Thinking Through Audience Participation Via Charles Campbell’s “Interview the Artist” and Other Works–Billy Mullaney

simon says

Over the past year, Charles Campbell has been doing this thing, and it’s really important to me because it’s something I hate. Or rather, it’s something I used to hate–or better still something I used to hate indiscriminately. But after seeing a few of Charles’ proposals in the past year–including “Interview the Artist” at the BLB–he’s got me thinking about what audience participation can do, how it works and what it asks–not just from volunteers, but from the rest of the seated spectators. I will use this response as a way to think through this mechanic and propose an aesthetic agenda behind it.

More than any other opening line–more than “Nothing to be done”, “Who’s there?” or “Marley was dead”, no single phrase produced more tension, fear and loathing in me than:

“Before we start I need a couple volunteers from the audience”.

The words always hit my ears provoking the question of “Why?”–initially framed “WHY GOD WHY??” before the more critical justification kicks in: Why bring audience members up onstage? What does audience participation accomplish that improves upon an actor performing the same behaviors? How do audience volunteers prompt us to watch the piece differently?

Charles has given us a lot to chew on in the past year along this line of inquiry. In addition to his performance at the BLB, he uttered the phrase in two recent pieces: One at Monday Live Arts (god rest its soul) in August 2013, which cold-started by asking a few volunteers to help him move a table into place before surprising them with further instructions to perform for the rest of the piece, and a brilliant performance at Laura Holway and Ben McGinley’s Small Art in September ‘13, which Holway later copy+pasted in its entirety to great effect into her Small Dance tour spanning mid-Feb to mid-March this year.

Charles directly referenced this latter piece in his introduction to the BLB effort, linking it serially, so I won’t feel too bad for heavily referencing it myself by way of comparison. This performance took place in Laura and Ben’s apartment, where he selected an audience volunteer (he told me afterwards that he tried his best to pick a non-performer) for a faux “job interview”–the “job” was performing in the piece. Sitting in the center of the living room, they faced each other as he asked her a battery of questions from a clipboard. I’ve seen Charles work a lot with reading text directly from a page (or paper towel dispenser) and deploying this tactic was particularly effective in zeroing the audience’s attention on the volunteer’s responses.

The questions jumped from clinically utilitarian (where do you live? are you healthy? how do you make a living?) to eyebrow-raisingly poetic (are you clean? how do you make living worthwhile? what was there before your house/apartment was built?) to the political (what should we as a country do about the situation in Syria? Who is your representative in the US house?) to the standardized (which of these shapes is a triangle?) ending with a slew of questions about the volunteer’s future death–to what age do you expect to live? When you die will there be someone with you? Will you notice their presence or will it be as if you were alone? This ultimately segued into a collective silence–“dying together”.

Charles’ piece for Art/Road/Movie referenced this performance by way of introducing the conceit: Instead of Charles interviewing an audience volunteer, he would enlist two volunteers to eponymously interview him. After beckoning two willing participants to chairs on opposite sides of the stage (cheating out towards the audience), Charles gave them scripts to read into microphones. Charles sat between them but far upstage, and would look at whichever volunteer was speaking. After the first minute of volunteers reading the script, it became clear that Charles was never going to speak or even be asked a direct question, as the script had the volunteers talk only to each other–about Charles’ intentions in creating the piece.

Before I go on, it’s already clear I need to more narrowly define the scope of “audience participation” for the purposes of this response. Obviously simply sitting and watching counts as “participation” in the theatrical space as an “audience”–by their presence and spectatorship audiences are by definition participating. But beyond this tautology, there exists a whole range of approaches to “participation” that have risen in the past century: “Participatory art”, “social practice”, “relational aesthetics”, Debordian “situations”, etc. [1]

Charles is working with a more familiar theatrical mechanism I call “Audie-P”; nearly always initiated by the beckoning of one or a few volunteers by the performer/s onto the stage. To start, I’ll define Audie-P by what it is not:

What separates Audie-P from the other brands of “participation” I mentioned is the absence of a kind of inclusionary agenda aimed at granting the social audience “agency”. These other performance practices legitimize theater by creating (for lack of a better term) situations where the audience is not “merely” looking, it is acting. This mode of participation rests on an assumed equivalence, as Ranciere would have it, of seeing and passivity, and seeks to move the participating audience from a place of passive to active engagement, breaking down the divide between actor and audience.

