In the Beginning
We didn’t found dog & pony dc to shake up the audience’s experience but the impulse was lying dormant in the backs of our minds—waiting to be activated like an undercover agent’s secret mission.
d&pdc began as a partnership between three artists—between me, Wyckham Avery, and Lorraine Ressegger-Slone. We had all spent the better part of a decade developing theatrical productions with students of all ages in the education departments of regional theatres, often focused on creating contemporary adaptations of classical plays. We wanted to take the collaborative processes and movement-based approaches we used with our students and apply them in a professional setting.
But even more—we were bored with theatre as it was being produced in DC. Don’t get me wrong: I love theatre. I love the DC theater community. But across the board, overall we produce and consume theatre within a traditional, established paradigm (which is to say audience, sitting in the dark, watching an imaginary world unfold in front of them). We longed to activate the audience experience and wanted increased collaboration between all the players in the theatrical production: producers, artists, and audience. In the end, we felt it would not only create stronger, more complex productions, but it would amp up the intensity and immediacy of shows in performance.
The First Few Shows
The zygote of dog & pony dc’s audience integration approach can be found in the program notes for our first production—a 90-minute adaptation of Cymbeline. The show had 7 actors alternately portraying 28 characters over the course of the night. Inspired by commedia dell’ arte traditions, we developed uniform physicalities for each character. The audience could identify who was who in any given scene based on how they moved and sounded. Wyckham’s objective: create a production that kept the audience actively engaged in the story as it unfolded on stage. If they zoned out, they would lose the action. Wyckham opened her program note declaring that Cymbeline was meant to be a challenge to artists and audience, and closed it with this sentence: “We believe the audience is super awesome and plays an integral role in every show we do.” Therein lies the spark of “audience integration.”
After Cymbeline came a live-action version of the ultra violent Punch and Judy puppet show called PUNCH—that’s the way we do it! Punch simultaneously charmed and disgusted the audience throughout the show, from involving them in chants of “Eat! Fuck! Kill!” to skipping rope with “bloody intestines” just ripped from the Doctor’s anus. The ending gesture of the show—an unmasking of the actors—landed most profoundly (and accusatorily) when the audience became whipped up in the action and play of the show. PUNCH was followed by Bare Breasted Women Sword Fighting—a vaudeville exploiting women and violence which teased and titillated audiences, and, in the end, gave them the pay-off they begged all along to see. BBWSF, like PUNCH, depended on the open engagement of performer and audience over the course of the show.
The Turning Point
What’s fascinating now is how “audience integration” lay dormant and unspoken as the primary guiding principle of our work through our first three shows. But therein lies the power of language; we just needed a term to help organize and galvanize our approach.
d&pdc officially started using the term, after working with Michael Rohd on Full Circle at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in fall of 2009. For Rohd “audience integration” was the time at which audience was introduced into the rehearsal process to test the play in production. We were drawn to the phrase because it acknowledged the integral role the audience played in the production process. And by integral I mean “super-fucking-essential” because live theatre is nothing without the audience.
At this point we were nearing the mid-way point in the development of Courage, a gypsy-punk adaptation of Mother Courage and Her Children. In devising Courage we were experimenting with contemporary expressions of Brecht’s “alienation effect.” Production meetings and the rehearsal room were teeming with talk of the role of the audience. We began tracking the audience’s experience scene by scene, continually seeking out different ways we could “activate” the audience. We tried to conscript them in the army, we took comments about the show in the middle of it, we played a game show with them, we invited them to sing, drink and mosh, and, in the end, Courage asked everyone why they didn’t stop soldiers from killing her daughter.
When it was produced, Courage was an extreme expression of our perspective on audience. The show’s premise was built on transparency: this was in fact a performance and we were not attempting to create a representation of reality. The purpose was to provoke audience thought about how each person contributes to the creation of a performance every night. We quite literally sought to create a show that the audience performs in with us, giving them “agency”—the ability and tools to involve or immerse themselves in the creation of the performance. Ideally, we would have loved to never show or indicate “this is how you can get involved, audience.” Ideally, audience members were learning from each other and we were learning from them how they wanted to be involved. Like any good scene partner, we would be giving and taking from one another throughout the night.
The results were crazy. Audience members wouldn’t leave the theatre after the show. They wanted to stand around, listen to the band and talk with the performers and one another. People came out saying they hated Bretch, but the show was fantastic: it was just so engaging and in the moment.
