#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.