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.