Over the past few months I have noticed a growing tradition in the postmodern world of theatre: performance that is essentially about performance.
I have been to see a number of performances that are either about refusing to meet the audience’s expectations of theatre, acting and character, in the overtly self-referential style of Forced Entertainment. Or performances that are explicitly about the audience in the manner of Ontroerend Goed’s recent production aptly titled ‘Audience’. In which the first half of the show consisted of a live feed camera which enabled a man to film the audience, and to project the audience’s faces onto a large screen. The audience literally took over the stage.
When I heard that the choreographer/composer Hofesh Shechter and the sculpture/visual artist, Anthony Gormley were collaborating on a show called Survivor, my ears immediately pricked up, and I was not disappointed. But once again, I couldn’t help but notice the presence of a reoccurring theme; performance that is about the conditions of performance, are inevitably tied up with the status of the audience as spectator.
It is rare that I will get shivers running down my spine from watching a play. But as I sat watching Survivor, I felt as though cold water was being poured over my head and, as cheesy as it sounds, I felt a lump form in my throat, not from sadness but from pure awe. And part of this immense feeling of awe came from the fact that the show made me acutely aware, not of the performer’s presence, but of my own presence within the event.
I entered the space and was met with the usual mundane chatter from my fellow spectators, I sat twiddling my thumbs, checking my watch, and wondering if I should go to the toilet again (seeing as we had been reminded three times that there was no interval and no re-admittance). I was so absorbed with my own thoughts that it took me a while to realise that there was a man standing on the front of the stage, in front of the silver safety curtain, being filmed by a man with a hand held camera. He, like us, was waiting for the show to begin. The camera man occasionally filmed the audience , which heightened this sense of watching the experience of being watched. It was like being in a bizarre hall of mirrors, in which the reflection would alternate between my face, the faces of my fellow spectators and the face of the actor, staring back at me.
So what is so fascinating about the audience? Why have ‘we’, the spectator, replaced fictional characters? The only reason I can think of is that with the increasing competition between film and theatre, theatre has finally realised what makes it so unique from film, and that is its ability to confront a live audience.
In film, the actors cannot step out of the screen and talk directly to the audience, nor can a film make my face appear on a large screen. And what’s a better way to grab an audience’s attention than to make a performance that is essentially all about them? After all, there is nothing quite like the feeling one gets from having a true affiliation with an art work.