There Are No Spectators: Participatory Theatre and Performing the Faith

The performance day had finally arrived! Last Saturday, I felt a mixture of emotions as I guided a cast of nervous youth actors through a final run-through of a play, some who had never acted in a play before. What they were about to perform as ‘Reality Check: Just Another Teen Drama?’ began as a brainstorming session six months prior, trying to discern the difficult issues these St Andrews youth face on a daily basis. Family, school, peer pressure, homework, popular media, and alcohol were common themes, but there was one issue that tied them all together: boredom. But how do you make a play about boredom? That would be our challenge over the next six months, and it proved to be a process in which there are no spectators, an experiment in participatory theatre.

After identifying boredom as the main theme of the play, every Friday evening we met to build group trust, generate ideas, and learn acting skills. We accomplished this through a variety of improv games, each one developing different skills, whether attentiveness, adaptability, spontaneity, creativity, ability to keep a story going, and many more. Not only that, but improv games became a means to create scenes and characters for our play and to formulate an overall plot. For example, we played word-at-a-time to imagine what the main character might be doing at school. We sat in a circle and each person added a word at a time to the developing story. Some of the results were comical and trivial, but the more we collaborated together in this way, the more substance began to emerge and ‘Reality Check’ took shape.

At one point, we had so many ideas that co-director Dave Reinhardt and I began to write down dialogue and interaction as the youth were improvising scenes, which after several weeks started to look more and more like a script. In the final few months, we started to use this script, and it continued to develop according to what worked and the new ideas that materialized. In fact, even though the youth were working from a script in the end, the process had been so rooted in improvisation that the performance itself contained a large element of improvisation. What was most remarkable, however, is that ‘Reality Check’ was a play created by the youth in collaboration with Dave and I as directors and scriptwriters. Through the participation of everyone at every stage of the process, we produced something that no one could have accomplished alone.

‘Reality Check’ was also participatory theatre in the sense that the audience determined the ending of the play. After performing two scenes, the curtains closed and we gave the audience ballots with three choices for what could happen next. We tallied the votes, communicated the choice to the cast, and the play resumed. Of course, the cast had rehearsed each possible ending, and even performed the other two as an encore, but this gave the audience a measure of meaningful participation in the play, and encouraged them to consider the consequences of different choices.

This whole process raised many questions for me about what it means to perform the Christian faith in collaboration with others. As I participate in the theodrama, too often I am content to focus on my own role, with little concern and commitment to the company’s performance as a whole and the collaboration necessary to make it our performance. As Sam Wells wisely remarked, in the theodrama there are no heroes, only saints. But are saints’ performances actually significant and make a difference in the end? How does our participation correspond to God’s sovereign direction of the play and its promised ending? In my opinion, this is one of the most pressing questions for applying theatrical models to theology. Participatory, collaborative, and interactive theatre may not be a perfect model, but it does enable us to imagine a dynamic reality in which there really are no spectators.

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