A History of Interactive Theatre
audience to view a performance, theatre exists in a
void. In this sense, even if the level of audience
participation is limited to applause – or the lack
of it – theatre has always been interactive.
Throughout history, interaction between performers
and audience has remained intrinsic to the art. Only
the level of participation has changed.
Early forms of
theatre were entirely participatory. Tribal rituals
formed the basis of modern day theatre. These rites
of harvest, gods, marriage, and war were dependent
upon interacting with their audience. History’s
first recorded plays date to the fourth and fifth
century Greeks. Greek audiences were vocal, even
resorting to throwing stones to demonstrate their
disapproval of a performance. Staffbearers were
employed to keep the audience under control. The
Romans followed, creating amphitheatres which
increased the physical separation between audiences
and the spectacles they flocked to observe, but
audiences remained highly vocal and involved.
In Asia, the development of theatre followed much
the same path, with audiences demanding alternate
presentations if performances were found lacking.
One difference is striking, however. In Japan, where
theatrical productions began with all day festivals
and temple plays, the performances spilled into the
streets. The evolution of street performers would
bring interactive theatre to new levels.
Physical design has always played a crucial role in
the level of interaction with audiences. As
Christianity spread in the Middle Ages, established,
nonsectarian theatre gave way to productions
sponsored by the Church. In an effort to proselytize
the masses, “pageant wagons” took to the road,
performing biblical scenes throughout Europe. The
Elizabethans returned theatre to a more permanent
physical setting. Shakespearean audiences were loud,
rowdy, and often talked back to the actors.
During the Restoration, theatres were redesigned to
deposit on to the ruling class. Audiences attended the
theatre as much as to prove their own prestige as to
view performances. Houselights remained on during
performances. Centuries later, composer Richard
Wagner revolutionized the theatre by placing the
audience in darkness during performances to focus
the attention upon the performance. This created a
sense of a “fourth wall,” an invisible barrier
between the audience and the performance. As theatre
evolved into more realistic productions, audiences
began to sense their role was to “witness”
performances, not to partake in them.
In the twentieth century, this trend reversed. In
the 1934 play, “Night of January 16th,” audience
members were picked to act as a jury. The ending of
the play depended upon their verdict. During the
counter-culture of the 1960s, artists began to
question all aspects of traditional theatre.
Performance art took theatre to the streets again,
as well as featuring site-specific productions, such
as warehouses, bus stations, and markets. Performers
began to use theatre as a form of cultural activism,
most notably Augusto Boal, who in the 1980s used
audience reaction to gauge what legislation was
needed to further the needs of Brazilians.
Improvisational theatre depends upon interaction,
calling upon suggestions and directions from the
audience, then creating improvised comedy based on
those suggestions. Interaction is also crucial in
performances where audiences are provoked to
consider social issues. Advocates against bullying
may actively insult an audience member. Activists
against rape may make sexual statements to an
audience member. Provoking a personal response and
prompting new perspectives are essential to these
Modern day interactive theatre continues to expand
in diversity and scope. In “Masque of the Red
Death,” audiences are encouraged to explore the
theatre space, opening drawers, looking in
cupboards. In “Six Women Standing in Front of a
White Wall,” the audience is invited to touch six
female actors. When touched, the women respond
joyfully. When the touch is withdrawn, the actors
wilt and silently scream.
Recently, critics have begun to complain of too much
interactive theatre, protesting being “forced” to
participate. It may be that the tide of audience
participation is about to turn yet again.