The Age of the Audience?

17 August 2011 | 1 comment

At 3pm tomorrow I’ll taking part in a panel at Forest Fringe, Edinburgh on the topic of Interactivity in the Age of the Audience. One of the questions that we’ve been asked to consider is whether, as Charlotte Higgins contended in this recent blog post, intimate theatre might in some ways be considered ‘decadent’.

I think there’s something important to be addressed in this. All forms of interactive, participatory work face a distribution problem; it is inherently harder to scale interactive work to reach a large live audience than a traditional proscenium arch show. A 2-handed play can reach 900 people, where is it’s very hard for 2 performers to interact personally with anything like that number.

Because Hide&Seek come at this from the perspective of game design rather than theatre production, we sometimes arrive at rather different solutions. One of the things I love most about the Tiny Games we’ve just installed across the Southbank is how neatly they solve this distribution problem – they are permanent, always-on, one-on-one play experiences for a huge number of participants.

Hinterland addresses distribution and access in a different way. It’s a game that you play via your telephone. Once you’ve come to Forest Fringe and signed up for the game, you are keeping your eyes and ears open for a particular kind of stranger. Once you’ve found them, you answer some questions together and phone them in to the Operator. Soon after, you receive a poem to your phone which has been shaped and altered by the conversation that you had and the answers that you left.

In the language of theatre, I guess this is two kinds of one-on-one. The first is with a stranger. The second is with the game/poem. But rather than queueing for your encounter (and that queue extending out the door), the queue is hidden from view – it’s in the space between encounter and poem. Important work is happening, but it’s not interfering with your experience of being in Edinburgh, getting on with other things, seeing other shows.

I think my conclusion here is to take issue (with apologies to the wonderful Non Zero One who don’t deserve the aggro) with the title of the panel “Interactivity in the Age of the Audience”. Audiences require performers, spaces, stages and backstages – the highly evolved technologies of the theatre. And they tend to get start times, intervals, endings. All of that is inherited infrastructure from a previous age – infrastructure that often works against interaction. It’s hard to play in the aisles, the chairs get in the way.

What I’ll be arguing for tomorrow is for new platforms for participatory work – ones that are fluid and responsive, that scale as well for interactivity as proscenium arch theatre does for spectacle. They will undoubtedly admit and engage audiences, but they’ll be designed with playing, making and talking in mind.

1 comment on this post.

  • On 17 Aug 2011, Bob Peters said:

    This is a really interesting article concerning a really interesting project (I’m still in Paris I’m afraid) But I take issue with what you see as the benefits of it.
    My basic point is that the value of theatre lies in its immediacy rather than it’s scale: if the success of a piece is judged on how many people/audience members have been involved in it, then theatre and live performance will always lose out to film and television. If two performers manage to genuinely ‘connect’ with two audience members at a time, 6 hours a day for say, 3 weeks, then that is as ‘valuable’ a performance as a sell-out show at the National, running for 3 months.
    I’m definitely not saying that the potential for huge scale in this project is a bad thing, but I also don’t think that it is what makes it a good thing.
    I know this isn’t exactly an original point, but I think it’s a valid one.. Looking forward to the talk tomorrow!


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