‘No offence, mate’:  The Changing Role of Audiences in Theatre

By David Edgar

Last autumn, I attended a conference on audience participation at the ICA. Organised by the University of Kent, the first afternoon consisted of nine papers, each presented by a standing person (or persons) to a silent, seated audience. There was no time for discussion or questions. The organisers wrily acknowledged the irony of this, assuring us that things would be more participatory tomorrow.

Although there were differences of opinion, the line of the day was that the point of audience participation was to challenge the idea of the single author (the conference was subtitled “on audience and authorship”). As journalist and critic Catherine Love put it: “Once we recognise the role of an audience in actively crafting interpretations, can we continue to locate the generation of meaning in theatre with a sole author?”.

For me, the presentations had an element of déjà vu. When I began in theatre, in the early 70s, a considerable amount of audience participation was an unintended consequence of the 1968 abolition of theatre censorship (which, among other things, made improvisation impossible). Planted audience members – which go back, at least, to Clifford Odets 1937 Waiting for Lefty –  appeared in John Osborne’s 1972 A Sense of Detachment and elsewhere. The Traverse Theatre Workshop’s U2 was a promenade show for a single audience member (who didn’t know that when they booked). In Joint Stock’s 1974 The Speakers, the audience chose which Speakers’ Corner didacts should rant next (and heckled them). The Living Theatre 1969 season at the Roundhouse involved an invitation to the audience to strip off and join in. My own work at the time included a play in which the course of the action was chosen by an audience vote, and another in which the outcome was decided nightly by the decision of a computer (occupying, at the time, an entire room) on the basis of an audience survey. In another, the audience was arrested for singing a song which contravened the provisions of the Industrial Relations Act 1971.

The big difference between the audience participation of the early 70s and the projects described at the ICA was the intention of the process. As a form of authorship, audience involvement is part of a democratising procedure (the Tate has a Director of Audiences, but I don’t think it quite means that). In the early 70s, by contrast, audience participation was largely a matter of manipulating theatrical convention in order to create meaning. The fact that, in my play about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the play could end with a peaceful resolution or Armageddon on the say-so of a machine was making a point about the risks of nuclear escalation, not about the relative importance of different elements in the theatre-making process. Often, participation was involuntary and it was sometimes physically or even sexually threatening.

One reason for this was because the attitude to the audience was different.  In the 60s and 70s, audiences in the non-commercial theatre were essentially “guilty creatures sitting at a play”. George Devine was notoriously dismissive of the “fashionable assholes” who made up the audience during his glory-years as director of the Royal Court. Probably the most famous German play of the 60s was Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience. Asked about his attitude to those who paid good money to see his early plays, Howard Brenton is reputed to have replied “I want to piss in their eyeballs”.

What changed all that was Thatcherism. What happened with Mrs Thatcher’s election in 1979, in culture as in all spheres of life, was a power-shift from the producer to the consumer. Her great political insight was that she could use the market-place to achieve essentially political objectives – in culture as much as in industrial relations she sought to disarm the left by letting the market rip.  So, like passengers, patients and parents, playgoers became “customers”, who as we know are always right. The first effect of this was on the high avant-garde – people were no longer prepared to accept that if they didn’t understand something it was their fault. Then, dominated by market demand for more of what the audience liked last time, theatre repertoires became increasingly homogenised. And finally, theatre artists who did shows in the commercial sector brought the audience-friendly ethos of the big musical back into the rehearsal rooms of the subsidized sector. By the end of the 80s, the big question asked of the playwright by directors and actors wasn’t “what are you saying here?” but “will they get this?”.

This isn’t to say all contemporary audience participation is purely get-up-and-join-in crowd-pleasing: in shows which involve individual interrogation, the Belgian group Ontroerend Goed  uncomfortably blurs the border between public and private. But from soap producers surveying audiences for plot outcomes to audiences voting how a courtroom drama should end, participation that doesn’t involve being embarrassed, abused or crawled over clearly implies a compliment: we’ve been working on this for weeks, but we think you can work out what ought to happen right now. If the risk of traditional, end stage, fourth wall drama is producer elitism, then the danger of audience participation is consumer populism.

Our research project into Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution started from the observation that it was much easier to measure the impact of theatre events on the participatory arts (particularly when the participants are conveniently assembled in schools, hospitals and prisons). Although we haven’t talked to participatory audiences, it’s clear that their activity is a form of judgement as well as co-authorship;  their responses would be different both from those of completely immersed participants and from people sitting silently in rows.

But we knew from our own experience that – however passive it may look – those audiences are participating in the event, by vocalising their responses (of course) but, more profoundly, by completing what they are seeing in their minds, relating what they are seeing to their own lives and their experience of the world, questioning a play’s plausibility, speculating about outcomes before they occur. This process generates meaning in the individual spectator’s mind, and has done so since 5th century Athens. Hence we are asking audiences what they expect of shows before they attend them, their immediate responses afterwards and what they retain after time. Direct audience participation is one way of testing the profundity of such silent but active responses, but it’s not the only way.


David Edgar is a playwright and member of the British Theatre Consortium