Is audience participation killing theatre?

Theatre is defined by many unwritten rules.  When you first go to the theatre, these rules are unclear, on etiquette, what to wear, how to react to the performance.  On the few occasions I’ve been to a classical music concert I have struggled to understand when to clap; why is it encouraged after a big solo but frowned on between movements?  I wonder if I go to a musical that it is the informality, the absence of rules that is a key attraction.  But, by and by, when we’re in a theatre we can exist in our own bubble, observing, waiting to see what others do before reacting.

What then, about audience participation?  I did a quick Twitter survey:

The results surprised me, especially with my Twitter being linked to so many ‘theatre’ and ‘arts’ people.  Fully 78% wanted either no, or limited, interaction.

Several respondents talked about being able to choose all the responses depending on the show.  But that means you have to know what you’re going to get.  You have to be comfortable with the rules not just for ‘theatre’ but for ‘participatory theatre’.  We’re straight back to the first paragraph; participation creates a new barrier for many.

Yet there is a large group of people that love immersive and participatory theatre.  Just look at Angel Meadow in 2014.  Jamal Harewood’s ‘The Privileged’ in 2015, Midnight Soup in 2016.  More recently Trainspotting (way beyond my comfort zone) and Operation Black Antler.  My daughter would choose immersive over any other theatre form.  And yet for everyone there is a point at which participation becomes uncomfortable.  Not only is it different for everyone, it will change with the individual’s physical and emotional state.  How do we ensure that participation is safe?

Theatre thrives on innovation, and some of the most interactive shows have been the most powerful.  There is a significant part of our audience that seeks ever increasing contact (emotional and physical) with performers, that wants theatre to explore increasingly challenging and uncomfortable topics.

But for the wider theatre audience that means that some of the old norms are gone.  You can no longer guarantee to be able to sit in anonymity.  It’s like watching the news; twenty years ago you could guarantee that although the news might be grim, anyone could watch.  Now, we have no idea what we’re going to see – dead bodies, live warfare, genuine horror.  Is that putting many people off watching the news?

So my question is this?  In satisfying those that want to push theatre forward into ever more rewarding and challenging areas, who want to reduce the gap between performer and audience, are we turning off people who just want to sit and watch events unfold on a stage?

Perhaps it’s an issue of communication.  Perhaps theatres should more clearly explain what might happen.  I have talked to many people who highlight that this would take away the element of surprise, although it was interesting to see at Contact recently a sign that warned that Peter McMaster’s 27 included audience interaction.  I would love to know from box office staff how many times they are asked for reassurance that a show does not include any interaction.

Some shows are clearly going to be challenging.  Some sell themselves on their ability to shock.  Some festivals, for example FLARE, set out to present new and challenging work and you know what to expect; these attract a knowledgable audience.

But I worry that people are being put off going to the theatre due to the increase in audience participation.  Because it’s not for everyone.  If fact, I genuinely believe that it is a minority that seek participation, and the survey shows this.  By seeking participation, perhaps an audience gives implicit permission for what is about to happen, within acceptable bounds.  But if an audience member buys a ticket, expecting no interaction with performers, then there is no permission given.

The argument runs that few shows force audience members to do anything they are uncomfortable with.  But peer pressure, spontaneity and fear mean that it is often very hard to say no.  When a performer takes your hand and says ‘are you OK with this?’ it’s hard to say ‘no, I’m not’.  When everyone around you is dancing, you feel more visible sitting down.  It’s a very fine line.

Theatres must ensure that the unwritten rule that you will never have to participate, unless it is explicitly highlighted, is upheld.  Even if it ruins the element of surprise.  We must respect the rights of the individual to maintain control over their personal space.

In the same way that a bad childhood theatre experience can turn someone off theatre for life, so can unwelcome participation turn anyone off all but the very safest theatre.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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