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.
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