A History of Interactive Theatre

Without an audience to view a performance, theatre exists in a void. In this sense, even if the level of audience participation is limited to applause – or the lack of it – theatre has always been interactive. Throughout history, interaction between performers and audience has remained intrinsic to the art. Only the level of participation has changed.

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Early forms of theatre were entirely participatory. Tribal rituals formed the basis of modern day theatre. These rites of harvest, gods, marriage, and war were dependent upon interacting with their audience. History’s first recorded plays date to the fourth and fifth century Greeks. Greek audiences were vocal, even resorting to throwing stones to demonstrate their disapproval of a performance. Staffbearers were employed to keep the audience under control. The Romans followed, creating amphitheatres which increased the physical separation between audiences and the spectacles they flocked to observe, but audiences remained highly vocal and involved.

In Asia, the development of theatre followed much the same path, with audiences demanding alternate presentations if performances were found lacking. One difference is striking, however. In Japan, where theatrical productions began with all day festivals and temple plays, the performances spilled into the streets. The evolution of street performers would bring interactive theatre to new levels.

Physical design has always played a crucial role in the level of interaction with audiences. As Christianity spread in the Middle Ages, established, nonsectarian theatre gave way to productions sponsored by the Church. In an effort to proselytize the masses, “pageant wagons” took to the road, performing biblical scenes throughout Europe. The Elizabethans returned theatre to a more permanent physical setting. Shakespearean audiences were loud, rowdy, and often talked back to the actors.

During the Restoration, theatres were redesigned to deposit on to the ruling class. Audiences attended the theatre as much as to prove their own prestige as to view performances. Houselights remained on during performances. Centuries later, composer Richard Wagner revolutionized the theatre by placing the audience in darkness during performances to focus the attention upon the performance. This created a sense of a “fourth wall,” an invisible barrier between the audience and the performance. As theatre evolved into more realistic productions, audiences began to sense their role was to “witness” performances, not to partake in them.

In the twentieth century, this trend reversed. In the 1934 play, “Night of January 16th,” audience members were picked to act as a jury. The ending of the play depended upon their verdict. During the counter-culture of the 1960s, artists began to question all aspects of traditional theatre. Performance art took theatre to the streets again, as well as featuring site-specific productions, such as warehouses, bus stations, and markets. Performers began to use theatre as a form of cultural activism, most notably Augusto Boal, who in the 1980s used audience reaction to gauge what legislation was needed to further the needs of Brazilians.

Improvisational theatre depends upon interaction, calling upon suggestions and directions from the audience, then creating improvised comedy based on those suggestions. Interaction is also crucial in performances where audiences are provoked to consider social issues. Advocates against bullying may actively insult an audience member. Activists against rape may make sexual statements to an audience member. Provoking a personal response and prompting new perspectives are essential to these productions.

Modern day interactive theatre continues to expand in diversity and scope. In “Masque of the Red Death,” audiences are encouraged to explore the theatre space, opening drawers, looking in cupboards. In “Six Women Standing in Front of a White Wall,” the audience is invited to touch six female actors. When touched, the women respond joyfully. When the touch is withdrawn, the actors wilt and silently scream.

Recently, critics have begun to complain of too much interactive theatre, protesting being “forced” to participate. It may be that the tide of audience participation is about to turn yet again.