How do we not force audiences into passivity or even falling asleep without embarrassing them with “audience participation”? 

Convener(s): Jennifer E Jordan

Participants: Alice Edwards, Sophie Partridge, Sarah Maguire, Jamie Beddard, Sara Perlss     (? – sorry, couldn’t read your writing). Could other people from this discussion please add your name on? Lots more people attended whose names I didn’t have the chance to grab. Cheers:

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Why did I pose the question? What am I getting at?

It all started very calmly with just myself and Sophie, which was lovely. We discussed how different the experience of seeing a show is at the Globe and why really this is. Is it because we can all see each other? Is it because of the shape & layout? 

The reason I called this session is really because I personally hate feeling cut off from performers, and that they are ‘up there’ with the power and we as an audience are ‘down there’ with none. I don’t feel like it really makes any difference if I am there or not. They are special, we are normal. They perform for us and enrich our lives through their brilliance. No. I don’t like this. 

It comes back down to an earlier session: Are we doing it for ourselves or for an audience? Audiences are agreeing to watch you and share your creation when they exchange their own money for a ticket and a seat. Sometimes I feel this is not respected and that we really are just anonymous bums on seats. What is that all about?! 

So, being quite a broad question really, there were many topics covered and many opinions voiced. I will attempt to break these down: What is being passive? Why/when do people feel embarrassed and how can this be avoided? Why do we want to ‘involve’ people? Can we play with venues more and will this help? What does it matter as long as the audience is engaged? What is an audience’s role and do they have a responsibility themselves?

That’s a lot so this will be quite long…

What is being passive?

Ok, so very quickly the issue arose that just because an audience is sitting in a proscenium arch theatre being quiet and not responding in a visual or physical way that is blatantly obvious, does not mean they are passive. In fact if you consider this type of audience to be passive then you are not giving them sufficient credit and are not listening to them and are treading dangerous ground. A quiet audience can still be a very very engaged audience. The observation was raised that it is only in English theatre where we are expected as an audience to sit down and behave ourselves.

If you are watching a show and get bored and hate it, that is far from passivity but in fact a passionate reaction.

Also, why should being passive be a negative thing? Some people get a huge amount  out of a show just from listening and observing. They don’t have to be doing anything for it to be credible, they just have to be engaged and interested. 

Even if a show does not appear to be doing anything to people at the time of the performance, many works live on in people’s minds long after they saw it. This affects them and they react to and think about it all and it is not a passive process.

Embarrassment and how to avoid it

People mainly feel embarrassed if attention is drawn to them when they weren’t expecting it. Sometimes also if they were. People generally don’t expect performers to come and interact with them. Unless this has been laid out beforehand.

Everyone is different as an audience member. Some people do not want to be involved in any way and just enjoy watching, listening, and soaking it all up. Some people however want more. Much more. And some of these latter people feel cheated or disappointed when work claims to be involving them but then you find out that actually there are limits and you can only participate UP TO A POINT.

The way around this seems to be rooted in two simple principles:

  1. Make the rules of what your audience can and can’t do explicit FROM THE OUTSET. They want to feel safe and free and if they know the rules of your game then they will feel relaxed enough to play or watch as they wish, with no pressure on them.
  2. Allow people to have a choice. No audience member should ever be forced into something they feel uncomfortable with. You have to be careful because actually you can end up mentally scarring people. That aint cool. 

Some examples of these were: the cloaking and masking used by Punchdrunk, giving audience members a sense on anonymity;  A live artist (                              ) who from the beginning of her show slowly


                   could you pop your name in here? I didn’t catch it 

introduces the idea that they will be involved one small step at a time and reassuring them that everything is ok and that she is looking after them; Offering your audience food. This seems more like bribery perhaps, but it seemed to crop up a fair bit. It is true that if you offer something to your audience they feel involved and befriended instead of singled out.

You don’t have to do anything big. One could break up the atmosphere a little bit by slipping stuff under people’s seats and having the actors out in the foyer/auditorium at the beginning and/or in breaks. What is annoying though is a lack of consistency. When actors come out into the audience for no reason whatsoever it is immediately transparent as an attempt to be ‘different’. So the theme again here is make it clear from the beginning what it is that’s going on.  Of course, giving people stuff can be difficult as you can’t give everyone in a 500 seat-er a cup o’ rosie lee. And even if you can put little things under everyone’s seats, some of us little companies have no money to be so generous.

One suggestion raised was to shock your audience and surprise them because then they cannot possibly be passive but are forced into reacting and feeling and having an opinion and using their brains. I’m not sure I agree with this personally, as I believe in being kind to your audience, as this is an experience you are sharing. I don’t see why we should attack our audience. Doesn’t that just become a power trip for us as performers? That’s the sort of thing I want to get away from: Performers having all the power and feeling all clever. Perhaps shocking can be interesting if the show is followed by a question and answer session but I believe that without some kind of feedback or dialogue shocking your audience will only alienate them. But that’s my opinion. What do you think? : (please add your thoughts!)

