I have an aesthetic objection to much of the contemporary performance I see. Actually, I have several, one of them to the term “contemporary performance” itself; but I’ll save those for another day. I’ll start with one of the two things that really bug me; the relationship between performers and audience.
It is a truism parroted by graduates of every university theatre course that the fourth wall associated with “slice of life” drama, or more generally with naturalism, has been broken. The convention that staged action cannot make reference to the existence of the audience is often regarded, along with other conventions of the theatrical past such as the well-made-play and the notion of character, as toxic; part of the stultifying bourgeois respectability that the innovators of the last century were reacting against. I’m not going to take issue with that idea. Not yet, anyway.
Many companies have taken the implied injunction to acknowledge and interact with the audience to heart. Some do it quickly, almost casually, by a visual or textual reference, by walking out from among the seated viewers, or greeting them as they come in. For other companies, it’s becoming increasingly central to their work. Entire sections of shows are directly addressed to the audience, comments are solicited, volunteers asked for, challenges or affirmations issued. In some cases, Gob Squad’s Kitchen was the example I saw, audience volunteers take the place of the performers, following a set of commands that the company members issue over earphones.
This sort of thing, I am told, is fundamentally postmodern, a challenge to theatrical convention, a destabilization of the relationship between audience and performers. Now, I am not at all sure that challenge and destabilization are good things in and of themselves, but I’ll get back to that. I’m interested in experimentation, so I suppress the thoughts that stage magicians and hypnotists have been using audience volunteers for centuries, that textual asides predate Shakespeare, and that some of the companies that address audiences directly have been doing so for more than twenty years. I’ll look, instead, at how I, as an audience member, feel about such techniques: More often than not, I feel shut out. To the extent that I am invited to engage, I am invited to do so intellectually, or aesthetically : to question my assumptions, to take home the message, or to just experience, without analysing or identifying.
When I watch a show though, I don't want my primary engagement to be intellectual, or even aesthetic. I want it to be visceral; I want to feel deeply. When actors play characters, when they ignore my existence, I am drawn in to the imaginary world they create for my pleasure. I become involved emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, even to some extent physically. Because I am also an actor, I know that my involvement is something the performers are aware of. In the simplest terms, they know when to drag a moment out for my/our delectation, when to speed things up because they’re losing us. The ebb and flow of audience involvement is the life’s blood of the experience.This is true in almost all traditional performances, particularly true in things like pantomime, or theatrical improvisation, where audience participation is explicit. The performance changes, subtly or grossly, depending on audience reaction, what actors call “the feel of the house”.
In the newer audience interaction forms, it seems to me that the performers are often not particularly interested in pleasing us. If they wish to please anyone, it’s the tiny group of academics, programmers, journalists, and bureaucrats who are the source, directly or indirectly, of their funding. I understand how this dynamic works. If you can’t expect to so much as break even from ticket sales, of course the audience’s pleasure becomes less important to you than that of the people on whose approval you depend. Since the image of artist as rebel, of good art as something that makes people uncomfortable, is much treasured in these circles, they seek to please them by discomfiting the audience. The irony that their anti-establishment, difficult, work is funded by the establishment appears lost on them.
There’s more to it than that, though. I get the impression from a lot of this work that the companies in question simply don’t like the audience. They like each other, they like the work they’re making, but their affection doesn’t extend outward to encompass us, no matter how openly they appear to address us. They do not allow their audience to have any sway over them. They are not malleable; they set out to challenge or persuade, not to be challenged or persuaded. When they solicit participation, it changes nothing in the performance because the performance is designed to be unchangeable, remaining opaque to audience influence even as audience members take the place of the performers. When we interact, as prompted, we have become props, scenery, actors with no agency or responsibility for the success of the show. Paradoxically, much (not all) contemporary work that is concerned with audience participation disenfranchises the audience far more thoroughly than anyone from the much-maligned naturalist tradition ever managed.