Helping an Audience Collaborate with One Another
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.
The first immersive play I ever created was a short devised piece exploring the nightmares that mothers have when they are pregnant. In the third act of our four-act structure, we created a moment where the audience had to work together to solve a children’s jigsaw puzzle. We gave each audience member a single jigsaw piece at the top of the show, and when the time came, our main character pulled the puzzle board out from a part of the set and placed it before the crowd.
We were really excited by the potential that this moment held. It was a chance for the audience to directly engage in the storytelling. We thought the puzzle created a nice air of mystery, where spectators would be anxious to discover a secret phrase scrawled across its pieces. It required viewers to collaborate, and when the secret message was revealed, it would trigger the final act of the play.
Directors of interactive theatre have to be sure that each choice given to the audience allows them to better understand their role in the work and how they can function.
The moment proved to be a disaster. Even though we used a very elementary puzzle with big block pieces, the spectators struggled desperately to build the board. Awkwardness gave way to frustration. Eventually our actors stepped in and finished the board for their guests, and moved on sheepishly towards the conclusion. The playwright and I shared a nervous laugh and prayed nothing else would go off course.
What had been intended as a moment of spontaneous community became a moment of embarrassment, and certain viewers felt like they had failed. I learned an important lesson that day about the risks and rewards of asking spectators to collaborate during an immersive play.
When it comes to theatre for social change, that kind of collaboration is the end goal. Such theatre is designed to foster new dialogues and new partnerships. And interactive theatre allows for those partnerships to play out in real time, to act as a kind of test drive for future collaboration in the world. But building these partnerships means facing a number of potential pitfalls.
The first is obstinacy. Earlier in this series, I discussed Sojourn Theatre’s How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes. That production asks participants to openly debate how best to tackle poverty in groups of about thirty spectators. When I saw the show, my group hardly had a chance to discuss our options, because one attendant took every chance he had to denounce the event’s premise. We found ourselves spending more energy trying to get this one individual onboard with making a choice than discussing the choice itself. I left the production frustrated that my experience had been limited by this one individual. As the years have passed, I believe more and more in not letting such voices to be the loudest. Those who want to work together need to rise above it, and I wish our group’s facilitator had taken such an approach.
The second pitfall is giving too little guidance to a group. As I have said time and again in this blog, rules create a container in which action can take place. The aforementioned puzzle was a fun idea, but it accidentally became a narrative roadblock. We realized immediately after the run that there was a simple solution. If we had traced the edges of the pieces on the board, the activity would have moved much faster. The focus would have been on the message the spectators were assembling, not on which pieces correctly fit together.
The third is making the container too tight. When I created A Thousand Words, my interactive performance about diversity in Northwestern print media, my team and I thought endlessly about how best to state the prompt for our final exercise. The audience was divided into four groups and they had to assemble their own college brochure. We wanted this brochure to include seven photos from a collection of pictures we provided, and for it to represent Northwestern in “the best possible light.” We wanted to be sure our terminology gave groups an attainable goal, but also allowed for interpretation. Did the “best possible light” mean to dream of Northwestern as wholly diverse and inclusive, or to present the truth of its demographic makeup? Teams had to make a choice what was most important to them and then design a brochure from there.
It was difficult to find the right balance, because we wanted to avoid the gridlock I had encountered in my earlier production. It took a lot of debate for my team to feel good about our choice of words. But staying ambiguous in our language left room for interpretation, so that no group was trying to simply fulfill the prompt correctly.
That is part of the task as well: to ensure your participants never feel incompetent. That feeling can come from a variety of places, be it a discussion about the causes of poverty, or building a 30-piece puzzle. Directors of interactive theatre have to be sure that each choice given to the audience allows them to better understand their role in the work and how they can function.
And as always, the guiding star in such decisions is your point of view. The better I know what I want a moment to accomplish within a group of viewers, the more thoroughly I can consider how a collaborative moment should be designed. I can better predict where the pitfalls may lie, and do what I can to treat my participants as allies.
Still, sometimes I will be surprised. That’s why it’s also good to have previews…