Paper presented in Jönköping, at the Swedish Performing Arts Biennial 2013

Savas Patsalidis[1]

Patsalidis

What does not change/
Is the will to change
Charles Olson, “The Kingfishers”

I would like to start by quoting Susan Bennett’s assertion about theatre spectatorship and culture. In her fascinating studyTheatre Audiences, Bennett writes:

Studies of the individual audience in their social, material, and historical specificities, are an important contribution to how we understand what has gone on before and how we come to watch performance in our own contemporary moment…. [W]hat has emerged from … study of the audience is the necessity to view the theatrical event beyond its immediate conditions and to foreground its social constitution. (1997: 211)

Τhis means that theories, practices and approaches may differ one from another in many emphases, but theatre, as part of culture is always already tied to the material forces and relations of its production (for more see Barker 1992 and Holderness 1992). And so does its perception. Look at the present gap between generations; it is becoming bigger and bigger, thanks (or no thanks) to current technology. For a forty or fifty year old person, for example words like theatre, authority, selfhood, interactivity, participation or politics are pretty much determined by the philosophy of the postmodern, which placed most of its emphasis on the powerlessness of man, on his inability to change the course of things (for more Kirby 2006). In the last couple of decades, however, with the overwhelming domination of internet and recycled culture, we observe a noticeable shift of emphasis from the source of meaning to the reception of meaning. If a person who grew up in the 60s and 70s still watches and listens, as before, a twenty-year old clicks, surfs, chooses, downloads and deletes; and by doing all this, as Alan Kirby soundly argues, s/he feels free, autonomous, inventive, expressive, empowered, independent. S/he feels that the real is implicitly defined as him/herself, interacting with the world’s texts. Whatever one does “is reality, a reality narrowed down to the ‘I’” (Kirby 2006, accessed 2/11/13).

In the midst of cataclysmic technological changes, nothing stands still for long, even our idea of presence, of being somewhere. As Jensen makes the point, “Presence, is no longer defined by geographical position or proximity but by a communal negotiation of what is culturally acceptable” (2007:111; also Auslander 1992). The mass media has deeply affected and altered the way we think about ourselves and our relationship to time, place, to each other and of course to reading, writing, theatre and participating (for more see Sobchack 2000).

Many people see that as a democratization of culture, in the sense that anybody can be the author of his/her own text, space and interactive initiatives; as opposed to the age of postmodernism, when we approached culture as a spectacle and ourselves as powerless pawns or victims. They see it as a rebirth of our lost selfhood, the holistic subject. Others, like Braidotti, see it as the epitome of market economics. The individual lives in an age that signals the return of a different form of determinism, which pretty much translates into a one-way political model; namely that all programmes of change have failed, hence “people can now relax and carry on with the normal task of minding their own business” (Braidotti 2005: 172).

At the dawn of the age of post-postmodernity,[2] the individual’s actions (or reactions or physical presence) seems to be all the more necessary (or almost necessary) condition of the cultural product. At least this is the impression which the secular theology of the market forces has created. Directly or indirectly, whether as viewers or consumers, as makers or remakers, we are encouraged to see ourselves as central figures in mediated narratives. Think of a TV show like Big Brother, for example; it is made what it is by the viewer’s act of phoning in. The Big Brother House guests must avoid being evicted, in order to stay in the game and compete to win the money of the grand prize. If nobody votes its contestants off, the show is finished (for more Kirby 2006). This is not the only indicative example of a contemporary cultural phenomenon which fetishes the recipients of the text. Think of shows the content of which increasingly consists of emails or text messages sent in commenting on the show’s items; or the popularity of shopping TV channels; or quizzes in which the viewer calls to guess the answer to riddles in the hope of winning money; or people’s ability to correspond instantaneously across large geographical regions via email. These are all indicative of certain trends that have characterized the first years of the new century. All these are cases where “technology works overtly to extend the material body into alternate dimensions of time and space, demanding a virtual alternative to material presence” (Jensen 2007: 169).