By contrast, Audie-P keeps most of the audience in their positions as spectators–Charles called only two volunteers to the stage for his BLB piece, and just one for his Small Art effort. And even those “participants” were still distinguished along a clear actor/audience divide. Obviously the primary focus is not the volunteer’s experience, but the seated audience’s experience as they watch the volunteer onstage [2]. Indeed this shows how Audie-P does not accept the equivalence of spectatorship and passivity, but complicates the activity of watching by incorporating an audience volunteer.

Audie-P is also not the promenade, the immersive or the environmental theater. These forms of participation are closer to Audie-P in that the focus is on an aesthetic experience more than a social or relational practice, and distinguishes roles of actors and audience [3]. However, effectively every audience member is “called onstage”, bestowing a different kind of agency, one which “allows” the audience to move through an immersive world, constructing their own individual compositional frames around elements they move toward or interact with.

Again by contrast, Audie-P is invested in maintaining the conventional compositional frame of the stage [4]. The minimum number of volunteers are called up, and the agenda behind their enlistment is not to give them the opportunity to interact with the piece from a new vantage point, but to use the volunteers as a compositional element within the piece for the rest of the audience–as much as any other compositional element, such as the performers, an architectural feature of the stage, an object, the color blue, etc. What makes audience volunteers particularly interesting and complicated compositional elements is that they come with a big conceptual payload.

The focal point of an audience volunteer is in their reaction to tasks or conditions imposed on them by the artist. Like bringing a baby and/or an animal onstage [5], an audience volunteer is understood by the audience to be the least scripted, most unpredictable element in the field of view. Even more than improv theater, which holds a deeply entrenched system of conventions by its practitioners, an audience volunteer is capable of a wide range of responses, which will be interpreted fundamentally differently than an actor performing the same behaviors. We compare their behavior onstage against conventional social behaviors, rather than the rehearsed and trained modes of performance to which we hold actors.

It follows then that communicating to the rest of the audience that a volunteer is indeed an unrehearsed performer, is at least equally important as what the volunteer actually does onstage: This determines to what set of behaviors the volunteer is held. Put another way, everything gained by a volunteer’s contribution is lost if the audience doesn’t know (or believe) they aren’t part of the show.

Thus a crucial part of Audie-P is the method by which volunteers are beckoned onto the stage. “Before we start I need a couple volunteers from the audience”, cringeworthy though it may be, classically initiates Audie-P by indicating a random volunteer will be selected. Both of Charles’ pieces began in this manner, and though the most cynical audience members can’t be 100% convinced the selected volunteer isn’t a shill, we as an audience at least get the sense that we had the opportunity as well to be up there–even if we didn’t make an effort to be selected. The beckoning mechanism sets up a bond of identification between the audience and the volunteer: This could have been me.

I’ve seen some interesting variations on beckoning volunteers, usually to the end of surreptitiously luring participants to the vulnerable space of performance–ways which single out the more gung-ho audience members. Charles’ own Monday Live Arts performance I mentioned earlier beckoned three volunteers to perform who initially self-selected by eagerly helping Charles move furniture. In January’s installment of 9×22 this year, Mad King Thomas brilliantly cherry-picked audience members who were invited onstage for free cake, positioning some in tableau: The audience were never told that cake = participation, but it was clear as soon as they entered the compositional frame that they were fair game. Cake in hand, nobody was complaining.

Once properly beckoned, the rest of the audience knows to scan the behavior of volunteers for their response to what happens onstage. However, it would be wrong to say that Audie-P volunteers will show us Capital-T Truth, Capital-H Honesty, or something Capital-R Real (in contrast to the Artificial performers). Spontaneously putting audience members onstage doesn’t make us see “how people behave”, instead we see “how people behave when they’re spontaneously put onstage”, in front of an audience on a small playing space with a bunch of weird people in costumes and makeup. The obvious analogy here is “Reality” TV only providing the “reality” of a heavily-mediated, constantly-filmed group of handpicked subjects in closed environments. [6]

I don’t bring this up as a failing of Audie-P–in fact I don’t think slice-of-life Reality is on Audie-P’s agenda at all. I’ve seen pieces where the director deploys Audie-P with Reality as its goal, which inevitably skid to a halt against the friction of such an obviously Artificial space. But even then the result is exciting–the failure to capture Reality tells us a lot about the space of performance, the craft of acting and what theatrical convention is made of.

