Let’s start with acknowledging my privilege. I am living in a spacious one bedroom home with my best friend, a very amenable kitten, lots of food, and strong support systems if things get really scary. Because of this privilege, like many other people, I’ve had a multitude of feelings these past three weeks that I have spent inside. Some I am proud of, others not so much. I am anxious, whiny, bored, experiencing “flu-like symptoms,” tired, sad, worried for my loved ones, overwhelmed with check-ins, yearning for more check-ins and also . . . curious about what’s next.
Mainly, I think I am experiencing two things. The first, is grief. For tragedy and death, for suffering, for those who have loved ones far away, and for my recently unemployed friends.
This week, a mentor of mine suggested I apply to my PhD ASAP because the performing arts ecology is about to be truly rocked. I don’t disagree. In a recent Toronto Star article, it is predicted that theatres in Toronto are about to lose a devastating $500 million in ticket sales this spring. I am worried for many of these companies and festivals across the country that form the bedrock of the Canadian theatre community. I deeply admire and respect many of the leaders of these organizations and believe in many of their mandates. I will say though, I am more worried for the people inside them than I am for the institutions themselves.
Which brings me to the second thing I’m feeling. Curiosity? If you know me, then you know that in my opinion, capitalist systems need to GO. I am curious (and maybe even stoked) about what could replace neoliberalism and capitalist greed. (Aside: That said, fracking, pipelines, and land theft are still considered “essential work” in this country).
In a YouTube video that surfaced in mid-March called Coronavirus Capitalism, economist Naomi Klein talked about two routes that American economy could take during the next few weeks. The first route is a bail-out of major industries like hospitality, tourism, airline, big business, oil and gas -- industries that can be detrimental to the climate crisis and the disenfranchised. The second route though, is an investment in clean industries and Green New Deal. Two options: We could save industries of the last century, or we could try something new.
If we apply this perspective to Canadian performing arts economy, the question arises: Are some of these major theatre institutions “industries of the last century?” For better or for worse, they certainly rely on capitalist structures (subscriber bases, huge corporate donors, endowments, land ownership, etc) to survive. Brick and mortar institutions that have been around since the 1970s rely upon systems that have been in play since the 1970s to exist. Although this makes me uncomfortable to write, I’m more interested in investing in the “Green New Deal” of theatre than I am of saving capitalist institutions that have remained largely unchanged for 25+ years. Now that the capitalist systems they rely on have been put on hold, what are we making room for?
When I think about the future of the live arts, I am grieving but I am also . . . curious. We’ll think of something? It might take us a while. In the same way I hope that capitalism topples in favour of something else, I’m hoping we don’t resurrect old institutions before we invest and imagine an entirely new phenomenon.
I am not advocating for a shift entirely to the digital. The act of gathering live will remain paramount. In the likely case that this won’t blow over any time soon, people trapped in quarantine will be craving liveness and community and gathering more than ever. We are already seeing this with balcony singalongs and group fitness classes. Folks around the world are applauding for health care workers at a specified time each day.
Like the scheduled applause, the act of social distancing is one of the most global acts of participation in history. We won’t call it art but many people are certainly taking part. Participation works best when everyone is doing it. All you have to do is play along. Sometimes it’s scary and confusing, but it’s often for good. One billion people for common good. That is participatory work.
Because of this participatory effort in play over the last two weeks, I am unsurprised that Canadian artists who make participatory work are the first to begin to experiment with producing work right now - Outside the March, DLT, Convergence and Theatre Replacement had all announced new projects within a week of Ontario declaring a state of emergency. After all, these artists were already experimenting with the relationship between the audience and the art in their work. Theatre Replacement’s Bioboxes happened inches away from your nose. DLT’s The Stranger happened two steps behind the actor. Proximity is just another kind of distance. Suddenly these artists are working to connect and communicate from as far away as possible. How can we be close when we’re really far away?
So far, this work is lo-fi. Because many artists are being forced to adapt their practises quickly, the aesthetic is not precious. It’s raw and intimate. It’s your cat walking across your Zoom call. It’s talking over each other and audio that cuts in and out. There is no rehearsal. That’s what excites me. It’s entirely uncharted territory. Less of a rebirth and more of an emergent phenomenon. If systems we once relied upon (like capitalism and gathering in groups) have been disrupted, I guess we have to get creative. Sometimes, we have to make something with nothing. I don't think it's right to patronize digital work as "quantity over quality". Everyone is trying.
