Handing Over Control / by Lenni Sanders

While coming up with ideas for our next projects, we’ve been thinking a lot about audience interaction. Particularly about how much control to hand over to the audience, and how the degree of control the audience has can affect the way a performance feels. It seems to be becoming very important to us to leave the performance open in some way: open to interpretation, and also open to input from the audience, open to change. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Symptoms + Suggestions for us was seeing how free people felt to make up characters, and make up a role for themselves in the story framework we provided.

We also recently made the decision to think of our audience members as ‘participants’ – there is a lot of power in a name. A participant immediately sounds more empowered and more creative than an audience member, more able to make narrative decisions of their own over the course of a performance. And the name ‘participant’ also holds the appealing suggestion that there is an experiment happening, in which we are all working together to find something out.

A piece I saw earlier this year featuring a heavy dose of audience autonomy was the incredible The Privileged by Jamal Harewood which I would urge everyone to see. It is a very important piece of work and I will never forget it. On his website Jamal Harewood is described as “building temporary communities through participatory events”. This is feels like a very valuable way of looking at what an audience is, or can become.

In terms of how the audience operates in The Privileged, it seems that part of what makes them a community is their agency to make decisions together that will affect the direction the piece goes in. Perhaps you need an audience of a certain size to build a community in that way: in iOrganic performances we often choose to have one participant at a time, so they don’t tend to have the opportunity to discuss amongst themselves about what to do next, outside of the influence of the performers. It’s inspiring to think about how that sense of a temporary community might be built within a very small audience.

What to call an audience, or what to think an audience is for or does together, might sound like a bit of a hypothetical thing to be discussing – but the name you have for someone can alter how you think about them for sure. I think if you think of your audience as a group of people who are of utmost importance for the performance, then it will force you to make a interesting different kind of art.

Lenni