent in Banff was formative for our thinking. Although the conference was focused on the digital shift and the policies, anxieties, and innovations that artists are experimenting with in this era, we found the summit rife with new perspectives for our work on participatory art.
This summary post deals with two major realizations from the summit. First, we realized we were leaving out aesthetics in the scope of the project and second, the weekend provided us with rigorous fodder as we begin to answer the vital question “So what”?
You’ll notice this blog and this project is about the dramaturgies of participation, the techniques that creators employ to encourage, shape, and challenge an audience into participating in a work for a certain reason. We’ve begun to pair artists’ dramaturgical choices with theorists to name these techniques and clock their outcomes with audiences.
One of the techniques we are exploring is best articulated by Gareth White as “the invitation.” Because audiences are breaking out of a certain kind of traditional reception in fourth-wall bourgeois theatre, artists need to be clear about how, when, and why an audience should participate in a live performance. White talks about different ways to enact this invitation, overtly or covertly, inside or outside the narrative. Some works, like Milton Lim and Patrick Blenkarn’s asses.masses invite their audience to play along by flashing a pixelated PLAYER NEEDED prompt in a video game about donkeys staging a revolution. Some works, like Outside the March’s Tape Escape provides the players with an actual guide-person to nudge the progress along.
We are confidently compiling these dramaturgical techniques that invite participation but during the Interactive Audience panel, Adrienne posed a question that complicated our proposed title. In her introduction, she wondered about the aesthetics of participatory work. Is there one? Does messiness or the raw quality of audience participation carry into what we consider beautiful, meaningful, or powerful in this work? Once artists employ these dramaturgical techniques to invite their audience into the work, what does it look like? Feel like? Taste like? As an artist that makes participatory work, I can’t help but be fixated on the aesthetics, the results of participatory dramaturgy when thinking about the artist’s work in this medium. We ultimately decided that aesthetic concerns are embedded in dramaturgical choices.
Furthermore, how do both the aesthetics and the dramaturgy relate to the zeitgeist in which these artists are making work? In his fascinating talk titled “Sustainability in an Imaginary World,” David Maggs continued to unpack arts and interactivity in the wake of the climate crisis, positing work that invites his audience to “live faithfully in a world that is of our own making.” In this talk, Jenn and I were re-introduced to the concept of the Anthropocene, the geological epoch that scientists argue we have entered as of the early 2000s. Categorized by the geological moment where humans have affected the earth and its systems more than any other factor combined, Maggs categorized the Anthropocene as the “realization that the planet is an artifact a result of human action.” He believes the Anthropocene resists modernity, making it impossible to separate object from who created it.
Our bodies, our actions, our insights and our offers have an immense affect on both the world and each other. Paired with the turn of Web 2.0 and social media, we believe that the dawning of the Anthropocene has paved the way for the interactive turn in art. The awakening that we are all players in the future of the planet. For better or for worse. When the penny dropped about the relationship between our project and the Anthropocene, we found ourselves gazing at the remarkable mountain range that surrounded us at the Banff Centre.
Don’t get us wrong, we know that all theatre is about the feedback loop between art and audience, that even in non-participatory art, the audiences reception and interpretation is an active kind of work that certainly affects the live performance. However, in this participatory turn, in the context of the Anthropocene, many creators employ dramaturgical tools to actively invite the audience into both meaning-making and construction of aesthetics. In this kind of work, audience have an actual and meaningful effect on the stories told, the scenographic construction, and the experience for themselves and others. That interconnected relationship between participant and the work, the agency of a participant to affect change is also a characteristic of the Anthropocene. We have no one to blame for the state of the earth but ourselves and our choices. We are also the only ones who can fix it.
Very soon after launching this site and claiming the URL “dramaturgiesofparticpation.com” I went to the site to make some edits and upload new content. Rather than type the URL directly I lazily googled “dramaturgies of participation.” And then I encountered that sinking feeling known to all academics at one point or another – an article popped up with the same phrase in the title – worry that what I thought was an original idea was not so original. “Someone else has already written my book!” And then after reading the article and discovering it to be aligned but not identical, I encountered the again familiar corollary to that initial sinking feeling, relief that this other work is not quite the same, and pleasure in the knowledge that I am not alone in this field.
To pay proper respect to this earlier work I thought it would be appropriate to summarize it here and think through how it relates to this project in progress.
