The Unsettling Nature of Agency

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.

Responsibility is about action. It is about choice. So in the case of interactive forms of theatre, how can the range of choices we offer participants shed light on their choices in real life? How do we as theatre artists illuminate a spectator’s personal agency in an ethical way, without being didactic or self-righteous?

Many artists since Augusto Boal have successfully used interactive theatre tools to empower viewers to harness their agency. One structure I have seen, and even implemented myself, that facilitates this process goes as follows: The leaders of the event clearly state their goals—“We are here to talk about X”—and then slowly give audience members more and more tools to participate and ultimately make their own choices. Sojourn Theatre’s How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes is a perfect example of such a structure. It’s a very effective pedagogical approach, one I highly recommend to anyone interested in exploring this realm of political, interactive theatre.

More recently, I have been thinking about how to work towards the same goal more implicitly. I have pondered how to subtly bring Brechtian distance to moments of participation. I am looking for ways to estrange spectators to the choices they are making, and create moments where their agency feels unsettling. Rather than empower folks to make choices they never did before, I wonder if such an implicit approach can encourage audiences to cherish the agency they may have forgotten they already have.

I have pondered how to subtly bring Brechtian distance to moments of participation. I am looking for ways to estrange spectators to the choices they are making, and create moments where their agency feels unsettling.

Of course, the irony of this approach is that participating in the theatrical event is naturally unsettling because of the long tradition of proscenium theatre. When spectators get to make choices during a performance, those choices have consequences. The feedback loop that exists between actor and spectator, and where actors feed on the audience’s energy and vice versa, becomes potentially precarious. Nobody knows for certain where things will go. And that is scary! 

When I saw Sleep No More, the hit interactive performance piece by PunchDrunk, I was reminded of this fact. The piece invites spectators to move freely through four stories of designed space in an abandoned New York building; to watch who and what they want to watch; and to touch what they want to touch (except for other people or the actors). As a lover of interactive theatre, I happily embraced this freedom. I rummaged through every room, and even ate "pills" out of the cabinets in the old-fashioned drug store. But most people around me were more tentative. They weren’t used to being the co-creators of a theatrical event and it took some viewers half the night to warm up to their agency.

a group of people organizing photos
Audience members participate in A Thousand Words: an Interactive Performance on Diversity, conceived and directed by Damon Krometis. Photo by Teal Gordon.

Personally, my experience at Sleep No More reinforced the importance of the audience contract. In order to eventual unsettle our audiences, artists first have to communicate how an audience is allowed to participate. Whether they are free to simply change seats or to walk up and start talking to the actors, we have to support our audiences as they acclimate to these rules of participation. I feel part of Sleep No More’s success lay in its long format—I was there for four hours. Participants had plenty of time to become comfortable with the disturbingly simple rules: do whatever you want, but don’t talk; and don’t touch anyone else. Each person seemed to bloom into the event at a different point in the evening.

Once viewers understand how they can participate and how to actively engage, how do we estrange them from their agency? How do we inspire people to view their choices in a new light? I have experimented with a few ways of doing this and the one that most intrigues me is slowly shifting the contract. I have built turning points into my shows, which usually align with some point of crisis in the performance, where audiences can no longer behave as they once did. My aim is to use these moments of restriction to inspire participants to consider what their previous freedom meant to them.

Once viewers understand how they can participate and how to actively engage, how do we estrange them from their agency? How do we inspire people to view their choices in a new light?

But the more I have experimented with this idea, I have learned how important it is to communicate with my audience. Paradoxically, more stability for my audience has actually made it easier to destabilize viewers. When I created Thou Proud Dream, our team crafted a few moments where the audience couldn’t move as freely as they had before. In early test performances, people got very confused by these moments. They didn’t know the rules had changed, and so they started to distrust the whole contract. Eventually, I had my actors regularly inform our audiences of the slightest adjustments to their freedoms. It took more cues than I expected to complete this negotiation, and at times it seemed tedious, but the alternative was losing the audience.

It’s a slippery landscape I am trying to explore because giving a spectator agency means nothing if we do not respect that agency. As I said, they are the co-creators of the event. They bring the x-factor that generates kinetic energy in the performance. Each person will have a different response that is based on their experiences, personality, and mood. Even as I look to awaken people to their responsibilities, and take them from a place of being individuals to thinking as a group, I have to allow each of them to respond genuinely and freely. If I estrange viewers to their agency in some way, I have to stay open to their shifting reactions, however positive or negative they may be. The feedback loop has to stay a living, breathing system, or else it is a sham.

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Thoughts from the curator

This series explores 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 Audience Position

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Fascinating, interesting and thought provoking article - thank you and thank you for introducing me to such theatre companys as Sojourn.