Establishing the Audience Contract
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.
Every piece of interactive theatre involves a contract with the audience. This contract implicitly and/or explicitly establishes the rules of viewership. It informs spectators how they are allowed to engage with the show’s performers, with their environment, and each other. Contracts can take myriad forms, and their various rules and theatrical devices can ultimately trigger very different thought processes for the audience.
A director’s point of view is critical to constructing a piece of interactive theatre, especially if one is looking to promote audience responsibility. What central question do I want to ask an audience? What is my goal in asking that question? When I can articulate these two answers, I can determine what rules I need to put into place for the audience, and which theatrical tools will most effectively guide them in the desired direction.
In my research of promoting social responsibility, I have been amazed at the nuances of articulating a central question. The specificity of words and even the tone of the question can greatly change an event’s contract. Take for example my old mentor, Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre. In his interactive performance, How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes, he asks his audience a simple, clear question: “How do you attack the problem of poverty in America, with a lens specifically focused on your community?” But simple questions often evoke vague answers. And questions that are too narrow limit the potential for true learning and growing within an event.
In talking with Rohd about the show, he explained that Sojourn asks a set of questions around the core investigation that help shape the inquiry: “If our goal is conversation and/or dialogue (two things that are not the same), what do we want to learn? What do we want to make space for? What events do we shape, and what events are we inviting audiences to co-develop within the structure of the piece?” By considering these questions, Rohd and Sojourn turned How to End Poverty into an experiment in “collective decision-making.”
The play’s contract is designed to encourage audiences to step into the unknown. There is an elaborate pre-show, which introduces spectators to the event’s participatory nature. As the play begins, the actor-facilitators inform the audience that their goal in this event is to determine how best to spend $1,000 from that performance’s ticket sales to fight poverty in their own community. Between performing theatrical vignettes that tackle various facets of poverty, these facilitators lead audience members in small group discussions about what to do with the money. They guide their groups using different prompts, advocating unvoiced points of view. They also enlist local experts on poverty to deepen the conversations. Audience members ultimately vote individually for one of five local organizations to fund.
How to End Poverty is serious in tone, but not sanctimonious. As Rohd says, the play views poverty “through the lens of compassion, curiosity and connection, not righteousness, shame, or didacticism.” When I saw the piece premiere at Northwestern University in 2013, the actor-facilitators were full of warmth, yet strongly focused. They acknowledged that poverty was a complicated topic, and therefore no perfect solution existed. Yet, they still pushed the audience to make a decision about how to spend their $1,000. Only by trying could the community learn how to better serve their impoverished citizens. The cast’s infectious energy made this task easier for every audience member.
A director’s point of view is critical to constructing a piece of interactive theatre, especially if one is looking to promote audience responsibility. What central question do I want to ask an audience? What is my goal in asking that question?
I encountered the same need for nuance while creating my thesis production at Northwestern University. Entitled Thou Proud Dream, the production was a site-specific, interactive rumination of Henry V. The production explored the ways we talk about and mythologize war, and how that rhetoric compares with veterans’ actual combat experiences. During the event, audience members followed a recent Iraq War veteran named Leroy around the outskirts of a local American Legion. Taking on the role of the Chorus character in Henry V, Leroy tried to lose himself in a fantasy of King Henry’s victory at Agincourt, focusing on Henry’s mesmerizing language. Ultimately, he was confronted and consumed by his own traumatic memories.
In creating Thou Proud Dream, I addressed complicated questions about how language interacts with trauma, healing, and memory. Through interviews with veterans, I came to believe that military rhetoric served a need for those who had been in combat. I was not interested in questioning the validity of this rhetoric, but rather in better understanding how language helped veterans heal. I wanted to explore the ethics of how military rhetoric was used to other ends. I wanted the audience to make their own decisions about how society should talk about war in the future, and still support the healing processes of veterans.
So my question ultimately became: “How is military rhetoric necessary, and how do we use such rhetoric ethically?” This question was dissonant in nature; it acknowledged rhetoric’s value while also interrogating it. When I started to develop an audience contract, I saw that dissonance needed to be a key aspect of my audience’s experience. We encouraged spectators to help Leroy conjure his fantasy of Henry V. By actively following Leroy on his quest to heal, we hoped participants might come to viscerally appreciate Henry’s language. At the same time, we attempted to establish moments where viewers could step back from this language and critically investigate it. Our contract deliberately left the audiences of Thou Proud Dream without an answer where they should stand. If I had been interested in questioning the basic value of military rhetoric, our production would have been a completely different experience, maybe full of righteousness, shame, or didacticism.
I try my best to pose a question that acknowledges the wide spectrum of experiences that spectators can and will bring to a performance. Posing this question takes a lot of investigation and reflection. But being clear with my question makes it so much easier to invite the audience into the conversation I am looking to have.