Sunday, 24 June 2012

Theatre and the Culture of Participation

We don’t just sit and watch TV anymore. There’s hardly a TV program that doesn’t ask us to comment or get involved – whether it’s SMS voting on talent shows, or by giving twitter commentary on morning television, or the ABC’s Q & A, which centres the audience – there, we are constantly reminded, we ask the questions and tweet a witty commentary from home. We are our own producers.

We don’t just read the news as it’s given to us anymore. If you read a news story online, you can very often comment about it and provide one of 25 or 68 or hundreds of comments that will sometimes give you a much better picture of what’s really going on than the story itself. And we have a huge range of news sources available to us. We are our own editors.

We don’t just read facts from scholar-authored and vetted encyclopedias anymore. At the very heart of Wikipedia is a democratisation of the definition of knowledge. We – any of us, from anywhere – help determine how knowledge is defined and understood. We are the writers of the most used encyclopedia the world has ever known. We are our own authors.

This new public expectation has huge repercussions for all organisations and institutions – whether they are political, media, educational, artistic, or whatever. Polls, for better or worse, mostly worse, drive politicians. Media institutions are forced into radical transformation. People can no longer be kept silently at the gate.

The people crashed through the gates and onto the stage of the Sydney Opera House last year. They were part of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Following an online auditioning and voting process, 101 musicians from 33 countries played together in the Concert Hall. A weeklong festival of musical collaboration and participation, with coaching from members of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Sydney Symphony, culminated in a concert conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. The concert was 'the most-watched live music concert on the Internet', displacing U2. The YouTube website not only provided a gateway for auditions, but also provided tuition in how to learn an instrument.

Art galleries have been responding for a while now. Many run what might be called a “view and do” policy. You go to a gallery and you don’t just look at pictures, you can make them too. This is most often for children – but it’s spreading.

Almost all dance companies in Australia run classes that anyone can join. One of Australia’s key contemporary dance companies, Chunky Move, a few years ago created a work called Moving One Hundred, in which 100 members of the public rehearsed a dance over four Sundays and then performed it in Melbourne’s Federation Square.

We see it increasingly in theatre. Even the Royal Shakespeare Company now runs a large Open Stage project that "aims to embrace, develop and celebrate amateur theatre, re-forging the bond with the world of professional theatre." Outgoing RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd puts it bluntly: "The RSC wants to lead a step change in the relationship with the amateur sector; to celebrate its rich traditions, open our doors to its work and collaborate with partners nationally to leave a significant legacy." The project makes the point that over the past 20 years theatre for young people has developed to a level of "quality, quantity and status" which makes it indisputably part of what might be broadly called the theatre profession, but that work with adults, particularly those within amateur theatre, "has not yet enjoyed a similar level of development or focus." Open Stage involves 263 separate amateur productions and a great deal of other activity, including skills exchange and relationships with ten regional theatres. In one strand in October, the RSC Amateur Ensemble will perform Pericles at the RSC's Stratford Courtyard Theatre. Amateur actors, auditioned from the Midlands, will work with RSC directors, designers and production crew.

Babel, billed as the "theatrical event of 2012", was a huge, immersive outdoor production involving a cast of 300 in London's Caledonian Park. It combined storytelling, live music, massed choirs and big visual effects "to celebrate what it means to be part of a truly global community." The story was about tribes. It was a partnership between WildWorks, Battersea Arts Centre, Lyric Hammersmith, Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Young Vic. I didn't see it, but it actually sounds very similar to the large scale community theatrical events, or ceremonies, created by Welfare State from about 1968 until the organisation disbanded in 2006. Are we returning to some of the counter-cultural ideas of that period? WildWorks, with the National Theatre of Wales (a company very much in tune with what I'm talking about here), was also behind the hugely successful The Passion. For three days over Easter 2011, the community of Port Talbot retold the Passion story, scripted by Owen Sheers and co-directed by, and starring, Michael Sheen. The event took place all across town, with the people of Port Talbot as its cast, crew and heroes. Lyn Gardner, the Guardian's canny theatre critic, was transported enough to proclaim that "there was a sense not just that the town of Port Talbot had been transformed by the experience, but also the future of large-scale participatory theatre."

