People talk a lot about how to reach new audiences. They talk about what makes an engaged audience, and how to make audiences feel like they’re a part of the work. But we take it as a given that audience members are participants in the art event, and maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe audiences don’t know how important their participation is. After all, more often than not they’re told to “sit back, relax, and enjoy the show”—not a very big ask as far as engagement goes. And, since there’s no way that going to the theater could ever be as reclining or relaxing as lying on your couch at home and watching TV, perhaps this is the wrong ask. And perhaps audience members who show up to theater don’t want to be told to sit back and passively receive something, but rather to step up and actively encounter something.
Applied Mechanics has been developing new forms of audience engagement over the last six years and we’ve come to see a different kind of audience: people who grew up on video games and internet want art they can walk through and not just watch. In Applied Mechanics’ work, many stories unfold simultaneously and the audience is free to explore the world and watch who—and what and how—they want. Our plays take up large rooms or whole buildings in live diorama surround sound style. They give the audience agency and include them in the landscape and architecture of the invented world, making them not just observers, but members of an activated temporary community. We would argue that this is what theater always does. But in our work, we deliberately invite the audience in as a fundamental and active part of our aesthetic practice. We say, “Yes. We are all citizens together. You are not a passive observer. You are part of the world. You are a vital part of the work. And we’re so glad you’re here.”
Last summer, we brought this experiment to a new level by making admission to our new piece We Are Bandits free for all audience members. This was motivated in part by the content of the piece: Bandits is a fierce theatrical investigation of the troubled relationships between state and citizen, art and politics, women and the public sphere, and the possibilities for radical democracy in our contemporary moment. Bandits was initially inspired by the actions of radical feminist activist art group Pussy Riot. In the early development stages of the process, we started asking ourselves, “how can we make this piece not only depict but also behave like a Pussy Riot action?” The first answer was clear: it had to be free.
One result of this was that Bandits had one of the most diverse audiences we’ve ever seen: in terms of age, race, class, and social strata. Old drag queens and young teenagers; black college kids and Asian grandmas; people in wheelchairs and on crutches; non-English speakers, members of Occupy, stylish literati; and a troupe of women in their early 20s sneaking up the back steps so that they could see it again and again.
We produced the piece on the top loft floor of the Asian Arts Initiative, an amazing cultural and community organization that holds a great space in the crossroads of several interesting neighborhoods in Philadelphia: Chinatown, Northern Liberties, Poplar, and an easy walk from Center City and Old City. This undoubtedly contributed to the audience diversity, as did the frame of Asian Arts, as did the free tickets. But part of what was amazing about the diverse audiences was what they were participating in. The sense of energized community was palpable. Night after night, a diverse group came together to experience the piece, not just by watching professional actors on a lit stage, but by standing with each other in the events of a story that included everything from secret moments that were witnessed by only one or two people, to community meetings and protest concerts that brought the whole fictional world together, actors and audience alike.
With the interlocking stories of eight very different characters, Bandits creates an urban landscape as rife with conflict and hungry for change as the world we live in. It asks “how is it possible to affect change in our contemporary American moment?” Audience members are invited to concerts, protests, intimate parties, and communal art projects, as scenic artists paint the backdrops around them. With cameo appearances by famous dead feminists, original music, a live punk concert, and a cityscape that literally shape-shifts and grows around the audience as the story unfolds, Bandits is a raucous call to arms, a celebratory punk prayer, a wild adventure fueled by the radical spirit. And our audiences were part of this radical spirit. They were part of the call for change, the acts of resistance, the tragedy of thwarted action, and the triumph of transcendentally radical moments.
Theater has the power to unite as well as depict. We all know this. Immersive theater puts pressure on the audience to actively participate as observers and players in the world. Applied Mechanics’ immersive theater applies this pressure, but is also dedicated to including the audience in the temporary community of the theatrical moment. Bandits unites and includes and transforms its participants, if only for an hour or two, into radicals, feminists, activists.
Applied Mechanics is a collaborative ensemble that has been making original, immersive theater since 2009. Founded by director Rebecca Wright and designer Maria Shaplin, the company’s inaugural show put a fishing village in a West Philly apartment on Valentine’s Day and invited audience members to explore the town as the myth of the Selkie unfolded around them, complete with a saw-playing seal. Since then, Applied Mechanics has become a standing ensemble of six artists and created eight original works. Their adventures have included touring from Texas to Maine with their invasion play Portmanteau, rocking out as their all-girl band the Cherry Jones Administration, condensing the Napoleonic Empire into an hour-long movement opera with 26 actors, conducting a workshop on immersive storytelling at Microsoft, and winning a cult following with their revolutionary feminist punk play We Are Bandits. They host bi-annual Community Dinners — free home-cooked meals that anyone is welcome to attend — and have thrown six excellent immersive theme parties, including a Science Fair at the Chemical Heritage Foundation and an adolescence-themed Awkward Ball. They have garnered grants from the Wyncote Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, Philadelphia Cultural Fund, the Fels Foundation, and the Charlotte Cushman Foundation, among others. They have been featured in American Theater Magazine and presented by the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts and the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts. Applied Mechanics is Rebecca Wright, Maria Shaplin, Jessica Hurley, Thomas Choinacky, Mary Tuomanen, and Bayla Rubin. They are based in Philadelphia. They share a home-cooked meal at every rehearsal.
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.