We realized—insert forehead smacking moment here—the projects we were drawn to were dependent on the audience’s involvement and from a project’s inception we needed to consider the role of the audience of the show in performance.
Declarative Statements of Tenants of Audience Integration
Over time audience integration has come to mean a number of things for us:
1) the role of the audience in the process of devising theatrical productions;
2) the methods employed over the course of a performance to involve the audience;
3) the point at which the audience is incorporated into the performance.
There is no theatre without the audience; the artform necessitates them. The audience is an active participant in the creation of a live event even when ignore them with a fourth wall. Audience always effects the quality of a performance, therefore live performance is inherently audience integration.
Audience integration in production is proving to be a highly elastic. On one end of the spectrum: the role of the audience is as witness. At the opposite end of the spectrum: the event doesn’t move forward without audience propulsion.
Audience integration is not the same for every show, nor should it be. Every production calls for different job performance/execution from all the artists involved—actors to designers to director—so why not the audience? As the creators of the experience, the theatrical event, it is our job to make the sandbox in which we all—performers and audience—will play come show time. (I am reminded of the term “play date” here; the audience in buying a ticket is almost making a play-date with us.)
No matter what your audience integration plan is, each individual audience member chooses how s/he wants to integrate. You must be accepting of all levels of engagement and participation. You don’t have to like them, but you do have to accept them as part of the experience.
Audience integration is not forced or manipulating. It is open, obvious, and gentle. It is woven into the narrative structure of the performance, not added on.It is comprised of a series of “invitations” to become personally involved in the action of the show. “Hard invites” are direct and pointed; if engaged in early or without building momentum toward them, they often backfire and seem imposed (and imposing). An unsuccessful hard invite during Courage consisted of performers making large and repeated “come on” gestures with their hands in attempts to get the audience to dance during a rousing rock number. The way to soften this invite was for the performers to begin dancing first, fill the space and build momentum and fun near audience members, the making eye contact as the audience started to chant with the repetitive lyrics, and smile; this all plants the idea of joining a group dance and then all the performers had to do was lightly extend a hand. Audience got up to dance. This “soft invite” is more subtle and suggestive; the soft invite provides audience agency without forcing it on them.
Audience integration is the drawing of a community into a pre-existing structure. We have a responsibility to care for the audience; going back to the play-date metaphor: the audience is coming over to our house to play so we need to have a range of toys and snacks.
Audience integration means we are never just in “performance mode.” More aptly we are in constant rehearsal mode. Shows have to be “rehearsed” with the audience and processed afterward, discoveries noted and decisions made about how to move forward at the next show. We are learning, discovering and growing shows together with our audience.
In the end, audience integration is designed to amply and personalize the audience’s experience during the live theatrical event and position them as integral members of the performance’s success.
Taking It One Step Further
After the success of Courage and further testing of audience integration in a 7-person clown show Separated at Birth (in which audience switched seats between the 13 scenes, simulating daily traffic patterns in the Metro subway system), we wanted to take this idea to its next logical step. When we began making the show that would become Beertown we knew we wanted to devise a show: 1) as a collective, from inception to production; 2) in which audience integration was a critical narrative device. Armed with the question “What does it mean to be ‘American’?” and two novels—Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, OH and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated—we got to work.
The ensemble explored concepts of small town America, exploring their unique intertwined populations, histories, as well as their geographies, maps and laws. We meditated on a number of sources: census data; podcasts from NPR’s Radiolab and This American Life; Studs Terkel interviews; WPA projects; Our Town, Rilke poetry. After sifting through ideas, a sub-team worked out a proposed narrative that involved the audience in the act of voting at a town meeting. This clicked with everyone: what could be more American than the democratic process? The audience would be provided the agency to vote. All invites created throughout the show needed to foster a sense of community, offer a stake in the decision, encourage (and reward) active participation, and empower them to take ownership. At one rehearsal an ensemble member succinctly identified “we just need to make them care.” It was true.
Beertown examines how we actively participate in the shaping of our history. History is a construct, Beertown proposes, so how do we actively participate in creating our personal and communal histories through what we choose to remember and how we choose to remember it? What objects serve as a town’s “artifacts”—carrying the collective memories its citizens forward over time and telling their story?