"Big Brother". The reality TV game show that made headlines news world wide.
“Big Brother”. The reality TV game show that made headlines news world wide.

It is quite obvious that this is not the age of the Aquarius or the Utopia envisioned by the pacifists and commune fans of the1960s, but the age of (dis)appearances. Kirby, once again, makes a sound case when he says that the purely spectacular function of television, as with all other arts, is gradually becoming a marginal one; “what is central now is the busy, active, forging work of the individual who, once upon a time, was called its recipient. Especially in the internet culture, there is such a strong sense of engagement with the cultural process that no other artistic medium can offer…. You click, you punch the key, you are involved. You are the text; there is no one else, no author, just you; there is nowhere else, no other time. It is you and the large screen on which everything is registered. You are free; you are the text; the text is superseded” (Kirby 2006, accessed 3/11/2013). At moments like this, the distinction between viewer and doer begins to blur. Yeats’ modernist aporia, “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?” (from his poem “Second Coming”), seems to find its full application in the age of post-postmodernity.

Participating in theatre

The illusion that the individual controls, manages, runs, makes up his involvement with the cultural product is becoming epidemic, even in not very popular activities like theatre reviewing. The rise of the internet and the subsequent introduction of blogs now challenge, to the point of extinction, the authority of the critics and their exclusive role as connoisseurs and judges of theatre. Nowadays, everybody can be a critic, in the sense that almost everybody can access the internet and post their opinion on any play they have seen. In this way the dialogue now is conducted among theatregoers themselves, among those who have seen the show, and those who have not and want to know more things about it. With the blog sites easily accessible, the need for the authority of a critic becomes less and less. Thus the question: “Who needs a critic, anyway?”

"One Third of a Nation". A Living Newspaper production about housing, staged in 1939 as part of the WPA Federal Art Project, NYC
“One Third of a Nation”. A Living Newspaper production about housing, staged in 1939 as part of the WPA Federal Art Project, NYC

This same turn away from established voices to the unpredictable dynamics of audience participation (and creation) characterizes many contemporary performances too. Rachel Fensham summarizes the situation in one sentence: “Ask not what we can do but what you can do for this performance?” (criticalstages.org, accessed 23/11/2012). The spectator is encouraged to see his/her performative intervention as part of his/her democratic right to shape the public (or dramatic) sphere.

"Waiting for Lefty" by Clifford Odets. The vignettes that make up the story focus on the meeting of the cab drivers who plan to go on strike. The framing uses the audience as part of the meeting. Staged by The Group Theatre in 1935, New York
“Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets. The vignettes that make up the story focus on the meeting of the cab drivers who plan to go on strike. The framing uses the audience as part of the meeting. Staged by The Group Theatre in 1935, New York

Of course, we do not bear gifts to Athens or coal to Newcastle by saying that contemporary theatre and/or performance calls for the participation of the spectator. It always did. But it did it as an option not a necessity. Think of: pantomime; Piscator’s engaged shows; the popular Living Newspaper performances in the turbulent 1930s; plays likeWaiting for Lefty; the utopian 1960s and some of its ensembles, such as The Living Theatre and The Performance Group; and Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre, created in Brazil under military rule, in which spectators were invited to step into the action and change the situations.

"Dionysus in 69". The widely discussed production of The Performance Group, inspired by Euripides' Bacchae and based on Richard Schechner's ideas about environmental and participatory theatre. Photo: Richard Schechner
“Dionysus in 69”. The widely discussed production of The Performance Group, inspired by Euripides’ Bacchae and based on Richard Schechner’s ideas about environmental and participatory theatre. Photo: Richard Schechner

The challenge

Things are radically different now. The hedonistic ethic, which had dominated a big part of our societies for years, has created a generation of theatre shoppers (and doers) rather than viewers. The more affluent societies grow, the more theatre (or theatrics) they consume (and perform). First television and now the internet, have trained people how to watch, how to read, how to communicate, what to expect from life and how to get it. Contemporary market forces, aided by very advanced and effective technological gadgets, have recast identities and communication tactics. The world of post-postmodernity is full of disposable bodies of global economy.

