Technical days are an essential part of theatre — they involve spending hours making sure that lights, sound, projection and every other technical effect are going to be just so, just right. In simple shows like mine, the audience barely even sees all the effort that’s gone into making everything look right, but is still takes hours and hours to set up. Hours that, while the product is satisfying, are usually long and tiring.
So it was nice to have my technical day on Friday brightened up by a visit from the lovely Tinder Theatre, who have been having an R&D week in Ovalhouse. They just dropped by to play and chat, and a pleasure it was too. Turns out having an enormous bag of lego in the studio is a great facilitator of theoretical discussion, as we batted a few ideas around while constructing some handsome widgets.
The big questions we were wrestling with were about audience agency and editorial control. I’ve found this post by Hannah Nicklin really helpful for unpicking the different approaches interactive performance can take, but even the best taxonomy of course leaves open the question of what approach is useful for what purpose. Interactivity can make us more complicit, can challenge us more deeply, can help us to play and explore an idea, can provide a means of discussion — but always, in theatre, within a framework set by the artist. Hannah’s post teases apart the possibilities of physical and narrative autonomy, but what about autonomy of interpretation, autonomy of thought?
Interactivity can often by manipulative or controlling. Ritual theatre is often about taking participants on a set emotional and metaphysical journey — you could say that a religious ceremony is a kind of interactive theatre designed to bring participants to an ecstatic encounter with God. Interactivity does not always allow for critical distance, for the audience to be able to consider and reconsider what they’re participating in.
Tinder want to produce an immersive experience about Empire, but to what extent do they have to embed or accept post-colonial criticism in their show, and how much can they allow the audience to, crudely, reach their own conclusions? How can they present an immersive experience about a racist society without either recreating the structures of racism or crudely lampooning them? These same questions would face someone writing standard fourth wall theatre on the same subjects, but they’re even more potent for interactive performance, which needs to take so much responsibility for its audience.
In Class Act, I have an agenda. I have a revolutionary, Marxist understanding of the class system, and that informs what I do. How can I talk about this, how can I use this in a show, and still allow the audience space to disagree, if they need to?
The solution I’m currently working with for interactive political theatre is to be honest. In Class Act, as with This is not a riot, I try to make my own prejudices and purposes clear from the outset. My hope is that this both gives me license to present my biased take, and gives the audience license to disagree. I’m not pretending to any kind of false objectivity, not performing a spuriously neutral stance: I’m aggressively partisan, but very clear about what that’s doing to the show, the games, the conversations. I want to be angry, to be challenging, to be revolutionary, but I want you to be empowered to choose for yourself.
How well this theory all works in practise you’ll just have to come and see.
The first few days of the coming week will be all about rehearsal, and finishing of the construction of the set and props. Expect a return to the practical concerns of putting a show together!