- “Oh My God, Audience Participation!”1: Some Twenty-First-Century Reflections
After a full half-century of intense experimentation with the role of the audience in contemporary theater and performance and the new channels opened for audience interactivity by the new media technologies, it is almost mandatory to reassess the achievements of all these practices. Has something essential changed in the ways we perceive the workings of theater, or is it all a vicious circle of false pretenses on both sides of the production and reception of the spectacle? Theorists and practitioners have provided a plethora of contrasting views and experiences ranging from materiality and rationality to emotion and metaphysics, from positivism and enthusiasm to terror and despair, from power and liberation to entrapment and control. On the one hand, Susan Bennett voices a paean to the contemporary “democratizing of the arts” through the fall of distinct boundaries.2 On the other hand, Anne Ubersfeld soberly asserts the perennial, creative role of the spectator as the “sujet d’un faire,” “l’artisan d’une pratique.”3
A brief recourse to the history of western theater would remind us of the move from a total congregational ritual to the gradual designation of functions and roles until the final segregation of the audience and its relegation to a mere viewing position—a fact both stipulated linguistically (theatron = what we see) and institutionalized architecturally by the concrete design of the Greek amphitheater. How restrictive, inhibiting, and alienating for the spectator the sitting area of the classical amphitheater is can be seen especially in the case of a contemporary interactive theater event largely based on the collaboration of the public: a recent production [End Page 13] of the collaborative project Prometheus by the German theater company Rimini Protokoll, presented in the Herodes Atticus Roman Odeon at the Athens Theatre Festival of 2010, which I am going to discuss below. No doubt, theater art in itself, realizing the restrictive effect of its institutionalization (both through the growing formality of the writing and the development of theater architecture), tried various strategies through the ages in order to remedy the audience’s alienation and passivity. The aside, the soliloquy, the use of a chorus, and the presence of a narrator were some of the strategies employed by the classical theater to reestablish the lost link between the actor and the spectator.
The twentieth century has been most radical in its search for the revitalization of the dead relationship between the stage and its audience. The rediscovery of ritual in cultures other than the European set the orbit of western theater to a reverse course and restored the initial role of the spectator as a participant in the action and the theater event as a shared physical and emotional experience. After the pioneering work of Artaud and Brecht, the broad experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s should be once again highlighted. We can still hail as a major achievement of this radical new theater the collapse of spatial and temporal barriers in the theatrical praxis—mainly the collapse of the formal theatrical space and its divisions—and the readmission of the spectator into the performance area, which heralded for him/her a new dynamic role as a creator.
The new theater dynamics discovered by the practices of the 1960s and 1970s and developed further in the 1980s were taken up by the theorists of the 1980s and 1990s who explored the various aspects of spectatorship and formulated a variety of audience theories dealing with issues of active involvement and creativity, collaboration, power and manipulation, freedom and control. Scanning once again twentieth-century stage and performance theory, we should not fail to mention the pioneering work on the importance of the spectator done in the 1930s and 1940s by the Prague School structuralists, focusing on specific issues of the spectatorial function and ranging from Otakar Zich’s general interest in spectator dynamics to Jan Mukarovsky’s emphasis on the spatiotemporal specificity of the spectator and his/her position as an active force, Jiri Veltrusky’s focus on the interplay between actor and spectator, and Jindrich Honzl’s interest in the spectator’s freedom of choice.4...