The evolving relationship between performers and audience is truly remarkable, with 19th century theatre being a celebratory community before the introduction of the fourth wall in the 20th century and with it a clear divide between those who act and those who spectate. Twenty first century practitioners have began to obliterate the restricting concept of the fourth wall, permitting them to experiment with the vast possibilities of participatory theatre. Through my exploration into London based theatre company “Punch Drunk” and the digitally renowned company “Blast Theory” I intend to discover not only the impact of the evolving audience/performer relationships, but also to determine why contemporary practitioners have generated this change in dynamics.
Many of the reputable forerunners in interactive and participatory performances such as Julian Beck, Richard Schechner or Augusto Boal of Forum Theatre, pushed the reformation of performer/audience relationship, believing the conventional arrangement to be repressing and that participation would enable an active audience. The experimentation of a closer relationship between performers and their audience in contemporary theatre might be deemed as “the return of techniques of audience involvement that last captured the imagination of the theatre makers and audience to such a degree in the sixties and seventies.” The epitome of this experimental process is the ambiguity of whether the performance is taking place with, around or to the spectator. Participatory theatre in relation to its emancipatory possibilities have been discussed by the likes of Nicholas Bourriaud and Jacques Ranciere, who value intimate proximity between performer and audience as a liberating factor.
Within his book “The Emancipated Spectator”, Ranciere examines the roll of the spectator within theatre. The contemporary philosopher believes “good” theatre to be that which “intends to teach their spectators ways of ceasing to be spectators and becoming agents of a collective practice” – rendering the spectator active. He views it necessary in a theatre for spectators to not simply be passive voyeurs but “active participants”. Ranciere’s emphasises that observation in itself is essentially active and thus spectatorship need not be understood as passivity, implying the need for a theatre in which the artist and the spectator are understood to be equals. Ranciere labels the mediation between the performer and the audience as a “spectacle”, “the performance itself…stands as a spectacle”, in which the two can refer. For this equality to be reached the performer must abandon his belief that he can convey any experience to the spectator, and the spectator must feel free to translate the “spectacle” into his own experience. Ranciere places responsibility on the spectator that before was absent, with the spectator no longer being viewed passive, he now has room to be active.
Ranciere’s vision of the active spectator is totally encompassed by Felix Barrett’s London based theatre company “Punch Drunk”. Barret creates experiences that challenge audiences to physically interact with a narrative, where a “show becomes a thing that happens to you because of the decisions you make, not just something you watch passively”. Sleep No more was produced in 2003, with its narrative based laxly on Macbeth and its aesthetic leaning heavily toward Noir, scenes take place within the rooms of a decrepit warehouse. The audience are given white masks on arrival and separated from their companions; distinguishable from the unmasked performers the audiences are “responsible for their own voyeurism” and are given free reign to explore space and encounter scenes as they wish. W.B Worthern writes about