Peter M. Boenisch[1]


The emergence of relational dramaturgy

It is a truism to maintain that theatre has always paid particular attention to its audiences and spectators, whether in contemporary performance, the theatre avant-garde from a century ago, or virtually at any other time we may randomly pick from theatre history. The audience is inevitably theatre’s raison d’être: without spectators, there simply is no theatrical event. More recently, however, this central place of the spectators in theatre has become the focus of new critical interrogations and academic debates. New forms of so-called participatory theatre sought to ‘liberate’ the spectators from their role as (allegedly) passive consumers, while the very power of the spectatorial gaze has come under theoretical scrutiny in the wake of Laura Mulvey’s seminal 1975 essay on the ‘male gaze’ and visual pleasure in cinema, which had its repercussions in debates on the performing arts, too, especially in the field of dance. Peggy Phelan went on to dissect, in her 1993 classic study Unmarked, the spectator’s gaze and the audience’s desire within the context of her proposed ontology of performance in its irrevocable presence and the present. Phelan’s study influentially tackled some of the inner contradictions of feminist and postmodern critique which at the time dominated academia and certainly the (then) emerging discipline of Performance Studies. Analyzing her selection of primarily physically driven performance work and dance productions along an argument informed by Barthes, Austin and Lacan, she investigated the potential for the spectatorial gaze to get deflected from its habitual voyeuristic consumption of representations, and instead to obtain a different potential as a source of action and site of agency.

Such issues had become particularly pertinent with the ever growing technical, and in particular the emerging digital reproducibility of images facilitated by mass media. The more recent advent of new types of digital media which stylise themselves as ‘social’ media has today further pressed issues of spectating, media consumption and agency into the foreground of our interrogations. It may therefore have been no coincidence that recent years have seen a renewed manifest engagement with the audience from new, post-semiotic perspectives. One may here point to publications such as, in particular, Rachel Fensham’s To Watch Theatre: Essays on genre and corporeality (2009), Alan Read’s Theatre, Intimacy and Engagement (2008), Dennis Kennedy’s historiographic study on The Spectator and the Spectacle or Alison Oddey and Christine White’s collection on Modes of Spectating that they consider from a scenographic point of view (the latter two also published in 2009). This crucial trajectory in the stance that our discipline has taken towards the role of the audience is probably best mirrored by the passage of German theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte: From her pioneering Semiotics of Theatre, published in the early 1980s, she arrived via a sustained engagement with phenomenology throughout the 1990s at her ‘aesthetics of performativity’ (2004). Maintaining a central focus on the performance as principal object of analysis, her emphasis has now, however, shifted from an analysis of the (semiotic) structure of the work to the (largely phenomenal) event of the performance itself, or in German terms: from a structural dissection of the Inszenierung towards an experiential recording of the individualAufführung. The latter became, not only for Fischer-Lichte, the core aspect that signifies theatre as an art form. She firmly locates the characteristic of theatre’s specific mediality in what she describes as the ‘bodily co-presence of actors and spectators.’ The classic semiotic investigation of the production, communication and reception of meaning is hence transferred to what Fischer-Lichte calls the ‘emergence’ of a meaning localized directly within spectating considered as active participation in the process of making meaning, stimulated by an ‘exchange of energies’ and ‘bodily sensing’ (leibliches Spüren) (cf Fischer-Lichte 2008, Ch. 5, “The Emergence of Meaning,” 138-159). In place of the traditional idea of a unidirectional transfer of meaning from a single ‘sender’ (in our case, the playwright or director) to many receivers, Fischer-Lichte now posits a dynamic ‘auto-poietic feedback loop’ that connects the stage with the auditorium, and the performers with the spectators. Summarizing the challenge of neo-avantgarde performance art of the 1960s and 1970s (Marina Abramovic, Joseph Beuys and Fluxus), which are her central examples, she argues that it redefined two relationships of fundamental importance to hermeneutic as well as semiotic aesthetics: first, the relationship between subject and object, observer and observed, spectator and actor; second, the relationship between the materiality and the semioticity of the performance’s elements, between signifier and signified. (Fischer-Lichte 2008, 17)

