Since I began choreographing and directing performance work in the late 80s, I have been interested in physically involved audience members in interactive performances, where audience choices have the capacity to affect their own experience and where the experience of the work is visceral, involving a grossly participating body. This brings up two aspects of the performer experience of a work: agency and embodiment. I believe these are interrelated, but not the same by any means. I want to share here some informal thoughts on agency in interactive performance. I think this is a very important thing to be thinking about now, as we have been seeing such growing interest in participation in performance in the last decade or so.
In my own work, I use the following rough taxonomy of degree of agency in performance. By degree of agency, I mean a spectrum of audience ability to affect their own experience and modes of choices that the audience has available within the frame of the piece for participating in a meaningful feedback with performers that affects in gross or subtle ways the trajectory of further events or choices. As all of my working ideas, this taxonomy is not meant to be definitive or complete… just a sometimes useful model. I’ll name 5 degrees of agency in theater work and performance…
- Proscenium – the classic proscenium performance frame
- Treatment – passive audience receiving choreographed physical treatment
- Tight Interplay – active audience being offered choreographed frames of interaction
- Open Interplay – active audience members being offered open ended interaction that can change in character based on the choices of the audience
- Open Communal Interplay – audience members interacting with each other in a framework established by and facilitated by performers establishing a culture of interaction
In the Proscenium performance, the audience is physically isolated from the actions of the performers on stage, usually in the dark, minimizing incidental interactions between performer and audience. The audience is relatively passive in outward display but active in internal actions of emotional and intellectual response. Physical agency exists but is limited to shifts in posture, breath, direction of gaze and focal point, and body use within the confines of the seat, usually not touching neighbors, unless an intimate. Agency is primarily “internal”, affected by their limited physical but self-affective actions and the actions of the performers, lighting, and the stage. Describing agency as primarily internal is not intended to minimize it. The process of reflection and reaction, as well as the subtle choices of the body shape the experience and often are far ranging in scope of variation.
The next stage of agency, Treatment, moves into what we would start to call interactive performance; passive audience members receive choreographed treatment. The degree of agency is similar to the proscenium stage, complicated by the uncontrolled responsiveness of the body to treatment. The audience is still requested to remain relatively receptive, but the small actions of the audience become vitally important in feedback with the performer… the audience co-creates with the performer their experience via physical negotiation of treatment. An example of this degree of agency would be Felix Ruckert’s The Ring, in which seated audience members receive massage and other physical treatments from performers. Outward “demonstrated behavior” is present but minimized, allowing the performers to repeat on a gross level a sequence of actions each night. There is in this sense, still an “it” that is repeated on the level of gross action and material event.
The difference in terms of agency comes via a more direct presence of the audience’s body in the material actions of the performers. Performers read audience members and adjust the details of treatment. Audience’s actions and reactions in reception of treatment shape their experience of the treatment. Audiences perform their reactions to an affected performer. This bringing of body more materially into dialogue with performers creates an entirely new kind of experience of embodiment of the performance process. The audience is quite constrained in action and mostly removed from gross level interactive feedback with performer.
The next level of agency, Tight Interplay, comes with audience members being given more leeway for demonstrated behavior within a controlled frame. An audience member is asked, challenged, or required to make choices about gross level physical behavior or speech, engaging with the actions of the performer in a dialogue. A talented performer will, in this context be able to strongly steer the interaction into a repeatable field of actions and emotional textures of engagement, but material complicity of the audience is vital and can direct the experience into very different territories. In a way, freedom of response exists, but in the end responses are constrained by the actions of the performer to follow a specific channel that is more or less narrow. As a classic example, here, I would cite Enrique Vargas’s “labyrinth” form of interactive theater. Audience members walk through a sequence of rooms, one at a time, for one on one interactions with performers. The performers are in character and create scenes with audience members around specific themes. Audience members have a lot agency in their response to the performers, being able to engage in live improvisation of material content, yet their responses are constrained by the logic of the performers holding onto the plot, and by the required forward motion from room to room.
