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I would like to start with this thesis:

All live theater is (from an audience perspective) inherently participatory.

This not to say that every production utilizes what we have come to refer to as “audience participation.” Rather it is simply to recognize that audiences do play an active role whenever a performance takes place, whether a proscenium or promenade, whether twentieth century American realism or avant-garde performance art. The audience, by virtue of being present in the venue, is participating in the production.

Now, yes, of course, there is a difference between seeing a traditional production of Death of a Salesman (not typically participatory) and a Neo-Futurist piece (quite frequently participatory). However, actors always know when an audience is alert and attentive, or when they are disengaged and shifting in seats. Because when we are in a room together, we are sharing space, time, experience. Some are simply participating more (or differently) actively than others.

That being said, “immersive” or “participatory” or “interactive” theater is not to everyone’s taste, as was expressed in Christopher Borrelli’s recent Chicago Tribune piece which sparked some stimulating discussion both inside and outside of the Chicago artistic community. The full article can be found here.

My eagerness to engage with his article is not a matter of disagreement, but rather to encourage a more informed understanding of the philosophies, conversations, considerations, and sheer work contributed by artists who create participatory performance. As Zev Valancy, Literary Manager of Stage Left Theatre in Chicago, puts it:

[I] don't think that this article makes much of an effort at actually understanding the techniques (or even acknowledging that there are differences among fourth wall-breaking, talking to the audience with no expectation of response, and dragging people up onstage), the ways in which they can be used, and the effects they can have if used well.

Melissa Hillman, artistic director of Impact Theatre, in her blog Bitter Gertrude, further differentiates between so-called “immersive” theater and interactive theater. For her purposes, immersive theater is theater that holds an audience “spellbound” with the story being told and each other, while she characterizes interactive theater as having been created with audience participation in mind that an audience interacts with on their own terms.

Now, perhaps it was not Borrelli’s goal, or point, to differentiate and delve this deeply. That’s fine. But without this understanding, it is far too easy to have one negative encounter with audience participation, and thus conclude that all instances will be bad or will fail or will feel uncomfortable and oppressive.

I have certainly felt imposed upon, uncomfortable, and upset as an audience member in interactive shows—whether it’s the relationship between audience member and performer being unclear, the performers feeling ill-equipped (or just less experienced) in creating an empathetic interactive environment, or something else entirely. Not everyone will successfully utilize the tools and techniques of participation.

But I have also been to many such performances that have left me feeling invigorated, like I am part of a community, and with new insight into a story that I would not have received without that element of the performance. And if I had written off this kind of work after the first couple of bad experiences, I would have never discovered the good. It’s like cooking—I could make you a crème brûlée. It would be terrible, because I don’t know how to properly make a crème brûlée. But this does not mean you should never try another crème brûlée, especially if done by a trained cook!

The onus is thus on the artist to create an atmosphere and scenario for an audience to be open to an interactive experience, and to understand the techniques and considerations necessary to successfully engage with your patrons. After all, the audience is placing their individual and collective trust in you, the artist(s), as soon as they enter the theater.

I spoke with Halena Kays, Artistic Director of The Hypocrites in Chicago. From promenade stagings of Pirates of Penzance to audience members reading lines during David Cromer’s record-breaking Our Town, The Hypocrites are constantly trying out different ways to engage with their audiences. In our conversation, she brought up a few of the pitfalls that can trip up this kind of work.

Many artists have the philosophy in creating their work that “the audience has all the power.” And this isn’t true. As the performer and artist you always have the power. It’s your show, it’s your theater, your rules. So it’s your job to create a scenario where you are always the one looking foolish, where the audience is always at a higher status, and where they can never make a “mistake”—only you can.

In 2013 Halena helmed Jay Torrence’s Ivywild: The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John, a brilliantly oddball telling based on the true story of early 1900s Chicago Alderman John Coughlin and his siphoning of money from Chicago’s vice district in an attempt to build an amusement park in Colorado. The audience participation that was featured in this piece was not an initially planned element:

It began with “what is the story?” and “what are the goals of the production?” What experience do you want the audience to have, and why for this story? For Ivywild, we wanted the audience to feel like they were on a ride, that they were getting an amusement park experience; the experience of being amazed and surprised.

From there, the creative team spent at least ten hours just discussing the goals, the story, the desired effect of the play itself before any choices were tried, before participation was fully considered. In rehearsal, the team tried different ways of creating this joyful amusement park experience, trying to give each other and others that experience, and only then did anything begin to become concrete.

What resulted was a number of designated “participation” seats with notes clearly explaining the expectations (to be brought onstage for an endearingly charming roller-coaster-meets-“it’s-a-small-world” simulation). This was the first success of this experience—I had a clear choice of whether or not to sit in that seat—I could choose what level of participation I desired. It was not an obligation, so while the performers still have the aforementioned control, I was ceded this critical decision in my evening, and understood exactly what was going to happen before the show even began.