“A Dramaturgy of Participation: Participatory Rituals, Immersive Environments, and Interactive Gameplay in Hotel Medea” by Jorge Lopes Ramos and Persis Jade Maravala appears in the essay collection Reframing Immersive Theatre: The Politics and Pragmatics of Participatory Performance (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) edited by James Frieze. Ramos and Maravala are the artist-creators of Hotel Medea, a participatory work from the UK that reflects and refracts the Classical Greek tragedy of Medea and Jason, performed overnight on a ship at the O2 Pier in London between midnight and dawn for a mobile group of immersants.
The article concludes with almost a manifesto (“We believe . . .”), articulating a set of core beliefs made manifest in their production. First, they take as a foundational assumption that in events of this kind for audience to meaningfully experience the work they need to be engaged as both passive observers and as proactive participants, not one or the other (168). They then assert their belief that failure to engage audiences in this dual role is “mainly due to a lack of training methodologies to allow actors to have the skills and experience necessary in order to manage intimate interactions with audience members in tandem with a compelling unfolding dramaturgy” (168). The assumption that participants need to be BOTH traditional interpretative audience-spectators AND active player-makers powerfully describes how work in this genre is distinct from both drama and games. This articulation of the role as blended or doubled is immensely useful and is consistent with our perspective that these are drama-game hybrids and that participants are audience-players. Good to know that other people are thinking similar thoughts. What is new to me from this first belief statement is the notion that performers in the participatory genre need different kinds of training. When said out loud this seems perfectly obvious; the skill set for playing with players is entirely different from dramatic storytelling. Describing their particular training approach, Maravala drew inspiration primarily from Brazilian folkloric rituals, as well as Grotowski psychophysical exercises, Indian classic dance Bharatanatyam, and the Brazilian game-martial art Capoeira (156). It is also important to Maravala and Ramos that the actors are ‘hosts’ and the audience-players ‘guests.’ This terminology establishes a specific relational dynamic of supportive care (156). Taking a step back from the practicalities of training, I would like to think more about the goals and ideals of what actor-hosts do in the context of participatory theatre. What is their labour in producing both the event itself and the communication of an understanding or experience? How are their interactions with audience-players fostered and to what ends? From Maravala and Ramos, this is a rich provocation.
The second belief statement asserts that “the guests need to be exposed to the structure behind the event as opposed to being encouraged to suspend their disbelief for the whole event” (168). Moving away from sustained illusory fiction aligns with the first belief that participants are both engaged with drama as well as game. In a game you need to know the rules. In this way, participants are empowered as co-makers knowing the shape and trajectory of the work in advance. The artist-creators describe the storytelling attitude as more like a historical re-enactment than a play performed on a stage. We are all making this thing here together. Maravala and Ramos do not directly address the notion of audience labour or function that Mariah and I are currently preoccupied with, but this clear description of the audience perceptual attitude regarding fiction lays the foundation for participation as collaborative work.
Their third and final belief declares that “such events require a participation-led dramaturgy which considers the perspective of each individual at every stage of the event” (168). It is not 100% clear what this means to them exactly. But I see resonances here with the host-guest relationship and careful care for the audience. Additionally, as dramaturgy this care might also manifest as a kind of curatorial attention to shaping each unique “track” that an audience-player might occupy. Jacob Niedzwiecki talks about “information asymmetry” in his work on site-specific “promenade-style dance theatre,” (30, 26) where each spectator occupies a unique perspective in relation to the performance.
It is a pleasure reading this article to hear the artists themselves talk about the choices they made and why. Maravala and Ramos are working through with this reflection on Hotel Medea the same kind of process that Mariah and I are engaged in more broadly through our growing collection of examples. We aim to describe works through their dramaturgy, through the mechanics of how they are built, to discover how they “work.” So even after my initial fretting, it is a good feeling to acknowledge fellow travellers, compatriots in the field of participatory theatre, and wave to them as we journey.
Niedzwiecki, Jacob. “Jacqueries, Mind Games, Street Action and the Art of the Heist.” Canadian Theatre Review 178 (Spring 2019): 26-31. DOI: 10.3138/ctr178.005
Ramos, Jorge Lopes and Persis Jade Maravala. “A Dramaturgy of Participation: Participatory Rituals, Immersive Environments, and Interactive Gameplay in Hotel Medea.” Reframing Immersive Theatre: The Politics and Pragmatics of Participatory Performance. Edited by James Frieze. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016): 151-169. DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-36604-7_12