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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Declaration of Performance

A few days ago, I did one of my 12 Shows experiments.

Not least, we’re running low on days with several shows left to do.

I had noted the possibility of ‘Dinner and a Show’, integrating food-choices with the experience, but having seen Locksmith’s Dream earlier this year (which did that with a better chef), I was not drawn to it other than the title.

However, a theme in this year’s little experiments has been performer-audience relationships. I have performed for a sheep, I have performed silently in a public space.

I wanted to see what would happen if I ‘performed’ in a loosely theatre-coded space, but without announcing it.

The Show

I was vaguely aware that, at the Interactive Soup earlier this week, I wanted to try performing without declaring that I was doing so. Given that theatre is to do with the relationship between performance and audience, I was curious about what would happen.

The character was loosely-formed until a passing joke about my role pointing people towards the venue led me to a stock character: a video game’s quest-giving NPC with limited dialogue options. And an awareness that that was its condition.

I assigned myself two lines (directions to the venue, a general greeting). I developed rules of behaviour (a smile only activated by proximity, otherwise just getting out of the way if anyone walked at me). I tried to express an arc to those who were repeated visitors to my station.

I did these things.

It was not, in fact, a show.

What Is A Show?

The short part of this is that this is not a show, because the audience did not perceive it as such.

One response might be to say that it was a performance, because I thought it was. However, “I believe I am performing, and therefore I am performing” is Live Action Role-Play, not a show. It is for the benefit of the performer alone (allowing for the fact that LARP usually involves multiple people, as a group of people all agreeing to perform and relate to one another is usually more interesting and/or fun).

Another would be to view it as a performance, but without an audience. However, while I can conceive of a case where (for example) The Mousetrap did a full run-through to an empty house, I would consider my case to be at best, a rehearsal. Without an audience, it simply lacked one of the indescribable qualities of a show.

The Audience Bargain

Audiences make an agreement when they engage with a performance. They agree that they will treat it as such.

What this then means is variable. An audience member who has only ever seen noh will react very differently to one who has only ever seen rock concerts.

What is important to this experiment is that those interacting with or observing me did not view it as a performance, and therefore this agreement was not made.

For them to do so, it would have required signifiers of some kind. That might be costume, a demarcated space, or an overtly theatrical form (for example, Shakespearean text) or character. Many of the examples I can imagine of wildcat theatre in the streets are very obviously theatre. A member of the public who is invited to run away with a well-dressed eccentric can usually guess that this is, in some way, a performance.

What is the outcome of this bargain?

That the audience member opens themselves to the performance.

What is this for?

What Performance Is For

Theatre ought to have some sort of effect on its audience (often also an affect).

This might be dramatic, emotional, philosophical, or otherwise. It might make them laugh, or cry, or just entertain them for a little while.

It might change the way they view the world forever.

But while this was not a great piece of theatre in any case, I think that this sort of undeclared work, without signifiers, will always fail to present itself as such to an audience.

There is tragedy in seeing a destitute person in the street, but it is not the same tragedy as in the film I, Daniel Blake. They are different uses of the same word.

Therefore a conclusion I walk away with is this: that we owe it to the audience to offer something to them, if they are essential,* but also that they must be told that they are joining that bargain.

It is, of course, unwise to bargain without knowing, but that is what they must do in turn.

*This caveat being thanks to Grotowski, in whose tradition one might reasonably present a wonderful work for what it does to the performers-as-their-own-thing-to-relate-to. Which is an interesting approach, though not for the sort of theatre I used for the experiment.


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