Audience as Witness

Forced Entertainment -Speak Bitterness

Figure 4: “SPEAK BITTERNESS” (Forced Entertainment,1994)

In this opening blog I want to look at the audience in the role of  “Witness” and  to use Forced Entertainment as a case study. I feel Tim Etchell’s proposed contract of openness with the audience links to the concept of  the  witness. In Devising Performance (2006), Deirdre Heddon & Jane Milling describe this contract as an encounter,  they describe moments of silence, where performer observes the audience and attention is drawn to the contract of “watching” between the audience and the performer.

Witness implies an element of responsibility to the  performer, suggesting there is a vulnerability or shame being portrayed.   The above image of the empty set of the production SPEAK BITTERNESS (1994) could suggest the form of a conference, a jury or a tribunal.  In this image of empty set and empty auditorium hangs the expectation  of performance. Forced Entertainment continue to challenge audience expectations, the performance was described as “…broken narratives of the confessional” which the audience witness over 6 hours. (Louise Gray,2010) This durational element tests each individual witness as they laugh, tire, question, bore and relate to different elements of the performers confessions.

Aside: Challenging  audience expectations is not a new idea.  For example the audience expectation of a Greek tragedy is that it opens with a prologue from the chorus. Uncharacteristically the opening lines in Oedipus the King are from Oedipus himself. At a recent seminar I attended entitled “Pitying Oedipus” given by Professor Patrick Finglass (University of Nottingham) he noted that this change in audience expectation may have been to lead to an instinctive mistrust of Oedipus.

More recently Forced Entertainment experimented with the form of a pub quiz with a similar durational confessional piece Quizoola! of which there is a clip below. The Independent reviews Quizzoola as; “A performance that changes the rule book”. (Louise Gray,2010) The pub quiz form, clown make-up and improvised humour invites the audience to laugh but yet again there are times when the role of witness is apparent as the atmosphere changes to deeply personal responses or  absurd aggressive interrogation. The audience expectation and response as witness hold great weight in shaping the atmosphere of Forced Entertainment’s performances. Again there are moments of silence to force the witness to reflect. This is not unique to Forced Entertainment, as Helen Freshwater notes;“The confrontational stare, where performers, out of character, stand & silently watch an audience, has now become a recognisable theatrical trope.” (2013:50)

Aside: If you fancy it this is a clip of Quizoola, it’s a bit long (30 mins) so here is my favourite Q&A witnessed. Q: “Would you rather have sex with a sheep or a pig?”A: “A sheep… obviously”

Figure 5 “Quizoola” (Forced Entertainment, 2013)

To navigate to the next blog, Audience as participant, click here

Audience as Participant

In the previous blog I  mentioned audience ‘encounters’ with performers. When the audience is a participant in devised performance this is a whole new level of encounter. Companies such as Gob Squad and Blast Theory use audience participation to great effect.

To first look at Gob Squad, a collective established in 1994, where audience members can be prevailed upon to do just about anything in a performance; asked to dance, sing , play guitar in a band, play the part of a lover or liberator, or even kiss one of the performers. (Western Society Press Pack,2015) The below video of the production Western Society shows audiences members being selected to join the performance and follow instructions via headsets. In an interview with Franz Müller the collective credit the audience for their participation; “…all of those who participate in the production of a piece of work have a personal relationship to its material and its making.” (2009) The same interview details audience participation in the rehearsal process using test audiences or “Try-Outs”. In terms of audience -performer relationship Gob Squad are heavily dependent on the audience to create their performances.

Figure 6: Western Society Trailer  (Gob Squad,2013)

Gob Squad have been known to use technology in performance, headphones and audio visual as we can see in the above trailer. However Blast Theory take audience participation through technology to another level. Blast Theory create work which contains augmented reality, digital projection, social networking and virtual reality for the audience to engage with. There is even a section on their website for performances classified as games. The audience become players in the performance “…exploring the interface between the live and the virtual”; Blast Theory explore “…interactivity as a means of engaging spectators as players in the production of meaning”. (Shaughnessy, 2012: 160) Their most famous games are CAN YOU SEE ME NOW (2001) and I LIKE FRANK (2004) the audience play online while performers take to the streets. The audience as players build relationships, share information and even compete with performers. For me this is interesting in relation to reception theory, if we would have previously looked at reader-response theory to text what is the equivalent for online gaming?

Aside: Individual versus group participation differs greatly, to draw on crowd psychology; “Though we may know each member of a group so intimately that we can, with some confidence, foretell his actions under given circumstances, we cannot foretell the behavior of the group from our knowledge of the individuals alone. ” (McDougall, 1973:31)

To navigate to the next blog, Community engagement, click here.

Community Engagement

There are a number of devising companies that actively engage with the community, Welfare State International, Lone Twin and Theatre Club to name but a few. I have decided to focus on Welfare State International (WSI) and the community event  Glasgow All Lit Up! (1990)‏.