To be clear, in my opinion, this is not a crisis-tunity. This is a terrible thing that will make something new. To move forward we’re going to have to grieve but also we’re going to have to (eventually) pick ourselves up, innovate, and make new work for this new world.
J: Here we go. I’ve been thinking about our initial question: What does participation look like in the age of coronavirus? One thought is. . . you know. . . that it’s over. That participatory theatre is now essentially dead or has been damaged in some way that it will not recover. That’s a very apocalyptic view. But this is a really transformative moment and the kind of intimate community gathering that we were seeing in some of these shows: touching strangers, packing in together closely in small spaces, maybe that is now suddenly just . . . done.
M: When we did the show at the Grad Club last week, at first the show was about activism and then when we did the show on Friday, just as the quarantine restrictions were starting . . . everything changed. This show was now about the importance of gathering together. The lines didn’t resonate the same way. After the show people came up to us saying, “Thank you.” It was like the end of the world. It was like the last time we were gonna gather. I think you’re right, that’s it’s over and also that it was sacred. I think this is gonna change all theatre and all live arts, like you said, specifically the forms that we’re interested in.
J: I don’t think it does harm to our project, though. In fact, I think it makes the project wistfully, sadly, really relevant. There was this moment, this thing was happening.
M: In retrospect, it feels sacred. The thing we have lost.
J: Sacred. And we have already seen and collected a lot of the work of that moment. We have enough data that if we didn’t see any more shows we could continue. It would be like a historical book. Which is kind of weird. But still ok I think? I think we should try and do exactly what you understood when the Grad Club show changed its mood. We should think through what that kind of work meant, which we can now see more clearly now that it’s gone.
M: You said your first thought is: “It’s over. It’s dead.” I’m curious about what the second thought is.
J: Oh the second thought is. . .well a couple of other thoughts. . . but the second thought is: What fills the gap in the short term? The impulse to participate doesn’t go away. The same founding circumstances we identified are still relevant. We still live in a Web 2.0 world. We still live in the Anthropocene. Those drivers still exist. So then what does participation look like if we’re not present in body?
M: A few weeks ago we talked about the definition of participation as taking part. For the past few days I’ve been obsessed with the arts and culture response. And the notion of taking part. Now, we are taking part with such a bigger group. Because . . . the internet. When my roommate and I did Choir!Choir!Choir! online last night, both of us were weeping because these were songs we had just sung with C!C!C! at the Isabel last June. This time, nine thousand people tuned in online. It was a cool triple lens of “wow participation is over” but “wow it’s beautiful it happened” and also “wondering what’s going to fill the gap.” When we’re participating in a kind of recreation of a gathering, I can see both “this is a new gathering” and “I’m also happy that I did the first gathering too.” It feels like a memorial.
J: Because it is about the things we’ve lost and trying to recreate but also feeling the nostalgia. So, yes we might watch NTLive streaming but we’re not just watching it as a standalone artifact, we’re watching it as nostalgia for live theatre.
M: Yes! Exactly! And I even felt that last night, I felt amazement and nostalgia at the same time. Like “Wow the internet is amazing!” but also "remember when this was real life?”
J: Yeah. So I think that’s really interesting. It will be really interesting to track how live arts industry will try to fill the gap. We’re already seeing some livestreaming. I saw Theatre Replacement is going to stream MINE tomorrow night. Um, so there’s that, C!C!C!, so I think we should just track those things. Starting with this moment of cancelling everything. The cancellation of live is first.
M: Oh yeah, new catalyst. New epoch. As of three days ago, every theatre in this country cancelled things. But you’re right, some new things have popped up. But we still have a different nut to crack. Or I guess the same nut to crack. Artists have to figure out how to actually interact without live presence. Last night with C!C!C!, the reach was very obvious, the warmth of understanding there are many people across the country doing this, that was very obvious, but interactivity still felt near impossible.
J: Could you see or hear other people or you just knew they were there?
M: You knew they were there. But we couldn’t interact. The C!C!C! dudes were trying to keep up saying, “Oh, hi Ann from Sault Ste. Marie” or “Oh you wanna hear this song?” but you couldn’t feel interactivity.