With this in mind, I think that the challenge of contemporary theatre (and performance) artists is not only to create space for the viewer to also feel necessary and important (this is the easy part), but to find effective and above all creative ways to communicate with this new generation of participatory viewership, that is, to come to grips with the reality of a world which moves much faster than art itself and attempt to make a difference in it. It is the task of contemporary theatre artists to come up with new artistic models for the representation of ideas and new ways of activating their audiences (mainly young and internet users); in short, to come up with new strategies for reinventing subjectivity and subject positions (Keidan 2006: 9; also Banes 2007 and Bailes 2011).

Brecht still sounds very contemporary when he says that reality changes, and “in order to represent it, modes of representation must change. Nothing comes of nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new”(1974: 51). Brecht, living in an age experiencing dramatic socio-economic change, talks of the need for new communication tactics that would interrogate the way in which people receive and translate information in everyday life. Theatre, no matter when or where, is both about making (poetics) and of making sense (hermeneutics). And theatre makes more sense and brings more (unfamiliar) knowledge when it manages to create the conditions for the emergence of a more questioning audience, an audience with a new attitude towards place, viewing, participating and mainly consuming theatre (see also Kershaw 2007 and Banes 2007).

The site-specific performances of the British company Shunt (Tropicana, Money, Sightings, among others), is a useful example. In all these projects the audience is given the chance to interact, to discover situations of their own. Mischa Twitchin, a member of the company, describes the importance of the audience: “…one of the main interests of the company is to consider the journey of the audience. The work includes ‘an audience’, distinct from a group of people wandering randomly. How they are included is our responsibility; we are making an experience for an audience, in an environment that we are constructing. It’s not a Happening, it’s a rehearsed show and even if it’s not apparent to anybody – even ourselves sometimes! – there is a narrative structure” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shunt, accessed 8/11/2013; for more see Boenisch 2012).

Audience, by the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed, is another good example of how the shift from the representation of meaning to the emergence of meaning through the act of being there means taking responsibility for our acts as spectators (for more on this see Fensham 2012, Lehmann 2006 and Felton 2010). The performance Katerini,[3] by a Greek alternative ensemble, Blitz, is also an interesting case study. It took place in six rooms and an open, public space in down town Athens. Its duration, close to five and a half hours, de-naturalized people’s mode of spectatorship and somehow forced them to make conscious decisions about it, as to its structures, its differences or similarities to life. The public space, where the performance developed, changed functions continuously: from a place of announcements to a place of public speeches, of entertainment, or just a meeting point where people could have a drink. The changes in the spatial and temporal arrangement of the action, in combination with other audiovisual and narrative modes, created an immersive milieu which facilitated the participation of the spectator in the process and meaning of the event.

According to Lehmann, when a piece ceases to be dramatic, the audience gradually loses the mentality of the “unaffected witness” (2006: 136) and gets more involved in the micro-events and the images of the performance, thus acquiring an awareness of being co-present with the actors. This distance from the object of identification makes the work more political. In this sense, Katerini was participatory as much as it was political.

"Katerini", an interactive performance staged in 2011 in Athens by Blitz, a Greek alternative ensemble. In the photo members of the ensemble with participating spectators. © Blitz
“Katerini”, an interactive performance staged in 2011 in Athens by Blitz, a Greek alternative ensemble. In the photo members of the ensemble with participating spectators. © Blitz

Yet, this is not to say that this deliberate de-territorialization of accepted hierarchies and values, this breaking of standard norms, this entrance into uncharted territories, this disruption of boundaries and the subsequent exploration of unknown performance geographies away from the fixed and enclosed locations of the conventional theatres, is a panacea. Experience has shown that, more often than not, ventures of this type are as much confused as they are confusing. For participatory spectatorship of the kind our mediated reality promotes is not necessarily a revolutionary alternative. It certainly can be (see Dolan 1988), but that would be the exception. As stated above, the rule has it that the social media now determine our perception of what is real (on stage or elsewhere) and what is perceived as real in the outside world. We are mediatized spectators of life and its arts and our daily performances are determined by that fact.

