Introducing the Psychology of the Audience Series

Seeking insight into what makes immersive theatre work for an audience, Jeffrey Mosser observes three productions: How to Build a ForestSleep No More, and Mikhael Tara Garver's Fornicated From the Beatles. This four post series includes interviews with creators as well as with patrons pre and post show.

When do the creators of site-specific and immersive theatre begin to consider the psychology of the audience? Oh wait, I’ve assumed… Are they thinking of the audience before they start?
I was a double major in college—theatre and psychology—and for a while I couldn’t tell the difference. When it came to my final PSY400-level experimental projects I was creating elaborate theatrical experiences experiments in seeing how audiences test subjects might interact with the actor experimenter. You can’t tell me that Milgram wasn’t an immersive theatre pioneer psychologist.

Some audiences run screaming in the other direction when they hear “audience interaction,” but site-specific and immersive productions are finding ways to naturally interlace the audience/actor experience. I’ve had a few bad “site-specific” experiences where the only novelty to such work was to enjoy how well the actors could ignore the audience—or to observe how well a found space could be morphed into a theatre.

In fact, I was ready to ignore site-specific and immersive theatre altogether until I began to explore devised, improvisational, LeCoq, Boal, and other “esoteric” theatrical creation. My studies made me realize that what it means to be successful in immersive and site-specific styles seems to be focusing more on creating an event than presenting a product.

In service of this series, I attended three productions—all immersive, and with varying degrees of audience interaction—with the goal of interviewing audience members before and after each performance, as well as to gather insight from creators/directors on each show. I tried very hard to have a control group of questions, however, because of the unique realities of each production I tended to have many follow-ups.

My root questions to audiences were as follows:

Audience Preshow
1) Are you a regular theatre-goer?
2) Do you participate in creating theatre? (As a performer, producer, etc.)
3) Are you a risk-taker?
4) What do you expect to see?
5) Why did you come to see this show in particular?

Audience Postshow
1) What was the story?
2) Were you important to the telling of the story?
3) Did you feel for/identify with any characters?
4) Is this theatre?

Creator Interview Questions
1) When did you start thinking about the audience?
2) Why did you create this?
3) How do you prepare performers for something like this?

Before we begin, let me be clear that the Venn diagram of site-specific and immersive theatre forms do not overlap—though the terms tend to be used interchangeably by many. Here “site-specific” will mean created for a particular venue and “immersive” will mean an audience will become a part of the actors’ playing space and may furthermore become a part of the storytelling. The phrase “traditional theatre” will refer to a typical lights out for two hours production with a fifteen-minute intermission, and perhaps a gunshot that you were warned about in the lobby.

 

When do the creators of site-specific and immersive theatre begin to consider the psychology of the audience? Oh wait, I’ve assumed… Are they thinking of the audience before they start?

 

mask against black background
Sleep No More mask

I started with a benchmark. Sleep No More has become nearly synonymous with immersive theatre. Just try telling someone about a project that incorporates audience interaction or site specificity, much less both at the same time, and you’re likely to hear, “Oh, like Sleep No More….” And usually I’ll say, “well kinda, but this has _____.” Spoiler alert: Sleep No More is based on Macbeth, and if you can find them you can follow some of your favorite character’s storylines. However, most audience members I interviewed before the show did not have any knowledge of Shakespeare’s fingerprints on it. (Maybe I was the spoiler.) Few had read it in high school and fewer had seen a production, but all of them knew that they had to see the show. Some were in line for the second or third time with friends. Others came because of word of mouth and frequently noted that the reviews (via press and Yelp) said it was unlike anything else. Most were not theatre-goers and said they’d only go to theatre about once a year. No matter what group I was speaking with, from ages 25-55, there was a sense of this show creating a communal bond—of the importance of seeing something that everyone else had seen so they could be in the know.

Common Sense Discovery #1: nobody likes to feel like an outsider. Due to Sleep No More’s audience-driven nature, patrons could get caught up exploring intricately decorated rooms for hours, thus completely missing actors or fellow audience members. Regardless, they were free to do it. Some audience members didn’t feel the need to see/find/follow a story. On the other end of the spectrum were those patrons who literally ran through the space to keep up with their chosen characters. Those out of breath in the lobby told me that they loved the experience: that they (as “audience”) were absolutely necessary to what was happening and that they carried empathy for the actors/characters they dedicated themselves to following.
Overall: opinions were strong no matter the disdain/appreciation. “It was like being in a dream. I was interpreting it however I wanted. Like looking at visual art,” one fifty-year-old patron remarked, “I don’t see theatre that much, but I know this was [theatre].”
His wife on the other hand, skeptical of my earnestness as an interviewer (she wouldn’t answer my questions until I had shown her my drivers license), did not like the show— “Everything is a façade. I felt like I was being lied to the whole time.” “I wasn’t necessary to the show,” relating to whether her being in the space was important. “And I didn’t have any control! You have your wallet don’t you? Well, I had to check my purse—I feel naked.”

