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Immersive and Interactive Performance

A Rasic Experience

Essay by

After reading Mikhael Tara Garver’s HowlRound series on the senses in immersive theatre, I was inspired to consider how, by giving time-space to the sensoria, immersive, and interactive productions are inherently rasic.

The Sanskrit term “rasa” has been variously translated as juice, flavor, extract, and essence. In the context of performance theory it is the “aesthetic flavor or sentiment” tasted in and through performance. The Natyasastra, the Sanskrit aesthetic treatise attributed to Bharata, notes that when foods and spices are mixed together in different ways they create different tastes; similarly, the mixing of different basic emotions arising from different situations, when expressed through the performer—or, in the case of immersive and interactive theatre, through the smell of garlic, the taste of wine, the roughness of a blanket, or the gentle touch of a hand—gives rise to an emotional experience or “taste” in the spectator, which is rasa. Rasa is, as the aesthetic theorist Abhinavagupta puts it, an “act of relishing.” Rasa is active, sensorial, and experiential. It involves the active taking in of the performance. It posits the audience as participant and partaker. It is a theory of immersion.

Rasa In Action
This Is Not A Theatre Company’s A Serious Banquet (Judson Church, June 2014), a production I conceived and directed, was a theatre-dance-dinner structured around the party Pablo Picasso threw for the painter Henri Rousseau in 1908 as recorded by Gertrude Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. Partakers were welcomed into the world of the play by Picasso’s mistress Fernande Olivier: they were invited to talk with a guitar programmed to respond to sound with music; they were asked to answer the phone, which recited Apollinaire poems; they were asked to sign the birthday card for Rousseau; they were invited to listen to a still life (a bottle and vase that spoke); they were invited to sit in a painting of a chair—which they then found out was actually a chair; they were given wine and/or water, and asked to draw on their cups; they were invited to view Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon recreated with live bodies; they were asked to introduce Apollinaire (played by an absinthe bottle with speaker) to other guests. After all the guests had arrived, the audience had an opportunity to experience “salon” moments—one-on-one interactions with various characters. Georges Braque took a single audience member to the corner bodega to get more water while discussing art and cubism; Max Jacob enlisted an audience member’s help in creating a poem; Picasso invited three audience members to paint on miniature canvases with nail polish and to discuss art. Alice Toklas took one audience member outside for a cigarette, and told them how she arrived in Paris.

People on stage with an actor
Audience members perform the continuous present with Gertrude Stein, from A Serious Banquet.
Photo by Ming Kai Leung.

Rasa is based on the notion of tasting, which is close, intimate, internal, and multisensory (involving taste and touch). Thus, it is a theory of interactive spectatorship. After the salon moments, everyone sat down to dinner. They drew their dinner plates on a paper tablecloth, and three-dimensional food was served on their two-dimensional plates. During dinner, characters offered their birthday gifts to Rousseau in the form of a sculpture made up of audience members (Picasso); a silent dance by Ida Rubenstein; poetry by Max Jacob, Andre Salmon, and Gertrude Stein; a cabaret song by the Demoiselles D’Avignon; and a dance with fans by Claire Sinclair. After dinner, guests choreographed “the dance of chocolate,” which involved closing your eyes, putting a Hershey’s kiss on your tongue, and letting “your tongue choreograph the dance of chocolate” to music. For many, the dance of chocolate, a private dance in the mouth, was one of the highlights of the evening. As one critic put it: “Celebration is a sensorial experience. As is art. This evening is an experience, a way to discover cubist art from other vantage points, through other senses.” He went on to say: “I was allowed instead to play and grapple with the work, not as a spectator but as a creator myself —not from the outside peering in, but from within itself.” For many, the opportunity to think and act as artists was the highlight of the evening: they engaged as co-creators of an event rather than as observers of someone else’s creativity. One audience member said: “It made me think of the experience of creation as a liminal space between the individual experience and decisions of the artist… but at the same time art creation as a collective experience in which we shared a space and a moment.” This is rasa, which exists only when and as it is experienced, and it is experienced as an interaction between performer and partaker.

People drawing
The audience draws their dinner plates, from A Serious Banquet. Photo by Ming Kai Leung.

Rasa is active, sensorial, and experiential. … guests choreographed ‘the dance of chocolate,’ which involved closing your eyes, putting a Hershey’s kiss on your tongue, and letting ‘your tongue choreograph the dance of chocolate’ to music. … For many, the opportunity to think and act as artists was the highlight of the evening: they engaged as co-creators of an event rather than as observers of someone else’s creativity.

The Dramaturgy of Rasa
Catharsis, Aristotle’s theory of emotional response to performance, is about the purgation of excess emotion: it requires a linear dramaturgical structure that builds to an ultimate release of tension in the form of a climax, followed by a denouement. Rasa requires a nonlinear, flexible dramaturgical structure that allows the partaker to linger in/with particular moments and to explore and relish different sensorial stimuli. A Serious Banquet did not have a story; there was no climactic event. It was a party. The audience entered, engaged with a number of different people and things, and experienced the world “cubistically.” Immersive and interactive productions create experiences designed to be relished—some, literally, by including food and drink; others figuratively. They consciously create nonlinear structures to give the audience opportunities to explore and relish an environment, a scene, a character, a prop, a smell, a texture, a taste, and/or a sound, in their own way and in their own time.