I have many reasons to like the British Company Punchdrunk. They are inventive, imaginative, lively, unpredictable, a pioneer of “immersive presentation” in which, the audience is free to choose what to watch and where to go, pretty much like “promenade theatre” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punchdrunk, accessed 8/11/2013). At the same time, however, their success story is also a good example of what can happen if one ties his/her artistic goals to commercial interests. Lyn Gardner, for example, reviewing for The Guardian the performance Sleep No More, puts the issue bluntly, but accurately, when she criticizes the group for creating marketing strategies for business companies. “Rarely have I seen,” she writes, “a more commercially minded show than Punchdrunk’s current stateside hit, Sleep No More.” And she is not alone in this. A similar conclusion is also reached by her American colleague Agnes Silvestre who, covering the visit of the company in New York, writes in Culturebot: “It’s true that the show has built commerce into its structure. After standing in line on West 27th Street, the first stop is a themed bar where I wait until my group number is called. And yes, the drinks are overpriced, as is the Sleep No More Book, a kind of glorified program that someone tries to sell you as you leave at the end of the night. But overpriced drinks and programs are familiar from any Broadway show, as are the high ticket prices ($75-$95). The producers’ innovation is to extend the theme of the show into a kind of Sleep No More brand.” Silvestre’s conclusion is clear: “the spectator is a passive consumer not just in the context of the theatre but in the context of the world” (www.culturebot.org/2012/11/14997/punchdrunk-and-the-politics-of-spectatorship/,
accessed 8/11/2013).

"Dying as a Country". A performance presented at Athens Festival in 2010, with the participation of two hundred volunteers - we see them entering the theatre. Dir. Michael Marmarinos. © Panos Petropoulos
“Dying as a Country”. A performance presented at Athens Festival in 2010, with the participation of two hundred volunteers – we see them entering the theatre. Dir. Michael Marmarinos. © Panos Petropoulos

The end

The reason I chose to conclude this paper by pointing out the contradictions embedded in the productions of audience-oriented companies like Punchdrunk, is not to undermine what they do, but to underline the difficulties involved when one has to deal with the market forces of our technological post-postmodern era, and to also point out that, in spite of all this, I feel that in this rapidly moving world of cosmocrats, technocrats and business institutions, there is still room, no matter how limited, for theatre to interrogate meanings and paradoxes; that is to step in and make a difference. This is no time for ironic indifference, withdrawal or silence. In a society immersed in consumer junk and drowning in images of false liberation, silent, narcissistic or pointless participation of the kind the internet culture offers, it is the theatre’s job to create the anomalous arguments that would widen and deepen the artist’s responsibility and people’s (audience’s) awareness (for more Merod 1987). Theatre can help people see things as if seeing for the first time. It can help spectators break away from passive modes of critical inquiry and assume a more dynamic one, a role which would show them, as Bernard Shaw says, that “it is not our disorder but our order that is horrible”.

All this is to say that, at the very least, the arguments and the issues related to this shift from simple, dramatic viewing to the act of performative viewing (and participating) are very complex, as are the entanglements of nationality, selfhood, subject position, identity, autonomy, authenticity and history. All the stage experiments have shown thus far that there is no definitive answer. Time will show whether these alternative options can succeed in maintaining theatre/performance as a constructive social medium, able to meet the challenges of the contemporary situation with creativity, political courage and imagination; whether they can put “active” back to “activism”. This is the hard part, for it requires mechanisms of resistance which not many artists or companies have or can afford to have.

Works cited

Auslander, Philip. Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.

Bailes, Sara Jane. Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure: Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Elevator Repair Service. London: Routledge, 2011.

