Rachel Fensham[1]


The English edition of Hans-Thiess Lehmann’s (2006) book, The Postdramatic Theatre, argued amongst many things the case for a theatrical avant garde that emerged in the late twentieth century: one which was inter-medial, no longer requiring a fixed relationship between the text and the stage, nor the stage and the spectators in the auditorium.[2] It has thus provided a framework for conceptualizing a new category of dramaturgy, one in which theatrical aesthetics have moved irrevocably away from the text as the primary referent for representation, and in the process rejected classical, naturalistic, epic and other radical modes of structuring theatrical signs.

Today, the concept of the postdramatic theatre has become almost standardized, at least in the global circuits, and festivals, of contemporary performance. This idea has transformed not only the dramaturgical horizons of theatre but changed, I will suggest, our conception of the spectator. Lehmann may never have intended his argument to become a diagnostic or symptom of all that makes contemporary theatre enter into new relations with its audience; and there are many social conditions that change the craft and phenomena of theatrical forms, including the pressures of commercialized theatrical distribution; the multi-lingualism of audiences; the dominance of English; mass higher education and global media networks. But the postdramatic is an attempt to provide an explanation towards new definitions of purpose and intentionality in theatrical performance; that admits to the transitory effects, and limit-testing actions, of the call to participate in contemporary theatre. Rather than ‘perform or else,’ as Jon McKenzie (2001) diagnosed a decade ago, it seems that the postdramatic paradigm urges us now to ‘participate or else.’

In this paper, I propose to examine what this new conception of the dramaturgy means for the theorization of spectatorship. Beginning with a close reading of Lehmann’s text, I look at how the postdramatic hypothesis leads to the creation, and installation, of a new kind of spectator, one who participates in the process and meaning of the event, or situation. His arguments about changes to spectator relations include new structures of narrative, modes of address, spatial and temporal organisation, as well as acoustic and visual signs. To a greater or lesser extent, these adaptations to the conditions of the theatrical contract provide a framework for considering works by experimental companies, such as Punchdrunk, the British theatre company who boast ‘game-changing immersive theatre’ that allow audiences to ‘experience epic theatre inside sensory theatrical worlds’ (2012). As their promotional website continues: ‘Our infectious format rejects the passive obedience usually expected of audiences.’ Another more recent example might be performances focused specifically on a dramaturgy of the spectator, such as the 2011-12 production of Audience, by the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed (which translates as Feel Estate).

In my own book, To Watch Theatre (2009), I argued that a more considered reflection upon ‘embodied spectatorship’ could complicate semiotic theories of reception, and modify feminist theories that had been dependent upon gendering the gaze. Conceived before the postdramatic paradigm appeared, that project examined radical productions of tragic theatrical texts, thus remaining within the text/stage/auditorium construction. I was aware however that my concern with an active spectatorship – embodied, differentiating, sensuous and critical – was dialectical with that which was phenomenal in the event and experience of theatre – and that a new form of spectatorship was emerging as genres changed, and that the politics of culture demanded a more interactive and immersive performance. More recently performance scholars such as Helena Grehan (2009), Dee Reynolds and Mathew Reason (2012), and graduate students such as Adam Alston (2012), are also concerned with trying to explain the ethical, the phenomenological and the political arguments that help to add to our understanding of the contemporary spectatorships that Lehmann so presciently, if indirectly, analysed. We need to consider whether or not the spectator is in fact to be defined as a singular individual, having unique and constitutive experiences, thus hailed into existence by the forms of the event, or whether it is the collective participation, critically emerging from the context in which a diverse group of individuals find themselves shuttling between activity and inactivity as they watch, that matters? In what follows, I will summarise the recodings or redistribution of conventions implied by this shift towards the postdramatic as well as offer the outline of a critique of its inner logics for understanding contemporary theatre.

Change in narrative and modes of address

The theatricality of much postdramatic performance, whether disruptive or flamboyant, relies heavily on interpellation of the audience as a self given over to the progress of events. This subjective focus has implications for both the construction of narrative and the effectiveness of modes of address to the audience. Since the narrative function is less concerned with formal coherence, narrative is broken into fragments, sometimes resistant to interpretation, and includes casual communications or reports on events that may be external to the presented reality. Frequently this story-telling function of postdramatic theatre ‘manifests direct contact with the audience,’ however, since different rhetorical acts are distributed, sometimes randomly, to people watching, their performance does not unify the audience (p.119).