This emphasis on redefined relationships indeed touches the core of contemporary dramaturgic challenges. Where Fischer-Lichte makes an important case for a shift, among others, in the central role of the relation between actor and spectator, we should still note that her list of altered relationships expressed in the quotation still continues to think in dualities and binary oppositions. I propose to further push this thought and to introduce a properly relational perspective on dramaturgy. What we witness in contemporary theatre performance is less a mere shift of power between some binary poles, from one point to its other, opposite end. Instead, today’s dramaturgic strategies activate the full interplay between the highlighted borders, as for example between materiality and semioticity. It is precisely no longer a matter of ‘from’ one end ‘to’ the other, of ‘either / or.’ These processes of playful negotiations (in the full Schillerian sense of Spiel) are at the heart of what I term relational dramaturgy. I take up prompts both from Nicolas Bourriaud’s influential ‘relational aesthetics’ and from the lesser known thoughts by Leo Bersani to suggest an understanding of dramaturgy as a relational aesthetic practice (cf. Bourriaud 2002; Bersani 2010). It forges relations, changes relationships, and calibrates a dynamic interplay. Far beyond referring to a production’s specific interpretative reading of a text, to procedures of adapting or translating a text ‘from page to stage’ (in a more conventional conception of dramaturgy), and equally far beyond ‘reaching out’ to audiences not traditionally part of art circles (as in Bourriaud’s understanding), relational dramaturgy ‘acts’ in the full sense alluded to in Eugenio Barba’s seminal definition of dramaturgy as a ‘weaving of actions.’ For him, too, an ‘action’ is situated on a level beyond the action of the plot or narrative; explicitly, he includes anything that affected and impacted, thus: acts on the spectator, in his understanding (cf. Barba 1991). It is this ‘action’ which engenders theatre’s original ‘politicity’ (to use a term coined by French philosopher Jacques Rancière) within our present global digital media economy. The relational mode of dramaturgy marks a production’s spectatorial relations, its fluid shifting between materiality and semioticity. Let us turn to three recent theatre productions to further develop these considerations that take us from an ‘aesthetics of performativity’ towards a concept of ‘relational (dramaturgic) action.’

Instance 1: The Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, dir. Ivo van Hove

In 2007, Flemish director Ivo van Hove created for Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the principal theatre in the Dutch capital which van Hove has been leading as Artistic Director since 2001, the Romeinse Tragedies: a six-hour long compilation of Shakespeare’s Roman Tragedies Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony & Cleopatra, which presented the three plays non-stop, without an interval, with the audience free to roam around the theatre – and the stage. After about half an hour – we had just witnessed Caius Martius’s return from his successful battle against the Volsci – neon working lights were switched on for the first scene change. While some stagehands started resetting the scene, we heard some ‘muzak’ from the loudspeakers, like in a department store, and a female voice welcomed us to today’s performance: ‘the stage is now open,’ we were told, and we were invited to cross that fourth wall. On stage, we were able to sit on sofas that made the set reminiscent of some hotel lobby or airport waiting lounge. Also on stage, a bar and a food stall waited for us, even a computer corner where we could access the internet, and a table with the latest newspapers and magazines. The action of the plays would simply unfold around us in this setting. During the hours that followed, we were able to move between stage and auditorium and to change our position within the theatre space, or hence also our positioning – our relation – to the performance. We were able to follow the action from very close sitting on stage or from the distance in our usual theatre chair in the auditorium. We could watch the live action in front of us, but we could instead also ‘watch live’ from the auditorium on a huge screen mounted above the proscenium, or on one of the many TV monitors that were scattered not only across the stage space but also outside in the theatre foyer, near the bars and toilets. Additionally, an electronic text display between the stage and the mounted screen above provided to those in the auditorium further information on the historic background of the plays (on the Volsci, Coriolanus, the wars, etc.), as well as details on the production (‘three hours to Caesar’s murder’), while also displaying the actual latest news headlines of the very day and even some live football results.