Rather than reality, I propose an audience volunteer’s behavior provides “possibility space”, a term I am stealing directly from video game designer and critic Ian Bogost. He defines possibility space as “all of the gestures made possible by a set of rules”. Conventional scripted theater has a relatively narrow possibility space. Audie-P combines the raw openness of an audience volunteer’s possibility space–delineated by what rules of engagement the artist sets up for the volunteer–with the identification mechanism, prompting the audience to intensely think through the volunteer’s actions onstage: “This could have been me” follows naturally into “What would I have done?” [7]

There are plenty of different ways to get an audience to think about x: A character can tell a story about x. A character can ask another character to think about x. X can happen to a character. X can be a theme around which a play is constructed. Several characters can enact a play-within-a-play about x. A character can directly address the audience and tell them explicitly to “think about x”. Audie-P’s structure short-circuits the theatrical transmission, prompting the audience to identify with tasks asked of their representative in an oddly narcissistic way; exploring the possibility space by comparing what the volunteer did with what they themselves would have done. This exploration is necessarily prompted by an anxiety [8] that the volunteer could have been any audience member.

The structure of Charles’ first piece, the one-on-one interview, uses this cocktail of structural mechanics brilliantly. Beginning by beckoning an audience member to the center of the performance space, we immediately identify with the solo volunteer–ideally a non-performer, since expressing comfort onstage or presentational delivery would distance the rest of the audience. By simply reading from a sheet of paper, Charles limits his own possibility space to text on the page, and his neutral delivery places the audience’s focus squarely on the volunteer. The often open-ended questions increase the volunteer’s range of possibilities, and we as an audience answer every single question ourselves right along with the volunteer. [9]

The deviation between the volunteer’s responses and our own mental ones create a fascinating open-ended series. Sometimes the differences are biographic (“where do you live?” “what is your birthday?”) or ideological (“what should we as a country do about the situation in Darfur?” “who would you tell first that you are going to die?”), but in every instance we are prompted to think through our own experience and answer the question, observe the volunteer’s response, and then consider the space between the two responses–thereby marking two points on a range of potential responses: The possibility space activated by the piece.

The range of the possibility space encompasses not just what they answer but how they answer: We are deeply attenuated to whatever meaning is held by a hesitation by the volunteer, or an (awkward) attempt at humor. Surprisingly, the most interesting moments were when the volunteer didn’t know or have an answer: “Who is your representative in the Minnesota House?” “What should we as a country do about the situation in the U.S.?” Generously, not-knowing is included in the possibility space of the show, and proves just as fascinating as a correct or thought-out response. Despite its seemingly casual structure, Charles’ interview is full of tension, deepening through line of questioning as it from closed- to open-ended, from the concrete to the abstract.

In the BLB piece however, the possibility space was obviously very small to begin with, since every word the volunteers were allowed to utter was already scripted. This shifted our focus from what they were saying, to only the possibility space that laid in how they said it. Much like watching an actor deliver a familiar text (e.g. “To be or not to be–”) for the umpteenth time, we focus not on the content of the passage but the manner in which they say it.

This is particularly unfortunate since his text at the BLB is very clever, self-referential and critical of funding structures. The mechanic of Audie-P he invokes however conflicts directly with his text’s agenda: Instead of foregrounding the clever text, we’re more invested in following how the volunteers deliver it. But then the knowing, pithy quips they make are dissonant with our understanding of their vulnerability up there. At the same time, we see Charles onstage and recognize his authorship–putting his words in other people’s mouths, it reads as prosopopoeia, an outsourced rant, distancing Charles from his own opinions.