Lehmann presents the example of Needcompany, directed by Jan Lauwers, where the ‘theatre presents itself as a sketch and not as a finished painting, the spectators are given the chance to feel their own presence, to reflect on it, and to contribute to the unfinished character themselves’ (p.108). One consequence of this unfinished state is the consequent depreciation of suspense. The temporal progression of performance is not determined by the concept of the plot, and the spectator is required to concentrate more on the physical actions and presence of the players; for which Lehmann provides an evocative analogy: ‘We look on, as though at a party of “distant acquaintances” without really participating. Once could say, the spectator spends an evening at Jan’s and his friends, not “with” them’ (p.108-9). We are present in the action but not allocated a position of address, the Actor-Spectator/s (I-You) mode of address becomes instead Them-Me with that Me left wondering about Them. Lehmann describes this active character of the spectator’s position as that of a situation in which the audience’s role becomes merged with the addressee, and thus a form of role reversal takes possession of the theatrical exchange.

In contrast with the history of epic, or Brechtian, models of staging, I am inclined to agree with Lehmann that the audience is rarely addressed directly. In postdramatic theatre, the staging has no a priori text nor speech-act, thus iterative rhetorical devices do not function in the same way to produce the listener’s appreciation of the translation from literature to mise en scène. Instead, performance techniques such as simultaneity and parataxis are designed to connect with the audience through ‘new’ but as yet unspecified ‘modes of perception.’ As Lehmann admits this can include ‘the frustration and limitation of realizing the exclusive and limiting character of this freedom’ given to the subject of address (p.88).

Changes in spatial relations: ‘with the audience’

When the mode of address ceases to be dramatic, then ‘the audience─no longer just an unaffected witness but a participating partner─(is someone) that determine(s) the communicative process’ (p.136). This means also a critical shift in the structure of spatial relations, since the actors and the audience most often inhabit a ‘shared space’ which in turn is constituted in the most palpable sense by proxemics and co-presence. The performance becomes transformative, much as Victor Turner and Richard Schechner (1985) claimed about the processes of theatre and ritual, although in the postdramatic theatre ‘a ritual space without a rite develops through the palpable concentration’ of the spectator’ (p.122). Postdramatic genre therefore has the effect of rendering the spatio-temporal constructions of theatre between the para-theatrical and the meta-banal, since what matters most is the intensification of the spectator’s response to the circumstantial character of micro-events. Many postdramatic works allow the spectator to come and go, to make choices about whether to leave or enter, such as Robert Wilson’s (1976) Einstein on the Beach although the conventional orientation within that work towards the proscenium stage from the auditorium made little difference to the proxemics between spectators and actors. Nonetheless, a noticeable shift in spatial relations─to participate or to watch─begins when ‘a decision of the spectator,’ gives them a choice to move or invest more or less closely in their distance from the event.

Lehmann comments on the patience of an incidental Japanese audience watching a performance of Josef Szeiler’s Hamletmaschine through the open doors of a workshop production that toured cities such as Berlin, London, and Tokyo. But were they genuinely curious or simply baffled as they sought to establish an ethical relation to yet another baffling Western import? What defines the event, as Lehmann points out, is the ‘character of a situation’: it is initiated from the moment of entry of the spectator as participant – their actions dominate those of the actors with their now often casual sense of beginning. And since, the spectator and performers produce the awareness of ‘co-presence,’ other things such as ‘sounds… physical proximity … direct contact’ (p. 124) produce the dramaturgy. In the heightened sensorium of the event, the whole visible space incorporates and stages the bodies watching─yes, even the silent Japanese passer-by─shifting the emphasis away from the apparatus of looking to the corporeal inhabiting of space.