Instance 2: Money, Shunt

With their production Money, staged at an abandoned factory in London in October 2009, the British performance collective Shunt presented its version of Emile Zola’s 1891 novel L’Argent which of course offers some resonances of the current financial crisis. In the spirit of ‘devised performance,’ the original plot around the corrupt stock market speculator Aristide Saccard delivered mere prompts and a rough narrative outline for a highly visual and sensory audience experience. Already as we entered the warehouse space, a gigantic machine in the middle of the space roared, clattered, puffed, and rattled. Following a prelude during which we remained seated in front of the machine, we were then asked to climb up the metal staircase and enter the machine and were lead into a pitchblack space, amidst ear-spitting noise and wind. The door was closed behind us. Soon the wind and noise stopped, the lights went up, and we found ourselves standing within a stunning interior space with classy wooden panelling and some benches on either side, where we eventually settled down. After another while, a kind of foreman entered from another door with some paperwork in his hand. He read out a name. We may therefore have wondered whether he had the list of audience members in front of him, as we of course had to phone in and sign up just to find out the exact location of the factory space to attend the performance. For sure, however, no hand went up. It was only on the third attempt that eventually someone identified himself and was lead out of the room. As became obvious very soon, this was of course no ‘real’ audience member but the play’s main character, that future bankruptcy cheat from the novel.

The disjointed sequence of scenes and impressions that followed over the next ninety minutes took place within this interior site, including the floors above and beneath the room as the actual floors became semi-transparent in proper lighting. At some point, we were then also directed to the upper floor to join a party at the height of the financial speculation craze in the plot. Not only the characters but also the audience members got their glass of champagne to sip, and we also soon engaged in some silly ballgame across the huge table (the transparent floor to our seating room downstairs), throwing the little plastic balls that had fallen from above at each other and at the performers. Later, we were once again ushered downstairs. Towards the end, of course, there was the big crash, where Zola’s main character reaps his investors’ money and flees abroad. In Shunt’s version, he also took every single golden door handle with him, so that when – after some turbulent and again noisy final minutes – the light went off, and on again, we found ourselves locked into the space. There was a key on the floor in the centre of the space. We applauded. No-one entered. No door was opened. We couldn’t get out – until one audience member finally got up, picked up the key and unlocked the door.

Instance 3: Hotel Medea, Zecora Ura/ParaActive, dir. Persis-Jada Maravala and Jorge Lopes Ramos

The Brazilian-English co-production of the classical Medea tragedy has been performed over the past five years in several site-specific incarnations in Brazil, the UK and elsewhere, most recently in 2012 as part of the London Cultural Olympiad. Hotel Medea, which I saw in its 2010 version staged in the London Docklands, starts shortly before midnight and lasts until dawn. The audience gathered at a pier on the Thames. Around midnight, little boats took small groups to the other side of the river. Off the boat, we passed some stations where we got instructions – on dance moves, some chants, and how to behave in the ‘Zero Hour Market,’ the first part of the performance. This carnivalesque happening was staged in a warehouse. We interacted with some obscure vendors, card players and jugglers, before Jason’s troupes burst in in (in an actual car) and made an end to this illustrious and illicit going-on. Jason here was a typical British politician of the easily portrayable Camerblair-type. He went out on his ‘peace mission’ to yet another foreign country where he would meet Medea and her family. They were in this transatlantic co-production played by the Brazilian cast members. During the first part, we as audience took part in Jason’s pursuit and courtship, before we were divided into male and female audience members and assisted the bride or groom’s respective pre-wedding rituals, and eventually performed celebratory dances during the wedding. And Medea gave, right amongst us, the treacherous kiss of death to her family to then follow Jason.

