What is it?
A participatory performance is an event with a beginning and an end, in which participants are invited to interact with performers. As an artistic format it has been developed in between experimental theatre and live art practices (Fischer-Lichte/Roselt 2001, Umathum 2005). It can be used and further developed as a format for Participatory Art Based Research. Artist-researchers host the event, devise its settings und presentational elements, initiate interaction and provide specific protocols and means for doing things together. The format is devised to present, test and critique hypotheses concerning phenomena, problems and potentials of being together. Rehearsing participatory performances means forecasting and simulating public interaction. In consequence, the participatory performance as such partially becomes a rehearsal itself: It can be understood as a try-out – a “preenactment” (Plischke 2020) – in which concepts for a wider understanding of public interaction and cultural practices can be tested and alternative models of being together can therefore be rehearsed. Testing in Performance can be used for opening art-based research to a wider public, making its processes transparent and inviting the public to take an active part in developing new public practices.
The modes of participation can differ widely; participants are invited to perform a range of roles suggested to them. Depending on the set-up and their own choices, they can be observers, experts, they can be tested, or they can become co-researchers. They are invited to try out acting in and interacting with unforeseen or unusual settings.
In consequence, impulsive action and intuitive decision-making can take place in the framework of a theatrical as-if setting. Testing in performance often requires a performance space that is less formal than conventional theatre settings.
In Hello, March! Collective Walking Performance for Followers and Pacesetters (2017), Liz Rech, for example, used a participatory performance in public space to investigate the act of marching in political demonstrations. Rech invited participants to join the performance of different modes of marching and holding objects to examine their performativity in artistic political demonstrations.
What is researched?
Research topics include questions of group dynamics, social processes, practices and/or codes of behaviour. Intuitive implicit cultural practices and incorporated knowledge that would not come to light in a questionnaire or by mere observation of the everyday can be tested and observed in shared action. The performance assembles a group of people that are willing and interested to act with and/or perceive each other. The performance setting offers the option to amplify or dissect actions that, in an everyday context, are layered with other practices. In isolating different patterns of actions, the participants’ are given a choice between them. Researchers can then analyse which elements lead participants to choose a specific course of action, for instance external elements such as a particular spatial formation, or internal dynamics such as picking the easiest option.
Testing in Performance can also take the form of assigning a task to participants. The range of different knowledges of the participants will result in a spectrum of possible solutions.
The process of translating the subject matter into the performative setting and acting it out together in rehearsal is already an act of research. In going public, the test results from rehearsals are shared and tested by and with participants. Rech for instance presented the first outcomes of her research on marching in protests and demonstrations in her performance >>> Marching Session I-VI____>>>> (2016), which was framed as a lecture performance to an audience. In a second step, she invited the audience to follow her on stage to test her findings in a participatory marching session and afterwards answer her questions in a questionnaire. Here, the timing was crucial: If successive commands were given too rapidly, the whole marching group would fall apart, which highlighted the importance of timing and rhythm when guiding marching participants.
Difficulties such as these, which can occur in preparation and in the public performances, are often important results of the research process. The format offers the possibility to collect quantitative data about how many people are deciding for one option or another, or qualitative data about how they interact with a certain task, problem or setting. Testing in Performance can also be complemented with a questionnaire or interviews with participants to pair the observable results (for example from a video-based movement-action analysis) with the experiences of participants and performers (Lippens 2007: 104–06).
The format Testing in Performance is often a hybrid between research and artistic practice. Both dimensions need to be productively linked. The research aspect calls for a clear concept of what is tested and how results will be gained and documented. The artistic practice provides framing, impulse, inspiration and flow to keep audiences engaged and willing to participate. This includes an introduction that creates interest in the proposed activity and prepares audiences for their participation. Such an introduction can take the form of a lecture that explains the research question in relation to the setting and possible activities. In a less transparent approach, researchers can create an alternative or even fantastic reality for audiences to engage with, without sharing a clear intention for the research. Creating situations that arouse interest and pleasure can engage audiences to join activities on many different levels. A safe space and a low threshold are needed to support participation. Using the theatre apparatus can motivate and guide attention. Often, there is not only one theatrical focus but instead there are distributed, parallel actions and plural focal points: Music and flexible spatial settings help participants overcome performance pressure. The different options for interaction can be coordinated by the spatial set-up, by a master of ceremonies, by performers who act as guides, facilitators, role models or agents provocateurs.
