Engaging an Audience through Unspoken Invitation: reflections on the performance of Something to Chalk About

The performance of Something to Chalk About? began as I set up the borders for the performance (pictured around this section).  In this first project I found myself interested in discovering ways to enlist the audience as confederates within the performance through the least explicit means possible.  I wondered if the invitation to participate was explicit enough just by leaving the chalk and wipes out.    Within minutes of doing so I had my first participant.  He eagerly grabbed a piece of chalk and set to work writing something.  I noticed that he intently worked the chalk over his message, going over the letters a few times, ensuring that his marks would not fade away easily.  Within a minute or two he finished, put the chalk down, dusted off his hands and went on his way.  From my vantage point sitting catty-corner to where he had been, I could not tell what he was creating while he worked.  But after he left I got up to look and saw the proffered bible verse citation (at left).  After the performance I looked up the verse: “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”  Quite a lovely statement to contribute to this piece.  However, after this message had been left, it took several minutes for anyone else to participate in the piece.  I wonder if the religious affiliation of the message was a turn off or if it attracted certain people to the performance?

Figure 5. First participant’s contribution

The next group to engage were two friends who walked by with curiosity, pointing and chatting about the borders.  I gestured for them to take the chalk and they asked if it was okay to write within the border.  I said it was and the first man needed no further invitation.  He set down to write, “…what I always write on these kinds of things” (Participant 2).  However, his friend was more reluctant, stating that he did not know what to write about.  I invited him to write or draw anything from a message to something about his day.  I used the example of my one contribution to the piece – a very badly drawn figure of a person getting a massage.  After a little bit of chatting about his day, he too set down to contribute something.  

For the first 75 minutes of the performance, things continued in a similar manner.  An audience member would show keener interest than the average passer-by and I would gesture with my hand out to the chalk.  They would usually take the invitation or ask what this project was for.  To those that asked, I answered honestly, “It’s for a performance as research class.”  If they asked for further explanation, I responded with, “I’m interested in exploring invitation for audience engagement.”  Usually, that was enough to elicit the transformation from wary Audience to willing Audience-Participant.  

I noticed a few things during the initial 75 minutes of the performance.  Groups who approached were much more willing to participate.  There was a high school tour group who came by and about 7 of the 25 members of that group eagerly set to work drawing and writing.  A few minutes later, two trios of people approached the work separately.  There was some discussion between the trio as to whether to participate or not.  In one of the groups, one person was bolder and just set to work participating while her friends looked on, debating whether or not to participate.  Both groups remained at the piece for quite some time – at least five minutes, if not more.  And eventually, five out of these six audience members (between the two groups) became Audience-Participants.  I would surmise from these interactions, along with a few other instances of people coming in pairs or groups, that there is an element of positive peer pressure that helps encourage participation in audience members who are more guarded or less confident in their ability to contribute. 

Figure 8. A pair of friends participate collectively.  

 Throughout the first 75 minutes the invitation strategy consisted of the following “levels” of explicitness:

  1.   Gesturing to the chalk with an encouraging smile and a question in my eyes, “Would you like to?”.
  2.   Silent nod if a question or gesture was asked/performed that indicated “Is it okay to participate?”
  3.   Verbal engagement if the audience or potential participant sought more information.  This began usually through
  1.     Permission or clarification on “appropriateness” of what to contribute (any contribution was permissible).
  2. Response to questions about the purpose of the project
  3. Reference to examples of previous participation to help inspire the potential participant

Some participants wished to converse with me further about the purpose of the art, what I was studying, the project generally, my research and observations thus far, etc.  In these moments I elected to go with honest, but concise answers.  I did not want the focus to be on me and I wanted to avoid being drawn into an in-depth conversation with just one participant or audience-inquirer.  I felt a desire to remain open to the full audience and potential-participants or other audience-inquirers.  I also found that while these exchanges were valuable to the quality of the engagement, and sometimes led to more sustained engagement in the performance, it became difficult to perform my dual roles as research and performer-host.  

A time-lapse of the first third of the performance

About 75 minutes into the performance, the class-shift happened and pedestrian traffic picked up quite a bit.  For about 10 minutes there was no participation or inquiry and very little audience engagement at all.  Passers-by seemed to have blinders on that made them oblivious to their surroundings.  During this break, Campus Security came by and asked me to pick up the pieces of chalk because they were presenting a safety hazard to pedestrians.  I was told that once the class change had finished, I could resume my work.  I waited another 10 minutes and the traffic seemed to die down to the level it had been during the first two-thirds of the performance.  I set the chalk back out only to be immediately asked by another campus security officer – this one in police uniform – to pick it back up.  

At this point, I knew that I would either have to change my invitation strategy or just end the performance.  I only had planned to be out another 45 minutes.  It seemed a waste to end because of this hiccup, so I quickly restructured my invitation strategy.  

I placed several pieces of chalk in my jacket pockets and resumed my resting place at one of corners of the performance space.  As audience members showed curiosity through sustained visual engagement I would get up and approach them silently, then extend a piece of chalk to them.  If they spoke to me I would answer verbally, but the initial offer was always silent and extended through gesture only.  

Continue reading about this project and its assessment.