Later on, in Parts 2 and 3 of this night-long production, we were courted ourselves by Jason as potential electors, were photographed with him, and some of us even got his autograph. In another scene, we were brought to bed by our personal nannies who had a mug of cocoa for us, put us into pyjamas, brought us to bed, and read us a good-night story – here from a comic book of the Medea-myth. Those who did not immediately doze off (some loudly snoring away as the lady in the bunkbed beneath me, of course it must have been around 3 am by then) could bear witness, with our eyes closed, to Jason’s (or is it: our fathers?) betrayal and a first argument of the couple. Later again, with dawn beginning to set in, we were lead out of the building, following in small groups one of the performers, to escape the furious revenge of Medea, hiding across the Dockland area. The performers left us behind, and after a while, per mobile phone, we were directed back to the main warehouse, where – together with Jason – we eventually discovered the massacre: we found, indeed, two of the audience members whom we had met and chatted to before in the intervals, lying there in state, surrounded by candles, and we threw flowers onto their ‘dead’ bodies, before following the eventual witchhunt against Medea, not the least orchestrated here by the media who played a prominent aspect throughout this contemporary take on the old story.

Sensing the ‘Mise en Event’: Shaking up the Spectating Relations

These three examples, selected from recent theatre productions, map out a panorama of dramaturgic relations that oscillate between the material performance event and its semiotic meaning. They connect, in different ways, texts, performance (Aufführung), and spectators. In a way that is in an additional way exemplary for a trend in current theatre practice in Europe, all three productions staged (more or less) canonical texts, by Shakespeare, Zola, and Euripides/Heiner Müller. The principal ‘meaning’ of these productions, however, was no longer primarily located in their interpretation of the text. The relational components of dramaturgy, which we encounter here, instead exploit the interdependence of representation and theatral presentation, the interplay between the performance as actualised texture of a mise en scène and the actual event and experience. The mise en scène, in all three cases, revealed itself as first and foremost a ‘mise en event.’ The dramatic text and its (dramatic and narrative) textures function as an indispensible dramaturgic mediator that energises these relations. As a result, the focus shifts from the representation of meaning to the ‘sense’ generated, or in Fischer-Lichte’s term: ‘emerging’ from the very action of presenting this text in performance. This ‘sense’ – to be perceived by all of the spectators’ senses – reveals the dramaturgic relations as its very trigger. It frames the audience’s encounter with the dramatic text and establishes co-ordinates for our experience of the situation of watching theatre.

Relational forms of dramaturgy are, as our examples have also shown, not at all confined to new, experimental genres of so-called ‘devised performance.’ In fact, the conventional opposition that pitches the drama of staged text against an alternative mode of performance no longer suffices. The dramaturgic strategy of putting relations in play marries, as all three productions demonstrate rather effortlessly, forms and strategies of contemporary theatre-making attributed to ‘performance theatre’ with the staging of a literary text. We have seen here strategies of site-specific theatre, of physical theatre, or collective improvisation as creative rehearsal strategy applied in the context of staging dramatic texts. As a result, the above instances remind us not to simply assume that the core aesthetic innovations and analytic challenges arise at the very obvious surface, for example through the ‘fall of the fourth wall,’ the suspension of conventional spatial separations or the outright escape from traditional theatre spaces, nor even per se in the ‘active involvement’ of the spectators. Ivo van Hove’s production, like all of his works created for a traditional proscenium space at the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg with one of the leading Dutch ensemble companies, is a particularly apt reminder. The actual, true shift in the relational arrangement does not happen on the very surface, by abandoning one end of the assumed opposition (the ‘consuming’ spectators gazing from the distance; the dramatic semioticity) and accommodating us, as spectators, on the other (the ‘active’ spectator participating on his feet; the event of the material performance conditions). Such a crude shift achieves nothing but to reaffirm the spectating relations and underlying ideological hierarchies ex negativo. Jacques Rancière challenged, in his essay ‘The Emancipated Spectator,’ very rightly the fetish of ‘audience participation.’ In many cases, such productions only create even more ‘stultifying’ theatre experiences, as he terms it: they may blur boundaries and confuse roles, yet without challenging the underlying (ideological) principles of the hegemonic ‘partition of the sensible,’ as Rancière calls the dominant ways of perceiving, sensing, and making sense of the world (cf. Rancière 2009a).

