My Thoughts (im)Preciesly on Audience Interaction, or is Site-Specific Theatre Still Theatre?

I think a great deal about audience interaction. You can google it all you want and find articles from American Theatre and beyond about what makes it work, what doesn’t, and some fairly imprecise data on what audiences think about it themselves. But what are we doing to figure it out? Qualitatively or quantitatively?

Something that is important to note is that audience interaction in a traditional theatre space is tough. Most of the time you can get away with a sly look or a clownish reaction towards the audience: “did you know Peter Pan could fly?” It’s one thing to see direct address, but when we think interaction we think questions — and there is the fear. The house lights come up slightly, an actor turns to you, and asks something. We are on edge because we may not know the answer — and the last thing an audience member wants to feel is stupid. Of course, actors are prepared for WHATEVER the response and will naturally move forward however it turns out. Talk about being in the moment though, right?

Producers of site-specific theatre need to understand that the audience is moving into a different space and will inherently be put on edge. They’re doing something non-traditional. So why do we treat them in a traditional way? You’ve taken them out of their natural theatrical habitat — there’s no reason to act as if you’re in it. Are we exercising the actors ability to concentrate? Yes, but I came to see a story. Are we taking the actors outside the fourth wall? NO! There is nothing but fourth wall! However, not for the audience. Therein lies the threat. Being a voyeur is one thing, but humans watching humans in the same room strikes that notion.

Our attempt at Theatre for Two was a step towards bringing an audience into the joke. They didn’t have to participate, but they were welcome to. The actors were in control and were performing and impovising — and so was our audience whether they knew it or not.

Currently, I’m working with a troupe that is taking parts of what Theatre for Two and Sleep No More do. We started by asking, “what can we ask the audience to do?” and slowly it turned into an experiment. Though we aren’t qualified psychologists we felt hazy jumping all the way into the Milgram experiment, but for now, we’re happy to be exploring larger audience interaction. Looks like there is more and more interest in this topic each day.

There’s no one way to do theatre (art) — but if we continue to ask this question we need to call this type of site-specific work something else. A theatrical experience isn’t quite right, but it’s close.