Sometimes theatre audiences can participate by creating and choosing their own narratives. One of the most talked about shows in New York over the last little while has been Punchdrunk's Sleep No More. This immersive theatre installation involves 300 masked audience members roaming freely around a 93-room installation of Macbeth – they can chase after characters through furniture-cluttered rooms and corridors, and poke around at will. Everyone’s journey is unique. Punchdrunk did something similar with the English National Opera recently. A new opera based on Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi had a 70-strong full orchestra and 17 opera singers. The piece was performed over three floors of a huge office block. The audience was allowed into the building in small groups to roam freely through the space and follow any strand of the story they wished. The musicians were scattered through the building, sometimes playing in a 30-strong chamber group, or sometimes as a lone oboist in the outer reaches of the building. The audience, the full orchestra and all the performers all came together for the dramatic, bloody climax.

It can be more intimate. In Rotozaza's Etiquette, two participants – we used to call them audience members – sit across from each other at a cafĂ© table. No one is watching. They wear headphones which tell them what to say to each other and how to use the objects positioned at the table. The participants enact several micro-situations, often borrowed from film or theatre.

And it can be boisterous. At last year’s World Theatre Festival in Brisbane, the German/British outfit Gob Squad, for example, commandeered people from the streets of Fortitude Valley to participate in the performance. Gob Squad have been doing this kind of thing for ages.

These are all pretty random examples of how theatre has been re-examining its roots and its relationship with the public. A couple of these examples are not in themselves remarkable – similarly conceived performance has been happening all over the place for quite a few years now. For instance, these days, particularly in London, you are just as likely to be part of a performance in an abandoned warehouse or under a railway bridge as in a conventional theatre building.

It's clear that people increasingly expect a more personalised experience of theatre, just as they can now personalise their news sources, their TV viewing, their music playlists, their phones, their computers, and so many other aspects of their lives. They expect, somehow, to share in the tools, to influence, to comment freely, to experience a deeper level of participation and even ownership. Around the world, the theatres and training institutions that respond to and share in these changes are those that will be alive to the contemporary world and flourish within it.

In January last year, Ben Cameron, from New York’s Doris Duke Charitable Foundation gave a wonderful speech at New York’s Under the Radar festival. He compared today's ''arts revolution'' to the religious revolution of the 16th century, in which the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical authority of the Catholic Church were broken down. The religious revolution was a product of a sudden increase in technology in the form of the printing press, which meant that information was made available to the masses rather than controlled by an institution. The religious revolution did not result in the end of institutional religions, but it did mean that their role had to change.

In much the same way, Cameron suggested, we are experiencing a cultural revolution in the performing arts. It's hard to disagree. Centuries of art, music, literature and design are just a click away. And this digital technology has made it possible for anyone to become an author, a music composer, a choreographer or a movie director, and for anyone to distribute their artistic creations to an international audience. The professional and the amateur have blurred. The means of artistic production and distribution have been democratised for the first time in history. Who doesn't know a fourteen-year-old hard at work on their second or third movie?

We are no longer simply arts consumers. We are arts participants. We are creators.

These changes pose great challenges for those of us who run organisations. It might be that theatres will need to turn into more open kinds of cultural spaces - gathering places for the community where the dialogue between arts and society can be deepened. Libraries have been doing this well for ages. Who goes to a library just to borrow a book anymore? Should not theatre be at the table of civic discourse and in the seat of community passion, involving the public at all levels? We all know of the passion of amateur and youth theatre and how it connects with and even makes community. Many of us, including me, grew up in this world. It feels like we need to begin having a conversation in society, rather than with ourselves, in our buildings and out of them.

Change is always painful while it is happening, but it is also rewarding. But we need to talk about these kinds of sea changes – changes to our theatre, our theatre companies, our models, our funding, our training, ways of performing, and, fundamentally, to our relationship with the public.

