Friday, April 19, 2019

Taking on the Resistance: Engaging Audiences in Interactive Performance

Divided by a couple of time zones, at 7:30 PM on November 19, 2014 Elizabeth Sullivan and Miranda Giles each greeted audiences gathered for performances that would have no rising or falling curtain, no perfectly timed lighting cues, and no guarantee of the audience agreeing to participate when invited.

  • Elizabeth’s Acting II students from Topeka West High School in Kansas performed their devised, site-specific performance, UN-BOUND-ED, exploring the stresses and tensions of student-life at their school. The audience was taken on a guided journey of the school as if they were students.
  • Miranda performed her two-woman interactive, ethnographic work The Mother Stories, at Arizona State University. With the help of Mandy Nielsen, a local improv artist, Miranda shared tales from her personal ancestry and invited audiences to perform improvised scenes from their own personal histories.

Both performances called for audience interaction, and while they were met with unexpected resistance from audience members from all levels of theatrical experience, the performances also succeeded in placing the audience in a position of critique and self-examination. In a conversation a few weeks later, Elizabeth and Miranda discussed their theories, methods, and the unanticipated challenges they faced as they worked toward creating interactive performances. As they spoke, ideas emerged regarding the importance of audience logistics of size, space, and time, as well as building audience relationships through creating a safe atmosphere for risk-taking.


Why involve the audience?

Miranda: For me, the goal was for this performance to not be a one-way street. I wanted the audience to experience sharing their stories, and not just consume my stories. I hoped to get them to see that they had stories and that they could find ways to share those stories with their families and loved ones.  As I wrote the play, which is very specific to my family, and particularly my Mormon heritage, at first I worried that it would be distancing to audiences outside of my experience.

Elizabeth:  I would say quite the opposite.

Miranda: See, that reaction surprised me. As I started to share the stories in my script I heard two responses. First, “that reminds me of…” which is what I was aiming for, and I loved it when people would share their own stories back to me. The second reaction was people saying, “I wish I had stories.” Which seems silly to me because of course you have stories! Everyone comes from someone else, biologically and emotionally. I wanted to encourage people who didn’t feel that they had a story to explore their stories. I realized it didn’t so much matter that mine was a Mormon story because everyone has a particular story. Your story might be that you had Jewish parents, or divorced parents, or gay parents, or accountant parents. It doesn’t matter. It’s the unique experiences that make us who we are.  But what was your goal?

Elizabeth: My goal essentially was awareness and exposing student struggles.  I suppose empathy was part of that, I wanted to put the audience in the student’s shoes.  My first priority in creating this work was really to my students, more so than to the audience. I wanted this show to challenge the usual experience of being in a high school production. That was very hard for the students and the audience. Once we decided on the subject matter—about the many kinds of barriers, physical, mental, and social, that these students come up against—I knew I wanted the audience to experience something new, and I thought we could effectively communicate those barriers by attempting to literally walk the audience through the school, through those barriers.

What are we asking from the audience?

Miranda: What surprised me is that even though I really tried hard to slowly build up to the interactive moments so that it wouldn’t be stressful to participate, I got more hesitation than I expected.  From the moment they entered the space I was speaking with them, asking them to share with their neighbors. Eventually they were asked to get up and improvise scenes based on their experiences. But even with that scaffolding, there was hesitancy to share. Even among the experienced theatre students in the audience, there was a high level of nervousness about performing. Thinking back, it’s natural because they were being asked to take a serious risk. Not just improvising, but improvising their own stories.  If I had said, “let’s play an improv game!” then there wouldn’t have been that hanging-back moment.  Eventually they did it. They did get up and play. And that was the kind of risky connection I was trying to get at. That was the point. It got them to examine their own personal experiences as performances, but I do think that was a big ask from me.

Elizabeth:  I felt resistance in my audience. I personally felt a lot of resistance; I think if I had been an audience member I would have felt extremely uncomfortable.  I got a sense that many of the audience members felt that way as well, particularly the teachers.  It was very crowded and there were teachers standing outside the doors.  Maybe it was a power issue, like students versus teachers, but I’m not sure.  I do think our resistances were different.  Your audience was faced with sharing intimate details, mine were challenged to sharing something as well, but that intimacy didn’t come from their stories.  We were asking them to take on the role of a student.  There was a deeper engagement they were being asked to share, based in play.  To play, to pretend, and to tap into something that was personal.  We were asking the audience to physically embody a path that students take every day, to think like a student, and then to act or even perform like a student.  I could see how this could make audience members uncomfortable.

