The Audience Position

Introduction

Interactive forms of performance have placed audiences in a new relationship to the stories they are watching, where they are both spectator and participant. This series will explore the ways various artists and companies employ the tools of interactive theatre to complicate audiences’ individualized experiences and get them thinking about their place within a community.

As a director, I am interested in cultivating communal responsibility and my favorite way of doing so is by complicating the viewing relationship of my audience. I want to draw attention to their position within the story I am telling. Once I do, I can get them to consider their position within the sociopolitical context I am addressing. I believe that audiences who encounter a powerful human story with this self-awareness can start to make positive changes to their own behavior.

It is the desire to build awareness and responsibility that draws me to participatory forms of theatre. Interactive, immersive, and promenade productions allow audiences to occupy a unique position within a theatrical event. Viewers can satisfy their desire to be in control and individualize their experiences, which has become so ingrained in our on-demand culture. At the same time, however, it is an experience where they are both in the story and outside it, playing participant and spectator at the same time. The choices they make in such an environment start to stand out in sharp relief. I believe there is much to gain from making participants aware of this duality within interactive performances and using it to complicate their experiences.

As an artist, I occupy my time with the following questions: How can we use the tools of interactive theatre to draw attention to the viewer’s unique position in the story? How can we allow them the individuality they crave yet inspire them to dissect how they are part of something bigger? How can we create an interactive environment that ultimately requires viewers to ask tough questions about their role in our current political reality?

I have been exploring these questions for the last several years as part of my MFA in Directing at Northwestern University. Michael Rohd, a leader in the field of site-specific and interactive theatre, served as my mentor through multiple interactive performance projects. I used these graduate projects to experiment with various forms of audience interaction. Since completing my degree, I have helmed numerous site-specific and community-engaged productions that have allowed audiences to engage with their environments and brought them into new relationships with urgent questions.

a group of people telling stories by a campfire
Joseph Sultani as Henry V amongst the cast and audience of Thou Proud Dream, conceived and directed by Damon Krometis and written by Jenni Lamb, 2014. Photo by Shawn Ketchum Johnson.

What could American Theatre be if we found ways to merge a self-controlled experience with a profound interest in questioning our individual worldviews?

One of my greatest influences is Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro. She was equally concerned with the viewer’s position in her 1972 play Information for Foreigners. The play was a critique of Argentinians’ complacency to their government’s systemic acts of violence during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. While never fully staged, she intended the play to be an immersive experience set in a large, multi-floor building. The audience was to be divided into small groups and led on different paths to various rooms; inside each room, they encountered various scenes of torture and persecution. Audiences could get as close as they wanted to these acts while their guides cynically commented on the brutality depicted.

Information for Foreigners used many of the tools I see in participatory works today, but through them, Gambaro aimed to challenge her spectators’ attitudes. In her essay “Violent Displays: Griselda Gambaro and Argentina’s Drama of Disappearance,” Diana Taylor writes that Gambaro wants audiences, “to relinquish [their] comforting assumptions about violence, [their] claims to deniability, innocence, and quietism.” Gambaro’s play is perhaps too aggressive to be a model for America, but I am in awe of her ambition and I see in her work clues for complicating the audience’s viewing position. What could American Theatre be if we found ways to merge a self-controlled experience with a profound interest in questioning our individual worldviews? What would viewers discover about themselves and each other, and how would they act in response?

In this series, I hope to explore the tools open to us as creators of interactive experiences. I plan to delve into America’s history of interactive performances and pinpoint specific tactics past artists have used to complicate the viewer’s position. I also plan to posit some ideas for future research and innovation.

As I do so, I welcome the input of the community. There are many companies out there that have and are building interactive performances that ask challenging questions about our roles in local and national issues. While I will be doing diligent research to find further examples, I encourage your suggestions and critiques of artists and productions. I am grateful for the community’s insight as this blog series continues.

Also, I acknowledge that the theatre is a volatile and uncontrollable place. Audiences deserve the right to feel safe and grounded, and we can never make all spectators react exactly as we want. I do not assume we can make an entire audience want to go forth and change the world. Nor do I advocate being manipulative, or worse, accusatory of the audience. I see spectators as our allies, and I am interested in mechanisms that allow them to engage in a production, but then challenge their perceptions.

In my next blog, I will look at the impact of a director’s point of view on the tools that become available to shaping the audience’s position within an interactive event.

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Thoughts from the curator

This series explores the ways various artists and companies employ the tools of interactive theatre to complicate audiences’ individualized experiences and get them thinking about their place within a community.

The Audience Position

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Damon, I really look forward to reading this series as it unfolds. These are really great questions that you pose and some that I often consider as well. I recently wrote a blog here considering an experience I had while dancing, and it very much begs the question of the role and influence of the audience. Even bringing this realization to the audience that they are not merely a passive observing entity is sometimes new for spectators, but also very interesting to encourage. In regards to dance, it is largely non-verbal, but can be highly emotional. What happens when the audience and performer feed off of each other, and even more, if they do so consciously. Personally, I am very interested in how the audience can learn about themselves by observing how I physically translate unspoken emotions, especially if those emotions are not only mine. I see many overlaps with your series.

Thank you for this series and I look forward to the next installment. I, too, often play with the role of the audience and the implied (or articulated) audience/performer contract. I share many of your questions. I wonder, also, how interactions and engagement become "transferrable skills." How does the evolution from passive spectator to activated participant translate to other public/social spheres? Should it? Is performance a model or the thing itself? I'll be staying tuned...