Hannah Kowalski framed her performance Yes No Maybe (2013) as research and gave an opening lecture on the topic: In her ‘theatre of decision-making’, Kowalski invited participants to explore the role of performance in the act of voting. For her performance, she created and suggested new ways of voting such as navigating golden rolling chairs to fields on the floor marked ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or using lights and laser pointers to vote. As a master of ceremonies, Kowalski led through the performances, explicitly asking the audiences to evaluate the suggested ways of voting.
Potentials, problems and outcomes
The potential of the format Testing in Performance is that it can be used for presenting research results to a wider public, as well as inviting them to test research results themselves and in cooperation with the researchers, who are in turn testing the participants’ actions and choices.
Since it is performed in a limited amount of time, the performance can easily be documented by video and later reviewed. Following the tradition of performance analysis, the observation of the performance and the events that have taken place supports the research argument. Furthermore, the potential repetition of testing in a series of participatory performances generates differentiated results. It allows for a comparison between different kinds of interaction observed for different groups of participants and for different contexts in which the performance has taken place. If the testing is carried out only once in a single performance, irregularities and coincidences can distort the research result. This can happen easily when most of the participants are friends of performers, students, or performers themselves. Repetition of the testing can highlight an overarching pattern and help identify exceptions. Moreover, seemingly irrelevant small events can come to the forefront when they reoccur in repeated performances.
Problems can also arise with the initial framing of the participatory performance in question: If the invitation for an action/activity is unclear or vague, audiences will remain in a passive role and no interaction with or participation in the setting can be observed. If the invitation is too narrow, audiences will act according to the demands of the setting and the assumed intention of the initiators. Each research team has to find a framing that navigates the fine line between explanation, invitation, between indicating or determining activities and creating a space where anything is possible.
In x/groove space (2016), which was part of the groove space-series, Sebastian Matthias tested everyday urban choreographies in Tokyo, Japan, and in Düsseldorf, Germany. Initially, it was assumed that Japanese audiences would be quieter and more respectful in the interaction with performers. Only a series of performances in Japan and Germany was able to prove this cultural stereotype wrong.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika/Roselt, Jens (2001): “Attraktion des Augenblicks — Aufführung, Performance, performativ und Performativität”, in: Fischer-Lichte, Erika/Wulf, Christoph (eds): Theorien des Performativen. Berlin: Akademie, pp. 237–253.
Lippens, Volker (2007): “Analyse des Bewegens und der Bewegung. Perspektiven einer Bewegungshandlungsanalyse im Tanz”, in: Gabriele Brandstetter/Gabriele Klein (eds): Methoden der Tanzwissenschaft – Modellanalysen zu Pina Bauschs ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’. Bielefeld: transcript, pp. 101-129.
Plischke, Eva (2020): Zukunft auf Probe. Verhältnisse von szenischer Kunst und Zukunftsforschung. HafenCity University Hamburg. Available at: https://edoc.sub.uni-hamburg.de/hcu/frontdoor.php?source_opus=519&la=de
Umathum, Sandra (2005): “Performance”, in: Fischer-Lichte, Erika/Kolesch, Doris/Warstat, Matthias (eds): Metzler Lexikon Theatertheorie. Stuttgart: Metzler, pp. 231–234.
Works / Projects
Kowalski, Hannah, Playing Decision-Making, 2014, Hamburg.
Matthias, Sebastian, x/groove space, 2016, Düsseldorf.
Rech, Liz >>> Marching Session I-VI____>>>>, 2016, Hamburg.
Rech, Liz, Hello, March! Collective Walking Performance for Followers and Pacesetters, 2017, Hamburg.