A nonlinear structure allowed audiences to relish Emily Dickinson in TheaterPlastique's Emily Dickinson: Outer Space (Bushwick Starr, September 2014), a 72-hour continuous celebration of her work. Audiences could come for a few minutes, stay for the entire 72 hours (which turned into 54 hours), or come and go as they wished. They could sit around and watch the action; they could dance with cast members; they could bring a Dickinson poem and have cast members set it to music and sing it on the spot; they could recite a Dickinson poem themselves; they could take a break from the “action” and nap in the onstage “igloo,” or, as some apparently did, have sex in the igloo. Part rave, part slumber party, part cabaret, part rehearsal (depending on what time of day or night you went), the idea was to spend as many hours as you could relishing Dickinson’s beautiful language and images. The event had no discernible structure but functioned as a time-space where anyone who loved Dickinson could hang out and party with other people who loved Dickinson. Had it had a structure, the party would not have occurred: we would not have been able to collectively fete Dickinson with our sweat, our voices, our dream-like-fatigue-induced excitement, and our interactions with others who love her work.

People singing
Setting Dickinson to music, Emily Dickinson: Outer Space. Photo by Erin B. Mee.
Performers on stage
Setting Dickinson to music, Emily Dickinson: Outer Space. Photo by Erin B. Mee.

Rasa as Subjective Experience
Aristotle’s aesthetic theory of catharsis is based on the notion of seeing, which requires distance (to get perspective). Rasa requires an embodied and internalized process of tasting, touching, and entering into: in rasa you lose your objectivity. Highly Impractical Theatre’s Three Sisters (A Brooklyn House, September 2014) offered several ways to experience the character Irina’s birthday party. I went once as a serf, helping Anfisa pour “vodka” for the guests and serve food to the aristocrats at the table. I went a second time as an aristocrat and, because I was allowed to wander around upstairs, saw scenes I had literally not seen the first time; sat in places I did not sit the first time; and had a very different experience of Irina’s party—I felt I had actually been invited. I have seen many productions of Three Sisters, but this is the first one that asked me to think so deeply about the class divisions in Chekhov’s plays because I had to experience them. My status dictated my behavior, the spaces I inhabited, what I was privy to, what I ate and drank (or didn’t), who I spoke to, and how I viewed the action around me. Admittedly, I had to read the play before I went—I would have been lost without brushing up on the plot and characters because I did not see “the whole play,” I saw the parts of it my character had access to. I was not an objective observer; I entered the world of the play.

Sam Silbiger, one of my students, described his experience with the character Masha:

She signaled that I should follow her after we locked eyes. Sirens sounded, and I floated like a ghost, trailing her through a maze of hallways and staircases that seemed to muffle her troubled life. Up a final staircase, and we were safe, alone. I bent my knees and slid next to a small collection of curios that sat on the landing. She gazed at these love notes, pictures, and candles; I felt as if I had access to her memories. She was silent. The sounds of the house had faded away, and after a few long moments, my guide held out her hand. “Masha,” she said. “Sam,” I said. “Look,” and she pointed to the open skylight that I hadn’t noticed above my head. A breeze blew through, and it seemed as if the turmoil going on below us had dematerialized. Masha was quiet as she looked at the sky, and I sensed her deep sadness as voices called out her name from below, and she led me back downstairs. … In my time with Masha, I was allowed to live with her in a private moment of fear and confusion. I empathized with her. I understood her. … I was implicated in her personal drama, and lost my ability to remain [critically] removed from the play.

Silbiger was bothered by the fact that he lost his objectivity and his “ability to remain [critically] removed from the play.” But losing one’s objectivity is in fact the point. Immersive and interactive theatre reveals the falseness in the very idea of objectivity (which is always already subjective), and revels in partial perceptions: unlike the proscenium where the spectator believes she can see everything, immersive and interactive theatre are set up in such a way that the partaker cannot possibly see everything—and is aware of that. The partial view is celebrated.

This Is Not A Theatre Company is currently working on my production of Readymade Cabaret, which is based on the notion of readymade art (collaging two already extant things together), and the philosophies of Dada as practiced by Marcel Duchamp. Scenes about control, fate, and free will are performed when their number shows up on dice rolled by the audience. Between the scenes are tweet dances (one-minute improvisatory dances prompted by audience tweets set to music chosen by the shuffle function on our stage manager’s iPad) by Under One Dances, our own version of the Duchamp-Rauschenberg box with chance music; an aleatory composition, our own version of John Cage’s 4’33”, snippets of Tzara’s Dada manifestos, and an audience-created Dada poem (following Tzara’s instructions). Because the scenes that are performed, and the order in which they are performed, literally depend on the roll of the dice, the audiences sees one of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible plays in any given performance. Humans are “hard wired” to make meaning of what they experience, and in Readymade Cabaret the audience literally makes their own meaning. Thus, the experience of the piece is an embodiment and example of one of its themes: why do we try to make meaning of everything? Although the piece is not immersive, the idea is for the audience to relish—and inhabit—the outcomes of chance created by their presence and choices during the performance.

Thus, it seems to me that interactive and immersive productions are most often designed to create a rasic experience that requires what Mikhael Tara Garver calls an “open-frame” structure—or, at the very least, a structure that is unique to the event.

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This is very intriguing. I am curious - where did you find your audience, and did your audience members pay for this privilege? Did you get enough in to cover the costs of the productions? Were the performers paid for their time? I'd love to try what you have described, but wonder if it's possible to do this without being fully funded by some entity. The onus to make a production at least break even is a terrific challenge. How did you manage that part?