Consequently, he determinedly argues against idolizing ‘interactive’ performances where the audience may no longer be seated in conventional arrangements but where still, in effect, ‘what the spectator must see is what the director makes her see.’ (Rancière 2009b, 14, orig. emphasis). True emancipation of the spectator for him necessitates shaking up the underlying spectating relations and its implicit hierarchies: it is, we may add, an essentially dramaturgic operation, indeed. It is achieved where the individual intelligence of the spectator as spectator in their irreducible distance as thinking interpreters is affirmed without any reservations:

[In] a theatre, in front of a performance, just as in a museum, school or street, there are only ever individuals plotting their own paths in the forest of things, acts, and signs that confront or surround them. The collective power shared by spectators does not stem from the fact that they are members of a collective body or from some specific form of interactivity. It is the power each of them has to translate what she perceives in her own way, to link it to the unique intellectual adventure that makes her similar to all the rest in as much as this adventure is not like any other. (Rancière 2009b, 17)

Van Hove appeals to this very intelligence of the individual ‘interpreter’ where he employs – in the Roman Tragedies and elsewhere – a range of minute realignments and refractions of the theatre space and of conventional viewing arrangements. In their very subtlety, they disclose a relational dramaturgy at work that even in the architectural setting of the traditional late-19th century building of the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg achieves to position the spectators no longer outside and opposite of the theatral situation, but that instead aims for a spectating situation which reaffirms the spectator as spectators instead of patronising them as somewhat interactivated pseudo-participants. The director’s insistence on the conventional proscenium setting discloses how we on the one hand continue, in his productions, to take our position as spectators opposite the production – but on the other hand, we are at the very same time placed right in the middle of a relational dramaturgic framework.

We may be at times directly addressed as friends, Romans, and countrymen, and elsewhere, in the Hotel Medea-performance, as electorate, wedding guests, or Medea’s children. Above all, however, these productions acknowledge in their very dramaturgic structure our own very real, ‘individual’ needs: In the Roman Tragedies, we are allowed to come and go, to take a spectating position we choose, to zoom in and out again, as it were, to eat and drink. We may browse the newspaper, update our Facebook-profile, or check our emails even while Caesar gets slaughtered right next to us. Or, we can make the choice of remaining in the auditorium: yet, even if we decide never to enter the stage during these six hours, we still participate in the changed relational dramaturgy. The very presence of the other spectators on stage is a constant reminder; they become the vicarious spectators that we spectate, a reminder that reaffirms our own ‘real’ position, too. Similarly careful and caring is the dramaturgic relation that shapes Hotel Medea: We are taken seriously in our needs as an audience, including the acknowledgement of our tiredness in the middle of the night. We have the opportunity to really take a nap, and the opportunity to share the concluding communal breakfast. The production of course also engages our enjoyment of participating in play, in playing roles, and above all in participating in ways that are precisely different from the clichéd ‘participatory performances’ where no-one wanted to sit in the front row.

Here, we were instead invited to enter protected environments of a Schillerian play of sense and senses, which I consider as an important factor contributing to the genuine audience emancipation that Rancière himself does not sufficiently take into account, as he privileges rational processes of ‘translation’ and interpreting. Let us remember that we had received some guidelines and instructions on a leaflet as we entered Hotel Medea’s ‘Zero Hour Market’ around midnight, as well as being instructed in the dance steps – a group dance which allowed us to participate while not being oddly and never carelessly exposed. This contrasts notably with another ‘participatory’ performance I recently attended (and which shall remain unnamed here) where the audience was invited, not to say coerced into joining a waltz that mixed performers and spectators. This situation not only uncomfortably, and entirely unnecessarily and in disservice of the production’s dramaturgic aim, exposed those who had not brushed up their ballroom skills recently, it was also forgotten to make sure there was an equal number of sexes and participants. Of all people it was me who uncomfortably remained excluded, not finding any partner, not being able to participate, and hence left to have my engagement with the production taken over by anger about an unconsidered relationing that remained utterly stultifying, superficially spectacular, and nothing but an empty gesture. In contrast, the relational dramaturgies we exemplarily encountered with Ivo van Hove and in Hotel Medea, acknowledged us fully as spectating subjects – in our needs, but also in our fears and anxieties. They took care of us, and in that sense the ‘Hotel’-metaphor in the very title of Hotel Medea confirms the site of meaning in the relational dramaturgy: the ‘Hotel’ had nothing to do with the interpretation and representation of the Medea-myth here, yet everything to do with our own engagement as spectators staying overnight.