An emphasis on the haptic use of space, and their game-like organization, also replicates the forms of an apparatus in mediated or controlled social experiments such as happenings, simulation games, or psychological tests. The organizer, or the scientist, may not control the outcome but they do determine the design of the tasks and conditions to be tested. A question remains about the degree of choice the spectator really has to interfere with insensible or aggressive acts – is postdramatic theatre one giant Millgram experiment? Do I become more engaged by being asked to contribute, or not? Often the spectator shows their expertise by refusing to be duped, by sitting back and watching other people expose their own reaction to being tested, asked to witness or do impossible things: this cynical position becomes the mark of the expert displaying their particular insider knowledge. But this new breed of spectator, like Pontius Pilate, defers and transfers responsibility for the outcomes of the performance elsewhere, sometimes to their fellow spectator; at other times she goads the actor to perform to excess.

Change in critical distance

Radical theatre conventions have always been involved in re-negotiation of the illusion/anti-illusion dichotomy. This critical stance, often alienated from the action, still left the audience separate from, and opposite to, the stage. Provoked or awakened by the situation, the spectator’s critical distance was thus essential to ‘radical’ form. In postdramatic theatre, however, the process of moving between intimacy and distance for the performers and audience constitutes its artistic value, and to a large extent the outcome depends on the participant’s willingness to suspend judgment, for the moment. This means the qualitative value of a postdramatic work relies upon an interpersonal and ephemeral reality─such as the enthusiastic or sensational impact of an encounter─compared to the permanently fixed ‘work.’ The expectation of liminality is often prepared by the artists’ own statements, and the group’s performative framing, which invites the audience to get involved. The determinant of the message thus announces ‘its communicative success’ by recruiting the spectator and we find ourselves enmeshed in a rapid responsiveness to sensations, impressions and spectacle.

Changes in temporality

Just as space is altered so is the temporality of the spectator in the postdramatic theatre. All time is ‘shared’ by the performers and audience as a process, based on the principle of an open structure for the sequence of beginning, middle and end (although there may be an agreed duration). Shared time is however central to the new dramaturgy whether slowed down, speeded up, or fractured because actors and audience endure the live quality of time as the same reality (pp. 155-6).

From naturalism to postmodern techniques for producing fictional time include devices that manage durational flow, whether bells ringing, doors opening or instructions about what next. In postdramatic theatre, the management of time is not for illusion but a constant reminder of the collective limits of the experience. An altered consciousness of time is manufactured, for instance, by spending the night on a boat and being put to sleep as Medea’s children in Hotel Medea directed by Persis-Jade Maravala from the UK and Brazilian Jorge Lopes Ramos (London, July 2010 and July 2012). The dispassionate image of spectators ‘smoking,’ or leaning back in the interval from the epic theatre, is replaced by an extended interaction with the audience placed in and out of consciousness within the temporality of the performance. Therefore, since time becomes an object of direct experience, it is also constitutively put to work in distortion or intensification of the spectator’s reality. It becomes a ‘theme’ or ‘an object of the aesthetic experience,’ thus we have the forms of durational theatre, and durational aesthetics, that began with the 9 hour seasons of the Mahabharata in the 1980s, and adapted by Wilson in the 1990s, are now made more ordinary through shared activity in postdramatic theatre: ‘a situation people live through together’ (p.156).

Other features of time serve to distort or magnify the quality of the event. Visual objects on stage may store time, so that passing the time by pouring sand, or rocking a dummy till it disintegrates, makes a ‘continuous present’ (p. 143). Time also becomes a form of ‘kinetic sculpture,’ or alternatively, musicality adds rhythmic structures, or monotonous noise, thus compressing or negating the effects of linear or causal time in the experience of theatre. The aesthetics of repetition helps to crystallise the effects of time on bodies; it renders some actions redundant, deriving them of the purposefulness of intention, but reinforcing their singularity within an overall dramaturgy.

According to Lehmann, these changes in the temporal structure of theatre are also capable of producing a different quality of attention, so that the spectator attends to the many and little differences which resonate with their own psyche-soma: ‘through their own sense of time, imagination, empathy and the capacity to relate physically to sequences of movements, the viewers come to know the temporal movement in the image’ (p. 157).

