The Psychology of the Audience

Inviting the Audience to Play

Seeking insight into what makes immersive theatre work for an audience, Jeffrey Mosser observes three productions: PearlDamour’s How to Build a Forest, Punchdrunk’s Sleep 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. Find the full series here.

“Can the audience play?” How much can the audience play? Are they in control? When? Where? How? Is control taken back in order to progress the story? Is there a story? Are we as creators okay not telling a story?

As mentioned in my last post, the Fornicated From the Beatles cast and creators incorporated a pre-show component (involving texts to my phone from characters in the show and character Facebook profiles)—which may have encouraged further engagement. It still took a leap of faith for an audience member to find their chosen character at the show and say “Hey! You texted me about becoming captain of the chess team. How’s it going?”

Once Fornicated began it was incredibly easy to assume that everyone around you could be an actor. The action happened at various stations amongst the audience, which encouraged me to explore the space and discover what might be happening throughout. In fact, I accidentally stepped into a club employee intervention thinking it might be part of the show—an Easter egg if you will. I was later told with choice words to leave—some very exciting theatre indeed.

The actors could, and did, switch from being participants (chatting up patrons) to performers (creating voyeurs out of patrons), and performed choreographed dance sequences to the band’s music which were woven throughout the performance. It became the job of the actor to help me understand what my role in the show was while their roles changed suddenly—especially when plot points were being delivered.

 

'Can the audience play?' How much can the audience play? Are they in control? When? Where? How?

 

The audience kept up and was not afraid to react—although it was questionable whether or not the performers wanted to hear our responses. This was a linear story where every word was intended to be heard. When asked the question, “Are you important to the telling of the story?” audiences were a mixed bag: “as far as physical integration [in the space]—yes,” said one audience member. And another: “by being there and being present I felt like I was contributing.”

Discovery #6: Linear, immersive storytelling requires a different set of rules.

people sitting among bright colored trees made of cloth
How to Build a Forest

Welcome to the Forest How to Build a Forest is a collaboration between PearlDamour and Shawn Hall. They set out to create a product that would be a hybrid of theatre and artwork, including audience integration as an integral component of the experience. In the span of eight hours a group of “Builders” on a proscenium stage rig, decorate, and build an artificial forest made out of mostly man-made materials (ninety percent were petroleum-based). The building of the forest is choreographed in that the Builders take their cues from one another. In the meantime, audience members fill the theatre, coming and going at various stages throughout the performance. I’m not going to lie—I did leave the space in order to go get lunch, but otherwise I spent almost all eight hours observing this production. Upon entering I was greeted by a “Ranger” who informed me of the rules and distributed a Field Guide with which I might identify things in the forest. Though the forest was not yet open, I was invited to check out the observation point (balcony) from where I might see the forest being built from afar. After a half hour the forest was opened, and the audience was invited on stage. It was nowhere near completion, but there was an incredible intimacy watching the Builders work around us. Before taking up space in the forest we had to take our shoes off. We were also invited by a Ranger to touch, but gently. This was a great rule for everyone, and especially important for the patrons between the ages of five and ten who were also on stage. As the forest grew around me, I observed slight interactions between Builder and patron. “Can I blow that up?” asked one seven-year old observer about a yoga ball pump. The Builders were silent while on stage, however this Builder looked at the girl, shook her head with smile, and continued to build. This response was something I didn’t know I missed in Sleep No More and Fornicated From the Beatles. The patrons were there. The actors were there. Everyone acknowledged everyone all the time.

Discovery #7: We’re all in the same place, all of the time.

I spent a good deal of time on stage, and, as a sort of reward, one of the Builders gave me a fortune-cookie like slip that read “inside we’re raging.” Several others also received slips, so I curiously asked another patron what theirs said. We shared our fortunes and moved along. After a moment I realized that I had just voluntarily interacted—something I don’t normally do at the theatre. The nature of the show encouraged me to reach out to my fellow patron. I think the luxury of time (all eight hours of it) allowed me to feel as though I wouldn’t be missing too much or, more importantly, stealing focus if I talked to my fellow theatre-goer.

Before I left the stage I realized that the audience who remained in the house saw me as a part of the forest and I saw them as passive observers. This point-of-view could easily be changed at any point—however the role of passive observer/part of the forest could never be achieved simultaneously.

Discovery #8 (Common Sense): You can’t be near and far at the same time.

Discovery #9 (Common Sense): We choose to engage.

The show was, if you’ll allow me to create some terminology, micro-non-linear and macro-linear. Though this was the story of a forest it was still very subjective. I could watch this as choreography, I could watch it as the life cycle of a forest (a life and death in eight hours), I could pop in passively and see the production as a picture of a forest at a certain moment in time.

What was decidedly different about this production was how I, as an audience member, was handled from the beginning to the end. I felt liberated to do whatever I wanted, while still feeling connected to what was happening no matter my degree of involvement. I knew what the outcome would be.

Discovery #10: For an audience to feel comfortable interacting, they must know how the world works, and the sooner the better.

My interaction with the cast of How to Build a Forest went beyond what I had word count for here. Check in next time as I’ll digest what aspects helped to sustain an eight-hour interactive performance, as well as wrap up this series with some big picture guidelines for creating immersive theatre that I have gathered form interviews and have personally observed.

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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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Cafe Nordo here in Seattle did an immersive piece called Cabinet of Curiosities. It was in an old hall. The audience was divided into three groups and led to a series of rooms, where we had three courses of a meal. Then we all went into the big hall and had the main course and the desert. It was a lot of fun.

Thanks for this series Jeffrey!

I do think it's useful to note that there are lots of us creating this kind of work all over the country. While NYC has had many high-profile events, there are companies in many cities (in my personal case with lower property values making it a lot easier) to experiment with these non-traditional forms.

One of the things that's been most rewarding as a creator of immersive work is that it forces you to question how form and content work as a dual set of ends towards storytelling. It's meant that I've worked with design much more as installation and an experience in its own right than as a backdrop for the main action. It's also taught me how to take advantage of the super power that theater has over recorded media - that the audience allows for audiences to have agency in their own artistic experience - which as you note is tricky but much more forcefully requires the artist to include the audience perspective in the creation. And unexpectedly, it's also shown me the value of small audiences, and reminded my collaborators and I to seek for the quality and not quantity of the artistic impact you share.

For anyone interested, Swim Pony created a 22,000 sq ft installation work on the cosmos using principles of video game design back in 2010. We thought long and hard about a lot of this stuff you mention in the article. Check it out:

https://vimeo.com/52475154

Intriguing to see this immersive trend circle back into the theatre again many decades after the founding of the Performance Group. A word of caution from those heady days: audience members can behave in dangerous ways when they interact with performers. I recall one of the main actresses in the Performance Group grumbling that she "didn't join the Performance Group to get f----- under the bleachers."