What is truly ‘interactive’ theatre?

It seems a lot of theatre lately is being labelled as ‘interactive’.  As a catch-all phrase, it was particularly prevalent during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – a diverse range of shows carried the label in reviews, simplifying their essence to a buzzword which suggested a familiar theme running through them.

But to suggest true similarities within the work is misleading.  I’ve seen articles and reviews discussing interactive work whilst covering a range of shows which are not truly interactive – at least, not in the sense I perceive.  Ontroerend Goed have created a canon of work which is regularly categorised as ‘interactive’ – but as Matt Trueman succinctly points out, the example this year of Audience does not engage its audience in any form of true dialogue, and thus cannot be called such.  Delve further into their back catalogue and shows such as Once And For All We’re Going To Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen and Under the Influence fall into the same predicament – their intention seems much more to provoke a reaction than to genuinely interact with its audience, and albeit in a less direct way than Audience to challenge the boundaries of the performer/audience relationship.  Internal and The Smile Off Your Face are definitely much more interactive pieces – but through using the model of one-on-one performance, a form which lends itself to the label naturally.

As one-on-one performance grows as a form, perhaps it can be attributed to the apparent trend in so-called interactive work.  The artifice draws participants in and creates an apparent safety for them to engage and trust performers without feeling like they themselves are being observed – far from being unwittingly and unpreparedly thrust into a spotlight, they are in an environment largely stripped of theatrical audience conventions which helps dispel the notion that they are in a performance at all.  The effect can be particularly powerful on audience members should they be drawn into engaging and revealing to a great extent; after attending Internal, Matt Trueman wrote a review and a subsequent retrospective showing the level to which he engaged and analysed both the piece and his own part in it.  An even greater example of interactive performance can be seen in the work of Marina Abramović – both the emotional engagement witnessed in The Artist is Present and the physical engagement in Rhythm 0 gave audiences the chance to contribute to the performance, and tested how far they would be drawn into engaging with the artist and the work.  And, as a much less intense experience, You Once Said Yes received fantastic reviews at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe for an experience which encouraged people to go with the flow, and to simply say ‘yes’ in various situations in order to create what felt like a personalised experience.

Beyond one-on-one performances, what serves as a successful model of truly interactive theatre?  Work such as Badac’s The Factory cannot truly be considered interactive as it expected audiences to play the part expected of them; free will was not encouraged or expected, and resistance to the constructed narrative led to some undesirable scenes afterwardsThe Factory falls much more under the category of immersive theatre, rather than interactive – something which transports you to a particular setting, but still desires the audience to be passive in order to let the narrative breathe.  Work such as Hotel Medea is a strong example of a piece which is not truly interactive, not wholly immersive, but is maybe best defined as participatory – the audience are asked to join in with the performance, and are led by performers (some of whom are within the audience) in a series of activities created to ensure their engagement.

But how does something like Hotel Medea differ from the call-and-response nature of pantomime, for example?  Although the audience are encouraged to join in with what is taking place, their engagement is not essential to the narrative of the piece; should no-one sing along to the songs the show will go on as it always intended to.  Truly interactive theatre must rely on some form of improvisation, dealing with the unpredictable responses of those engaged and at least allowing for some addressing of them before moving on; although the interactions do not need to drive the narrative, they at least need to be appreciated and not treated as inconsequential.  To incorrectly label a show as interactive both devalues truly interactive theatre, and through misrepresentation does not do justice to work which falls under another category; if audiences have preconceived notions of what to expect from a performance based on what they have read before attending, then this can compromise their responses and can potentially derail a performance which requires their complicity.

Truly interactive work for a group audience seems to sit much more comfortably on the line which bridges theatre and live art; work such as non zero one’s The Time Out, Action Hero’s Watch Me Fall and Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart allow audience interaction to be at the heart of the work, and to encourage and embrace their involvement so that traditional performer/audience relationships are blurred.  As work by these companies has become progressively more embraced into the theatrical mainstream in the past few years – particularly helped by the championing of such work by the likes of the BAC and Lyn Gardner – it has helped bring a wave of innovation into theatre-making which can arguably be witnessed through the increase in work which has been labelled ‘interactive’.  What is required in order for the form to grow and become much more clearly defined is further innovation – either to make the perception of what such work is clearer, or for artists to push the form further to make work even more interactive.  For now, the least we can hope for is that artists, critics and audiences develop a better understanding of what interactive work really is to help a still-fledgling form really spread its wings.


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