To give some backround WSI was founded  in 1968 by John Fox, Sue Gill and Roger Coleman, the last WSI performance was in 2006 .  Their work has featured  street theatre and public performance, their later work is community based and location specific. (WSI Website, 2015) WSI was set up with the intention of making art as accessible as ‘free dentures, spectacles and coffins.’ (Fox and John, 2002). WSI positioned itself “out side of ‘middle-brow#middle-class’ theatre” , this accessibility is key to the WSI performer -audience relationship. (Shaughnessy, 2012)

As theatre can be used to promote social and  political change working with communities gives rise to a number of ethical issues and responsibilities. Especially if a company is not indigenous to a region there is the potential to misrepresent the histories and voices of the community. Working closely with existing community organisations allows practitioners to discover local priorities and preoccupations. Glasgow All Lit Up! is a great example in both form and content of community engagement.

Glasgow All Lit Up!‏ was a contributory event  to the Glasgow’s European City of Culture festivities in 1990.  WIS worked for 18 months with 250 educational and community groups through the region of Strathclyde to produce 4 big lantern processions which were  8000 lanterns strong. (Unfinished Histories, n.d). Working with local people on the ground taps into local expertise of the space being used and gets community buy-in to the celebration. The form of the procession has a community vibe, routed in religious tradition it gives a sense of unity to the public event. The content had specific significance to the community as it drew from the Glasgow City Crest, as one review of the event described;

“In recognition of Glasgow’s strange crest – the tree, the bird, the bell, the fish – there were hundreds of brightly coloured fish from huge sharks to tiny tiddlers; Lochgilphead primary school brough a whole shoal”(Unfinished Histories, n.d)

Big fish, Glasgow

Figure 7: Big fish, Glasgow Lantern Palace (Unfinished Histories, n.d)

To close the journey of Welfare State International from visual art to more community focused events has been summarised as  “an aesthetic adventure searching the hinterlands between populist community carnival and exclusive experimental theatre ” (Coult and Kershow, 1983: 216)

Aside: WSI have created a handbook of practical skills and experience – Engineers of the Imagination, this enables communities to produce their own art.

To navigate to the next blog, Youth Audiences, click here

Youth Audiences

Youth Audiences follows on directly from the community engagement blog,  I guess they are intrinsically linked. I will look at the Irish Second Level context as I am more familiar with this territory and specifically at the company Anu Productions .

Helen Freshwater discusses John Tullochs findings in relation to school students  and traditional Shakespearean texts;

“…his interviews with  school students reveal that they are far from passive in response to these high cultured texts, as they bring their own experience to the interpretation of the production” (2009:32)

If students are then active spectators, I would argue that devised theatre can play a significant role in engaging with students on a range of themes and issues not necessarily catered for in classic texts which are more often on the curriculum.

Anu productions is a devising company which often draws historical contexts and engages with communities in the creation of work.Their most recent production PALS – the Irish in Gallipoli was an impressive site- specific piece in Collins Barracks,Dublin. PALS was attended by numerous school group. Student comments in this Irish Times Video describe their experience as very interactive  and a number of students noted that the engaged with the more personal emotions of the histories portrayed. (Humphreys, 2015)

To navigate to the next blog, Secondary Audiences, click here.

Secondary Audiences – Case Study: Action Hero

Slap Talk – A 6 hour durational performance by Action Hero live streamed on December 5th 2015 from CULTURGEST in Lisbon.

"SLAP TALK" by Action Hero, 2015

Figure 8: Staging (Slap talk, 2015)

The Action Hero website lays out the relationship of the performers to each other and to  live audience in Lisbon as; “Speaking to each other and to the audience via a live feed from a camera to a monitor the performers rant, insult and threaten each other”. For me, looking at an image above makes more sense of this statement.

This final blog is more personal than normal as I watched the piece as a secondary audience member from my living room. I felt no need to watch the full 6 hours. I have simultaneously googled flights home for Christmas, ate dinner and I am now making these notes. Is this similar to the attention span of most secondary audience members?  There is a digital element to live stream the performance and then another live feed of  the performers facial expressions in the piece; this is too much digital for me. Too many screens within screens. I feel too detached from the performers to continuously view the piece. I do however enjoy the continuous stream of carefully crafted language. In essence this piece has become a very enjoyable absurdest radio news feed. I am considering would this be the same for a National Theatre Live piece? I doubt I would enjoy detaching the visuals from the recent stream of A Winters Tale in the same  way. The form of Slap Talk is “.. a scripted version of a pre-fight press conference crossed with a 24 hour rolling news channel”. (Slap talk, 2015)Audience expectations of this form allows for an interesting relationship with the performers; this piece effectively demonstrates how we are bombarded with news channels daily and have become desensitised to the violence of language employed by journalists, politicians and sales persons.  The exploration of this form can be seen in other devising companies, as my previous blog Audience as Witness explores with Forced Entertainment.

ASIDE: The below is a video of my multi screen while watching Slap Talk and simultaneously blogging, can you imagine a lazy London reviewer writing reflections mid performance? Also on a practical note, there is a bit of a delay in my live feed which is a common digital secondary audience grip.

Figure 9: My blogging during SLAP TALK

This is the final blog, to see the final conclusions click here.