The experience of simultaneity

Lehmann argues that the postdramatic mode of perception involves simultaneous attention rather than sequential, selective or discontinuous, responses. This simultaneity subverts the dramatic aesthetics of a symbolic or organic whole. We pay attention to the concrete particular, but do not perceive the totality. We see the forgotten fragments, and fail to produce an overall response, thus the compensatory functions of drama to organize meaning is contested. There remains only a ‘sphere of choice and decision for the spectators’ – we decide but also feel the frustration of realizing the ‘exclusive and limiting character of this freedom’ (p. 88). This recognition of our individual limitations, according to Lehmann, allows us to distinguish how to process the simultaneity of contemporary reality by ‘means of their selection and structuring’ (p. 88). However such cognition is only possible by recourse to individual memory and an iterative decoding of the hierarchies that sequence time and pattern space (which has been organized) for the spectator. One can partially understand, how different languages are being used, which we learn habitually and through experience of other forms of socialization. We can therefore discriminate between the complexity of an auditory or visual semiotics, what Eleni Varopoulou (1998) described as the ‘multiple auditory structures’ in the work of Meredith Monk (Lehmann, 2006: p. 91). The tension in postdramatic theatre can be however that it loads so many simultaneous actions into the event that the audience must parcel their perceptions, as Lehmann asks, is there any ‘real connection’ or is there just ‘external contemporaneity’ (91)?

The science of communication

With an emphasis increasingly on the sensory (dis-)entanglement of semiotic effects, an over-riding argument emerges that postdramatic theatre provides a (quasi-)pure instance of communication. Its value is asserted, according to Lehmann, ‘as indisputably constitutive of the practice of communicative intensity’ (p. 123-4). It is an eyeball to eyeball, touch sensitive, communication of affect that has become the content of the action. It is this ‘communicative intensity’ that is often ill-defined, and rarely analysed, relative to the power of the spectator to interpret the experience of watching theatre.

For Lehmann, the postdramatic theatre can ‘produce reflections on forms of behavior and interpersonal communication’ and at other times, it allows the spectator to have ‘purposeful personal participation’ by physically following the performer in a slow walk, joining with reading or speaking etc.’ and perhaps seeming to contribute to the outcome (p. 124). In this theatre as ‘situation,’ the directors, and organisers, who craft the postdramatic want to give the spectators full responsibility for the theatrical process, so that they can co-create but also disturb or even destroy its fragile control of the techniques and technologies of communication.

While new styles of staging open up opportunities to respond to the behaviour of the spectator, it also aligns theatre with a general theory of mass communication, dependent upon scientific reasoning. The mass participation, required for instance, by reality television or internet connectivity, involves an unequal distribution of resources and distorted public enactment that postdramatic theatre attempts to mimic. The upside, of these ‘new styles’ of communication, is the production of a voracious, almost unlimited, but potentially repetitive, formulaic search for heightened sensation, and spectacle. Theatre’s liberation towards a performative positioning of the spectator seems to have its downside then in a lack of intelligibility, or the prevention of any replication that would allow for dissent. When Lehmann asks what one project or another of contemporary theatre purports to be doing, it is difficult to believe that he would refuse the ‘rage of understanding’ (p. 88) entirely. There will be a politics that goes beyond a blind-folded wandering in the wilderness into a determination to know what happened, or what might be imagined, to alleviate the suffering and delusions of others.

The ‘freedom’ of the spectator

Ask not what we can do but what you can do for this performance? In their 2011 production called Audience, the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed uses high definition and close-up film to record their audience’s facial expressions, orchestrate their gestural responses and provoke them to action. Dismissed by several UK critics, and condemned also by the blogs associated with this production, as an ‘ill-conceived provocation,’ Audience is perhaps one of the cruder variations of the post-dramatic theatre but nonetheless worth considering because it exemplifies some of the assumptions that I’ve outlined above in relation to changes of form and address (Trueman, 2011). It takes its cues from a long history of plays and productions that seek to manipulate and respond to audience behaviour – filming them close-up, opening their bags, asking them to clap and to cheer, and then taking advantage of a young woman sitting in the front row, to ask her to give sexual favours and the audience to buy her out of this dilemma. The objects of exploitation are not, however, interrogated, and it is the audience who must decide whether to intervene and what to say or do about the abusive insults from the actor with the microphone. The postdramatic in this context is shared, immediate and intense but also distant and critically lacking in meaningful affect (apart from self-evident frustration) or effective commentary, even when a film shows the contagion of crowds. The theatre audience finds itself more ethical than the actors by its willingness to disengage and critically assume control of their experience─speaking out as well as walking out─not because they are unwilling to try new things, but because they do not wish to repeat old mistakes.