Miranda:  Oh! I can see that. A definite power struggle. The teacher doesn’t want get up there and perform a stereotype of a student, recognizing that as teacher they can never really put themselves in those shoes and, also the desire to maintain a level of authority. You were asking them to take on a student role, which is a role they are not comfortable in. It’s almost too close to home or “playing the enemy,” It’s like they were weakening themselves but putting themselves in that position in some ways.

Elizabeth:  It’s funny because that was exactly what our message was attempting to show, that students, teachers, and parents are not the “enemy” and that each role has a different purpose, a different want.  Those “barriers” that we were sharing was an attempt to see those roles in a more empathetic light.  Attempting to show that was hard. Especially when you are asking audience members to be uncomfortable. I wonder if that discomfort comes because we’re taking that fourth wall down and saying, “Engage with us.”  But that fourth wall in itself is processing time.  So, being a voyeur, sitting in a proscenium theatre and watching something and then not being asked to engage provides time to understand it.  So, I wonder when you remove that, if all of a sudden that processing time, you know, isn’t there and then that’s why there is hesitancy.


Elizabeth:  I was trying to imagine myself in your audience and why I might be hesitant and thinking about my personal stories and needing the time to think about them, just needing the processing time to go back into the memories and think about my family and try to understand how it fits in with everyone else in the room.  I wonder if that was part of it.

Miranda: Yeah.  And I can see that lack of processing time working against both of us. For someone who understands traditional audience behavior and theatrical convention, we’re pushing them into a very uncomfortable space, no different from someone who has never been to a show. I think you are right. When we demand interaction we’re taking away a mind space of processing.  Where the audience is no longer left to sit quietly, in the dark and think and laugh at the actors in their head, and make fun of things that they don’t think are working, and to think through the ideas that are thrown out.  Suddenly they are in a vulnerable position. “I’m not entirely sure what’s happening around me, and you want me to do something? In front of others? Yikes!” yeah, that’s a very vulnerable place. But, I don’t know. I’m still torn about that, because I think there’s value of putting people in that vulnerable space.  There is value in that.

Elizabeth: I’m not sure.  One audience member who participated seemed very comfortable, but other than her, many teachers, parents, and students were physically closed off and their facial expressions were fearful.  It certainly seemed like some audience members did not want to be a part of the performance.  I have to admit, I felt uncomfortable as well, but I also felt a buzzing of excitement.  I knew that, yes, these issues need to be communicated!  It was the feeling of doing something risky and scary, but very exciting!  So, maybe some of that feeling of resistance was them just choosing not to participate, maybe deviance in some ways. Maybe they were enacting that element of a high school population. Maybe they were in role thinking, “Because you’re telling me to participate, I don’t want to.”

Miranda: That seems plausible. It’s hard to see a clear line between a resistant audience member who may be thinking “I need time to process” versus “I don’t get this, and I don’t care.” I know my reaction as a teacher and a performer, if I see someone disengaging is to try and solve that problem. I want to force a connection somehow. But that is also dangerous because then I am placing the audience the service model. I try to immediately check myself because I don’t want my work, especially this performance about sensitive issues, to be sermonizing. I worry that I’m trying to impose this idea of “you need family connection.” Which, though I believe it, may not be true for everyone in my audience. I may be asking them to engage in something that they just don’t care about. So of course they will be resistant to getting involved.

Elizabeth:  Right, you have to ask yourself as the artist, “do people find this as important as I do?”  You’re presenting these stories about being connected to family, but other people do not care.  Some people aren’t interested in their family tree.

Miranda:  There was a girl in my final audience who had that attitude. It was great because this was a tiny audience, only six people, and she would give nothing.  Whenever I would ask her for a story she said “I don’t know anything about that.” She was not interested.  I got the sense that she thought my stories were interesting, but she was not interested in her own.  It was really healthy for me to be confronted with someone who is saying, “I don’t want to have anything to do with what you’re selling.”

Methods for Connection

Elizabeth: What did we do that worked?

