It started with a curtain call. I must have been seven. My mother took me to a play at the high school where she taught. I witnessed these cool teenagers rock the stage with violent and romantic conflict. Then afterward they all held hands and smiled at each other. They bowed. I wanted to be part of that unified field.
Out of artistic necessity, I go to the theatre frequently. Sometimes the play leaps off the stage and grabs me in the gut or the heart or the brain. Sometimes I am moved to tears or belly laughs. Sometimes the experience changes how I see a situation, what I think about it, and what actions I will take when I leave the theatre. But more often I feel sequestered far away from the action, the fourth wall thick and impenetrable before me. I am amazed, impressed, disappointed or furious but have no way of engaging directly with the experience. I remain mostly unchanged, and therefore have no impulse to make moves to change my life or the society around me. When I am engaged pre or post show, I feel more connected to the experience, and it becomes more useful.
My work to engage audiences has extended beyond the play into pre and post show events. I now always include a post-show discussion in any production I build. When the audience intermingles with the artists and each other there is a greater potential, in my opinion, for long lasting impact.
Can theatre be a therapeutic experience for audiences? I am acutely aware of the power of theatre to effect psychological well-being. There is an innate healing function in theatre that goes all the way back to its origins in human culture.
The practice of audience engagement is the central thrust of the H.E.A.T. Collective’s custom. The H.E.A.T. Paradigm is a way of seeing theatre as a creative process that includes healing, education and activism through the lens of high-quality theatre. I incorporate the practice of paradoxical curiosity respecting complexity, seeking something beyond what is visible, and discovering what holds apparently opposed social energies together. By engaging audiences, we can explore how the creative process helps to bring about social change and transform human relationships.
I also use performative ethnography. By merging performance and scholarship the personal is political, language is transformative and embodied, and aesthetic craft is balanced with heuristic knowledge and truth. To truly find “power with” instead of “power over” we can use audience engagement to demystify the chasm between on stage and off.
Audience engagement requires a focus on community building as we experience in Forum Theater. This work involves the audience to change their world by engaging in social action on stage. Augusto Boal called the technique “simultaneous dramaturgy”. All of these methods help to build Socially Engaged Theatre that carries impact for audiences while insisting on meticulous beauty.
My first “ping” about audience engagement was at 18 years old when I attended a Theatre in Education conference at UC Santa Cruz; they presented programs that were changing people’s lives by using art to enhance education and- there were dancers working with drummer s getting deaf children to dance to the vibration of the drums. There was a theatre company teaching history to high school students with improvisation and character development, there was a company brining ritual to audiences by educating them about Native American practices. In each case the audience was entering into the performance.
Theatre is a sacred and ancient art form, which has served to empower and galvanize communities since pre-history. However, in modern society with the onset of the industrial cinematic and now digital age, audiences often go to theatre to relax, and forget their lives and their bodies, taking a passive role in the entertainment experience. Instead of embracing and embodying the action of the play as a personal and necessary to their lives, they remain removed from it. When a good theatre production is generous and brave and offers itself to the audience, there is a probability for emotional and intellectual engagement. Shakespeare’s theatre had a profound impact on its audiences. Reaching the crowd (both groundlings and nobles) was at the heart of its purpose. Theatrical creations can potentially heal, inform, comfort, provoke, activate, open minds and hearts. But when the audience is invited to engage physically, emotionally, and intellectually through planned and/or improvised involvement, the power of theatre expands to include both, a deeper awareness of and empathy for humanity and a real potential for positive change.
Three Case Studies
My work has been called collage and magical realism, paradoxical, and multilayered. I like contradiction. I like when people and places and things that shouldn’t be together crash into each other and a kind of unity is born out of the wreckage.
One day when I was in high school taking my daily ride to school on the 22 Fillmore bus. I was bouncing along squished up next to two people: A Tall Black Drag Queen bedazzled and decked out in a hot pink jumpsuit and a Tiny Elderly White Woman with blue hair covered by a thin hairnet. I thought to myself how far away these two people are from each other from such different worlds. Just as a thought that the bus swerved and jostled the Drag Queen and one of her giant rings got caught in the hairnet of the Little Old Lady, and for the next few minutes their worlds were one as the Drag Queen gingerly picked her rhinestone ring out of the hairnet of the hairnet. I think I have been writing some version of that story ever since. Audience engagement allows me to embrace the paradox and invite people to talk about it. As an example, I will briefly outline the use of audience engagement in three of my ongoing projects.
