- Introduction: “What Have You Learned Today?”
The idea for this special issue of Comparative Drama, “The Audience as Player: Interactive Theater over the Years,” emerged from an ongoing conversation with my son Daniel. A novelist, he also writes dialogue and devises plots for video games and is himself an avid player—I, a mere audience. Daniel was telling me about ways in which video games have become increasingly interactive, how the medium has progressed far beyond the Pac Man stage. In Heavy Rain, for example, the player at the controls is not just a “shooter” represented by a stock character making his way through a maze to a goal. Instead, the gamer joins the game designer, charting the plot, devising dialogue, shaping onscreen characters, even injecting his or her own personality into the central character. I added my own experience as a director, actor, and—most certainly—audience member in interactive theater over the years, starting from street protest [End Page 1] theater in the 1960s and extending through work with improv companies, where our audience (including inmates during a tour of Florida prisons) was invited to come onstage as fellow actors, to more recent efforts at involving the audience in productions (Brecht to Shakespeare). Some successes, and more than my share of failures, I must confess. These exchanges led, inevitably, to our raising the idea of parallels (as well as differences) between interactive theater and video games, both times when the spectator is no longer a passive receptor but a participant, a collaborator, if you will, with the playwright or game designer, where distinctions break down between stage and house, screen and living room. When I was asked to be the guest editor of this special issue of Comparative Drama, I suggested in the call for papers that this enhanced role for the audience has, surely, philosophical and aesthetic implications, not to mention practical consequence during an actual production.
One of the joys of being a guest editor is that going over everything from punctuation and stylistic lapses to the writers’ arguments and accounts of personal experiences, not to mention their takes on those larger issues, you really get to know the essays submitted. My favorite high school English teacher, and my own model when I too became a teacher, Alan Glathorn, used to end every class with a simple question: “What did you learn today?” Below, grouped under seven general categories, is what I have learned from the essays in this collection.
Interactive Theater Can Take Many Forms
If “interactive theater” is taken to mean shows where the audience gets to speak up, either in the house or onstage, playing a role either assigned or chosen, then a piece like You Me Bum Bum Train, reviewed along with other New York shows in the Homans’ “The Interactive Theater of Video Games: Gamer as Playwright, Director, and Actor,” is conventional, if that adjective can ever be confidently applied to this otherwise different, sometimes radical form of theater. In You Me Bum Bum Train spectators are transported in wheelchairs to rooms where they play characters ranging from a football coach urging on his team to a rock star surrounded by fans. But mixing actors and audience, or converting the latter to characters, with or without dialogue—as is the case in the show Tony and Tina’s Wedding, where the audience is limited to playing silent guests, then [End Page 2] later dancing with the actors playing characters at the ceremony—doesn’t begin to cover the scope of what interactive theater means today or, for that matter, has meant in the past.
Jennifer Flaherty in “Dreamers and Insomniacs: Audiences in Sleep No More and The Night Circus” cites letters, blogs, websites on the play, responses, and online communications about this popular show where audience members describe their “trips” through the McKittrick Hotel, as visitors, as detectives, as participants in that, while they don’t have dialogue and are rendered “invisible” by wearing white masks, they do chart the two-hours traffic of their progress through the hotel’s rooms, some choosing to follow a specific character (the choice called “the Tail”) loosely based on...