Let’s Talk About Participation

I’ve missed shows I really wanted to see because the threat of audience participation made me so anxious. And yet, at Daedalus and elsewhere, I make participatory theatre. Is this hypocrisy?

My view of participation is that it shouldn’t be about persuading or pressuring people to do things. It should be even less about picking on people, forcing participation on them. It’s about creating an environment in which people can find their own degree of involvement as equals. This might be because you advertise the piece as participatory so they know what they’re letting themselves in for, such as Shunt, Metis or Punchdrunk. But I want to talk about performances where people come to see a show but we, the artists, want them to have not the experience of a well-made performance but also a deeper kind of engagement.

Our breakthrough in this regard at Daedalus was A Place at the Table (pictured during a performance at Amnesty International, London). This is the piece we made about the 1993 coup in Burundi and its aftermath. All the audience sat round a huge table alongside the actors. Everyone was very ‘present’, and the experience was very immediate, but essentially the audience were passive observers until what appeared to be the end. At this point, food was brought and the actors joined the audience for a causal chat. People started talking to their neighbours or just quietly enjoyed the food and the atmosphere. This was actually the second half of the show, and its true resolution. After hearing testimonies of appalling violence and heroism, and struggling through the complicated politics and history of Central Africa, a group of strangers found themselves sitting together, sharing food and talking. Some of them talked about how to escape the cycle of violence in Burundi, some just talked about their journey in. Most nights they kept talking till we had to ask them to leave!

Our current piece, Gerrard Winstanley’s True and Righteous Mobile Incitement Unit, is the same principle, but structured the other way around. We ask you to come to a tea party ahead of the show. (There’s also a shortened drop-in version for when there’s no time for a whole pre-show tea party). Here you can tell us about your experiences of protest, get us up to speed on local issues, make a placard, collaborate on protest song lyrics… or not. You can also take advantage of the free tea without doing a thing! Similarly, during the performance itself you can sing along. Or not. You can even have a little dance. Or not. You can have another cup of tea. Or not. The point is, we’re asking you to join us as an equal, with full autonomy, and be part of making the show afresh each time. Or not. It’s up to you. you can just watch.

It’s the complete opposite of old-fashioned participation, in a way. But it’s still a profoundly participatory piece. And you can test this for yourself if you come along. Sign up for the Daedalus mailing list or follow on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook to be kept up-to-date.

(This is a re-write of a piece first written for the Daedalus website.)

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