Moreover, by placing the volunteers in such a performative staging–opposite sides of the stage, cheating out, speaking into microphones–the identification we held with them as non-performers was interrupted. In his Small Art interview, Charles directly faced the volunteer, who in turn was facing Charles upstage at a diagonal, away from the audience and any kind of conventional presentation at all. Ultimately the BLB piece did not work for me because the mechanics of Audie-P were dissonant with the content I felt I was supposed to be investing in.

Charles’ Small Art interview suffered in a similar way at the very end with the shift to “dying together”. The possibility space collapsed in on itself as the only action was simply “dying”–which translated to “sit here silently”. Of course this is an intentional shift from the rest of the show, and I appreciated the amount of time we were allowed to feel. But in the headspace of Audie-P, the difference between “how the volunteer is ‘dying’” and “how I’m ‘dying’” wasn’t super revelatory, and required a strong shift to get to a place of simply experiencing time, independent of the volunteer.

Obviously this is only scratching the surface of the mechanism I’m calling Audie-P. Writing this essay as a way to think through the mechanic inspired even more questions: What if anything do we ethically owe audience participants? Safety? Dignity? Success? What is the possibility space of a scripted play? What happens when a performer volunteers? What’s the difference between watching someone we know vs. a stranger? How do we impose the rules by which volunteers behave? What happens if they break them? What is the history of this convention? Why do I feel betrayed when it turns out an audience “volunteer” is a plant? [10]

Thanks a lot for your work Charles–Audience Participation has a lot more to it than I was initially inclined to think through.

tl/dr: You look at audience volunteers and imagine you’re them and that’s neat.


[1] For criticism of these emergent participatory practices I highly recommend Claire Bishop’s “Artificial Hells” or her editorial contribution to Whitechapel’s Documents of Contemporary Art, “PART/ICIP/ATIO/N”.

[2] For the same reasons, Audie-P is also not the “everyone comes onstage to dance together at the end of the show”.

[3] You can be sure to find examples in the forthcoming Sleep No More covers created in the next decade by the subset of theater makers who have read Death of the Author but haven’t quite gotten around to Emancipated Spectator.

[4] Though I’d argue any conventionally-seated audience member has the same “agency” to shift their compositional frame by where they place their attention on the stage picture.

[5] coming to you Fringe Festival 2015!

[6] A subset of looking for “how people behave…” is the community aspect of seeing a friend called onstage, watching how they behave or embarrass themselves. This definitely uses the volunteer as a compositional element, but in practice you’re looking for something way different than Audie-P, and really it helps not to identify with them–or rather, you already do, since you know them.

Obviously this is a valid mode of participation as it serves as the foundation of the performance practices of birthday party magicians and hypnotists everywhere, but I’m looking for a more global agenda behind participation.

[7] Whenever I go to see a play, even one without participation, a fraction of my mind constantly thinks “what would I have done?” How would I have delivered those lines, or made that gesture, or expressed that emotion? I watch in this manner because I’m an actor (“this could have been me”). But when a volunteer comes onstage, suddenly there’s space for all audience members to think it.

[8] I’ve heard of at least one show that intentionally provokes this anxiety throughout the show; in The Factory’s “The Odyssey”, an actor could be describing something and suddenly point to an audience member, saying “it felt like ______” and then wait for the “volunteer” to describe how it felt. This innovation at the very least puts audience in a place where they really ask themselves–what would I say if they pointed at me? It all but forces an imaginative exploration of the action onstage. I wouldn’t enjoy it, but it’s a good thought experiment.

[9] If you’re thinking “like a game show” I totally agree. Only instead of a test of trivial knowledge, with just one correct answer, Charles structured it with a very open-ended possibility space, where even being incorrect, untruthful, or not having an answer is a valid response.

If you’re thinking “like Boal’s theater of the oppressed”, I totally agree too–with similar caveats, but there’s definitely more allowance for a range of responses. Aesthetics isn’t exactly the goal there though, so I’d slip Boal into the social practices I mentioned earlier.

[10] I suspect the answer to the last question falls in the domain of possibility space: You invest in exploring the possibility space only to be told that there is none. You consider how you would have responded, and then are told there was never any chance for you to do it.

“Interview the Artist” was performed as part of Kevin Obsatz’s showcase Art/Road/Movie at the Bryant-Lake Bowl on June 4th & 5th

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