Crafting A Participatory Performance Space

by Deborah Yarchun

in National Conference

Post image for Crafting A Participatory Performance Space

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

(Frozen White Bear Lake, site of the 2014 Art Shanty Project. Photo by shanty volunteer Robert Frost. More photos of the 2014 shanties viewable here.)

I spent nearly every weekend in February on a frozen lake in Minnesota. It wasn’t David Blaine-level endurance art or a masochistic performance art piece. I was a participating artist in the Art Shanty Project, a public art project that draws thousands of Minnesotans and travelers from their homes in the dead of winter, despite temperatures averaging ten degrees. The Art Shanty Project is part artists’ residency and part social experiment, lovingly and often inaccurately referred to as “Burning Man on ice.”

Artists are selected from all walks of life through a competitive application process. This year, musicians created a shanty shaped as a music box filled with inventive home-made instruments, art car artists and cyclists turned a pedal pub into a polar bear that trekked around the ice, and a gifted group of technicians and artists created a simulated elevator experience. The main requirement: the work must be interactive. I gathered a team of collaborators and signed up as a playwright. As part of our application, we highlighted our interest in creating a participatory performance space that would directly involve the audience in the creation of an ongoing theater piece.

My goal was to create an intimate experience amongst strangers on the ice. Ultimately 630 people became agents in shaping their own theater experience by becoming performers and generating text.

Background / our structure

A month after moving to Minnesota for a Jerome Fellowship, I learned about The Art Shanty Project from a friend who posted about it on Facebook. As a new Twin Cities-based artist, I was drawn to the possibility of immediately connecting to the community. I’ve also been fascinated with interactive theater pieces that break down the audience/performer barrier since seeing PunchDrunk Theater’s Sleep No More. The Art Shanty Project was also the perfect opportunity to create a piece not only informed by the space, but also a space informed by the piece. As a playwright, you can influence design decisions through how you construct your play— but how often do you get to personally construct the building for your piece? I showed up at an Art Shanty info session where I had the good fortune of meeting Ben Pecholt, a talented engineer (and non-theater practitioner) looking for a project. I later roped in Saga Blane, an environmental designer I met through a theater connection.

Drawing on her Finnish upbringing, Saga suggested we build a lavvu, a structure used by the Sami people of northern Scandinavia. Lavvus can be assembled quickly, which was useful considering the harsh climate. They’re similar to a teepee, but have a lower angle.

our shanty(Our shanty / lavvu)

Serendipitously, it turned out there was a lavvu expert, Chris Pesklo, in St. Paul (possibly the only lavvu-maker in North America). Chris also served as our historical and cultural consultant, assuring us that it wasn’t culturally offensive to appropriate the lavvu structure so long as our piece didn’t comment on or interpret Sami culture.

The performance piece

I titled our shanty Drama/Puppet Therapy Circus – Sami Shanty. Audience members, upon entering, were informed that they were also the performance.

Inside, participants were given an option to address their past, present or future.

*If they chose the past, they were instructed to write a confession from their past on a notecard.

*If they picked the present, they wrote a list of five things they were grateful for in the present.

*If they picked the future, they wrote a wish for themselves for the future.

The participants’ wishes, confessions and gratitude lists then plugged mad-lib style into scripts I’d written. Participants were given props, costume pieces and paired with scene partners. Each script created a narrative structure for what the participant had written, making them a co-creator of the piece they performed.

The circular shape of our structure was ideal since everybody was automatically facing each other. Performers stayed seated in the same place they sat as an audience member, so there was no division between audience and performer.

shanty performer(A shanty performer / participant wearing a hat to match his puppet).

An example of one of the shorter scripts:

The Zen of Balloons

“Performer 1 reads their gratitude list.

After each gratitude is read, Performer 1 adds air to the balloon.

When they are finished, Performer 1 ties the balloon and hands it to Performer 2.

Performer 2 pops the balloon.

Performer 1 reacts with shock and horror.

1: You popped my balloon.

2: The Buddha says that “attachment leads to suffering; hence, we should practice detachment in our lives.”

1: Yeah, but you popped my balloon.

2: Be grateful for the lesson.”

shanty performer

(Shanty performer/audience member performs “The Zen of Balloons”)

The experience was structured as a three ring circus of the past, present, and future. We’d start with the first ring (the past), which used scripts that addressed the participants’ pasts (the confessions) and then moved onto the rings of the present and the future.

tarrot card reading

(A shanty performer / participant performs a tarot card reading (for a future script), using a koala bear puppet as a fortune teller.)

All of the scripts involved puppets, balloons or tarot card readings. The tarot cards, which I created with scripts on the back, ranged from serious future predictions and carefully researched bits of tarot wisdom to a Pikachu card (“an electric force is about to enter your life”).

When I conceptualized the piece, I wasn’t sure if anybody would participate. With participatory theater, there’s no “the show goes on” if nobody wants to help create the show. Fortunately, I would estimate that 95% of those who entered our shanty (age three and up) and stayed for our show ended up performing. On one hand, they were mostly hearty Minnesotans who had come with the expectation of having an unusual experience on the ice. But we had also specifically crafted the space to maximize participation. And it paid off.

How we crafted our Participatory Space / Reflecting on nine things that worked:

1) There was no separation between audience and performer

As mentioned above, the circular space ended up being essential. Had there been a division between the audience and the performers—if for instance, they needed to step onto a stage or a separate space to perform—I suspect fewer would have participated.

