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