Common Sense Discovery #2: nobody likes to feel as though they’ve lost control. The results of these interactions, which are more qualitative than quantitative, will be digested within this series, however, I encourage you to ask me about this in person—unfiltered and uncut. Stay tuned for my next post, which will delve deeper into the design for the audience, further observations about theatrical structure, and include insight from the creators.

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Thoughts from the curator

Seeking insight into what makes immersive theater work for an audience, Jeffrey Mosser observes three productions: How to Build a Forest, Sleep No More, and Mikhael Tara Garver's Fornicated From the Beatles.

Psychology of the Audience

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I am adoring this series. This is my absolute favorite topic to explore and all of my performance works (past and works-in-progress) are experiments/experiences in this very question of spectator/performer interaction. As a psych/theatre major (as an undergrad), I can relate to not really noticing or caring for the distinction.

I am also writing a research paper right now (or procrastinating writing it) on how this functions in immersive performance art...as someone who is considering an eventual doctoral dissertation on this very topic, I just wanted to thank you for your research...I look forward to reading more!

Great research and you just gave me an idea on how to end my next play. If you happen to be in Milan in February you get a free ticket!! Thanks!!

I have yet to see "Sleep No More," but I often speak to students of my multiple experiences with "Tamara" in Los Angeles in the mid-80s. This was a time before cellphone cameras and other hand-held alienation devices, so the immersion was unimpeded (and unregulated.) I especially liked the convention of the "passport," a small printed program booklet which they stamped each time you saw the show, reducing the price of your subsequent admission with each stamp.

As a set designer and former sculptor now getting my MFA at SFSU, I have been increasingly interested in the gap between theater and performance art. I feel as though there is still a big divide between the two, even though fundamentally they are extremely similar- the viewer's participation is as integral to the piece as the artist or performer's and the performer becomes the art object. What are the qualities that differentiate them and how can we bring them closer? Perhaps if this current push for immersive theater had happened at the same time as be beginning of performance art in the 1960's and 70's (with artists like (Marina Abramovic, Bruce Nauman, Adrian Piper, and Robert Morris), there would be an entire movement, a larger movement, dedicated to exactly what you are examining in your article. Perhaps the ideas explored in Alan Kaprow's 1960's Happenings and the Fluxus movement give us insight into today's immersive theater experiments? Maybe we have to go back further- to The Black Mountain's first Happening with Rauschenberg, Cage, and Cunningham and their spacial and temperal collage. I totally agree with you that the study of psychology and Milgram's 1961 experiment are key in understanding today's immersive theater...cheers.

So glad to have you in this conversation, Karla! And what an amazing Venn! I feel like I've spent hours in coffee shops attempting just this image! However, I've been coming at it with immersive/site-specific mindset. Mind=blown.

Delightful insights on these artists -- I can't wait to mash them together with my current thoughts about the Living Theatre.

This is AMAZING! I am writing a research paper on this and have had the hardest time trying to define what I am talking about in a way that will not hinder me. I am so glad you've been thinking about this work as well and so happy that I actually read the comments on something for once! Thank you, Karla!

Information for Foreigners has been on the top of my TO-DO list for a long time. While I may not necessarily touch on it throughout this series, it is definitely a keystone to thinking about other immersive work. I am trying to let these three productions define what does/n't work.

Information for Foreigners has been on the top of my TO-DO list since for a long time. While I may not necessarily touch on it throughout this series, it is definitely a keystone to thinking about other immersive work. I am trying to let these three productions define what does/n't work.

We just finished discussing Griselda Gambaro's Information for Foreigners in my Reading Theater course (which includes a Milgrim-esque scene and could be considered its own kind of Milgrim experiment), paying particular attention to how/why this immersive play is more read than performed. I look forward to reading this series for the responses you got from audience members, esp. those who came to Duke for How To Build a Forest!

As someone doing a PhD on the ethics of the actor-audience relationship, I'm really looking forward to the rest of this series.