A greater degree of agency comes when the end is materially unknown and undirected by the performers: Open Interplay. The audience creates, in conjunction with the performer, the material content in a way that is less deliberately constrained by the performance or performance score. Here, I would cite Felix Ruckert’s Secret Service. While explicitly exploring power dynamics in a context where the audience member is blindfolded and often bound, it is through consensual negotiation, and the performer and audience member establish jointly through proposition, trust, and denial of trust the course of events. As they say in BDSM circles, the top is the bottom and the bottom is the top. The audience is in control of their experience of power dynamics.
In looking at Vargas’s work, one can actually see that how one describes a piece in terms of agency has much to do with the scale… while in one of the labyrinth rooms, an audience member has a wide range of agency – open interplay – but is constrained in the context of being refocused on the plot or theme of the event and keeping to the container of transitions from room to room – tight interplay. Similarly, Ruckert’s Secret Service can be seen as like one room in a Teatro de los Sentidos labyrinth, with the arc and end preestablished by the 20 minute frame. The important point is not really about the objective scale of agency, but a tracking of kinds of agency and framing or control within the scale that you examine the work.
A further degree of agency comes with audience-audience interaction, where audience members are free to feed off of each other to create content: Open Communal Interplay. In this context, performers participate in the interaction directly or indirectly. My piece, Axolotl, works with this level of agency. In this piece, the audience is blindfolded for 2 hours and are sent into a large convoluted space to explore themselves, the space, and encounter with each other. The bulk of audience interactions are generally with each other. In communal interplay, audience members have enormous control over material content. What makes it a performance, then? Much performance in Axolotl is “indirect”. Performers perform interactively with groups, sparking and channeling interactions, directing and redirecting flows of people through the space to create (or avoid) individual audience-audience encounters. Performers frame and invite the event, establish the space, starting with how the event is communicated through fliers and conversation. This is already part of the performance. Performers set an atmosphere of interactions, interact with some audience members and affect their thoughts, actions, moods, intent as they then go out to interact with others. Performers perform to other audience members through such ‘preparation’ of specific audience members through direct interaction. Obviously this is collaboration and so not solely the responsibility of the performers, but it is at least partially their responsibility. Performers shape and canalize audience interactions. Although one audience member’s most important experience might be with another audience member, one could at least theoretically track back and evaluate how the performers either positively or negatively affected the event’s occurrence and subsequent processing and framing. Performers interact with one audience member, for example through drawing them into an emotionally charged conversation. Other audience members in the space are affected when they bump into that emotionally vulnerable audience member. The audience might not even recognize that they are interacting with a performer or may not even recognize the existence of the performers. The performers however act in ways to influence the experience of the audience. It is the performer intent and affect that makes it performance.
Audience agency, here is of another order. In the end, the audience is still simply reacting bodies and selves in an environment, but the intent of those interacted with is of the same hierarchical order within the logic of the piece. Canalization of personal action by the performance frame is lighter in comparison to the degree of potential personal input from other audience members.
Interaction at this level challenges some people’s notion of theater and performance. There is an audience that comes to observe, but observation involves action and interaction. That which is observed is a product of active choices made and is as much about what the audience members bring with them (in mind and body) as it is about what the performers or other audience members bring. Performers aim to affect the experience of the audience; although some of the media are conventional (spoken word, music, observed action), others are not – performing for touch, performing to an audience member through another audience member by steering interactions. Performing for touch creates a potentially intimate and penetrating interaction … the feeling of the surface of skins and the intrinsically interactive senses of proprioception and kinesthesia. The whole notion of “performed” dance takes on a radically new meaning as the dance is perhaps not just for the audience’s eyes on the dancers body, but for the skin and touch of the audience or even for the muscle and bones of the audience via their own kinesthetic experience of movement.