J: And also the joy of C!C!C! is all of the voices rising together. What’s that term I learned in first year psychology? Psychic effervescence? That’s why we sing together in religious settings because voices rising together . . . there’s something in it that’s moving.
M: And that kind of work had to happen in imagination last night with C!C!C! There were a few songs, like classic songs, that they would stop playing and say “your turn” and then they would be quiet on the stream for a second.
J: Oh wow.
M: And Laura and I were singing in our apartment and I could feel the work of this effervescence but it had to happen in my brain. It still happened though! I still got chills thinking . . . how many people are doing exactly what we’re doing right now. But that was an imaginary work instead of a felt thing in real life.
J: So the other thing that struck me, apart from wondering about the response of the arts and culture industry, is that through social distancing, self isolation, the mass migration of everybody “home” over the last few days, we have witnessed a huge act of global participation.
M: That’s true! And social distancing doesn’t work unless everybody does it.
J: Right. So we’ve been talking about democracy as our big example of participation but this is it.
M:I also just reread your draft entry on emergence for the book in progress and one of the things that struck me is how emergence relates to theatre participation versus how it relates to the biological functions where it appears is that these kinds of pattern shifts take a lot of time. In order to actually make a new pattern of movement it takes . . . duration?
J: Either duration or many many iterations.
M: At the same time?
J: Like an algorithm that runs really really quickly has many many many repeats so it is time dependent but sped up.
M: So then . . . I feel like this global quarantine moment is the closest that I can fully understand to this being an emergent behaviour.
J: Right yes, I think so. Because something different will come out.
M: It’s not about returning to normal. It’s exactly what you talked about in that entry about how complexity emerges.
J: Right at the end of that article I talk about phase change? I think this is phase change. You know, it’s like we’ve suddenly dropped the temperature and as humans our behaviour is still the same, but because of the phase change we’ve produced some kind of different thing. Like turning water into ice. And I think the reason we can consider this to be an emergent phenomenon, which is exactly what that entry is trying to get at, is scale. Just massive, massive scale. I don’t know, a billion people are participating in social distancing? That makes a new phenomenon, it makes . . . something. I don’t want to call it art, but it is a participatory experience.
M: Can we think of any other times besides epidemics or pandemics where like a full global shift happened? War?
J: War, yes.. Maybe at the next level down from that . . . watching the Olympics? What other phenomenon gets millions of people to do the same thing? Millions and millions of people travelled home and then stayed home. And so now all of us are in our little home pockets.
M: Speaking of that, capitalism is a big hurdle to overcome with this major global ask: Stay at home. Don’t work. Don’t go anywhere. I feel like everyone’s act of staying home is an acknowledgment that all of the systems are going to change now.
J: There is something in that. We’ve said this before, you can’t participate alone. So here is a thought: Even though we’ve been saying that participation is imbricated in neoliberalism and individualist entrepreneurial capitalist thinking, participation also resonates with socialism because it’s collective. You have to be with other people, you have to be in sync with other people in order to participate.
M: All of this just keeps bringing me back to the same question. What does art look like that only exists within these new circumstances? Social distancing I mean. These new circumstances are not a glitch but a feature. It’s not about how we’ll do the things we’ve done in a new way, it’s about doing a new thing. And like I said, maybe it’s because I am an artist and maybe it’s because I am positioned in a way that my next two projects can allow for social distancing. One of them is foldA. This is going to be a huge year for SpiderWebShow and foldA.
J: This is a huge moment for foldA.
M: Is it ever. The festival is perfectly positioned to ask the critical questions of this moment. What can we do because we have these digital and virtual tools? What does participation and gathering look like without presence? Or what does your digital body do? It’s a totally different reframed question. The pandemic is going to really change lots of sectors but really really change the live art sector for sure.
J: And I think this is where we do have a big chasm now in our work. We will have to treat some of it as historical. We’ve encountered now a hard stop. England, 1642. The theatres are closed. Period. Now what?
M: We’re positioned in a network of a lot of artists who . . . Like Landline! Landline could still happen almost exactly as it happened.
J: Oh sure. You don’t have to meet. You get to walk. Walking is still good, you can walk outside.