And really, when we engage with this philosophy of inviting rather than obligating the audience, as well as making the expectations clear from the moment an audience member buys a ticket (let alone walks into your theater), we are discussing the “ethics” even more than “aesthetics” of audience engagement, a term used by Nathan Allen, Artistic Director of The House Theatre of Chicago:

At the House, we try to focus on maintaining our ethics, while allowing the aesthetics to remain in constant process. …This idea that if you want a purely passive, or aesthetically set experience you can just go to a movie, there’s the rub. When you are at the theater, you are not at a movie. If you want to be left alone, there are plenty of other options out there, but at its root our art form functions to address a moment of social need, the need to be in a room full of people, to share an experience together, at a specific moment in time, in a space where the symbols and aesthetics can be adjusted to address this moment now, and this audience here. With this service in mind, you must address the audience. 

A Chicago artist cannot discuss interactive theater without bringing up the Neo-Futurists, founded by Greg Allen. Since 1988 the Neo’s have been producing intensely participatory performance experiences and have developed quite a following. It is not unusual to walk by Ashland and Foster late on a Friday, a Saturday, or slightly less late on a Sunday and see a line snaking around the block for their signature Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, an ever-changing attempt to perform thirty plays in sixty minutes. TML has toured nationally and internationally, and it is a rare occurrence to not see an audience member brought up on stage (or sometimes half the audience at once) as part of a short play.

Greg differentiates the Neo-Futurists’s approach from interactive theater where “characters” are engaging with audience members:

I do periodically see in other theaters what I refer to as “false audience participation” where an actor “in character” solicits the interaction of an audience member. The falsity comes from the fact that the two are not on equal footing, one is pretending to be someone else—often somewhere and some-time else—while the other, the audience member, is stuck with the awkward predicament of whether or not to enter into a fabricated reality where they don’t know what to do. This often results in a demeaning or condescending role for the audience member. Since we are always ourselves on stage and exist in that immediate moment in time and space, we open the door for audience members to join us honestly as themselves. No matter what their response, it is right.

Greg also shared his feelings regarding how to make such work successful, both on-stage and off:

All theater is immersive, whether we want it to be or not. You need to design your audience’s experience from the moment they set foot in your theater door, or, preferably, as they approach it from the street.  If that environment is welcoming and warm and egalitarian, then the audience will feel similarly welcomed to be themselves. The Neo-Futurist performers literally greet the audience at the door as they enter. This immediately breaks down the barriers of who is on stage and who is off. Similarly we never hide when we are not on stage. We clearly can be seen in the wings or we will often just sit and join you in the audience (if there is an empty seat). This all helps to break down the barriers of “audience” and “performer.” ...‘We’re all people in the same room’ is one of our basic credos and it would be rude to ignore those whom we invited to come join our theater party.

While Greg’s notion of “we’re all people in the same room” may seem to contrast with Halena’s assertion that the audience can never truly have equal power, the key is the act of striving to create equality, the very attempt, in the work itself, to try to break down these barriers and bring people together in an honest moment of community and communication.

Creating this kind of work is a joy. I recently dipped my toe in these waters with an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. When creating this piece, Sarah Rose Graber, a collaborator on the show and current Fulbright Scholar studying devised and participatory theater in the United Kingdom, stressed one thing above all: “When interacting with the audience, it must always be an act of celebration, never one of obligation or imposition.”

Celebration became the mantra of the production. Watching the faces of kids in the front row light up when high-fiving an actor or hearing them sing along with the performers on stage, gives me renewed faith in the future of the theater. A dear friend brought his son to the show, and told me the next day that his son declared when he grew up, in addition to being a construction worker, he would perform in Snark. This is the potential of participatory performance.

It is this celebration of the audience, the cultivation of community that keeps Penzance remounted (the count currently stands at three remounts and numerous tours), that keeps audiences aged from five to ninety-five on the edge of their seats at The House Theatre’s annual Nutcracker (I have pictures of my girlfriend making snow angels on stage with kids during intermission), that keeps the Blue Man Group running at the Briar Street Theatre since 1997 (Chicago’s longest-running show). However, if Mr. Borrelli and others have had such negative experiences that it warrants decrying audience participation as a whole, there is no progress to be made arguing. Rather, we must take a long hard look at ourselves and our work and ask, at every step of the creative process, if we are communicating our intentions fully to our audiences. Are we effectively transmitting the expectations to the audience before they enter the world of our show? What are we doing (or not doing) that leaves patrons feeling blindsided, feeling imposed upon, and feeling like they bought the wrong ticket? What can we actively do to take better care of our audiences, to create community, to ensure a safe and welcoming place for narrative interaction to take place? By answering these questions in our work, we can better ensure that audiences, whether they care for this kind of storytelling or not, better understand the value of such techniques.