Proximity and Distance—Avoiding the Grey Zone
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 director is used to thinking about spatial relationships. Action gains tension based on the distance between characters. It is hotter when characters are far apart, or when they are very close to each other. Then there is an in-between grey zone where tension just seems to die. Interactive theatre is no different. Directors have to make these same decisions regarding the relationship between spectators and performers. This is especially important in terms of promoting responsibility. This spatial tension can either generate empathy amongst the spectators, or estrange them to their agency. It is a dynamic part of the event that we must use carefully, because sometimes it works contrary to how we think it will.
Empathy often involves proximity. We have to feel close to a character, or situation in order to start to identify. Director Yael Farber, one of my great mentors, writes in Theatre as Witness that theatre should be rooted in the “detail that an audience will recognize in their own lives.” Through these details, “the barriers we construct to differentiate ourselves from one another [will] collapse under the weight” of our common humanity. She is talking about making spectators feel like they are in the same room, or circumstance as the performers. In interactive theatre, we can literally accomplish this. We can put spectators so close they see human details that break down these barriers.
Throughout this series, I have mentioned my MFA thesis production Thou Proud Dream, the site-specific adaptation of Henry V, which I created with Jenni Lamb. During the climactic sequence of the play, we tried to utilize proximity to shape the audience’s sense of responsibility. This sequence began with King Henry delivering the famous Saint Crispin's Day speech. At the top of the scene, the actors directed the audience to stand in a circle with them as they hurriedly prepared for war. Spectators stood inches away from performers as they listened to Henry describe the immortality they would achieve in the coming battle. Viewers could see the tears forming in the performers’ eyes. In that moment, we wanted to transform spectators into members of Henry’s "band of brothers." And that proximity seemed to make that happen. Many viewers told me after the show about how they started to deeply consider a soldier’s rationale in combat more. Physical proximity brought them closer to the questions at the heart of the play.
Just as proximity can breed empathy, distance can help estrange an audience from what they are seeing, and hopefully inspire them to consider their agency. I talked in my last blog about shifting the rules of the audience contract. We used distance to help create such a shift in Thou Proud Dream. As the soldiers marched off after the St. Crispin's Day speech, we directed the audience to stand at a distance as our protagonist Leroy confronted, and was ultimately overwhelmed by, some of his traumatic combat memories. Having felt close to the action in a visceral way, the audience stood helpless as Leroy collapsed in a panic. By establishing this distance, we hoped to estrange viewers from their position as co-creators of this Henry fantasy. We wanted them to question whether believing in this myth was helpful, or actually contributing to future pain.
I think this juxtaposition worked because it asked spectators to exist in an ambiguous space between intimacy and voyeurism. It created an ethical dilemma. So as I look to future productions, I hope to cultivate this same type of spatial tension again. But that does not mean there is a prescriptive formula. Proximity and distance can be used countless ways to achieve a desired effect.
Sometimes being too close to an event can be overwhelming and discomfiting. I think Griselda Gambaro’s Information for Foreigners, which I mentioned in my first post, uses proximity in this way. Spectators have to stand uncomfortably close to acts of violence while their narrator/guide lies to them about what is happening. They have to consider the ways governments and cultures frame violence.
Just as proximity can breed empathy, distance can help estrange an audience from what they are seeing, and hopefully inspire them to consider their agency.
Proximity can also be used to distance an audience emotionally. In Thou Proud Dream, our main character Leroy kept trying to draw spectators’ eyes towards certain images. He attempted to create a frame through which people could digest Henry’s exploits. But we kept disturbing the audience's focus by having other characters appear amongst or behind them. This made it harder to get lost in the emotions of any one scene, as spectators never knew where somebody might appear next.
Alternately, distance and scale can draw an audience in. Leading up to the St. Crispin's Day speech, we sat our audience in a field before a campfire where Henry V sat lost in thought. Thirty yards past this scene, we set up a series of other campfires where soldiers sat in small clumps. One could imagine a large, yet broken army spread out across the landscape. People loved this image because it increased the scale of the moment. Amidst this sad and sprawling backdrop, they got to watch King Henry wrestle with his doubts about his leadership.
One of the joys of interactive theatre is that each new location and new event opens up new possibilities for exploring these spatial tensions. Crowded spaces can feel incredibly intimate when used properly. A cavernous space can create awe, or allow for the emotional distance needed to apply rational thinking to some hot, controversial topic. It all depends on what we want the audience to ask when they leave that space.
But we always have to stay vigilant that we don’t land in the grey zone—that awkward space where the spectators are neither close to the action in some meaningful way, or distanced from it by some meaningful barrier. What kind of responsibility can possibly grow from being non-committal in our directing choices?