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Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

The Emancipated Spectator

Phil Cleaves - 15 January 2017

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Called by Phil Cleaves

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 message.

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 - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Emancipated-Spectator-Jacques-Ranciere/dp/1844677613

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

https://imagemdissenso.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/the-emancipated-spectator-2009.pdf

http://members.efn.org/~heroux/The-Emancipated-Spectator-.pdf

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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.

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