M: It’s almost like there was a cohort of artists that were preparing for this! I’m surrounded by fear and anxiety from some artists, and optimism from others. Or at least an acknowledgement of change. It doesn’t feel like the end of something but . . . it sounds so corny but this is the start of something . . . else? It reminds me of everything you said about CdnStudio. CdnStudio didn’t work if you tried to rehearse a well-made play in CdnStudio. BUT if you embrace the glitch and the delay and the mess of it you’re going to make something new that requires it to exist. That’s kind of how I feel about many of the artists that we think about . . I don’t feel as worried for them as I do feel for the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival.
J: I agree with you. I think a lot of the artists that we’ve been working with are going to jump the gap.
M: I think so too.
J: I made a list the other day about which plays we’ve collected - exactly what you said about Landline - which plays we’ve collected could go ahead as is, more or less. Archive of Missing Things, totally. Landline. Even something like Zuppa Theatre Co's This is Nowhere, even though there are live scenes interspersed, they could be video they could be . . . there are other ways to do that. The main mechanism of This Is Nowhere, the scavenger hunt walk bit is still good. I mean some things yes, some things no. That’s what is interesting about this. Now we have maybe a different categorization of participation?
M: Like pre and post.
J: Pre and post. Or there’s the bodily kind and there’s a non-bodily kind. Or there is the interpersonal kind or interpersonal presence. I will have to think more of this but I think there is a new category that we haven’t considered. And what is the vision?
M: I think in the next few weeks it will be a slightly clumsy adjustment of doing traditional theatre on the internet. Let’s livestream it! It might be a little clumsy. Then I think in six months there will be a whole new birth of kinds of live performance that can only exist with distance.
J: I think you’re absolutely right. Because people are so responsive, people are adaptive, people are imaginative. Things will change.
M: I do wonder how the feedback loop will work.
J: How does the feedback loop work when it’s not just talking together? I’m thinking about Lost Together, how do you hand over the artifact? How do you give something across that space, now that there is a space. How do you pass the input back and forth and digital is one way. Maybe we’ll see mail? Maybe we’ll see like . . .phone in radio shows? Maybe they’ll be . . . I don’t know.
M: Well this is a good segue! Did you see what Daniele from DLT announced online?
M: Theatre on Call. He is organizing a group of artists to do a phone theatre festival. He’s thinking about how we bridge this distance. All of the art we’re going to make is going to both acknowledge it, celebrate it, complicate it. It’s not surprising to me that an artist like Daniele, who is already experimenting with what distance means, is the first to close the gap. Because proximity is also just distance. These artists have been playing with how close someone can get . . . it’s not surprising to me that these artists are the ones that are wondering instead, how far can you get?
J: That is really really smart. I really like that idea. Ok, write that down.
M: One more thing I want to talk about on this recorded phone call. I mean podcast. I mean, blog. Whatever this is. So we’re losing bodies. Like the body magic of people . . . I mean I just re-read your Cafe Sarajevo piece and . . .
J: It’s totally about bodies and proximity and “oops I bumped into you, pardon my elbow.”.
M: Pardon my elbow, how close can we get when we kick this soccer ball. I’m curious about how artists are going to capture the interactivity. I’m also thinking about how artists are going to capture a mass of people, in a way that is more meaningful than a view counter?
J: How will we know that people are nearby?
M: I don’t know if this is my coping mechanism or because I am an artist but also because I’m a socialist probably. I know that everything is going to change and I am in a moment of being aware that this is going to get worse before it gets better. But I’m really in a moment of intrigue of what “better” is.
J: I’m really curious to see what it will be.
I first became aware of the luminous artwork of Anne Louise Avery when she started to appear on a regular basis in my Twitter feed, retweeted by a friend. Avery, who from her Twitter bio, is writer and art historian, based “mainly” in Oxford, perhaps a professor at the university there.
Each day Avery posts a tweet where she creates a short poetic vignette based on an assemblage of three images. Usually one of the images is a photograph of an animal, a fox, bear, otter, mouse, or similar. The other two images might be paintings, a landscape scene (rural or urban) or an object still life, typically but not always in a late 19th century/early 20th century fin de siècle style. In a reply to her own tweet, Avery provides citational references listing the title, creator, and provenance of the works that she has chosen. The vignettes themselves personify the animal depicted as they often pursue human activities like baking scones, serving tea, playing draughts, digging in the garden, or catching the train to London, writing in a journal. Each tweet garners upwards of 600 likes. Clearly, Avery has a devoted following.