Through audience integration, the audience members become residents of Beertown over the course of the performance. Beertownin this way allowed audiences to participate first-hand in acts of artistic civic engagement. Beertownis started each night by dog & pony dc—act 1 is almost entirely scripted—but shaped in the end by the audience—act 2 includes stage directions like “The Mayor facilitates question and debate session around proposed artifacts (approx 7 min per object).” The audience is the voice of support or dissonance, ultimately making the final decision about the way Beertown will be remembered for the next five years. But how do you cultivate deep investment in a room of strangers about an imagined community? By weaving them into it through simple invites.
Beertown was truly an examination of how individuals navigate community: from the way the artists navigated the devising of the piece, to the Beertonians (8 characters and audience) debate and vote on what items should be go in and be removed from the town’s time capsule
Beertown’s audience integration started at home. We opened each show with a dessert potluck and encouraged audiences to bring a dessert to share. (Later many noted the thought “will my cookies be eaten?” was the moment they started to feel a sense of community). We emailed ticket buyers before the show a memo from the ombudsman’s office reviewing voting procedures . We gave everyone name tags and commemorative “Time Capsule Day” T-shirts at the door. The cast, in character, interacted pre-show with everyone authentically, casually, and softly as peers. During the show we recited the Pledge of Allegiance together (led by an audience member); we sang the town hymn together; we directly asked select members intimate questions; we invited more casual conversation at intermission. And only after all that did we reach the point in the ceremony when the floor was opened for questions and thoughts from the “town citizenry.” It was a formula that was meticulously crafted and embedded into the narrative of the show, with key elements recognizable by almost everyone who attended as standard civic-ceremony components.
After workshop, performances and numerous dress rehearsals, we knew the show primed audience members to question, debate, and vote. What we didn’t realize was the extent to which they would care, passionately, about the fate of the time capsule and its contents. We also didn’t appreciate until we entered the full run how welcoming an environment we had constructed. We followed our tenants of audience integration to the letter, and it paid off.
The two biggest compliments ensemble members fielded after the show were: 1) I hate “participatory theatre” but I loved this; 2) I could not believe I cared so much about something I knew nothing about 90minutes prior. In a Performance Impact Survey distributed via email after the show, we asked the question: Did you become invested in the decision around what was voted in and out of the time capsule?. Responses included:
- Yes, I did become invested. Almost from the beginning I felt like a native-born Beertonian with a “stake” in deciding which items went in and which items were taken out of the time capsule….I really appreciated being asked to lead the Pledge of Allegiance by Rep. Pickel-Cooper too.
- Yes, I felt very involved and passionate about the decisions. I think the arguments that the audience made were great, but it was so interesting how differing opinions can be. I’m still a little angry the gun didn’t get voted in
- The incredible power of the program was how you got the audience reflecting on what was important to each of us. When the reporter interviewed citizens about important artifacts from their past or about their future, I am sure we each asked this question of ourselves. Therefore it became a personal meditation as well as a meditation on community.
Every performance of Beertown last fall was a unique experience because of audience composition. Our challenge for the upcoming summer remount of the show and potential subsequent iterations is how to encourage debate around who is in the room at that performance—the “Beertown of the night” if you will. We think there is a subtle shift in performance that may help: perceive the audience as scene partners in a long form improv from jump, rather than as students we need to train-up to the task at hand.
So Now What?
dog & pony dc is still in the process of figuring out audience integration—from how we describe it, to why it works (and why and when it doesn’t). For now we are drawn to push the boundaries further, to test the approach’s extremes rather than explore more subtle expressions. As a ring leader for projects, I am just beginning to involve audience integration in the birthing stages of new projects: What is the area of inquiry we want to explore? What is a new way to experience theater that might naturally correspond with this area of inquiry? What is the agency we’ll provide the audience (for example, to explore creativity, divergent thinking, and the brain by devising a show in which the audience invents something)?
Audience integration keeps us on our toes as artists—curious, humble—and, hopefully, keeps more DC area theater-goers also on tip-toe—inquisitive, engaged, and in the moment.
Terminology Credits: The terms audience integration and agency, Wyckham and Rachel picked up from Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre while working with him on Full Circle at Woolly Mammoth. Rachel and Lorraine shopped hard and soft invites from Kirk Lynn of The Rude Mechs at Arena Stage's Devised Theatre Convening. Thank you gentlemen!