Phil Cleaves, 15 January 2017

After a good few moments of solitudinous reflection I was joined by Andy Thackeray.

Andy challenged me to explain what was meant by The Emancipated Spectator. I

attempted to summarise the 25 page essay by Jacques Ranciere despite having only

read it for the first time recently (I'd love to hear from others who have read it, maybe

those that have read it more than once, I want to learn more). My summary went

something like this:

The Emancipated Spectator presents the idea that theatre makers suffer from the

same problems as school teachers. The ignorant school teacher takes the position of

a supposed expert and disseminates facts for short term gain. The ignorant theatre

maker creates illusion and spectacle that seduce audiences for short term gain. The

successful teacher acknowledges their own weaknesses and the frailty of their

position and empowers their student to learn with them, becoming a more independent

and free thinker themselves. Ranciere proposes that the successful theatre maker

returns to theatre's origins as a place where the spectator's imaginations were free to

create with the performer. He focuses on separation and division as the failing of

theatre based on spectacle.

Andy and I were then joined by (no name yet…) and Chloe Mashiter and the

conversation continued with the idea of the emancipated spectator challenged and

questioned. Here are some of the questions and my attempts at responses.

How is this theatre made?

Well there isn't a simple answer to that. The essay was written by a philosopher

interested in Aesthetics and Politics, Jacques Ranciere, not himself a theatre maker.

The essay raises more questions. It challenges established ways of making theatre -

especially the idea of spectacle (the naturalistic, the didactic, and the immersive kinds

etc.) An example of theatre makers I believed that create work in response to the

ideas of the essay are Tim Crouch, Andy Smith and Karl James - Their play What

Happens to the Hope at the End of the Evening is a good one to read/see as an

illustration of a potential interpretation of Ranciere's ideas. It is about acknowledging

the limitations of the space you are in and the limitations of the performers whilst

empowering the spectator to be active in imagining and interpreting their experience.

But the strength of a collective audience is their shared experience. Why turn away

from that kind of good theatre?

It is not a case of turning your back on that theatre. It definitely has a place and it is of

great quality but if it aims to engender a change is it truly effective? Or does it suffer

two potential failings: the individual is able to ‘hide’ within the collective, disengaging if

what is being presented is not to their taste; or the collective audience is simply

participating in an echo-chamber where their political/social/cultural views are being

reinforced through their collective experience. Theatre that does this in the current

climate is failing to connect with the very people that it wants to change. The ideas in

The Emancipated Spectator propose that the act of liberating the individual to be free

to imagine / think about / interpret / translate their experience is itself the important

action of the theatre. Not creating dialectical differences or presenting a ‘superior’ way

of thinking that the audience are encouraged to follow.

If this kind of theatre has already been made before then why did we still end up with

Brexit and Trump?

The notion of the emancipated spectator can't be held to account for this failing as it is

a principle of making and being that will engender change. Change won't come about

from dialectics and debates, this has clearly failed as a model in both the case of

Brexit and Trump - whichever way you voted there was a sense that the other side

wouldn't listen to the argument. The ideas in The Emancipated Spectator don't offer an

obvious or simple solution - maybe the closing down and the fear of the other that

typified both Brexit and Trump wouldn't have come about if people were given the

opportunity to listen to or be in a creative space with a person who thinks differently.

This space would only be viable for both sides if they were free to think / create /

translate / interpret for themselves rather than be preached to.

What about narrative? As soon as you choose a narrative position you are giving a


That is a challenge and a difficulty with theatre in this mode. The way the space is

configured is important - I think that the traditional power structures (raised performers

or divided spectator/performers) should be removed or openly addressed in the work.

Theatre in this way does require a skilled writer that is able to construct the story whilst

leaving space for the spectators. Ranciere would probably suggest that whatever the

boundaries that arise should be openly acknowledged or challenged. So in terms of

narrative the writer should ensure that, whilst one narrative maybe the through focus,

other narratives are acknowledged, other perspectives are brought into the piece. The

boundaries should always be blurred according to Ranciere.

Conclusion and where next?

I am going to be making my own work in response to The Emancipated Spectator in

Brentwood (in the new empty shop theatre…).

Think local and blur boundaries. Theatre should not be looking to educate from a

superior position in the current climate. Theatre should be listening. Start local and

connect with your community. Provide them with a theatre that truly allows them space

to interpret / think / create / imagine / translate.

The essay is contained in this book -

It is also currently available as a PDF on these sites - I don't know how long they will

be up there…



Translation, Jacques Ranciere, translation, Creating, creating, philosophy, listening,

The Emancipated Spectator, Imagination, Boundaries, Dialectics, Philosophy,

Thinking, Interpretation, spectacle, interpretation, community, thinking, boundaries,

Listening, Political theatre, Community, imagination, political theatre

Comments: 2

Kirsty Sedgman, 16 January 2017

I've read it and would love to chat (I was sorry to miss the session but I was in my own). My research is all about theatre

audiences. Are you around today? (Monday)

Phil Cleaves, 16 January 2017

I spoke to you through twitter about one of your sessions too and I didn't get to find you. Would love to chat (learn) more

about the essay. I have only recently read it but it seems so vital. Drop me an email or message on twitter and we can

arrange a conversation.