Wednesday, June 22, 2011


In a section entitled "Participation" in And Then, You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World, Anne Bogart writes:
In our present climate, it is more useful to look for participants rather than spectators. We live in a culture that encourages passive spectatorship, and there is certainly enough spectatorship to go around. The nightmare of our society right now is submissive consumption: people watching their lives go by, watching the government drift by with the assumption that a citizen's only job is to be a good audience. The theater can offer and alternative to passive spectatorship. It excels in qualities that make for real democracy.
So far, so good. I'm cheering Anne on! Then she describes what she means:
I met a young woman who worked as an intern for Pepsico Summerfare, a performing-arts festival in Purchase, New York (about forty minutes north of Manhattan), which brought world-class performeances to local audiences during the 1980s. She described "The Beethoven Experience," a weekend where several thousand people came to spend two days immersed in the world of Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony. One of her jobs was to photocopy 2,000 copies of the "Ode to Joy" chorus. During the weekend, audiences attended symposia, lectures, and exhibition, and open rehearsals, all relating to Beethoven's life and the composition and performance of his Ninth Symphony. She described a rehearsal open to the public where the conductor took time to explain to the audience what he was after with the orchestra. During one particular moment of the symphony he showed how he calls on the string section for more intensity. The weekend concluded with a final performance of the Ninth Symphony. When the orchestra arrived at that particular passage, and the conductor called for more intensity from the string section, the young woman said that the entire audience leaned forward simultaneously. "That's it!" I cried, when I heard the description of the audience leaning forward as one. This is participation!
NO IT ISN'T! That's involvement, perhaps, but it sure as hell ain't participation. This is the problem we have when we talk about audience participation -- we're so used to audience dozing during our productions, or mechanically responding on cue, that we think sitting forward is participation. Or we think participating in a Facebook page or a twitter discussion is participation.

But it is a step better than the NEA's definition of arts participation as buying a ticket...


Aaron Andersen said...

Bingo. Participation is being involved in the creative or performance process itself. I personally think that many of us in theater aren't interested in this definition because it requires that we surrender our perceived privilege as the artists, as the performers. It makes us less special if the audience is in on the process.

I suppose it will be fun for us to be special and privileged controllers of the creative process in our ever-shrinking but comfortable niche where audiences want to remain spectators.

Aaron Andersen said...

Also, this is what I'm talking about in my 2amt post today.

Scott Walters said...

Your post is outstanding, Aaron, and I agree with it whole-heartedly.

Aaron Andersen said...

Thanks, Scott!