The Audience Position

Watching the Watchers

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.

Just before the holidays, I had the pleasure of catching American Repertory Theater’s amazing production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. The action of the play took place all over the theatre (decked out as the inside of an old night club) as spectators inhabited tables and stools about the stage, and actors climbed atop platforms deep in the auditorium. My wife and I were seated on barstools on the front lip of the stage, and at the climax of the play, we got a special treat. Natasha stood just a foot away from us as Pierre said a few beautiful words to her. This was a profound moment because Natasha was placed so far to one end of the space, and we were two of maybe three audience members who could see her reaction to Pierre’s declaration. But equally stirring was my acute awareness of how visible I was to the rest of the audience in that moment. In a sense, since I was nearly the only one to see her clearly, my face became the mirror through which the other viewers accessed Natasha. I was briefly an object to be seen, in a position usually reserved for actors.

How can we continue to complicate the viewing experience so that spectators consider what it means to be looking? When can this duality of watching and being watched open our eyes to our complicity in real life events?

Immersive and interactive theatre provides wonderful opportunities for watchers to become watched in this same way, and much can be communicated in these opportunities about communal responsibility. In my first post, I mentioned an incredible play by Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro entitled Information for Foreigners. Never fully staged, Gambaro intended the play to be performed in a large building with many different floors and rooms. Tour guides were to lead small groups of spectators through a variety of settings, each depicting a form of torture or violence that Argentina’s former military government had used on its own people during the “Dirty War” of the 1970’s and 1980’s. But as scholar Diana Taylor posits, Gambaro’s script focused “not only on the acts of violence themselves but also on the spectators watching them, on the act of watching…The looking, not the violence, is central.” In drawing attention to the act of spectating, Gambaro was commenting on the complicity of ordinary Argentinians during the Dirty War.

I continue to think about the value of placing spectators in this position of being an object, of allowing the watchers to also be watched. How can we continue to complicate the viewing experience so that spectators consider what it means to be looking? When can this duality of watching and being watched open our eyes to our complicity in real life events?

Performance art has long been interested in the relationship between the viewer and what’s seen; I would argue that every immersive and interactive piece at least tacitly confronts this relationship. But I have not yet seen a production in America that tries to confront this relationship for socio-political purposes. As far as I have seen, the tendency is to turn spectators into active agents and move viewers away from “just viewing,” and towards co-creating an experience. Granted, there is plenty to explore in our agency and how we use it (see my earlier post on this very subject).

actors in a living room
An audience taking in a scene from the Living Room Playmakers' production of Refinished directed by Damon Krometis, 2014. Photo by Chad Eschman.

But isn’t the act of looking a huge part of American culture? How many different ways now exist for us to watch different content? How often do we view images from halfway around the world, or maybe just on the other side of our own city? I feel there is fertile ground for us to question what it means to be watching and only watching. Is it enough to see, or is seeing sometimes an excuse for action?

The most fertile ground for exploration—without wading into the realm of pure didacticism—seems to be in the ways we make myths. In Information for Foreigners, Gambaro was wrestling with the ways a society is trained to stay quiet by dissecting the narratives and structures that the regime put in place to make people feel OK staying silent. She had her guides constantly trying to draw viewers closer to what they were seeing. My own production, Thou Proud Dream, looked at the rhetoric and stories we choose to represent our recent military history. In my last post, I talked at length about the role proximity played in that event, and those same tools allowed viewers to view each other more easily. By disrupting our gaze and making us watch other watchers, directors can draw attention to our position as viewing the object (a passive watcher) and viewing the subject (a person with agency to do something). They can illuminate our own complacency in accepting what we are told.

But such work risks alienating an audience, turning allies into adversaries. Any attempt at confronting the ways we look at the world needs to be married with a strong audience contract, something that makes us feel safe and ready to engage and be seen. Sitting in that audience at Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, I saw plenty of people discomfited by being in the stage lights. Such people could not easily become both viewer and viewed, object and discerning subject. How can immersive theatre truly welcome people in so they get past the discomfort of being seen so as to investigate what it means to see?

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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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What wonderful questions for inquiry. Definitely territory that is challenging and yet hold fertile possibility. I hope more comments show up here with ideas and further questioning and investigation. Looking forward to reading your other posts.