My Heart is in the East:
My Heart is in the East, La MaMa, New York, June 2017. Photos: Edward Morris, used by permission.
The process of writing My Heart is in the East changed my life. Combining my own experiences of working in Iraq with an Arab street poet, and my deep research about a period known as La Convivienca (the Co-existence) when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace due in part to poetry contests. The story from present day Iraq merges with the story from Medieval Andalucía. Both are about unity slowly growing out of violent paradox. I want the post show experience to bridge the world of the play and lead us into the current times- right where we are now.
My Heart is in the East is a play about Muslim-Jewish relations taking place in modern day Iraq and 11th Century Cordoba. The post show experience is unique and just as important as the play itself. As they enter the theatre the audience is randomly given one of four different index cards with different prompts (For example: A. Yellow: Homonym, B. Pink: Contradiction, C. Blue: Rhyme, D. Green: Two Languages) After the play (which runs about 90 minutes) the Poetry Ushers come on stage and instruct the audience to get into groups according to their card color. They are told that actors will be out in 10-15 minutes and that’s how long this group has to come up with one line of poetry about the issues in the play using their card’s specific prompt. While they are writing trays of Olives Grapes Almonds and Dates are passed around. The Poetry Shepherds circulate among the groups to encourage the short poems. The Contest happens when the actors emerge and ask each group to read and then everyone judges the one-line poems and chooses the prize that each group receives: The Olive Prize, The Grape Prize, The Almond Prize, or The Grand Date Prize.
After this jovial (and sometimes very beautiful) icebreaker, we announce that night’s guest (each performance will have a speaker from the community – experts on peacebuilding, history, Jewish and Muslim relations, poetry etc.) who speaks for a few minutes about their work and then leads a short discussion about the issues in the play. One audience member stated: “I entered the theatre, crossed my arms and sat back, thinking OK show me! The raw emotion, and the depth of the subject matter made me sit forward. After the play I had to talk with other audience members to write a line of a poem- we laughed, I came out of myself even more. Finally, we had a group discussion with a Muslim scholar to talk about the issues of the play, and then I really felt like a part of a community. I couldn’t believe how closed I had been only 2 hours earlier and how connected I felt now.” Audience Member, June 2017.
The FEAR Project
The FEAR Project, Prague, CZ, February 2016. Photo: Thomas P Krakora, used by permission.
The FEAR Project, Kolkata, India, December 2015. Photo: G.D Birla Sabhagar, used by permission.
The FEAR Project is an experiment in performative ethnography and community service. The artists involved serve the communities with whom we are collaborating and for whom we are performing. We gather research and stage it. The result is not verbatim theatre, but it is sourced in testimony and truth. Doing this project, I learned how to make an audience into a community and a community into a play. This is not “community theatre” it is theatre of the community, a high quality professional theatrical experiment that aims to move, provoke, inspire, excite and heal.
The FEAR Project is a play based on interviews about fear. It contains choral poetry made from verbatim interviews, as well as direct address monologues, and realistic scenes. The FEAR Project aspires to create an atmosphere of restoration by giving people a chance to communicate about fear in a safe space.
The interviews consist of 13 questions that are asked by the participating artists to a broad and diverse population in the community in the following order:
1. What are you afraid of?
2. Who are you afraid of?
3. Where are you afraid?
4. How do you react to fear?
5. How do you conquer fear?
6. What is the enemy?
7. Who is the enemy?
8. Where is the enemy?
9. How do you react to the enemy?
10. What do you do to conquer hate?
11. Who is the stranger?
12. What is home?
13. How do you feel about your country right now?
Each FEAR Project process evolves in the following way, once the interviews are collected I construct a Choral Poem out of the verbatim interviews. We (the company of artists) have a reading of the poem and an in-depth discussion. I then write the rough draft of the play with the choral poem as well as scenes and monologues. We then move into a period of rehearsal: character development, staging etc.
Each performance includes pre-show interviews and a post- show discussion with the audience. At the beginning of each show the actors spend about 15 minutes interviewing the audience with the 13 questions. The interviews from the audience are recorded on yellow paper and embedded into that performance. When the yellow paper appears, the audience tend to lean forward knowing they are now hearing their own answers.
The FEAR Project inspires collaborative action for the artists, the interviewees and the audiences. We find our way through fear in the radical intimacy of socially engaged performance. We as theatre practitioners can encourage an imaginative exploration of even the darkest truth to facilitate transformation. We are not afraid, even of fear.