I too followed @AnneLouiseAvery through January and February. To say the vignettes are charming does not do them justice. They are tiny evocations of joy, of melancholy, of friendship, of a kind of wistful quiet happiness. They are beautiful. I admire the craftsmanship that Avery invests in these gems. They lift my heart.
After a few weeks, it became apparent to me from some other tweets Avery interspersed with her artworks, that she was tending to a sick child in hospital, her son, not very old, the diagnosis uncertain. Then, around the end of February, Avery’s Twitter feed was inundated by dozens and dozens of tweets created by her followers that replicated (as best they could) her own poetic and visual style.
It was an outpouring of solidarity, of love from strangers, and sincere wishes for her son’s recovery and her own well-being in a time of personal crisis. Social media has often attracted this kind of spontaneous expression of community. But what struck me here as worthy of comment is that rather than just a message, Avery’s followers gave her back her own art as gifts. They collectively chose to communicate via participation as artists. They appointed themselves responsive fellow creators in her own special mode, sometimes using some of her own characters and mimicking her voice, as an homage to what she and the work mean to them.
What is remarkable is that this art became participatory. It was not participatory from the outset. It evolved. Social media created the basic conditions of possibility, first for Avery to share her visual poems with hundreds of strangers, and second for that community of readers to cohere with a common mission, themselves becoming artists of affectionate reflection. In Twitter parlance, “this is the content I’m here for.”
As a self-identified nut for participatory and immersive work, I am floored it took me this long to see Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. Set in the sprawling McKittrick Hotel in NYC, Sleep No More is an immersive movement-based funhouse adaptation of Macbeth and in fall 2019, this research project finally afforded me the opportunity to catch one of the most commercially successful immersive performance in the world.
After dinner and drinks with a friend, I headed to Sleep No More alone. My friend refused to give me anything besides a reassurance that knowing me, I’d love it. I wasn’t afraid of going alone, I was told this was the way I should consume this piece anyways.
When I enter the McKittrick Hotel, I am given a white mask and a playing card. While I wait for my number to be called, I am invited to purchase a cocktail. Once my number is called, I enter an elevator with twenty or so other players and I meet my first and only explicit guide.
He lays out the rules:
He then encourages players to “be bold,” and kicks us off the elevator, free to independently roam the sprawling 6 floor hotel.
I’m giddy at this point, ready to explore and happen upon a secret. I wander around some rooms, poking through drawers, dipping my hands in tepid bathtubs and daring myself to open every door I find. About fifteen minutes in, I still haven’t seen any actors.
I wander all the way to the top floor and find myself in a room that looks like a hospital ward with 12 or so beds in two rows. I notice that under one bed, there is a man doing a stylized movement sequence. I’m joined by another curious woman and because we can’t see his face or his mask, we wait and watch. He emerges from under the bed with his white audience mask on backwards revealing his face. Then he gestures for me and the woman to follow him and he slides his mask back on, concealing his face.
The adventurer in me is ecstatic. Not only have I found an actor to follow, but he’s incognito. He’s an actor, posing as an audience member. I boldly follow him around the hotel.
Myself, the incognito actor, and the other woman enter a small study. He closes the door behind us. He takes a lab coat off the wall, puts it on the shoulders of the woman I am with, and sits her in a chair. He touches the middle of her back, doubling her over her knees. This happens three more times. Then, he bolts and I run after him. For the rest of the night, I lose him and then find him again, staring at me from across the room under his audience mask. He waves at me as I chase him through crowds, up and down stairs, and into closed rooms.
Then, he blows through a door that was clearly a backstage door and because of the reaction of the folks in black, who promptly eject him back out again, it dawns on me.
This man wasn’t an actor.
Suddenly embarrassed, uncomfortable, and unsafe, I leave Sleep No More 45 minutes early. My experience was spoiled in a particularly sinister way because this audience member preyed on me when I was told to follow my nose and explore dark corners. In her book Performing Ground, Laura Levin says at her first time at Sleep No More, she was “less disconcerted by the eerie music, taxidermied animals, and bloody bodies than finding myself in a room alone with a bunch of masked men given license to do whatever they wanted” (Levin, 84). Yup. “Be bold,” the man in the elevator tells players.
