Redefining the audience

Written for Angalossy, 27 April 2010

The audience is undergoing a redefinition.  Passively spectating and listening isn’t enough for them – for us – any more.  Not content with consuming culture, we’re eager to get involved with it ourselves – and artists, producers and content creators are increasingly willing to give us their blessing.

On television, that’s partially because our participation can be translated directly into revenue, via premium rate phone lines.  TV phone-ins aren’t exactly a recent innovation, but since Big Brother first aired in the UK a decade ago they’ve become all but ubiquitous.

No modern televised talent contest can be judged solely by a panel of experts; their judgements have to be sanctioned by the audience at home.  No matter how expertly informed their opinions are, ours are valued more highly.  Often one or more of the studio judges will be presented as a pantomime villain the audience can thwart by voting to overturn their “harsh” or “unfair” pronouncements.

The phone vote format is common on TV because it makes production companies lots of money; that’s no big secret.  But it’s such a successful money-spinner partly because it harnesses our generation’s deep-seated distrust of authority.  Years of unpopular political leadership in the UK – leadership, crucially, that’s been seen to repeatedly ignore the electorate’s will – have instilled in us a perception that we know better than those in power.

We knew better than Blair whether we should have invaded Iraq; we know better than Brown how to tackle climate change; by extension, we know better than Andrew Lloyd Webber who to cast as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Never mind that he’s one of the UK’s most successful theatre producers – we’ll show that authoritarian bastard who knows best!

Meanwhile on the silver screen, James Cameron wants audiences to immerse themselves in, rather than merely to observe, the 3D otherworld of Avatar and its inevitable sequels.  The box office figures for Avatar, and now Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, prove that 3D films make big bucks for the studios, which helps sustain this new immersive-3D trend; and that’s partly because we’re seduced by Cameron’s spiel.

There’s an element of escapism to any action film, but with Avatar Cameron promised total immersion in an alien world:  a chance to temporarily swap our economically and ecologically decaying planet for a verdant and plentiful one.  We bought into it even after realising the film was thunderingly morally ham-handed – because wouldn’t life be simpler if good and evil really were so easily distinguishable?

Neither television nor film, however, is redefining the audience’s role to the same extent as the theatre.

Thanks in part to gushing critical endorsement, immersive and participatory theatre companies like Punchdrunk – who often allow the audience to explore the venue, interact with performers and decode the story for themselves – are being embraced, cautiously but increasingly tightly, by the mainstream.  Then there are companies like Rotozaza, whose “autoteatro” works involve no rehearsed performers at all, only members of the public being fed lines and other instructions via headphones.

Autoteatro is still a fringe pursuit, but it’s gaining momentum as practitioners test the limits of the form.  It taps into the same anti-authoritarian attitude as phone-poll TV and the same escapist urge as 3D cinema:  we get to perform in the production ourselves instead of relying on supposed professionals, and to physically inhabit a character instead of merely watching one on the stage or screen.

Yet however inclusive it feels to participants, the usually tiny capacity of the performances makes autoteatro, to some extent, an exclusionist artform.  Likewise, it feels empowering to take part in the performance instead of silently observing – but your every action is dictated by instructions fed through your headphones, so that empowerment is an illusion, just like James Cameron’s sumptuous but insubstantial 3D moonscape.

This growing desire to transcend our conventional spectatorial role is born when our urge to act meets our tendency towards apathy.  It’s reassuring to know that, as a generation, we still possess that urge – to improve the world rather than merely cataloguing its many flaws – to the extent that we seek out culture capable of satisfying it; but it’s disheartening to know that we’d rather allow others to harness that urge in the service of their shareholders than harness it ourselves in the service of positive change.

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