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.