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  • Editorial Comment:Spectatorship
  • Ric Knowles

Reception has been a perennial problem in theatre and performance studies. How do we know what audiences in general or individual spectators receive and understand? How reliable are the various sources of evidence about reception? What does it mean to assert, as many semioticians have since Brecht took issue with Aristotle, that theatre audiences are the producers, not simply the receivers, of meaning? What does it mean to consider Boal’s argument, in taking issue with both Aristotle and Brecht, that the theatre needs to constitute its audience members as “spectactors”—reinvigorating an ongoing effort to empower, liberate, or emancipate spectators, which may be understood to have been revived in the avant-garde and environmental theatre movement of the 1960s and to be alive today among theorists and practitioners, particularly of participatory, site-specific, or immersive theatre and performance practice?

My thoughts about this special issue of Theatre Journal began with the observation that, since the publication in 1990 of the ground-breaking first edition of Susan Bennett’s Theatre Audiences, scholars have tended to write less about audiences and more about spectators and spectatorship. Perhaps this is because “the audience” refers to a collectivity, while “the spectator” connotes something more atomized, indicative of a more fractured or pluralistic understanding of reception. It may also be the case that, since the English-language publications of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, both in 1994, scholars have been preoccupied with spectatorship as an all-pervasive feature of contemporary life, and not necessarily one that comfortably constitutes audiences as coherent communities. Since the ascendancy of performance studies and the advent of global touring, moreover, there has been less emphasis on hearing a (unilingual) text and more on seeing a (supposedly universally legible) spectacle. Scholars like Dennis Kennedy and Jacques Rancière, both in 2009, have concerned themselves with spectatorship as an independent activity rather than a secondary, parasitic, or merely interpretative one. Rancière’s “emancipated spectator” is an active, individual subject, not a member of an audience-as-community; his project is to “challenge the opposition between viewing and acting”: “viewing,” he argues, “is also an action,” and “being a spectator … is our normal situation.” Taking all of this into account, the Call for Papers for this special issue invited contributions that might challenge or expand our understanding of spectatorship—empirically, theoretically, or methodologically. And this is what we received: essays that approach spectatorship through empirical audience research, cognitive science, and newly minted concepts like “subjective drift” and “narcissistic spectatorship.”

Prompted by a call in Helen Freshwater’s Theatre & Audiences and by a political situation in the UK that requires empirical evidence of the value of the arts, the first essay in the issue, Janelle Reinelt’s “What UK Spectators Know: Understanding How We Come to Value Theatre” revisits debates about empirically based audience research, and regrets Reinelt’s own earlier impatience with such research. Beginning with a brief account of some of the histories, strengths, and limitations of empirical research and a brief history of cultural-policy debates in the UK since John Maynard Keyes declared “death to Hollywood” in 1946, her essay reports on a research study by the British Theatre Consortium (BTC), “Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution” (TSVA), funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. The study, led by Reinelt, attempted to address the council’s call to identify the components of cultural value and “reopen the question of what cultural engagement does for people.” The study was motivated, then, by a desire to “shift the understanding of what cultural value in the arts actually is [beyond the merely monetary] and how it is determined.”

The TSVA study, focusing on “phenomenological self-description,” attempted “to bypass … the agon of ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ values,” asserting that “[v]alue emerges in the relationship between the performance, the spectator, and the network of associations which the experience triggers.” Focusing on fourteen productions of classical, new, experimental, and adapted work at three theatres, the study involved 317 spectator/participants in [End Page xi] surveys, with some also participating in interviews and workshops concerning the shows. Among...


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