What do Audiences Do?

Posted on by Susan

When talking about the differences between theatre and film, or theatre and television, one of the things I like to emphasize is the audience’s role as co-collaborator in the work: without an audience, there can be no play. Aside from their role as consumers of the theatre, I hadn’t thought about what else audience members can do. Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to see some companies in Toronto that have taken the audience’s role in the show much more seriously than simply breaking the fourth wall or using the aisles.

As half of their show at Harbourfront in April, Evan Webber and Frank Cox-O’Connell produced a version of the Greek tragedy Ajax that both gave the audience an integral role and interrogated the typical relationship between audience and play. The first half of the show seemed to be in a curtained black-box-like theatre. During intermission, they distributed masks for the audience to wear in the second half. As intermission ended, they raised the curtain to reveal that we were in fact sitting at the back of a proscenium stage and, now masked, would be playing the role of the (silent) chorus. The lead roles were played by small clay dolls, while the actual actors played audience members. On the one hand, this inversion of place meant that we, the audience, were being watched as much as we were watching. On the other hand, as the dramatic action was moved off the stage and into the (structural) audience, we got to witness an audience engaging with a show in a way that I think most theatre creators would want: I mean, maybe more vocally than we would appreciate, but they were performing some real synthesis: relating what they were seeing on stage to what they know of history and to their own lives.

The other company that’s been doing some work with interesting audience interaction is Single Thread. Their last few shows have put the audience to work in increasingly complex and innovative ways. Always using non-traditional performance venues, Single Thread has been experimenting more and more with non-traditional audience relationship. In their 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Spadina House Museum, the audience were told when they arrived that they were newly-hired staff at the House and on their first official tour they witnessed the play (possibly the most dramaturgically interesting part of this was that the audience was divided into two groups who saw different subsets of the play – but that’s a discussion for another time). Earlier this year, they performed an original piece at the Campbell House Museum about an incident in the rise of William Lyon Mackenzie. In this one, the audience were the jury, deciding whether or not Will Campbell was guilty of trying to incite a rebellion against the government. In addition to providing a framework for facilitating the audience’s movement around a  diffuse playing space, this also meant we were ultimately called upon to make a decision: they voted to determine Will Campbell’s guilt (Sir William Campbell presided as judge, so we didn’t need to worry about sentencing). This was a step up in complexity of the audience’s role from Much Ado, but it was nothing compared to what was to come.

In conjunction with the city’s celebrations of the centennial of the War of 1812, Single Thread has created  an immersive, heavily interactive piece called The Loyalists. After laying out ground rules, the audience are thrown into a reconstructed town of York during the 1813 American occupation. Not only do the audience members choose where to go and what to look at, they ultimately have to pick sides and take an extremely active role in the events – which team they choose to support (or deny their support to) can actually change the outcome of the show. I’ve seen this show in particular compared to LARPing and capture the flag, but it is definitely still theatre.

So to return to the title question, what do audiences do in these pieces? In most of them, audience members are co-opted as cast-members: however passively, they become actors in the show, with varying degrees of agency.  In the more complicated pieces, however, the audience also function as playwright and director: shaping the piece. More literally than in traditional theatre, the audience in these pieces becomes a true co-collaborator.

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