Ancient Technologies for Modern Times

by Jeff Janisheski

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for Ancient Technologies for Modern Times

(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

Theatre is an ancient technology. A body. A stage. An audience. A communion.

This communion can be with an audience of one or thousands. It is the quality of the communion, not the size of the crowd that matters. This is the focus of my work: how to make that connection between the live bodies of the performers and those of the audience more charged, electric and alive.

I am head of the acting program at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), a theatre conservatory in Sydney, Australia. I concentrate on the actor’s art and the craft of that connection with the audience. As a teacher my work in terms of “audience engagement” revolves not around marketing or media but around the alchemical reaction between actor and spectator: an event unfolds in time and space that transmutes into something greater. It might move us, entertain us, challenge us, enrage us; but it must engage and change us.

To achieve this alchemy, my students train intensively in a range of methodologies, texts and media: from butoh to Viewpoints to Stanislavski; from Chekhov to Chikamatsu to Chuck Mee; from theatre to TV to film. Ultimately, however, they are training in only four things: people, space, time and text.

My students are constantly learning how to listen to, observe and collaborate with: people (their collaborators, scene-partners, characters and the audience); space (the rehearsal room, set, world of the play and world around them), time (how they treat time, the time period, the rhythm of the piece and their physical/vocal “musicality”), and text (the script or score, its historical context and the signs and conventions that surround theatre). Students explore these elements through a variety of exercises: e.g. in their first week at NIDA I have students directly – and in a detailed way – observe the physical life of people on the street and then perform those in nonverbal études.

Thus, for me, “audience engagement” has a subtler meaning than marketing or media-outreach. I train students to deeply engage with people and everyday life. An actor is a keen observer of life; someone who fearlessly and compassionately engages with the totality – the terror, tears and treasures – of our hearts. The goal is to create work that is deeply human, deeply connected to the stories and struggles that draw us night after night into the darkness of the theatre.

To do this, I train my students in three core skills: being truthful, transformational and theatrical. Actors must create truthful, three-dimensional portraits of their characters. An actor transforms from moment to moment, role to role and medium to medium. And an actor needs to explore, exploit and explode the theatrical potential of the stage. When a performance is truthful, transformational and theatrical it has the power to engage, attract and sustain audiences.

This last point – of creating work that is more theatrical – is a crucial one. The question for me is not how theatre can connect more to current technologies (iPhones, the web, etc.) but how can theatre be more theatrical? How can theatre and the actors involved create indelible memories – memories that are burned into the brains of the audience? For that is what theatre is: a memory machine; a maker of permanent memories through an impermanent medium. That is what theatricality means to me. This doesn’t discount the use of current technologies: they are just one more tool in the toolkit of theatre-makers.

When I rehearse a play I also have my actors ask themselves, “Why this play? Why now?” Recently I staged Antigone with NIDA’s first year undergraduate actors. We examined the contemporary Antigones of our society, and we wove monologues from Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot into the tapestry of the overall text. We did this to address that central question: why Antigone, why now? For me, this is the play of our time: it asks us to examine who is standing up against the state? Who is speaking up against power and the establishment? And whose side are we on? But before we could engage the audiences in those kinds of discussions the actors needed to ask those questions themselves.

This salon is about ensuring the deep, human communion between actor and audience. For me, as an educator, the issue of how to draw in an audience and engage them brings me back to first principles. If anything, I want to make theatre that is more ancient, not more digitally connected. More primal, not more plugged in. That fundamental, electric connection between audience and actor doesn’t require any router, Wi-Fi or social media: it demands committed, fearless actors and theatre-makers who are keen observers of humanity, clear prisms for the play and deep thinkers about the nature of life and the art of the theatre.

Jeff Janisheski joined the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) as Head of Acting in 2012 with a formidable list of accomplishments in the field of theatre, education and training. He has a performance background as an actor, choreographer, director and producer and a long history of collaboration with luminaries from Adam Rapp to Anne Bogart.

He focuses extensively on international collaborations: over the past twenty years he has taught and directed in Australia, England, Japan, Korea, Russia, Vietnam and the US. From 2008-2011, Jeff was Artistic Director of the National Theater Institute (NTI) at the Tony Award-winning Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, America’s preeminent organisation dedicated to the development of new plays and music theatre. From 2004-2008, Jeff was Associate Artistic Director at New York’s Classic Stage Company (CSC) where he directed a range of plays (from Shakespeare to emerging writers), curated a festival of new work, and created their Young Company education and outreach program which connected to 1,000 students in 18 high schools across the city.

Jeff holds an MFA in Directing from Columbia University, and a BFA from Amherst College. He trained in Japan for over three years with butoh’s co-creator Kazuo Ohno. He co-founded and co-directed the biennial New York International Butoh Festival; from 2003-2007 he presented the work of over fifty butoh-inspired artists from Europe, Japan, South America and the US.

He is a recipient of the Theater Communications Group New Generations/Future Leaders fellowship, and the Japan-U.S. Partnership for the Performing Arts/Japan Foundation.


Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.