I'm not suggesting that the idea of putting on a play for people to watch is not important anymore. To sit in a darkened theatre and watch a great performance of, say, Death of a Salesman or Summer of the Seventeenth Doll will always have the potential to have profound and moving impact. In fact, I think the time is ripe for theatre of all kinds. For many of us these days, much of our time is spent with our iPhone or iPad, in social media sites or writing blogs, or viewing stuff downloaded online - things done mostly while alone. Yes, we have our online communities, and used well they can be very satisfying, but it probably means that being in a real space with others, sharing a lived experience, feels more special than it may have done even ten years ago. There are quite a few studies now linking some kinds of high Facebook use with narcissism and loneliness. To balance this, it's likely that we value real social connection, real gathering, quite highly now. Maybe that's one reason why people happily spend $500 on music festivals even though they have access to unlimited, and often free, music online.

Theatre is unlike film. The experience of film is rarely a communal one – we sit in the dark, only vaguely aware of others in the cinema, and our experience is usually a personal one. Film, in this way, is a passive, solitary experience. And it’s wonderful for it. But when we sit in a theatre, or in any space together at a performance, we are active, and we are in community. We become aware of and involved with those around us, and we are active in that we are required to make a leap of faith. In theatre, when we watch two actors making love, or another dying, we know they are not really making love or dying, but through our faith in the event and in the actors’ powers, a kind of magic occurs. It requires not so much a suspension of disbelief as a conspiracy of belief. Each group knows the other is there because of this conspiracy, this agreement to play the game, whatever that game might be, and each audience member knows they are not alone. We are required to make a pact with the actors. No such pact is required in film.

All this talk of blurred boundaries might sound as if I am suggesting that story is no longer important. I’m not saying that. Because it feels to me that there is another reason why the times are right for theatre. It feels as though there is so much chaos in the world, so many uncertainties right now, that we need stories; we need their structure – even if we can choose or influence their structure - in order to help us feel secure.

It is true that at any given moment, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will be engaged in this most familiar of all forms of human activity. We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories – telling them, listening to them, reading them, watching them being acted out on the television, or in films or on a stage. Through newspapers, television and online, our news is presented in the form of stories. Much of our conversation is taken up recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. "How was your day?" "Well...". As small children, we have no sooner learned to speak than we begin demanding to be told stories. Billions of people around the world adhere to religions based on a few ancient stories that keep getting told and retold.

The need for the structured sequence of images and events that is story seems part of our DNA. We're hard-wired that way. At least one scientific study suggests that the same part of the human brain that is able to recognise the self is also responsible for inventing narrative. Stories are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence.

It's no accident that so very many groups of emerging theatre artists now - and I'm talking of Hayloft, Black Lung, and Four Larks in Melbourne, Cry Havoc in Sydney, the Danger Ensemble and Dead Puppets Society in Brisbane - these and many others - it's no accident that they regularly excavate the great stories or myths of the past to share things about the contemporary world. I sense that happening now more than at any other time I can remember.

Here’s W H Auden, in September 1, 1939:

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

I’m not sure that we now live in a time of stupor, beleaguered by negation and confusion and despair. Maybe some of us feel that, as certainties vanish. But Auden speaks of points of light, dotted everywhere, that show an affirming flame. What are they? Auden suggests that they flash out wherever the just exchange their messages. Maybe our stages are such places, where stories are exchanged and all engage in a conspiracy of belief. To conspire, literally, means to breathe together. At a time of dislocation, shouldn't we come together to share in beauty, laughs, tears and joy?

I don’t believe we have yet begun to release the power, beauty, grandeur, courage and danger that is present in the making of art. The world tells us that we can participate, not just consume. Might this new kind of art-making allow us to look at our fellow human beings with more generosity and curiosity? Might it reveal that we bound together by a common cause, to promote a more thoughtful, substantive, empathic world?

The challenges of this new world are terrifying. So now is the time to be brave and to exchange our messages. The time to gather together and share in stories and structures that articulate something of our dreams and our nightmares, our most secret fears and our most fervent hopes. The time to let go of the old and to breathe in the new, together, in the way in which this new world so wondrously invites us. If we do, then we have the chance to go into our lives knowing just that little bit more, and feeling just that little bit less alone.

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