Written for The Collective Review, 3 July 2009
Audio-instructed performance may be the future of theatre, or it may not be theatre at all. It abandons the boundary between audience and performer and currently can only be experienced by very few participants at a time, but costs little to stage and can be endlessly reproduced, perhaps making it the perfect commercial performance format.
Rotozaza, the pioneers of the format, call it autoteatro. Unrehearsed, uninitiated members of the public pay to be equipped with a set of headphones that feed them prerecorded instructions. Like traditional audience members, participants have no idea what’s coming next, but like traditional cast members, they perform the play, interacting with other similarly wired members of the public.
Already companies are building on the foundations Rotozaza have laid – including Rotozaza themselves, whose Wondermart sends participants out of the theatre and into the local supermarket. Swedish practitioners Lundahl and Seitl introduce a small rehearsed ensemble to the format in Rotating in a Room of Images, demonstrating that audio-instruction can be integrated into promenade theatre and isn’t necessarily isolated from the main body of theatre practice. New company Non Zero One introduce an extra element of interactivity by allowing participants to talk back to the guide voice via the internet, in their recent production Would Like To Meet.
Perhaps theatre people are blind or naturally resistant to coldly commercial opportunities, but as of yet no one seems to have grasped the full potential of this fledgling medium.
Rotozaza’s brand of autoteatro requires a lengthy production stage with extensive beta-testing, but once the instruction tracks are complete each show can be reproduced over and over with a minimum of effort. A supervising technician is required to brief participants and be on hand in case of technical failure, but there’s no regular cast to pay and rehearse, and Wondermart doesn’t even need venue hire. What’s more, though each performance can only accept a very limited number of paying participants, productions can run continuously throughout the day, and can even overlap and take place simultaneously.
It’s surely only a matter of time before an enterprising company takes the concept to the next level: mass distribution. Marrying audio-instructed performance with a popular audio purchasing platform like iTunes could spawn a theatrical equivalent to renting a DVD. You and a friend each download an audio file, sync with your mp3 players, press play at the same time and enjoy the experience you end up playing out. Productions could be designed for performance in the home or secretly in restaurants or cinemas, and tailored for occasions such as dates or dinner parties. The result could fall somewhere between a murder mystery evening and a film, without the rehearsal necessary for the former or the passivity associated with the latter.
Besides being potentially financially lucrative, such an initiative could achieve what theatre has dreamed of for much of its modern life: a nationwide audience. If and when it does, I’m taking all the credit.