The constitutive responsibility of participants, including spectators is, in a Deleuzian sense, to remain immanent within the virtual dimensions of the event (p. 132). Every individual thus becomes the singular agent of the performance: ‘the only spectator’ (p. 123). I would argue that the danger for the postdramatic is that it overplays this anonymity of experience, and the monadism of the individual interpellated by this new form of dramaturgy. Released from the quotidian, from the formalities of drama, and from the responsibilities of critical distance, the status of our involvement remains ambiguous: ‘it is no longer clear whether the presence is given to us or whether we, the spectators produce it in the first place’ (p. 142). The complex histories of presence are always dependent upon an interplay between presence and absence, giving either more weight to the powers of illusion to evoke presence, or the rights of the spectator to demand their presence, and the postdramatic performance offers another variant. Without the interaction, the capacity of the spectator to immerse themselves within the event, one might argue on the side of presence, except that invariably and in spite of ourselves, the audience can be singularly absent. The participation may be physical but not always actively conscious. The dramaturgy of a postdramatic performance requires only the shadow of our belonging to the dynamics of the event rather than full, or unconditional, presence. Witness the range of people at these events whose non-interaction is barely noticed, or those who remain critically detached during or after the event, within the general rumour and noise of the show.

Lehmann expands on what I would call the collectivity of spectatorship, when he writes about ‘co-presence referring to ourselves’ (p. 142). This co-presence of others affirms the identity of a self-reflecting community – those who choose to participate – rather than exposing the contradictoriness of difference and others. To be other would be to no longer co-present. At the time, in this moment, the experience cannot be reflected upon, cannot be made other, even when it contains all the ambiguities and confusions linked to the limits of the aesthetic. There is, as Lehmann points out, first ‘the confrontation with a presence,’ and ‘then the processing of this experience by an act of retroactive remembering, contemplating and reflecting.’ (p.142). The articulation of this process from the immediacy of an awareness to a consideration of the collective and public nature of the event extends the postdramatic into other fields of knowledge that shape or influence the significance of presence. Being present in the event also means identifying when and how something of public importance─its locatedness, and its timeliness─has occurred.


Features of the postdramatic are increasingly incorporated into mainstream staging, even when a production maintains an adherence to the text: it is evident that the play of language co-exists with an elaborated visual architecture able to shape both the immediate and historical displacement of time. This mode of making theatre with and from dramatic forms is not merely ‘second-hand’ reality, nor the reproduction of illusion, nor a simple doubling of the stage with external meaning. Rather it is that all aesthetic elements, including when they are fractured, displayed on stage, mediatized, extended or miniaturized, contain a condensation of other referents with which we imagine the theatre as an experience. Thus twenty-first century theatrical performance becomes increasingly meta-textual, meta-theatrical and thus postdramatic, beyond the text.

Usefully, Lehmann’s conception of the postdramatic theatre has provided theatre critics with a syncretic theory, drawing upon many dispersed and contemporary critical perspectives. It should not however be applied to all categories of contemporary performance and we must consider carefully what the distinctions are between one form of theatrical horizon and another. One difficulty to which the philosopher Jacques Rancière eludes in The Emancipated Spectator (2009), is that without the dramatic text with its literary devices and discursive traces, theatre approaches either dance─minus acting techniques and stagecraft─or visual or performance art─minus its repertoire of images. How we discuss the total artwork that is theatre, which combines multiple methods and signs, particularly when it involves collaboration with artists from many disciplines, requires a complex reworking of theatre’s own histories of representation.

Relative to Lehmann, my emphasis on ‘watching others’ is radically different from the self-consciousness, self-absorption of participatory theatre, and the celebrated immediacy of experience. Which is not to deny that the opportunity to have powerful experiences, and to be more aware of the sensate nature of one’s own body, and how its kinesthetic and conceptual limits, discomforts and excitements can provoke an awareness of others. Theatre is, as I have argued, an artform finely tuned to the creation of spatio-temporal realities for learned, receptive attention to another’s difference from oneself as an intimate and public activity.