Banes, Sally & Andre Lepecki, eds. The Senses in Performance. New York & London: Routledge, 2007.

Barker, Clive. “Alternative Theatre/Political Theatre.” The Politics of Theatre and Drama. Ed. Graham Holderness. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Bennett, Susan. Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception. London: Routledge, 1997.

Boenisch, Peter. “Acts of Spectating: The Dramaturgy of the Audience’s Experience in Contemporay Theatre.” “Special Topics.” Ed. Patrice Pavis. Critical Stages 7 (2012).  Accessed 23/11/2012. www.criticalstages.org

Braidotti, Rosi. “A Critical Cartography of Feminist Post-Postmodernism”, Australian Feminist Studies,20. 47 (2005): 169-180.

Brecht, Bertolt. “Against Georg Lukacs.” Trans. S. Hood. New Left Review 84 (1974): 39-53.

Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.

Felton-Dansky, Mirriam. “Watching the Watchers: New Studies of Spectators and Spectatorship.” Theater40. 3 (2010): 43-53.

Fensham, Rachel. “Postdramatic Spectatorship: Participate or Else.” Critical Stages 7 (2012). Accessed 23/11/2012. www.criticalstages.org.

Holderness, Graham. “Introduction.” The Politics of Theatre and Drama. Ed. Graham Holderness. London: Macmillan, 1992. 1-17.

Jensen, Petersen Amy. Theatre in a Media Culture: Production, Performance and Perception Since 1970.London: MacFarland, 2007.

Keidan, Lois. “This Must be the Place: Thoughts on Place, Placelessness and Live Art Since the 1980s.”Performance and Place. Eds. Leslie Hill & Helen Paris. London: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2007.8-16.

Kershaw, Baz. Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance Events. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.

Kirby, Alan. “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond.” Philosophy Now 58 (2006). Accessed 15/06/2013. http://www.philosophynow.org

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. Trans. Karen Jur-Munby. New York & London: Routledge, 2006.

Merod, Jim. The Political Responsibility of the Critic. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

Silvestre, Agnes. “Punchdrunk and the Politics of Spectatorship.”

Culturebot. Accessed 14/11/2012. http://www.culturebot.org

Sobchack, Vivian. “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Cinematic and Electronic Presence.” Film and Theory. Eds. Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Malden, Mass.: Blacwell Publishers, 2000.

Twichin, Misha. “Shunt (Theatre Company).” Accessed 8/11/2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shunt

*This research has been co-financed by the European Union (European Social Fund – ESF) and Greek national funds through the Operational Program “Education and Lifelong Learning” of the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF) – Research Funding Program: THALIS -UOA- «The Theatre as educational good and artistic expression in education and society»


Patsalidis

[1] Savas Patsalidis is Professor of theatre history and theory in the School of English and the Graduate Program of the Theatre Department of Aristotle University (Thessaloniki). He also teaches at the Drama School of the State Theatre of Northern Greece. He is the author of eleven books on drama criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen .He is the theatre reviewer of the daily newspaperAggelioforos and a regular theatre commentator for the newspaper Eleftherotypia. He is on the editorial board of Critical Stages and the Journal of Greek Media and Culture. He is also member of the City of Thessaloniki theatre council. His two-volume study Theatre, Society, Nation (Thessaloniki: University Studio Press), was awarded first prize by the Hellenic Association of Theatre Critics for best theatre study of the year (2010).
[2] For a brief yet informative account of what is going on with the post-postmodern, visit Wikipedia:The Free Encyclopedia. http://en. wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-postmodernism
[3] This is the name of a typical provincial Greek town, which lies away from the decision-making centers, Athens and Thessaloniki. Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Katerini is a town where time goes by slowly; people live their small tragedies behind closed doors, at some point, they go out, to the square of the town, meet their friends, protest against the corruption of the politicians or the decadence of their area and then go back home in order to start all over again the following day.

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Audience Participation and the Theatre’s Role in the Age of Post-Postmodernity (Greece)