I wrote to Sleep No More detailing this experience but no one got back to me. On the subreddit r/sleepnomore, there are fanatics who detail potential tracks to guarantee a one-on-one with an actor. On Gawker one can learn “How to Find All the Nudity in Sleep No More” In a Buzzfeed expose about Sleep No More, actors detail abuse they experienced from audience members during the show. It is disturbing.
Some artists we have studied categorize their work as “ambient performance,” work that exists inside a worldA that is visible and continues to turn outside of the narrative. Zuppa Theatre Co’s This is Nowhere functions this way, as an audience roams around downtown Halifax constructing a blueprint for the future. The excitement of wondering “is this part of the show” reframes and animates the regular world inside and outside of the frame, This is an exciting kind of work for a participatory audience. The audience can control how they explore, what they look for, and what trail they are following. There is an additional energy behind discovering what is intentionally constructed and what is happening IRL. However, my experience at Sleep No More also tells me that this feeling can be anxiety inducing.
When Laura Levin recounts her own experience in Sleep No More, making reference to these blurred lines between “reality and illusion” and the “explicitly sexualized” kind of “voyeurism” that the show encourages, she quotes Director Felix Barrett saying that Sleep No More tries to “‘make the audience the epicentre of the work...so they can control it’” (Levin, 83). But in this case, I was controlled by someone else.
This audience member co-opted and hacked Sleep No More to play his own game, using the free environment to craft an experience in parallel with the intentional experience of the creators. Many of the case studies that encourage ambient exploration invite this kind of choose-your-own adventure reception. Think mirror mazes, ball pits, and parks. Children often play like this by using the given circumstance of a space and inventing their own game. Grounders works exactly this way. In Sleep No More, this freedom to play means “be bold” and many aspects of the show’s design encourage, perhaps dangerously, this kind of play - masks, darkness, being alone, vast space, non-linear plots, and alcohol. Freedom fosters innovation.
This person in Sleep No More played an alternate game. This is different than opting out. “Hacks” like these are layered on top of circumstances provided by the artist. In Landline, some folks hack the performance to text their scene partner for the entirety of the experience, rather than listen to the audio prompts provided. Both Archive of Missing Things and This Is Nowhere encourage free exploration that is not limited to the explicit goals of the work.
The difference between those hacks and what I experienced in Sleep No More was interference. This man took advantage of my curiosity. He put me at risk and affected my experience. Where some work invites a kind of choose-your-own alternative adventure, this person chose my adventure for me.
Levin, Laura. Performing Ground: Space, Camouflage and the Art of Blending In. Palgrave Macmillan. 2014.
If you were to purchase a video game today, there’s a good chance you would open the case to find a disk and a promotional pamphlet. Notably absent is the rulebook, practically archaic nowadays with the prevalence of gaming culture and the perceived decrease in attention span. Who has time to read a whole book? With enough prior knowledge, the game should be easy enough to figure out as you go. Theatre similarly comes packaged without a rulebook because, of course, we already know how to play the role of the spectator. We know when to applaud, when to be silent, and most importantly, we stay in our seats.
Alexander García Düttmann remarks that “it belongs to the rules of the game of art” that one does not interfere with the stage proceedings, and there can be great comfort in accepting the ensuing action is out of our control. However, participatory theatre flips on the house lights and throws the audience a controller. It’s time to become a player. While exciting, this position is often a vulnerable one; as we shed the familiar skin of passivity in favour of agency, we are forced to question the expectations placed on us in this new role. What am I supposed to do? How can I be a “good” participant in this event? What if I do something wrong and ruin the game? The risk of embarrassment or failure often generates apprehension in would-be players. Janet H. Murray raises some parallel concerns about risk inside fictions in her book on immersive game-play, Hamlet on the Holodeck, exploring how we can “regulate the anxiety intrinsic to the form.” As she notes, “suspense, fear of abandonment, fear of lurking attackers, and fear of loss of self in the undifferentiated mass are part of the emotional landscape of the shimmering web” (135). However, we are not doomed to remain lost at sea as we navigate the murky waters of participation. Emerging to answer the outcry for help is a new theatrical role which accompanies us on our journey, gently pushes us onto a safe pathway and critically, teaches us the new rules. Enter, the guide.
