An audience comes to a theatre perhaps to see something which if they saw it in real life, they may find offensive… Perhaps you’ve come here this evening, because you want to see something you’ve only done in the privacy of your own homes, something perhaps you wished you’d done in the privacy of your own homes or something that you dreamed about doing in the privacy of your own homes. An audience likes to sit in the dark and to watch other people do it. Well, if you’ve paid your money – good luck to you.
However, from this end of the telescope things look somewhat different – you all look very small, and very far away and there’s a lot of you. It’s important to remember that there are more of you than of us. So, if it does come to a fight, you will undoubtedly win.
The audience should not forget that they are in the majority, as Richard Lowdon reminds them – nervously and with a ticking bomb tied to his belly – in the opening monologue of Showtime. For that means: They are responsible for what happens on stage and could stop it if necessary. But: they might also ignore the performance and trample on it.
The trivial fact that in theatre – as opposed to other art forms – the production inevitably takes place within the same space and time as the reception puts the audience in a risky position: that of sharing the responsibility of being a part of the whole. It is this phenomenon that has been of particular interest to Forced Entertainment, at least since the early ‘90s and that has played at least an incidental part ever since. In their works, dying is put on the stage and performers are pushed to reveal their most intimate secrets, fantasies and desires. They stand naked before us – desperately searching for some dignity or happiness – while we look on, the ever-present spectators, witnesses, voyeurs.
The shift in focus from communication that takes place within the play or across the stage to communication that takes place within the theatre itself – between actors and audience – has been a central concern for theatre reformers of all kinds. Such a shift has political ambitions. For it reveals that the theatre situation itself has always been a mirror of social models, be it the polis meeting at the Athenian theatre, the Baroque king forming the centrepiece of the play, or the awakening bourgeoisie building national theatres.
Since then, many fights have been fought with (or for) the audience; they have been shouted at, insulted, engaged, put on stage themselves or even surprised on the street. There is no longer any guarantee that the dramatic convention separating actors from the audience will be honoured. Even though the audience may no longer feel so threatened in their seats, their importance, as observers, has been recognized more than ever, even in mainstream theatres. For the most part, today’s theatre isn’t trying to break down the barriers between actors and audience, but is instead striving to empower the spectator as the “sovereign master over all possible kinds of semiosis”. (Erika Fischer-Lichte)
The audience is asked not so much to act, but rather to see and to think actively. In Brecht’s theatre, the ‘active spectator’ – the polar opposite to the Aristotelian concept of ‘fear and pity’ – was expected to apply what was shown on stage as a concrete model to society. The contemporary audience, meanwhile, is asked to relate texts and images to themselves, to make connections between often disparate elements, to supplement what they’ve seen and heard on stage in order to make their own stories, rather than follow a closed, linear narrative. Thus activated and empowered, the spectator has a peculiar responsibility for what he sees:
You are as responsible for everything you see as you were for everything you do. The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, it just stayed stored in your eyes.
It was Tim Etchells himself who in his collection of essays, Certain Fragments, placed this quote from the notes of Vietnam War reporter Michael Herr in the context of the work of Forced Entertainment: “We always loved the idea in this – of one’s responsibility for events only seen“. It is the responsibility of a person who happens to witness an event, an accident, a crime, an injustice, or even a love scene, a scene of reconciliation, or simply an everyday event. It is the responsibility of seeing – and of having an attitude towards what is seen.