originally posted to my old blog in 2011
It’s become somewhat of a cliché for me to say this – get it in Bullshit Bingo any time I’m doing any kind of public speaking – but I’ve been owing a post on the origins of this to Andrew Haydon for nearly a year now. So here goes.
The experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it.
In making the kind of work that I do with Coney, getting this is paramount. The primary focus of any interactive-immersive-playful-whatchamacallit has to be the experience of the audience (or better, specific audiences) from start to finish to understand better what they might do, how they might feel, what might get in the way. We often break the experience down into shorthanded segments – the advance to the event, the event itself, the tail of the event. We also often create audience personae to imagine how they’ll find something we make; currently Horace and Doris, Sonia and Phil, and the Family Smith amongst others are rattling around a piece tba in the devising.
But I think that this saying is incontrovertibly true not just for the kind of play that Coney makes but for any event, for any audience.
The advance includes that which is normally covered by marketing, but marketing is just one particular way of describing the relationship between an event or building and its audience. The audience’s foreknowledge, expectations, anticipations (even fears) of the experience are critical. Which is one reason why I hate most traditional theatre posters, the kind that pepper the walls of tube escalators with their gilded letters and portraits of the cast, because they communicate an expectation of the experience of theatre for audiences who never go to the theatre (and judging by those posters, are right never to do so).
The late great John McGrath in A Good Night Out writes about all of the event much better than I can and how “there are elements in the language of theatre beyond the text, even beyond the production, which are often more decisive, more central to one’s experience of the event than the text or the production…” anyone in any kind of theatre should read this book.
The advance brings the audience to the event, both time and place, but also imaginatively. Coney has used the advance like this for a while. So in advance of A Small Town Anywhere, an audience can choose if they wish to engage in a dialogue with the gatekeeper Small Town Historian, which helps them cast themselves into the Town and write their own history within it.
The event itself is not just the show (let’s talk about a theatre show to make it simple), but the experience of being in the theatre building itself. Matthew Reason did some brilliant research which took teenagers to the Lyceum in Edinburgh to watch Othello; afterwards, he conducted discourse analysis with them to reconstruct their experience. Those who’d been to the theatre – any theatre – several times already talked animatedly about Othello. But for those new to theatre were dominated in their discourse by the experience of being in a posh building surrounded by other predominantly older people, their sense of how they ought to behave and how they’d be told off if they didn’t. Othello didn’t really feature. It takes a few goes before anyone habituates to the experience of the event of theatre.
In the experience of the interactive-immersive event for the interactive-immersive audience, sudden and surprising agency is intoxicating. I just don’t know how long that lasts before habituation and the hangover kicks in.
The tail of an experience is important. Immediately after Small Town, we found it crucial to give all the audience a glass of wine in the Historian’s Salon so that they’d all be more likely to stick with each other and talk about what had just happened. This post-liminal space becomes a decompression chamber. Because their most common question was about how they compared to other nights and other audiences (a sly way also of finding out how much agency they’d really had) then a couple of weeks after the run was finished, the Historian sent them the final chapter of his History which did just that in seeking to distil the ‘average’ Town and failing because none such existed, I liked that they received that after they thought it was over. It’d have been better if it had been a physical tangible object rather than a pdf. I’ve cherished for years the picture of the skypointing blue-footed booby which Chris Goode left in my house at the end of his home performance We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! Every time I pick it up, I remember the show and smile. I guess programmes do the same but they are not necessarily invested with the same charge.
I also liked a thought recently tweeted by @lyngardner, that thinking and talking about a piece of theatre, necessarily transient, keeps it alive in mind. A bit like the ghosts who stick around until everyone has forgotten about them.