Miranda: I think a good choice I made was to make a conscious effort to keep the production simple so that the audience would feel welcome to engage with it. I worried about it feeling too slick or unapproachable.  I didn’t want the play, or even the background PowerPoint, to look something like created by a professionals.  I wanted to look like it was something that I made myself.  The same with the production values—lighting, props, costumes—I worked more or less out of my closet and a thrift store. I felt that the more highly produced the show is the less interactive it’s able to be. My hope was that this would invite the audience to take more risks. I didn’t want them to feel like the cake was too pretty to eat. Dig in! Play with me!

Elizabeth: Yes, the same for us!  When we talked about having costumes, the students wanted to have teacher costumes when they were a teacher and student costumes when they were a student and I told them “let’s keep it more casual.” So, it was about not separating ourselves and making it more distant.  Having that more professional look is not going to help anybody engage or be in the character’s shoes. If the audience members don’t feel comfortable, part of a normal, everyday situation, they won’t connect.  So, the performance reflects real life, instead of a professional style. This rejects that polished product that we, as Americans, are so use to in theatre.  So, that helps, to connect just by “keeping it real.”

Miranda:  Yes. The more produced the experience is for the audience the less they’re able to deeply connect. It seems less likely to have a real impact on their actual life. It’s hard to know if this worked, because I’ve only tried it one way, but I noticed my relationship with the audience—my ability and desire to speak to them directly—grew as the size of the audience shrunk over the course of my three performances. We went from about thirty-five to just six. Staging the full performance at the rehearsed level with less than ten people in the room felt foolish, and as time passed the distance between us, physically and verbally, dissipated. An hour into that final performance, a woman in the audience was on the phone with her grandmother investigating a family story. To me, that was the most successful moment of the entire run of the show.

Elizabeth:  Yes!  The last piece of our show entitled, “I Am, We Are” was a spoken word collection of all the students original “I Am” poems.  There was one student that dug really deep and exposed a serious truth about himself and his family in the performance.  For me, the moment he spoke his line was incredibly genuine, and it really made me think about all the students and how each and every one of them are going through very personal things in their lives, things that can be hidden and surprising.  The next day a student who had not been involved in the show approached me and said, “I didn’t know that about that student, wow, that was really brave of him to say that.”  That was the moment I thought, “They were listening! That person really got it!”  That was a success for me.

Miranda:  I’ve seen some highly polished, site-specific work and left thinking “Wow! That was beautiful!” But it certainly didn’t impact the way I saw my life or my relationships. The work we were doing was extremely personal and extremely local. I think it had more in common with Boal’s Forum Theatre than traditional performance. We were both using theatre to critically examine specific situations from our lived experience.

Elizabeth:  Yes, that’s very true. You know, in some ways, I think the obtrusive nature of my show worked.  It was less produced in many ways because we gave the audience choices. By allowing the audience to walk from space to space, it was possible for them to experience the play on their own terms. They decided where to look and what to listen to.  Everything became part of the story and experience: the school hallways, the lockers, the conversations. It was all part of the action.  This in itself offered multiple modes of connection, of engagement.  I know that for me there are so many times I have gone to the theatre and simply turned my brain off.  Sometimes that’s because there are bad actors or a bad script, but other times it wasn’t, it was because that’s just where I was in my head that night.  I didn’t want to think or engage, I wanted it to be easy.  Being an audience member at our show, for most, was not easy.  For me, walking outside as an audience member on a cold November night was not exactly a comfortable situation, but it certainly woke me up and made me think.  Perhaps giving audience members choices in their experience of the production opens the possibility of meaningful engagement.

Miranda:  Yes! That puts a serious demand on the artist to ensure that the engagement is worthwhile.  Well, I hope we accomplished that. I don’t know if what we did was groundbreaking for the theatre world, but it was certainly pushing our audiences and communities in new directions. If our projects both had the goal of our increasing awareness on specific topics while experimenting with audience engagement then I think we succeeded, and we both learned a lot in the process.


For Text Box:

Tips for encouraging audience engagement:

  • Size matters. Bring smaller audiences into smaller performance spaces.
  • Build a relationship of trust. Scaffold interactions from low risk up to higher risk.
  • Give them time. Let the audience process what is happening. Don’t demand participation.
  • Keep it simple. Low-key production choices invite risk taking.
  • Make it personal. The more relevant a topic is to an audience the riskier it is for them to connect. Hitting close to home increases the chance of failure, but also increases the potential for meaningful connection.

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