The potential absorption of the audience in their own process also challenges preconceptions of theater as a distanced experience of reflecting on the action of others. In Peter Brook’s research (via Conference of the Birds) into that which is essential and particular to theater, after stripping away everything he could, he found that the essentials consisted of simply two people…a performer and an audience member, where the performer is acting with an intent to affect the experience of the audience and the audience takes in and reacts to the actions of the performer. In this sense, the audience member does not even need to be aware of the existence of performance for it to be a performance. Augusto Boal, in his Invisible Theater, explicitly hides the performative character of the actors’ actions in order to facilitate greater ownership of agency and will around political issues. The audience has been affected without realizing it, provoked into practicing the exercise of agency. The lack of awareness of cause does not negate the effect’s existence.
A critique of interactive performance as performance is the lack of “control” exemplified by the lack of repeated events. Such events, repeated in each performance, make the discussion of the performance a simpler thing, given a material occurrence on which to hang one’s analysis. Their lack makes some critics claim that there is no performance, but just a “happening”. In the context of my own works that contain open communal interplay, I sometimes refer to the culture of the performers as that which is repeatedly offered from one night to the next, what makes it the thing that it is. We share a culture of investigation and instigation, rather than a repeated schedule of material events..
This taxonomy is tentative, a beginning of a discussion of how interactive performance expands agency in performance. There are other dimensions to look at. How much agency does an audience have when dropped together without instruction into an empty room? They may potentially be able to do anything, yet be bound by social convention and confusion into quite superficial and predictable interactions. At the same time, an audience member walking through a Vargas labyrinth might be given provocations of gesture and atmosphere that throw them out of the cage of their ordinary self and imagination into a magic realm of great meaning, depth, and unpredictability (in the sense of sensitivity to important subtle details of experience). Even further, with particularly sensitive performers acting in a conventional proscenium framed play, performers tune into and are affected by subtle shifts of posture in the audience, audience members’ breathing patterns and posture affect each other and the performers, and the evening takes on characteristics of a group improvisation amongst performers and audience through mutual resonance. Arguably, there is no such thing as non-interactive performance, and we can only talk about more or less agency on different channels, and even here it still will be specific to specific audience members.
These degrees of agency are not meant to imply a spectra from bad to good or increasing degrees of meaning in performance. One can have a proscenium piece that has profound effects on an audience member and where the audience member exercises their agency within the constraints of the proscenium context to create a powerful experience. At the same time, one can have a wildly open non-frame in which audience members are given wide ranging agency but no material or support for creating a meaningful experience beyond the meaning of any other moment in life, or perhaps even less than daily life. Physical action does not necessarily equate with agency, and agency does not equate with meaning, though there may be complex, context specific relations amongst them.
It is also not meant to imply that the increase of framed agency is some sort of decrease of oppressive control. I do not share the view of some that the proscenium experience is inherently an act of violence and oppression through a removal of freedom. I find such claims hyperbolic and unappreciative of the consensual act of coming to the performance, the service of providing a frame of action and experience, which is a proscenium performance. The actor is, generally speaking, an employee of the audience member, supplying their services for a fee. It is a consensual exchange. Further a tightly constrained experience may generate a capacity for new choices that the default world does not allow and thus, produce a greater sense of agency.
My personal concern in the investigation of agency in performance does not arise out of a need to categorically attack the proscenium frame. Instead it comes on the one hand from recognizing the potential for a myriad other underexplored frames for performance encounter and on the other from understanding that a particular malaise of the modern media era is the surrender of outward agency in the world and a too ready acceptance of the passive receptive role, combined with a conformist tendency to self-police our own thoughts. I do believe that interactive performance work has the potential to facilitate people’s agency in their own lives and their greater participation in society. I do not think it does so categorically, but it carries the potential.
 Ruckert has stated that this repeatability of something is important to him in his work and is a point that he stresses in applications for funding to administrators for whom the idea of interaction in performance represents a destabilizing paradigm shift. This idea of some action which is repeated is something that funders can “latch onto” in order to understand the event as performance work. (from personal conversation with Felix Ruckert, 2006)