The project has so far been successfully developed and produced in three countries: India, The Czech Republic and the U.S. An audience member told me: “What was most interesting about the piece was the response it created afterwards in the discussion period. When we heard there would be a discussion after, we almost didn’t attend it out of fear of such things. What a paradox! I’m really glad we overcame this fear and went there, cause the play just got another dimension for me. After hearing all these different feelings and views from the play it really got me thinking. I was a bit shocked, a bit shaken. it made me realize this will never be a closed topic and it shouldn’t be for anyone.”
Emma Goldman Day
Emma Goldman Day, 2016, TheatreLab, New York. Photos: Theo Cote. Used by permission.
Emma Goldman came into my life at an early age when I was cast as her in a play. She has been my spirit guide and inspiration ever since. I named my first child after her. I spent years and years researching her work and life And I wrote three plays about her. I channeled her voice through my voice and her body through my body.
Emma Goldman Day is a dream come true for me. We have produced it every March for three years for Women’s History Month. Through the experience of seeing three plays, participating in three guided discussions and sharing three meals with food that reflect the play they’ve just seen, the audience becomes completely engaged in Emma’s story, eventually shouting praise at her and booing the villains that thwart her.
The three plays explore the life and work of the infamous anarchist Emma. The plays cover four decades beginning with Love, Anarchy and Other Affairs - one actor, one night in 1901 in an apartment in Chicago (in the first play) to The Snake and The Falcon – in which four actors tell the story of Emma’s deportation in 1919 at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover, and finally Nobody Is Sleeping performed by six actors and several puppets, which depicts Emma’s last four years on the front of The Spanish Civil War.
H.E.A.T first produced the plays together in staged reading form at The Emma Goldman Trilogy Happening in March of 2016 in honor of Women’s History Month. The plays and the discussions were vibrant, fascinating and enhanced by the wonderful actors, panel members, audiences and helpers who helped build an amazing community experience. We served food, hot tea, shots of vodka, and Spanish wine to compliment the conversations about serious issues: revolution, immigration, American history, free love and economic justice. People who stayed for all three plays and discussions got special gift bags “Emmasary Prizes”.
And audience member said: “If you want to understand how theatre builds community, look no further than the Emma Goldman Trilogy Happening: An incredible day that provoked thoughtful conversations and connected people through the inspiring life of Emma Goldman and the vibrant storytelling of Jessica Litwak.” Audience member, March 2016
Why audience engagement works: A. G. Johnson once stated, “Of all human needs, few are as powerful as the need to be seen, included, and accepted by other people”. People want to be seen and they crave human connection. We are becoming more divided and cocooned as humans with the advent of cell phones and ear buds and virtual headgear. Live theatre compels us into contact, but we can still avoid human exchange as much as possible, ignoring the fact that we are IN society. We can lean away from the people sitting on either side of us, move away from ourselves and reach away from the play, into our seats, OUT of community. We judge, worry, daydream, check our phones and watches, become annoyed at the smells and sounds around us. If we are engaged in the art and/or story of the play it is better, we may become emotionally and intellectually attached to the material and even regard our fellow theatregoers with a sense of fellowship at the knowledge we are sharing this special experience. On the rare occasion that we speak to a stranger in the interval or have a vibrant conversation on the way home, the experience becomes even more memorable. But still we may not have not fully entered the experience. Audience engagement provides us with an opportunity to dive in.
Why audience engagement scares people: To be egged into acquaintance with strangers can be intimidating and aggravating. When the subject matter of a play is intense and has stirred up feelings we often want to run to the local pub and or curl up in bed away from the theatrical environment where we were triggered. With audience engagement we are coaxed into the act of sharing our experience with others and listening to their experiences which may be similar or very different to our own.
Why audience engagement is necessary: For humanity to survive we must find a way to understand, listen, and empathize with each other. With this form of work the audience becomes a community in the process of attending a theatrical experience. It may be temporary. It me be long lasting. But the feeling of the viewer most often changes from entrance to exit. Theater is a bright enigma, for when the lights go out on the stage the visceral effects exist only in memory. Like sexuality, or the smell and taste of food, the theater lives in us somatically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually only while it is happening. Theater, at its best and most useful is immediate and urgent, the immediacy of the form often matched by the necessity of content. It is a communal experience. This may be the key to the transformative power of art. Audience engagement increase the potential for transformation.
I welcome further conversation. Please be in touch to share your experiences and ideas about the ways audience interaction can manifest and your thoughts about the impact (artistic and political) of audience engagement.