Why do we want to involve people?

Very briefly, what mainly came across is that we do not necessarily want to involve people literally but we do need people to be engaged. This is true of any performance, surely? We all want to create work that engages an audience. What I am really interested in is getting audiences to feel that they have a dialogue and a unique experience, like at a gig. It’s the same set list but each performance is very unique. I just want to feel important and genuinely welcomed.

Another similar but slightly different take was that some of us want to feel like as audience members we have an effect on the performance we see. We want to make a difference to what’s happening. Again, this can be interpreted very broadly so is difficult to address. And as I mentioned before, everyone wants something different.

Are venues the problem?

Is theatre in the round more engaging? If so why? This question was raised but not really answered. There seemed to be an undecided decision that yes it kind of is, but it’s not as viable.

It was suggested that site specific work builds a relationship between performers and space that is generally not possible within most other type of work. Site specific work means that you are working with your space from the beginning, and it is that space which informs the creative process. Many companies working with venues do not get very long in the actual performance space, which disconnects them form the space and subsequently disconnects the audience from it too.

Short of building our own new theatre spaces which are versatile or doing only site-specific work, we are constricted to the venues that already exist. Most of these have the formal proscenium arch set up and people at these venues seem reluctant to ‘shake things up’ and ‘experiment’ as it were. Though how can you in these spaces? You could put your audience on the stage, but if the seating doesn’t move what else is there? We need to be more open to possibilities and not so scared of trying things. No? Answers on a postcard! Again, we don’t know.  We want to, but we did not find an answer in this session.

What is an audience’s role?

This can differ from show to show, but again as long as their role is made crystal clear then people will (hopefully) feel free to relax and enjoy. But as audience members we do have a responsibility to research the work we are going to see, it seems. At least, we do if we expect to get anything out of the event. One way to avoid being a passive audience member is to research and really care about the shows you go to see. If you are someone aching to see something which actively involves you and go to see some random play, you can’t expect it to fulfil the void you want it to. By the same token though, I think audience member have a responsibility to feed back to things they have seen. This is a different question entirely, but why do we not send companies our thoughts more often? How can we expect theatre to engage us more if we don’t tell them want we want and what we don’t want?

On the subject of responsibility…

Something very interesting and very important was raised by

(                           ) about halfway through our discussion. Why does

apologies, I didn’t catch your name either…could you whack it in? Also, I failed to write the countries down (below)

the creative team leave when a show starts its run? In other countries, eg                                                    , the creative team’s job does not stop on opening night but they are employed throughout the run. This means watching the show each night and being there with each audience and therefore being able to know when a show is starting to lose its audience and if the ball has been dropped. 

In England this is traditionally left to the actors but there’s no reason why it should be. Sometimes they are very in tune with their audience and can make the necessary changes but why should they be the only ones to deal with this? When you are doing a run surely the work is an ongoing process which never stops because, cliché as it is ‘every night is different’. Also, when you perform in the previews, much of the time it is technical issues being ironed out and it is not until you are several weeks into the run that what your audience are getting and what they need becomes clearer.

Does it matter? Just make it good!

What emerged from this is just that regardless of what conventions you use in terms of physically involving your audience, the story has to be the thing that drives it all. If the story is not engaging, you will not engage your audience. It all stems from the story. On a similar note, it’s not about whether you are performing in the round or site specific or in a proscenium theatre. If it’s good it’s good, and your audience will have felt engaged and involved mentally if nothing else. So if you don’t want your audience to feel ostracised and disassociated, don’t make something crap.

Is it this simple? (opinions again, please!)

To conclude:

Yes, sorry it’s been a bit of a waffle but this really is an issue that I (and many others, clearly) feel quite passionate about. So very simply here is what we found:

  • Engagement is what’s important. Not combating passivity.
  • If you want to play around, make the rules of your game clear from the beginning.
  • Don’t feel constricted by a venue. Try playing around.
  • Keep creative teams involved! Don’t let them finish when an audience first wanders in.
  • Be kind to your audience. You might be surprised by how willing people are to be involved but make sure you help them feel safe, not self-conscious.
  • Story, story, story. If the content isn’t interesting, you’ve lost everyone.
  • Let’s not be so closed minded. Proscenium doesn’t mean boring, venues can be played with, audiences are intelligent and willing and have different wants/needs.
  • Let’s remember that theatre is LIVE!!! This is unique and bloody awesome! What does this mean? What is it actually that differentiates theatre from film, music, visual art etc etc….

Thanks to everyone who came along and said their bit. I’m sorry if I haven’t recorded it all or if I’ve misquoted or misunderstood you, I’m not a fast enough writer!

If anyone has any more ideas or opinions on this please please do email me as I am constantly asking these sorts of questions and trying to battle & answer them,

Jennifer – Hello Friends Theatre

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