The Audience is the Message

by Erin B Mee

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for The Audience is the Message

(Christopher Morriss in “Rorschach Test.” Photo by June Xie. 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.)

“What do you see?” The psychologist (Christopher Morriss) points at an inkblot on the gallery wall and audience members shout out: “a butterfly!” “a vagina!” “an extraterrestrial !” This is one of 28 scenes in This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Readymade Cabaret. Other scenes include a dance titled “We Make Up Stories To Hide The Fact That Beneath Our Feet Lies An Abyss of Meaninglessness” which consists of one actor walking back and forth in a straight line while another actor walks in a circle; and a scene titled “Conclusions,” in which Amy (Caitlin Goldie) says: “And I guess that’s the hardest part of life, in general. Meaninglessness. Randomness. Chaos. Sometimes, things just happen[e4] .”


(Caitlin Goldie and Christopher Morriss in “Conclusions.” Photo by June Xie.)

Readymade Cabaret, based on Marcel Duchamp’s notion of readymade art and the philosophies of Dada as practiced by Duchamp and Tristan Tzara, takes place in a “gallery” in the basement of Judson Church occupied by readymade artwork lining the walls. Performers are posed in the space as if they too are readymades. One critic said that as audience members filed in, helped to construct a Dada poem, added a noise-making object to the musical instrument titled With Hidden Noise, and looked at the artwork, she realized “This was no ordinary museum. The space was a sort of incubator, eliciting a mode of audience hyper-attention: of placing every object, human, and their interactions under the scrutiny of complete visibility that is fluorescent lighting.”

_With Hidden Noise

(“Karoline Xu plays With Hidden Noise.” Photo by June Xie.)

A gong sounds, and the performers direct our attention to a pillar on which there are 28 scene titles, including: “Amy Does Believe in Fate,” “Amy Doesn’t Believe in Fate,” “Lab Rats,” and “What Richard Wiseman Has to Say About Luck.” Two scenes titled “An End” and “Another End” share the bottom slot. An audience member is invited to roll a die. The number on the die dictates which scene will be performed.

Audience Rolls Dice

(“Audience rolling dice in Readymade Cabaret.” Photo by June Xie.)

Twenty of the 28 scenes about control, fate, free will, and chance are performed. The narrative scenes are written by Jessie Bear so that a random selection of scenes will create recurring characters and plotlines that the audience can follow – or create. For example, Amy and Peter are in a relationship; Amy works for Dr. Burton conducting an experiment with rats to determine which parts of the brain are involved in our need to make meaning; a Professor lectures his class on “Why The Greeks Had It So Easy” (because they believed in fate); and another Professor discusses the brain’s tendency to make meaning. Scenes also include an aleatory composition, a version of John Cage’s 4:33, opportunities to stand and look at various sculptures and installations, and #TweetDances – one-minute improvised dances prompted by audience tweets set to music chosen by the shuffle function on the stage manager’s iPad.

Self Portrait

(“Audiences interpret “Self Portrait” by Sam Silbiger.” Photo by June Xie.)

Because the scenes that are performed, and the order in which they are performed, literally depend on the roll of the dice, the audience sees one of over a million possible plays  in any given performance.28 Scenes

(“The Twenty-Eight Possible Scenes and Two Possible Endings in Readymade Cabaret.” Photo by June Xie.)

May 20 1 Props

(All the props used in the 20 scenes become part of a sculpture, which then reflects each particular performance. These props are from the May 20th performance. Photo by Sophia Cohen Smith.)

On some nights Readymade Cabaret seems to be about the relationship between Amy and Peter; on other nights it is more about the lab experiment or the abstract art and John Cage music. As Amy says (on nights when “First Date” is one of the 20 scenes): “We’re programmed to find meaning in things that have no meaning,” and the process of watching the play enacts and embodies this notion: the ultimate meaning of the play happens as audiences attempt to make meaning for themselves. Readymade Cabaret is about the what, how, and why of audience meaning-making.

Duchamp’s readymades are known as artworks that question the definition and role of art: is art something “original” “created” by an artist; an extant object collaged or chosen by an artist; or does something become a piece of art when it is (re)contextualized or viewed as art? Composer John Cage became most famous for 4:33, in which the audience listens to four minutes and 33 seconds of environmental sound as music, and he used the I Ching as a compositional tool. Cage described music as “purposeless play” that is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.” Erin B. Mee saw an exhibit about Cage, Duchamp, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and painter Jasper Johns in a London museum, and began to wonder what “readymade theatre” might consist of – since theatre can always already be seen as a collage of readymade elements. Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Tristan Tzara, and the Cabaret Voltaire provided the primary inspiration for the themes and scenes in Readymade Cabaret.