Double Exposure: The ‘I’ of the spectator

In each of the three performances, our ‘gaze’ and our ‘spectating’ was in different ways always already inscribed within the field of the production. They require from the spectator a relation to the (re)presented drama that is different from the standard mode of engagement i.e. one based on identification with whom and what we see. We are no longer the ‘recipients’ of the classic dramatic dramaturgic paradigm, or in psychoanalytic terms: no longer ‘the other’ who necessarily complements the stage and gains a position and role (and hence identity) as spectating subject on precisely this ground of being the receiver, of being on ‘the other’ side of theatre. An explicitly relational dramaturgy hence, at its very core, opens up and prominently highlights a certain ‘gap’ within the spectator which puts us in an ambiguous distance towards our own ‘acting’ as spectators. We find here interesting echoes of Lacan’s account of the logic of signification. Famously, he insisted on the ever gaping hole, the distance between the subject of the enounced and the subject of enunciation: between the ‘speaking I’ and the ‘I being spoken.’ The symbolic order requires us to ignore, erase, and disavow this gap. In a most interesting way, the medium of theatre makes this fundamental structure of signification palpable in an even more highlighted manner. There always remains an irreducible, necessary distance between the ‘spectating I’ and the ‘I of the spectator.’ We are offered ways of relating, modes of sensing, spectating and engaging. It is this double experience of spectating that blurs the clear separation between representation, presentation, and the very presence and present, between materiality and semioticity. This is exactly where we find the seeds of the (political) ‘act’ of spectating, and/or of spectating as an act.

The interesting question to be asked is now how any specific theatre production negotiates this rift. To enable, or even assert spectating as an ‘act’ in the Lacanian sense, or ‘emancipation’ in the Rancièrian terminology, this peculiar ‘double experience’ needs to be acknowledged in its ultimate incompatibility. Whether in Van Hove’s leather sofas or in the chequered comfy cushions and blankets in which our maids wrapped us up in Hotel Medea: while we were ‘participating actively’ in the performance, as the usual description and reading goes, our very individual subjectivity as spectators remained acknowledged precisely because the production never suggested that this fundamental experiential gap could be bridged or synchronized. In fact, in some of the cases discussed here, the opposite was true. Then, as an effect, the very process and activity of spectating loses its usual transparency – and the activity of spectating gains the momentum of an act. Activity as act means not only any response or intervention in the performance, but it is a direct assertion, even provocation of our individual ‘response-ability,’ as Hans-Thies Lehmann famously termed it (Lehmann 2006, 185): we are at once enabled to respond, yet also cannot get away from this response – we need to take the responsibility for our act and our actions as spectators. This responsibility of the spectator is the very moment that makes us abandon the (also relational) attitude of consumption which is so characteristic for our global digital economy of goods and services, including the performative service spectacles provided by our entertainment industries.

But there is also another, and equally political option. The gap in our subjective position may just as well be covered over in performance, and we as spectators are reassured (Rancière would say: stultified) by being allowed to perform an action in accordance to a script. We should here once more revisit Shunt’s Money, since it discloses a significant difference in its relational structure compared to the other two performances referred to in this essay. The spectators in Money have, precisely, not been asked nor been allowed to take responsibility for their action beyond some token gestures of ‘interactivity.’ The distinction becomes very clear: If someone raised their hand in the early moment of the play, thus acting playfully, they already disturbed the play’s carefully plotted machinery. At the end, one of the spectators simply has got to pick up the key and unlock the door. Our actions of spectating remain organised throughout; they have at all times been administered or carefully managed for us: We become ‘subjects supposed to watch,’ to paraphrase Lacan once more: locked into a dramaturgy of audience relationing whose machinery would just as well function without our physical presence. This could not be said about either of the other productions alluded to. As spectators we had been in the midst of things and even literally locked in, yet we remained, as far as our own spectatorial agency and ‘response-ability’ was concerned, still opposite and excluded: literally locked in yet thereby at the same time left out. Shunt, hence, despite their surface appearance as devised performance company, at the dramaturgic core of their production confine themselves to the parameters of the ‘well made spectacle.’