Much like how Navi accompanies Link in the iconic game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the performative guide exists to ensure the success of the player. As an adaptive role that shifts in appearance and design with each show, the guide can appear in a variety of forms. This is unsurprising given the evolving nature of participatory theatre’s structure and content; however, I posit that in successful participatory performances the guide consistently surfaces to combat the player’s risk of failure. In Monday Nights, the guide appears in the form of a coach who encourages audience members to become active figures in a basketball game. The potential for embarrassment here is strong, especially with spectators who feel unathletic or uncoordinated. In this instance, the guide builds a supportive team environment that celebrates participation and minimizes risk through unconditional cheering. By eliminating insecurity, audiences can grapple with the purpose of their participation and appreciate both the value of teamwork and the bonding nature of the game.
Tape Escape, though entirely different from Monday Nights in its construction as a participatory experience, also utilizes the guide to great effect. In this video store escape room-performance hybrid, groups of players are accompanied by a store employee. As a natural guide, the employee utilizes an intimate knowledge of the space and an approachable nature to assist when necessary. With puzzle solving at the forefront of the experience, frustration and the risk of offering incorrect solutions can plague players. This poses a significant problem because the story is revealed through each solution, and as such, the performance exists in the interactions between the players and the space. Therefore, an inability to navigate the surroundings directly relates to a lack of progression in the show. Here, the guide steps in to mitigate the difficulty level by providing hints and store insight when players are struggling. Much like a real store employee would assist customers in finding DVDs and offering recommendations, the guide facilitates a meaningful experience for the players. Though the focus remains on the player’s wit and relationship to the unfolding story, the guide alleviates the appropriate amount of pressure to provide a rewarding challenge.
Although the form of the guide may change, the role is unified by the widening of theatrical directions of communication. Thinking about communication and metatheatre, Sławomir Świontek first proposed that we understand theatre through “vectors” of performance that carry information. These “meta-enunciative vectors” run perpendicular to each other; one is actor-to-actor (or character-to-character) inside the fictional world, the other crosses the so-called fourth wall, sending information to the audience. Fig. 1 demonstrates how participation modifies these “vectors” by allowing players to send information back, establishing a communication loop between actors and participants.
The guide hovers on the line between the actual world of the audience and the fictional world of the performance, which Jenn Stephenson identifies as “worldA and worldB,” respectively. In Monday Nights, we recognize the guide is a coach both within the play and the world of the audience. We already expect guidance from this figure, and so the facilitation of participation is natural. The same can be said for the store employees in Tape Escape, who offer players excellent customer service. In both cases, the guide exists and behaves exactly as one might expect in our world, while also playing a role in the evolution of the performance. The guide approaches the audience in worldA, and once a familiar relationship has been solidified, the transition into worldB becomes possible.
The key here is that the guide is not the central figure, but a role which encourages the audience to become active figures themselves. It is through this transformation, and only through this transformation that participatory performances can create the biggest experiential and dramaturgical impact. I hope that as participatory theatre continues to grow, the guide will prevent paralysis from the risk of participation by facilitating meaningful play that is equal parts entertaining and aesthetically satisfying. We all have the capacity to be players, we just need a little help to play the game.
Griztner, K., and Alexander Garcia Düttmann. (2011). “On Participation in Art.” Performance Research, vol. 16, no. 4 (2011): 136-140.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
Stephenson, Jenn. “Meta-enunciative Properties of Dramatic Dialogue: A New View of Metatheatre and the Work of Slawomir Świontek.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, vol. 21, no. 1 (2006): 115-128.
Świontek, Slawomir. Excerpts from Le Dialogue Dramatique et le Metathéâtre. Translated by Jenn Stephenson, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, vol. 21, no. 1 (2006): 129-144.
White, Gareth. Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
*This research was generated as part of a University Summer Student Research Fellowship (2019) funded by Queen’s University.
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
One of my delights (I know . . . “geek alert!”) is to take a piece of critical analysis that is either outmoded or from another discipline and see what happens when it is applied to a current performance text. In this case, the “old” work is Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature by Espen J. Aarseth written in 1997. What is ergodic literature? Good question. This is a new word coined by Aarseth from the Greek root ‘ergon’ meaning to work (Think, using the rowing machine at the gym as “erging”) combined with ‘hodos’ meaning path. The choice to add path to work says a lot about the nature of the texts he is thinking about. Cybertexts or “ergodic” works are texts in which the reader makes choices about the direction they wish to follow. 1980s kids’ lit Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books work this way. As does a more consciously literary work like Michael Joyce’s (1990) hypertext novel Afternoon. Aarseth also includes early digital games and MUDs (multi-user dungeons/domains) and the I Ching among other things. What I love about Aarseth, writing in the mid-1990s, is that he has no idea what is coming next.
