Let’s Articulate #10: ‘Interactive theatre’ – experience or exploitation?

‘Interactive theatre’ is usually an experience which creates a close, physical relationship between actors and an actively involved audience in a site-specific venue relevant to the experience’s context. But at what point does this interaction between audience and actors go from theatre and performance to just plain bullying and commercial venture?

Dungeon attractions are prime examples of this debate. Originally conceived as a museum for the macabre, Merlin Entertainment’s London Dungeons now boasts on its website that it offers ‘a thrill filled journey through London’s murky past. You get 90 minutes of laughs, scares, theatre, shocks, rides, special effects, characters, jokes, mazes and storytelling.’ It is significant, however, that ‘theatre’ here comes after ‘laughs’ and ‘scares’ – which appear to take priority in these interactive theatre venues and events.

Similarly, with ‘character’ acting, if people dressed up as Disney princesses or mascots can be defined as such, this is just an exploitation of children and parents, paying money to experience fake versions of their favourite characters. In my opinion, this type of attraction utilises only the crudest of theatre, the focus being instead on making as much money as possible, and the thrills and terror the audience are forced to experience – some of which can be oppressive and truly frightening for some audience members.

“Many audience members are ruthlessly picked to get involved, even if they do not want to’’

Audience participation also obviously plays a large role in ‘interactive theatre’. But should this actually be a part of theatre? Conservative theatre-goers may insist that theatre is only actually true theatre when on a stage, with the occasional breaking of the fourth wall if the script calls for it, but no more than is necessary or appropriate. Therefore, if ‘interactive theatre’ calls for intense audience involvement, effectively with the audience themselves becoming performers, this may not be considered theatre, but in effect a step too far. The roles audiences are asked to perform, especially in terrifying situations taking place in oppressive, atmospheric environments, may also be considered as bullying the ‘willing’ participant. It is a fact that many audience members are ruthlessly picked to get involved, even if they do not want to, whether this is to have your picture unwillingly taken with Mickey Mouse, or chosen to portray a plague victim or murderer.

“There is no purpose to ‘interactive theatre’ except to shock; there is no point to fake zombie encounters except to terrify yourself and others’’

Drama practitioner Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty may be seen as a natural predecessor of ‘interactive theatre’, with the abolishment of stage, set and props, the actors performing around a seated audience, with overwhelming sound and lighting effects in order to completely immerse the audience in the theatrical experience. But even though Artaud’s theatre is defined as ‘cruel’, it is not meant in the form of physical or mental violence (as some interactive theatre can be seen as today). It is instead meant to promote to the audience members a message – to reflect the chaos that is ordinary life, and to give the audience an emotional release. However, these principles are completely opposed by the current ‘interactive theatre’. There is no purpose to ‘interactive theatre’ except to shock; there is no point to fake zombie encounters except to terrify yourself and others. The audience are similarly not immersed in many ‘interactive theatre’ performances, but nervous and detached, dreading being the one to be picked next.

Despite the non-theatrical qualities of ‘interactive theatre’, it is undeniable that many audience members do in fact enjoy this experience, and that its popularity will continue as long as audiences want to visit and take part in the interactive side of interactive ‘theatre’. It remains questionable, however, whether this is truly theatre and performance, or rather a form of theatrical exploitation.

Amy Wilcockson

Image: Alper Çu?un via Flickr

For more Let’s Articulate blog posts follow Impact Arts on Facebook and Twitter

ArtsLet's Art-iculate

Leave a Reply