by Eric Rae
Last time on Mid to Post-Apocalyptic Theatre, we talked about what theatre looked like pre-apocalypse and what aspects of it might work well through our current situation and beyond. Let’s now get into the exciting part: speculation about the future. What kinds of things can we ask of the audience that will make our work theatre and not another recorded medium? How can we connect with them when we can’t all be in the same room?
We already talked about a recorded experience taken out into the real world, with an audio or video recording taking the audience through a set spatial journey. This is a one way street. We could say that would be the equivalent of a live show with a fourth wall. The audience member has no direct impact on what happens in the show. How would we create the equivalent of a fourth-wall-less show? How do you break the imaginary fourth wall when the audience is already boxed in by four real walls? There is the obvious video chat via Zoom, Skype, Facebook or Discord, where we can actually invite audience audio and video participation, but how else? We can include other methods of communication as well. Strategically timed emails or messages on Facebook or Instagram could factor in. Characters in the show or even characters in the world of the show that aren’t actually present, could get in touch with audience members directly in real time.
There are degrees between full on audience participation and a completely recorded experience as well. Video chat programs have text chat options, artists could use those to solicit audience feedback, to have them answer questions, make choices or talk amongst themselves during the show. There is also the physical world, outside the digital. Just because we can’t gather doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Could artists travel to people’s homes where they are taking part in a project? What effect would music or sound outside an audience member’s home have on the experience of the entire audience? A scraping or growling for a suspenseful or horror show, or a love song for a romantic comedy. What ethical or privacy issues would this raise and how could they be dealt with?
How we connect is of course, tied with what we ask of them, which the more I think about it, the more I realize may be the crux of this whole thing. If I learned anything studying the nature of theatrical and non-theatrical space in France, it’s that the place, position, and atmosphere in which the audience find themselves is an essential element of their experience. Artists can ask audience members to decorate their space in a certain way, creating a particular feeling. It may not be a great idea to ask for specific items, but asking people to choose the most comfortable spot in their home, or most disconcerting or the place that gives them the best view of the outdoors could strongly impact their experience. This may actually be better than having audience members come into a space conceived by a designer in some ways: it creates a space that is more tailored to the individual audience member. A set designed by an artist to be quaint may not come across as such to everyone, but if everyone sets up their own little individual quaintness at home, it is more likely to conform to their idea of quaint. There are downsides of course, but I think it better to look at the opportunities created rather than lost.
The type of device audience members access the experience on will make a difference as well. Designing a show to be experienced on a smartphone or tablet could be different from a show created for a laptop or desktop computer. People will interact with their space differently while using different devices. This is of course assuming people have the option. It would have to be more of a “this show is best experienced on a smartphone” type of situation than a “this show is only for people with a smartphone” scenario.
This “new” medium is one that may actually simplify some things, such as the uneven distribution of information. Remember those emails mentioned earlier? What if they weren’t the same for everyone? What if they contained pieces of a puzzle that needed solving for the show to continue and people had to share what they have to figure everything out? Solving that puzzle could involve asking other things of the audience too. The puzzle may require one audience member to tell a joke, or share an embarrassing story, or in the case of a thriller or horror show, choose between two characters, one who gets to survive and one who doesn’t.
This offers new storytelling possibilities as well as gives existing possibilities that have been relegated to niche, “avant garde” shows the chance to come into the fore: audience/artist collaboration, forking storylines, split audiences and a greater mix of scripted and improvised elements have all been around for a decades if not centuries. If we as artists look at this crisis as an opportunity to innovate and connect with audiences in new ways, I believe we can come out of it with new ideas and techniques that will make us stronger as a community and as an art form than we were when we went in. We may come out of this strange and trying time better equipped to compete for audience members’s attention in this unlimited-content-at-your-fingertips world than ever before.
Eric is an actor, director and sometimes teacher. He has a BAh from the University of Winnipeg and an MA from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis. Eric sees this trying time as an opportunity for innovation, look for exciting new forms of theatre from him in the coming months.