Action as (scripted) re-action, and in opposition to an ‘act,’ is perfectly exemplified in the forced gesture in the (in a very literal sense) ‘key scene’ from Shunt’s Money, where the choice for the spectators is merely illusory and from the start only one predetermined ‘choice’ can be made – it is thereby that this relational arrangement exactly replicates the dominant dramaturgy of our global liberal society, with its reassuring illusory foundation of a subject position that makes safe the gap of subjectivity and prevents us from falling into the open hole that is the subject. Of course, taking such a more conservative dramaturgic option should not be outright discredited. It remains, above all, another option of relational dramaturgy. Artists as well as audiences have the space to navigate. They can (but also: must) take a decision whether, and to what degree, we participate, ‘act,’ and – again in a Rancièrian term: ‘par(t)-take’ in the world, or allow such part-taking and participation. The curious double-bind of a simultaneous, yet incongruent, even contradictory perspective is at the heart of these spectating relations: relational dramaturgies revolve around the very gap between the spectating ‘I’ which the performance addresses and the perceiving I (or maybe better: ‘eye’) of the spectator. This gap may be opened or it may be glanced over. Relational dramaturgies stage theatre situations that ‘put in play’ this very relation: they inescapably expose us to, and hence also gamble with and put on the very line, our ultimately ‘real’ role as spectators, our own experience of subjective agency. Here, a relational understanding of dramaturgy makes clear that true acts of spectating are not just a matter of explicitly ‘political’ performances. All the time we find the singular viewing perspective threatened by the blurred sense of being at the same time opposite and still within, even right in the middle of the performance. Whether the dramaturgic relations offer moments of contingent action where spectators are prompted to ‘actually act,’ as in Roman Tragedies or Hotel Medea, or whether ‘superfluous’ gestures of action effectively make a perfectly economic framework of a cause-effect logic transparent, as in Money, we find acts of spectating emerging where the contingent, incongruous and inconsistent gap between the ‘I’ as spectator and the spectating ‘I’ forces us to confront ourselves as spectators. Dramaturgic relations prompt us, in fact throw us back onto our own actions: they force us, the audience, to take ultimate responsibility as ‘acting agents,’ for our own agency, for our actions as spectators in this world.


Barba, Eugenio, ‘Dramaturgy’ (1991), in Eugenio Barba and Nicola Savarese, eds, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 68-73

Bersani, Leo (2010), Is the Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Bourriaud, Nicolas (2002), Relational Aesthetics. Trans. Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods. Paris: Les Presses du Réel.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika (2008), The Transformative Power of Performance: A new aesthetics. Trans. Saskya Iris Jain. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies (2006), Postdramatic Theatre. Trans. Karen Jürs-Munby. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Rancière, Jacques (2009a), Aesthetics and its Discontents. Trans. Steven Corcoran. Cambridge: Polity.

Rancière, Jacques (2009b), The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. Gregory Elliott London and New York: Verso.


[1] Peter M. Boenisch is Professor of European Theatre at the University of Kent, where he was founding director of the European Theatre Research Network (ETRN). His primary interest is in the aesthetics and politicity of theatre performance, especially in the context of theatre directing and dramaturgy, dance and corporeality, and theatre and intermediality. He currently writes on a monograph Regie: Directing Scenes and Senses in European Theatre, and he prepares a book on German theatre director Thomas Ostermeier.

Copyright © 2012 Peter M. Boenisch
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Acts of Spectating: The Dramaturgy of the Audience’s Experience in Contemporary Theatre