Isherwood on Audience Participation

While writing an essay-style rebuttal to Charles Isherwood’s recent article in The Times about audience participation in theatre, When Audiences Get In On The Act, I realized that I disagreed with too much to organize an essay. My post was overflowing. I’ll write the more responsible critique either when I’m an academic or someone pays me to write it in American Theatre Magazine.  In the meantime, I’ll post this reactionary series of points. Let me know what you think, good bad or otherwise in the comments. Hopefully, we can get a nice long list of names here and then send it to Isherwood and let him speak for himself.

1) Isherwood says, “Seeing a play is not generally considered an interactive experience.”

I say, “‘seeing a play’ must be an interactive experience by definition: it always has been and always will be. When you put LIVE performers in front of LIVE people who are in the same place at the same time, all breathing the same air, they have no choice but to interact. It is the beautiful nature of theatre, and it is the FUNDAMENTAL STRENGTH of the medium. If creators of theatre ignore this, they ignore the very essence of their occupation.”

2) Isherwood says, “Today’s youth are probably more interested than ever in participating in cultural experiences, more attuned to the idea that an aesthetic event can be — maybe even should be — a two-way street. ”

I say, “Yes, we ‘are more interested than ever in participating in cultural experiences’ and RIGHTLY SO. If we didn’t want to participate in the cultural experience, the collective experience, we would stay home and watch a film alone, on our couches. Instead we are going forth, in the snow, in the cold, in the heat, spending our hard earned money, overcoming the inertia of a solitary experience in order to spend time as part of a group, in order to feed our social hunger. Theatre must foster this need for a collective experience not just with fellow audience members but with the performers who are inviting us to share this new experience. THEATRE HAS AND ALWAYS WILL BE best positioned to give us this collective cultural experience and to allow us to participate in our culture as a group. Theatre MUST embrace this.”

3) Isherwood says, “Not content to consume entertainment passively through the traditional channels, they have been taught by Web surfing to be active agents in the cultural marketplace.”

I say, “Yes we have and RIGHTLY SO. In becoming ‘active agents in the cultural marketplace’ we have become the best possible audience for theatre. Film or tv cannot satisfy our active natures. If theatre EMBRACES these active consumers it can assume a new prominence in our social and cultural landscape.

4) Isherwood says, “I can see why people find it a novel night out, but it didn’t meet my standards for serious theater.”

I say, “Your personal standards need to be rendered irrelevant.  The critic must reposition himself in the theatrical community. He must destroy the belief that his taste corresponds to a universal standard of Good Theatre. Instead, he must help the AUDIENCE understand what IT wants to see by utilizing his writing ability to describe the show and his experience and knowledge to contextualize the show WITHOUT a value judgment. Do not tell the audience what they should and should not see. Help them decide for themselves what THEY want to see.”

5) Isherwood says, “The audience plays its proper role, sitting in rows quietly”

I say, “Show me theatre where the audience has NO ‘proper role.’ Where they laugh, cry, dance, cheer, and boo at will. Where they feel an emotional and physical connection to the performance and the freedom to express themselves. Where the actors are not performing FOR the audience but WITH the audience. The audience can ‘sit quietly’ at home. They come to the theatre to connect and to be present and to make their presence felt.”

6) Isherwood says, “If we are too conscious of our own presence in the presence of art, it can be a distraction to engagement. Think of how hard it is to connect with a beloved painting if you come upon it after too many hours in the museum, your feet sore and sticking to the floor.”

I say, “if physical discomfort provides that large of an obstacle to your engagement than stay home on your couch and rent a movie from ITunes. Let the theatre be a place where your body and mind participate in the experience together. Let the feelings of your body effect the feelings of your soul. Understand what it means to be fully present in mind and body. And do it all with a heart generous and open to the people who are sharing this time and space with you.

Let us not limit ourselves to theatre as it has been portrayed for the past 50 years on Broadway. The long history of our beloved art is riddled with shared cultural experience, active audiences, and varying tastes from the Greeks to The King’s Men to The Neo-Futurists to The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. If we give up on this, we give it all up. Let us revel in our shared space, exciting audiences new and old, with a memory for the qualities of our past and a vision for the innovations of the future.


~ by jaredran on February 21, 2008.

One Response to “Isherwood on Audience Participation”

  1. I’m with you, Jared and willing to add my name to the list. We (Geoffrey, I and a friend in the bus, Andy) were just talking about his absurd article. Why send a critic to a site-specific piece who obviously has no background or interest at all in exploring it? It is strange. And while the piece may not have been successful for him (or me, who knows), he should tell his readers what he saw, not what he wanted to see.

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