The provocation that Aarseth provides to thinking about the work of path-choosing by the ergodic audience of participatory performance is I think best summed up in this diagram from page 64.
In this early phase of our research into participatory performance, this four part taxonomy has been very useful as a kind of litmus test to describe in basic terms the different performances in terms of labour. In Aarseth’s terms, “What is the user’s function?” In our terms, “What is the work that the audience-player is doing?”
The first function in Aarseth’s diagram is “Interpretative.” I am glad to see this here. This notion that the hermeneutic work of the audience in discerning meaning is active labour is important. Interpretation as active work lines up with the central thesis of Susan Bennett’s seminal work Theatre Audiences (1990) which looks to reader-response theory to demonstrate the centrality of the audience in actively creating meaning in the intersection of their experience of the work and their own unique archive of knowledge. Is interpretation participation? Another good question. Trying to answer this question has been critical to helping us to refine the territory of this study. (Another reason why Aarseth has been useful.) Our current take on this is to say, “No.” Interpretation is active and it is work. But is it “taking part?” And this is where we are starting to build the parameters of what counts as participation for our study. The act of participation is engaged in personal meaning making but it is not an act of co-creation. The work is not materially changed as a result of my interpretation. Perhaps we can say it is active but not interactive.
The second listed function in the diagram is “Explorative.” Audience workers in this mode are seekers and navigators. They are curious investigators. Exploration might be as minimal as being mobile, walking along a single path and choosing where to look. Or the space might be expansive with lots of latitude for determining your own path. In this mode, scenes might come in any order or some scenes might be skipped entirely. Each audience experience is an entirely unique self-directed artifact. However, audience impact is quite limited insofar as the environment itself and any associated narrative remains essentially unchanged by the audience-players. Popular examples include haunted houses, mazes and audio-walks/podplays. Tamara written by John Krizanc, which premiered in Toronto in 1981 before touring to New York and Los Angeles is one of the earliest examples of this kind of work. More contemporary examples include Brantwood (created by Julie Tepperman and Mitchell Cushman) and The Archive of Missing Things (Zuppa Theatre).
The constructive function describes audience-players who contribute to the making of the performance somehow. Aarseth describes the gaps to be filled as keyholes where the audience is holding the key. Often the audience is not just ‘holding’ the key but the audience IS the key. Audience provide their bodies as physical labour—in Counting Sheep, we disassemble a trestle table and benches to create a protest barricade. Audiences also provide their bodies as scenography or supernumeraries—in It Comes in Waves we are all party guests. Audiences also provide immaterial labour through answering questions or revealing autobiographical details. This happens in Foreign Radical where we are repeatedly asked questions pertaining to our online privacy and our behaviour at border crossings to evoke our ethical consideration of government security surveillance.
Aarseth’s fourth category is “Textonic.” Here he is accounting for those moments in literary works where the reader becomes a writer and contributes a new “texton,” or chunk of text. This is different from the gap-filing work of construction. New sections are created de novo, and the work becomes unpredictable and emergent. Anything (well, almost anything) could happen next. It is rare for performances to be contingently emergent like this in their entirety, but there are moments. Moments where the opportunity for audience impact is significant and strongly shapes what comes next. Storytelling in Lost Together is emergent. It is known that Shira and Michaela will make a miniature sculpture in response to the audience’s story of a lost object, but exactly what that sculpture will be is entirely indeterminate. Similarly, the blindfolded guessing game/hide and seek in The Stranger 2.0, not only is the framework very loose but the performance is responsive to input in a meaningful way.
What we are discovering is that these categories get a bit blurry, especially between construction and emergent responsiveness. Moreover, in a single performance audience members may perform some or all of these functions simultaneously or different moments in a work may invite different kinds of work. This taxonomy derived from Aarseth is hardly the final word on audience work but it has provoked much fruitful analysis as we have attempted to describe and sort the work of participatory work.