The popular rhetoric that accompanies many new theatre paradigms and projects seems however closer to that of the participatory ethos of flash mobs and extreme sports. It thus lacks any wider political or critical view of why these changes have taken place in Western theatre, and how we might make sense of the limits of this paradigm in our critical enjoyment as audiences. Theatre, when defined as active communication, or an event whose logics and subjective focus resembles the happening, and potentially atomises the individual in relation to the collective experience. And this shift has potential political consequences, because it becomes ‘a situation for the self-interrogation, self-exploration, self-awareness of all participants. The question of whether this represents a depoliticisation, a resignation only effective for a short term, or a changed understanding of what politics in theatre can be will, of course, not be settled here’ (p. 105). Lehmann does not attempt to answer this question but by posing it, he suggests we need to continue discussing the generalisation, the efficacy, and the ethical values, of the postdramatic in contemporary theatre. For the spectator they will however have to decide when and how to participate, or else.

To summarise, certain characteristics of an ‘ideal’ spectator have emerged in the postdramatic paradigm; they include:

  • An actor, who is co-present in the situation of events taking place around them.
  • A sensory being whose immediate experience produces self-reflection, and heightened awareness.
  • An initiate who follows the simultaneity of multiple activities and the shared space of a ritualized staging.
  • A molecular body in the collective contagion of the audience.

This postdramatic spectator offers important challenges for thinking about the changing role of theatre in contemporary society. They partially resurrect a figure whose nervous sensibilities might be hopelessly romantic in their desire for emancipation through the senses; or replicate a type whose disembodiment and dislocation enacts the constitutive features of the global capitalist monadic subject. Indeed, the repressive hypothesis that would imagine theatrical desire producing theories in action, leads me to ask whether a failed Marxism has debts to pay for the ‘passive obedience’ of participatory theatre. As Kate Kellaway from The Observer writes: ‘Punchdrunk describes its work as immersive, and it is… it changes you from from being a distant member of the audience to a voyeur… or a witness… and there are moments when you feel… as a dancer’s body brushes against you – dangerously close to an accomplice’ (2010).


Adam Alston. ‘Funding, product placement and drunkenness in Punchdrunk’s The Black Diamond.’ Studies in Theatre and Performance, Vol. 32, No. 2, 06, 2012. http://pure.rhul.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/adam-alston(1327f574-686a-451c-9325-9ba62d364d4e).html

Rachel Fensham. To Watch Theatre: essays in genre and corporeality. Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009.

Helena Grehan. Performance, Ethics and Spectatorship in a Global Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Kate Kellaway. ‘Review of The Duchess of Malfi; La traviata.’ The Observer. Sunday 18 July 2010.

Hans-Thiess Lehmann. Postdramatic Theatre (trans. Karen Jürs-Munby). London & New York: Routledge, 2006.

Jon McKenzie. Perform or Else? From Discipline to Performance. London & New York: Routledge, 2001.

Ontroeren Goed website. http://www.ontroerendgoed.be/audienceengfr.php accessed 18 December 2012.

Punchdrunk website. http://www.punchdrunk.org.uk/ accessed 18 December 2012.

Jacques Rancière. The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. Gregory Elliot. London: Verso, 2009.

Dee Reynolds and Matthew Reason. Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices. Bristol: Intellect/University of Chicago, 2012.

Richard Schechner and Victor Turner. Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (December 1, 1985).

Matt Trueman, Noises off: Ontroerend Goed’s Audience gets bloggers talking back. Guardian Theatre Blog, posted 15 December 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2011/dec/15/noises-off-ontroerend-goed-audience.


[1] Rachel Fensham is Head of School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her current research focuses on movement analysis and the interface between digital archive technologies and performance histories. Publications include To Watch Theatre (Peter Lang: 2009); and Dancing Naturally (Palgrave 2011) and recent articles in Dance Research Journal and the Journal of Intercultural Studies.

[2] Multiple references to Lehmann’s book are cited in text in brackets.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Postdramatic Spectatorship: Participate or Else