Performing and performative arts The Problem of Participation

“Situation Rooms” by Rimini Protokoll
“Situation Rooms” by Rimini Protokoll | © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann

In the performing arts, “participation” has become a veritable magic word. For many theatre-makers, to free the audience from the darkness of the stalls includes the utopian promise of a just society in which everyone has a share. But in this it is often forgotten that theatre differs from other cultural practices.

From inclusion projects with disabled people or immigrants, from discussion events to entire conferences, theatre up and down the country wants to do justice to its educational mission by attempting to open itself to different audiences. Many theatres have expanded the palette of their programmes beyond traditional performances and see participation as a proven means of lowering the barriers to access cultural institutions. If we understand participation in the theatre in this sense, as a means of social participation, we would probably find theatre-makers and audience in ready agreement with one another. As for the artistic success of such projects, this can be decided only specifically in each individual case.

Things are more difficult with artistic projects that do not situate themselves primarily at the interface with social projects. In this stricter sense of aesthetic practices, participation serves as a legitimation for the political relevance of art that is supposedly distinguished by the fact that it brings people to do something together. Behind this idea is a whole series of oppositions that implicitly divides theatre into good and bad. Bad theatre makes the viewer passive; it individualizes him by leading him to believe in an illusionistic phantasmagoria that he should accept as true. Good theatre, on the other hand, abolishes the illusion and anchors the viewer in the here and now of a shared theatre situation, which gives him the power to act.

To activate the audience, therefore, means to abolish it as an audience and to establish it as actor, whereby the postulated efficacy of action must presuppose that action within the framework of the theatre has a direct impact on social action. Yet this premise is already questionable because theatre as an art form is always action with reduced consequences that includes a playful, doing as if, moment. Therein lies the freedom of art: to try things out which, although they are actions, are not actions with real social effects and fortunately never need become such. Theatre as a specific form of speech and action puts all relations in abeyance. It is precisely in this that theatre differs from activism, social education, therapy and politics, even if theatre can of course be splendidly playful and transgress borders in its theatrical moments. Instead of simply ignoring and obscuring these differences from other forms of social and cultural practice with the slogan of participation, participatory theatre projects especially should take these differences seriously in order to play with them and make them fruitful. It must also be part of their aim to take the audience seriously.

Viewing as an activity

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière is perhaps the most prominent thinker to speak out against the idea that viewing in the theatre is damned to passivity. According to Rancière, theatre rests on the equality of all parties. Audience, actors and artists meet on the basis of the production, which neither the makers nor the viewers alone can control. The production opens a third space, which arises alongside the space of the stage and the audience area. In the confrontation with the production, the viewer too is an active part of the performance. Whether he can be this depends not upon whether the forestage is abolished and the fourth wall broken through, but rather upon the nature of the production. How far does the manner of staging leave the audience the scope for its own associations, images and perceptions? How far does it bring the intelligence and knowledge of the individual viewer into play? Or does the production instead prescribe the audience what it should see and even learn? The emancipation of the viewer lies in the freedom to inject themselves in imagination and memory into the production, and this not only in participative projects but also and especially when they are sitting in the dark.

The audience cannot be abolished in theatre

That the audience today is felt by many theatre-makers and choreographers to be problem because of its purported passivity has led to the belief that the audience in theatre can be abolished and everyone turned equally into actors. In justification of this idea its proponents usually cite Bertolt Brecht’s conception of the “learning” or “teaching” play. The learning play knows only actors, who learn in performing. But the plays that Brecht designed proceed in the manner that there are always actors who view the other actors in action. The learning play only fetches the audience on stage, without eliminating its structural position in the theatre. In the alternation of roles there emerge local viewing positions for groups of actors, which at the same time always make the common action a presentation of action that can be observed in the situation itself.

Even the happenings of the 1960s, which, as Susan Sonntag already noted in 1964, sacrificed the audience, did not do so primarily by campaigning against the audience. Allowing an openly distributed and often freely chosen positioning of the audience in the performance space, happenings induced a physical closeness to the events that brought about a different kind of perception. The sensory perception made possible by happenings and performances did not arise by having the audience suddenly surrender its attitude of reception. On the contrary, the sensuous presence of the performance put the audience in the position to observe itself in the process of perception.

The question of power

Another fallacy is connected with the mistaken belief that theatre could exist without an audience: participation promises equality. But equality is not easy to achieve even in an open performance situation. In the end there is always a group of artists who have devised the situation and laid down the rules of the game, which the audience is supposed to follow. Even in participatory formats, communication is guided communication. Thus a power relation is ineluctably established between the artistic team and the audience. At some point in the course of the performance, many productions, as for instance Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms, playfully lay bare the system of control and so the power relations. If these relations remain veiled, the ethical promise of participation degenerates into an obscene gesture of power. The audience is manipulated.

The dual address of speech

Theatre is not a tea party. Speaking and dancing on a stage differ from an everyday conversation precisely because they take place on an open or closed stage that has a history. In theatre the language of the actor and the dancer is directed in a dual manner. On the hand it is addressed of course to the present audience. On the other hand those present are always place-holders for a universal that goes beyond the individuality of each individual member of the audience. This universal is represented by the form of language or the language of movement, through whose manner of creation that is articulated which cannot be simply present. The gods, who had withdrawn to the exit of Greek tragedy, are still present on stage in absentia because the speech and dancing on stage always maintains a link to an absent presence – the sacred or the social – that cannot be represented as itself.

Theatre will never take place solely here and now

Action produces situations. Situations are formed and developed in the here and now of the performance situation. This statement of the goal of a performance aims solely at the present of action, thus reducing the temporality of theatre to that of pure presence. But the present, as the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl already knew at the beginning of the twentieth century, is never merely present. It is shot through with the past and the future, without which we would never have anything that is present. The unfolding of the the present in various times makes the retention of the here and now into a form of representation of the present; strictly speaking, the present as such cannot be experienced and does not even exist. Often effects and thoughts occur to us only after the end of a performance, or reflections become fruitful only once the performance is long past. Conversely, every performance plays with the memory of social material and so also with the memory of the audience and its ability to imagine things. Both modes bring about cracks in the present. The present unfolds, becomes spatial, without allowing itself to be narrowed down to a “now” point. Our shared time in the theatre therefore is always also a divided time: an exchange of various non-synchronized times.

Thus, instead of glorifying participation as a panacea for social deficits, artists and audience alike should ask why and in what form they need participation in its emphatic sense. Because for the most part only those participate in theatre who have always participated in society, which makes participation more of a fig leaf than an actual engagement. If you really need it, it can be fun, without becoming obscene. But in a time when the imperative of the present moment is brought ever more urgently to our attention by digital media, it is rather a little distance in the situation that is needed in order to link up again freshly and differently with ourselves and others. Hence theatre at a distance: at a distance that allows each member of the audience to unfold his or her own ideas and memories, and is not consumed in the shared here and now of the created situation and its constraints.