Readymade Cabaret is a participatory production: it is one of many productions that examines the role of the audience created not only by This Is Not A Theatre Company, but by Gob Squad, Analogue, Third Rail Productions, Action Hero, Rimini Protokoll, Search Party, Woodshed Collective, Blast Theory, Rotozaza, and Punchdrunk. In many immersive and interactive productions the audience becomes the medium in/through which the event takes place: audience members are often cast in the play, asked to perform tasks, and invited to eat, drink, dance, or speak with characters. Their actions often change the course of the event. And because audience members have individual and unique experiences, the “experience” of the event is different for each person who partakes. However, Readymade Cabaret is perhaps more directly connected to performance art pieces such as Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, Fusco and Gomez-Pena’s Couple In A Cage, and Marina Abramovic’s piece in which she laid 72 items out on a table and invited the audience to use them on her as they saw fit. In these pieces the audience understands – or learns – that their instincts, desires, actions, and reactions are what the piece is about. The audience is not the medium; their participation is the message.

How did audiences make their way through Readymade Cabaret? One participant used Tzara’s instructions for creating a Dada poem (which the audience did, and the reading of the poem was one of the 28 possible scenes) as a “roadmap:”

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

Making Dada Poem

(The Dada poem as created by the audience on May 20. Photo by Sophia Cohen Smith.)

She decided that each scene was like a word in the Dada poem, and that the way she put them together resembled her. Another audience member wrote: “I started thinking about the more traditionally verbal ‘playlets’ as structural markers and that all of them were about the same characters having different interactions at different points in time, which together created a narrative about a relationship that was evolving in time and space. This helped pace and shape the overall piece for me. But I would also say that that sort of structuring wasn’t really necessary. The piece was enjoyable as a random assemblage in its own right.” Yet another wrote: “I’m the kind of idle walker that kind of likes to get lost and find my way ‘back’ again (Venice is great for that) because wherever I am, I’m in place. That’s the way I traveled along from image and exhibit to another. I didn’t feel I was being urged to follow a path; the path chosen was the path.“ A fourth wrote: “The path I took to look at the piece was to examine all of the artwork [on the gallery walls] as a framing device, so that I could enjoy how it was used.”

What did they make of it? One audience member thought it was like a horoscope in that the meaning made reflected the audience member who made it. Another wrote: “I was hyper-aware of my brain trying to make meaning and see patterns in everything.  So the ‘meaning’ that I took was being conscious of my own instinct to see patterns — my instinct was to see patterns even in the roll of the dice.” A third wrote: “For me, the piece was about the urge to find meaning/structure/narrative/content within the random patterns of our daily life and of the universe. Humans are hardwired to find meaning; it’s part of what makes us the beings we are. It’s why we love to hear stories.  It’s why even the least educated among us can spend hours a day staring at a television screen following narrative structures; we crave it. Your piece foregrounded that desire through its content (the actual discussions within the playlets, the thrusts of the musical and choreographic pieces) and its structure (the random stringing together of disparate units that invariably led to some sense of pace and flow, whether intended or not). Even pieces like 4:33 or the #TweetDances are, at base, exercises in foregrounding the search for meaning within the seemingly random. And obviously that’s the whole point of a Rorschach Test.” Another audience member wrote: “I didn’t take away a meaning as much as a feeling, a sensation of freshness, as though a breeze had blown through my inclination for thinking about learning. In fact, in reflection, the ‘show’ seemed to be more about behavior than meaning, as though looking at people on the street or in customary places and being a fly on their cranial walls.” One of the priests at Judson wrote: “At Judson, we spend a lot of time talking about the question of ‘fate’ and ‘divine providence’ versus the ‘free will’ to which we post-enlightened folks cling so desperately. Beyond the sheer delight I took in the fun of individual scenes and your actors’ performances, I was struck by how ‘the roll of a die’ was both a random act and a fixed act. The scenes were written and so we were in a fixed universe, but we were set to experience that universe in a completely random way. Randomness within a wholly non-random world.”

Of course if “Why You Shouldn’t Study the Brain” is one of the 20 scenes, audiences receive a warning about the mistakes our brain makes in the act of making meaning: “Instead of allowing ourselves to see what’s really there – a collection of lines, an assortment of shapes, our brain fills in information based on past experiences so that we perceive familiar shapes. I challenge you to see the strange, interesting shape that’s actually there – you can’t. Even when you tell yourself to do it, you can’t. […] Maybe it’s too important to us to make sense of things. Make them neat. But think of all the shapes we’ll never see because of the few that we know.”

In Readymade Cabaret audiences became “co-creators, rather than receptacles” of the play, as one participant noted. This was true not only in the process of making the piece (creating the Dada poem, tweeting dance prompts, and rolling the dice) but in the ultimate sense the piece made: if both the audience’s attempts to make meaning and the meanings they come up with are the subject and substance of the play, then the audience is itself the message.

Erin B. Mee has directed at New York Theatre Workshop, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, HERE, The Ontological at St. Mark’s, SoHo Rep, HOME for Contemporary Theatre and Art, and Judson Church. She has directed two productions in India with Sopanam. In 2013 she co-founded This Is Not A Theatre Company with playwright Jessie Bear, and together they have mounted a site-specific musical in an actual natatorium called Pool Play; a dinner party in honor of Henri Rousseau (A Serious Banquet); Readymade Cabaret, a Dada cabaret using the philosophies and techniques of Duchamp; and Ferry Play, a site-specific smartphone play for the Staten Island Ferry.


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.