Audiences Assert Their Agency: The End of the Fourth Wall?

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Audience participation in theatre is not new.

American theatre has finally begun to engage with the worldwide shift in how audiences and performers interact. The concept of the “fourth wall,” the invisible dividing line between artists and audiences, has all but dissolved in the wake of virtual-reality gaming, massively multiplayer online games, YouTube and Instagram. Artists are cultivating new performance styles and audiences no longer find it satisfying to sit quietly in a dark room passively watching a story in which they have no creative agency. This is a trend that has become pervasive in all forms of media; however, theatre has an inherent advantage in this rapidly evolving landscape where audience and creator merge. Unlike other types of media, theatre at its core is the creative dynamo that exists between spectator and performer, however sublimated it may be in our current mainstream concept of the form.

Theatre institutions, artists and audiences have begun to aggressively explore this dynamic, even when it is not intentional. This can be seen most strikingly in the recent piece [De/As]cending, which ran at Arizona State University this spring. Phil Weaver-Stoesz crafted an immersive world set in a bunker controlled by an oppressive, post-apocalyptic regime. The audience stood a hairsbreadth from the actors and moved about the space learning the dark secret of where this regime mined the water that allowed them to control humanity’s few survivors. The experience was intentionally harrowing, with brutal repression, human sacrifice and heartbreaking moments occurring just feet, sometimes less, from attendees.

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Even characters have begun to bridge the divide between audience and art. Via

However, in this curated world the fourth wall remained firmly intact; the audience was not expected to exercise their agency and actively engage in the performance as fully fledged participants. In his HowlRound article, Weaver-Stoesz describes how the audience began to do just that. actively taking steps to disrupt the tragic arc of the story. The whole creative and performative team had to improvise and ensure the show went on with this new and unpredictable element in their playing space. Recalling the events, Weaver-Stoesz asks, “The audience’s acts of touching and speaking, grabbing and yelling were both revelatory and deeply disturbing. Were they assholes or heroes?” Most of the coverage of this play has cited the extremity of the story as the motivating factor — the smoking gun, if you will, proving why the audience leapt into the narrative. I argue instead that, while the story was certainly a variable, a change in how we as a culture want to interact with our media was the primary factor.

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This type of change causes such a disruption to the theatrical norms that we have been operating under for so long that traditional artists and audiences see it as threatening and even openly hostile. That is not to say that spectators of media have never been invited to join as participants. Older forms of theatre, the experiments of such groups as The Living Theatre, and outlets like radio call-in shows welcome and even require interaction. That such interactions reach the mainstream of contemporary media is new. More important — and revolutionary — is that this drive for participation seems to be coming from the audience and not the artists. People are not only not waiting for an invitation to interact directly with the creation of media, they are seizing the opportunity on their own.

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… With varying degrees of self-awareness. Via

When we engage with theatre, we have become so accustomed to sitting quietly in a dark room as if alone and a fly on the wall that we see this as “theatre.” It is not. Theatre is heckling the actors as they take the stage during the Restoration; theatre is Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed inviting audiences to change the story in the midst of presenting it; theatre is patrons ignoring the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe while staring mouth agape at the orange sellers and sex workers; theatre is Kabuki performers so skilled in their understanding of sexuality and gender that they shatter societal norms and cause erotically charged brawls in the audience. Theatre is also sitting quietly in a dark room pretending that the actors cannot see you. The thing is, most new audiences do not respond to this way of creating theatre. What they do respond to enthusiastically is participation in media. YouTube, Instagram, The Huffington Post and Facebook are all prime examples. People want to make movies, take pictures, report the news and set the social agenda instead of leaving such tasks solely to specialists. That shift is artistic and cultural, but most important, it is a shift in what media means to us.

I have explored this idea in an earlier post about the shift in theatre subscription models. The same concept holds true here. In most cases in the 20th century, and quite possibly a bit further back, theatre, art — nearly all media — was about identity. Consuming it, interacting with it, creating it, was about who a person was — his or her essential nature. In this context, sitting, as if alone, in a dark room worked just fine. Theatre exerted a cultural force on the audience that altered or, more often, reinforced the concept of one’s “self.” As most concepts of identity, including sexuality, race, gender, class, and the understanding of biological sex are being laid bare as constructions, this concept of “self” becomes less important and less powerful. We have now become fixated on what we can do. Agency is the new dynamic that we seek to explore in our media. Instead of media and culture exerting a force upon us, we have begun to exert a force upon it.

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Immersive theatre brings the audience to the table but asks them not to eat. Via

YouTube, Instagram, contemporary video games, and other cultural platforms allow us to be both creators and audience, exercising our agency. So ubiquitous has the breaking of the fourth wall become that both the fatalistic graphic novel character Deadpool and the adorable cartoon My Little Pony Pinkie Pie regularly acknowledge the audience and even their medium. Theatre has lagged behind in this trend, and the audience has become impatient waiting for us to take heed. [De/As]cending is a more nuanced example, but every phone incident with Patti LuPone and every person going onto the stage uninvited is the audience unknowingly asking for something different. People now, consciously or unconsciously, expect to be pulled into the performance. I’m not excusing these acts or saying that they are salvos in some glorious revolution in theatre. Yet, they are connected to this need to participate, this fundamental shift in what the public expects when it experiences media.

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Audiences no longer wait for an invitation to come in like a vampire. Via

Theatre has slowly begun to integrate the audience in immersive performances such as Sleep No More or The Object Lesson, which won the top prize at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This is the culmination of decades of pioneering work from artists and efforts to dismantle institutional resistance to such performances. Immersive theatre has finally hit the mainstream. Yet, these types of performances merely bend the fourth wall around each audience member instead of resting it at the edge of the stage as is done in most traditional theatre. This is clearly related to why audiences expect to be able to interact with and alter the story being told. It’s much easier to reach out to the players directly in front of you than to walk down rows of seats, climb up onstage, and shout for the whole theater to hear. The social pressure keeping everyone on their side of the fourth wall is much stronger in the traditional theater setup. Allowing the spectators and performers to mingle, even in their own separate worlds, provides a context for people to understand the fourth wall and the playing space as conventions. That realization, conscious or not, coupled with the shift towards user participation in our media at large, facilitates the public exercising their agency in theatre. Even if we as artists did not invite them in.

The fourth wall is dissolving. I am not advocating that we tear it down and never use the convention again. Theatre and artists do need to recognize that it is not the lynchpin of performance. If we don’t let the audience in and grant them a greater share of creative agency, they just might continue to exercise it on their own and cross that invisible line.