- Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation by Gareth White
Gareth White opens his Audience Participation in Theatre: Aesthetics of the Invitation with the simple observation that “there are few things in the theatre that are more despised than audience participation” (1). While this sentiment might be somewhat overstated, I suspect few artists or audience members would claim total freedom from apprehension when participation is called for at a performance. As White points out, however, participatory theatre continues to be an integral part of practice at all levels of theatre. The dissonance between the trepidation of the audience and the proliferation of these techniques in approaches such as applied theatre, immersive theatre, and theatre for social change suggests that they offer at least some degree of efficacy. In seeking to resolve the gap between audience [End Page 348] resistance and performance affect, White focuses his study on the aesthetic framing that enables and authorizes this type of theatre: the invitation to participate.
For White, this “moment of invitation” is critical to the success of the participatory performance, to the strength of the audience’s engagement, and even to the ethical implications of the public transformation of an audience member from spectator to spectated. He suggests, however, that this critical moment has been sometimes dismissed as merely a necessary structural component of any participatory performance. By way of response, White uses this study to argue that the process of extending an invitation to join in a performance should be understood as a method of art-making. In this sense, the moment of invitation is not only an aesthetic device but also, through its conventions, repeated structures, and capacity for meaning-making, an aesthetic in its own right. In that these moments are actively negotiated and revised during performance and embodied by presumably untrained participants, however, the aesthetic suggested by these practices raises important questions of access, agency, and danger. White’s framing of invitation-as-aesthetic is supported by the fact that these questions can contribute to potentially profound shifts in audience experience and point of view (9).
White’s study is organized into four chapters. The first three, “Process and Procedure,” “Risk and Rational Action,” and “Irrational Interactions,” are devoted primarily to the implications, ethics, and potential dangers of the preinvitation period, as well as the actual extension of the invitation to participate. In these chapters, he covers theoretical lenses ranging from performance studies to cognitive neuroscience in an effort to approach the act of invitation from a variety of perspectives. Chapter 4, “Accepting the Invitation,” moves into the actual experience of responding to the invitation and the repercussions of that response. In each of these chapters, White opens with a review of relevant scholarship and an application of these theories to the moment of invitation before turning to a practical example. As he cautions in the introduction, however, “nothing here is articulated with the rigour of a case study” (3).
This caution aside, out of these examples comes the most exciting material in the book. In these readings, spanning work by Armadillo Theatre, Jonathan Kay, De La Guarda, and Tim Crouch, White hits his stride and demonstrates his own considerable experience with applied theatre and theatre in education. It is in those sections, rather than in the theoretical reviews that precede them, that the importance and artistry of invitation is made clear. Also important here is White’s work in extending the notion of “horizon of expectations” developed by Gadamer, Jauss, and Bennett. His adapted “horizon of participation” begins [End Page 349] by drawing on the earlier theory’s framework of signals and characteristics that condition any audiencing experience and locate interpretation, at least in part, as a process that presupposes exposure to the text or performance. White’s major point of departure is that while both the horizon of expectation and the horizon of participation rely on the audience member (or reader) to interpretatively bridge gaps and make meaning in the dissonance between expectation and actuality, the horizon of participation...