2) We didn’t ask permission, we handed them the scripts

By the time participants realized what the performance entailed, very few said “no thank you.”

3) Initiation is Key

Creating a participatory space was a lot like creating a three-dimensional script.

I intentionally placed three chairs on the outside of our shanty with signs. One said “Self-Reflection Chair.” Another chair facing outwards towards the center of the lake said “Outwards Reflection Chair.” The third one said “Just a Chair.” The chairs  were not only a frequent photo-op, they implied that our shanty experience would involve a mix of humor and seriousness. We also frequently overheard “Is that the self-reflection shanty?”

Our title DRAMA/PUPPET THERAPY CIRCUS—SAMI SHANTY was also part of the initiation. Most shanty titles are simple: Meta Shanty, Dance Shanty, Wind Shanty. DRAMA/PUPPET THERAPY CIRCUS – SAMI SHANTY elicited a laugh and clued audiences into the fact that our shanty experience would be slightly more complicated.

A caveat: The few people who had a less positive or more neutral experience usually came in late and were not effectively initiated/ hadn’t been introduced to the show’s concept.

4) We created an inviting and comfortable environment

To fully participate, people needed to stay in our shanty 10-25 minutes. This was a challenge because with 20 possible shanties to visit, most attendees prefer to pop in and out. But a lot can be said for an inviting space. It was usually extremely cold and we had a warm and beautiful antique wood-burning stove that could heat our space up to 60 degrees. This might not seem warm, but it was often 50 degrees warmer than outside. Once people came in, they usually didn’t want to leave. Our shanty was also carpeted with the interior perimeter covered in cushions selected to evoke the feeling of a rustic cabin. Even though our set up was fairly complicated, most people stuck around. On busy days, we often had a long line of people waiting to visit our shanty.

Once people were inside, it also helped that there was also a lot of evidence that others had enjoyed the experience. Upon entering audience members saw the hundreds of notecards posted on the wall with previous performers’ confessions, wishes for the future and gratitude lists.

Audiences were invited to post their confession, gratitude list, or wish for the future on the interior wall of the shanty. This also strategically kept our shanty always interactive. If one person was running our shanty and had to put the show on hold to visit the sanitation shanty, they left a sign on our door labeling our space a museum of past performances and inviting people to enter.

We also drew a lot of people, in part because the walls were thin (canvas) and people from the outside heard laughter.

5) Laughter goes a long way

Participants appreciated the humor, particularly the striped hats that matched their puppets. When people laugh, they’re more open to pushing their personal boundaries.

6) The experience was personal

By participating in the experience, people had an opportunity to share their wishes and their writing.

7) Participants had the opportunity to contribute something

People appreciated the chance to leave their notecard behind, particularly kids who drew pictures. At the tail end of the day, those who had missed the chance to participate in our piece often asked to write something to leave on the wall.

8) Each experience was curated

Audience sizes per session ranged from two to 14 and participants ranged from as young as three-years-old to over eighty.

I created a number of scripts and options ranging from shorter scripts to more complicated ones. The Master of Ceremonies (the person running the shanty) was attuned to audience member’s varying degrees of comfort and carefully selected scripts for the participants.

A caveat: when you’re making snap judgments, it’s easy to misfire. There were a few instances where we misjudged, but given the fact we had over 600 people participate in our performance, this was inevitable.

9) We created options

I created the opportunity for audience members to read scripted confessions I’d written and friends had contributed instead of their own confessions. For example:

“I fell out of love with you over breakfast. I told myself at the time that it was the waffles.”

This created anonymity and a safe space for them to confess anything or not confess something personal at all.

Also, the experience was adaptable. If there were kids in the shanty too young to read a script, they were offered the chance to toss a balloon around while saying what they were grateful for. (They also got to keep the balloon).

joyous balloons toss (Joyous balloon toss.)

The majority of participants had limited to no performing experience but fully committed once engaged. Overall, it was a great experience as a playwright. I not only had the chance to craft an audience’s experience through the space, I got to interact with a large variety of people, see several short pieces I’d written performed dozens of times by a continuously alternating cast, and interact directly with my audience. With a wall that steadily filled with 630 Minnesotans’ wishes, confessions and dreams, it was also a lesson in Midwest humanity. But perhaps the biggest lesson I took away: Outside the traditional walls of a theater, more people than you think are happy to step on a stage (as long as it doesn’t look like one).

For more pictures of our shanty project, visit http://deborahyarchun.blogspot.com/.


DYarchun-headshotDeborah Yarchun is a 2014-2015 Jerome Fellow at The Playwrights’ Center and a recent graduate of the Iowa Playwrights Workshop where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow. Her honors include a 2013-2014 Jerome Fellowship, The Kennedy Center’s Jean Kennedy Smith Playwriting Award, an EST/Sloan Commission, and University of Iowa’s Richard Maibaum Playwriting Award. Her plays have been developed at the Great Plains Theater Conference, The New Harmony Project, Jewish Plays Project’s OPEN: A Festival of New Jewish Plays, Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, and WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory and produced at The Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival, Fusion Theatre, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, The Young Playwrights Festival by Young Playwrights Inc., and at theaters and universities across the United States and Canada. Read more about her work at DeborahYarchun.com.