Ethical Ideas and Interactive Practice

by Jessica Cheetham & Simon Magnus

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for Ethical Ideas and Interactive Practice

(This post will be the first in a series from the collaborators of Root Experience about interactive theatre in the U.K. If you’d like to participate, please email Gus Schulenburg.)

I remember the first piece of interactive theatre that I made:

As you stepped onto the stage of the theatre, an actor grabbed you; forced you to stack blocks; shouted at you if stopped; if you chatted to a friend or if your tower fell over. Another actor walked through audience destroying towers that were not fit for purpose. You were split up from your friends, placed in a tunnel and pushed from either side by actors with sticks. Then, removed to a side room you watch your friends enter the same tunnel, but instead of being beaten, they are given free wine and told to party!

Led back onto the stage – you are presented with a cup of dog food and a row of actors, there are now no more instructions, just you and your base instincts. And yes, we got doused with Pedigree Chum!

This show was my final piece at university – the springboard into the beginning of Root Experience. I wanted to provoke an audience into doing something extreme, something they wouldn’t do if asked in the outside world. I was experimenting with stress, with exhaustion and confusion, with compliance and the psychological state of the audience.

This piece was basically a theatrical psychological experiment; audience members were forced to be participants, without consent, ethics committees or even a raised eyebrow from well meaning tutors. I didn’t at any point consider the emotional reality or the potential damage to audience members. No debrief, no warm up, no cup of tea.

Are there ethical responsibilities that exist when creating theatre that requires its audience to be active participants in the creation of a piece?

However potentially misguided this piece was, the implications and consideration of the audiences’ experience have become a key creative tool through each piece that has been created with Root Experience.

Looking back I didn’t ask the audience to play, they were waiting for instruction, for control. Since then the aim of the work has always been to open up to the audience’s actual responses – seeking truthful reactions and behaviour.

In the pursuit of theatrical research and experimentation how much do we need to consider the ethical implications of the work we are creating and the impact that this may have on an audience?

In creating The Rise and Fall of Geo Goynes our aim was to find a structure that allowed the piece to be totally audience-led, staying in role without the constant guidance of performers. Liberating the audience to play across the streets of a city ‘unsupervised’ immediately made us question our protective role as organisers. What if someone felt harassed by the piece? Was forced to work with someone they were threatened by? Or put in a situation they weren’t comfortable in?

These are questions that we always ask with Root Experience; in order to be free to play an audience must be comfortable. But are we missing something fundamental and more risqué with this attitude? Could we get deeper reactions from not being so considerate?

Should we be forcing our audience out of their comfort zones?

Jessica Cheetham & Simun Magnus, Root Experience: Root Experience explore audience interaction and play through theatrical performances. Based in the UK, the Company plays with the audience and performer relationships through improvisation, gaming techniques and compassionate interactive practices and have engaged in a number of cross-cultural projects in South Korea.

Our pieces investigate the world we have created around us from both a personal and social point of view. We are curious about people’s relationships with themselves, our direct neighbours and with society as a whole. The purpose of our performances isn’t to provide answers to any of these questions, but mealy to create a medium that opens up a creative space to our audience where discussion could occur.

Root Experience are currently exploring digital platforms and game mechanics to create playful spaces. Their current production The Rise and Fall of Geo Goynes keeps teams of participants immersed in a narrative across the streets of a city, connected via bluetooth headsets and performer interactions. The company have been commissioned for The Pink Fringe’s Performr that will engage audiences using a smart-phone app as a creative medium.

  • RVCBard

    I tend to err on the side of caution. You never know what someone in the audience has been through, and forcing them into a space where they feel unsafe strikes me as potentially harmful.