What Is the Audience’s Role in a Performance?

POSTED 04.01.2012

This is an extract from an interview published in the latest issue of Pro Helvetica which focuses on performance:

What Is the Audience’s Role in a Performance?

For the internationally known British performance group Forced Entertainment, contact with the audience is a pivotal moment in their artistic work. They constantly re-explore the line between stage and spectators and occasionally subject the relationship between performers and their audience to a serious test. Below is a conversation with artistic director and author Tim Etchells.

Interview: Dagmar Walser

If there were a tangible contract between the performers and the audience, what in your opinion is the most important thing this contract would include?
For me the most important thing as an audience member is an openness to being there – to watching and experiencing what is actually happening. That sounds very simple, but I think for most of us, myself included, that’s hard, because you come with other things on your mind, with expectations and preoccupations and it’s very easy to get confused between what you’re looking at and what you wish you were seeing. I suppose that in some way every performance strives to create that quite fundamental contact, that contract, which is to say: We are here, you are there, and this is the moment we are engaged in together.

And as part of the stage, how do you create that engagement?
There is also some kind of effort from the performer – an effort towards being there, being in that space, being with those people who are present that evening, negotiating what is actually unfolding between you and them, and between you and the other performers on stage. As a performer, the biggest trap that you can find yourself in is being bound up in routine or in some fantasy about what you’re doing, rather than recognizing what you’re actually doing. Especially as touring performers – moving from one kind of theatre space to another, which we’ve done a lot of – it’s easy to find yourself bound up in the technical issues or concerns of yesterday’s performance rather than today’s. You really need to be there with the actual audience that is there. This focus on engagement – on presentness – is a struggle against the idea of the audience as a passive consumer of spectacle, against performance in which those watching are not implicated, not truly present. I know, this is a cruel way to think about an audience; a hungry animal that needs something to happen, bloodthirsty, eager for quick pleasures.

When I think of the performances of Forced Entertainment, I remember that the audience was often addressed directly: they were flirted with, teased, rejected and the whole time wondering what the performers were doing up there on stage. You certainly keep the audience busy…
What I am interested in is engaging people in this more fully present and attentive way, so that we can draw them into another kind of watching which is seductive and troubling, pleasurable and confronting. I think we always have to start with the basics though, this very simple notion of presentness. And then these processes of fictionalizing, flirting, lying, pretending what you speak of can take us on journeys away from the here and now. It’s as if each performance might be a process of unpacking what now could be. For all my fascination with states of presentness and transparency, I’m also gripped by the way that performers can be distant, private, incomprehensible or unknowable. This presents another interesting part of the spectator’s relationship with the stage – because to encounter performers in these more distant guises can really have us guessing and wondering. It might also have us annoyed or puzzled or bored! But what’s interesting is that these states of uncertainty or unclarity have the potential to be transformed, to become clear in a new way, to open up to another possibility on the other side.

You can read the rest of the interview and indeed the whole issue of Pro Helvetica here.