Methods of Gathering Audience Feedback from a Participatory Presentation

Assessment Design

The majority of my focus rested on devising the performance itself.  However, there were a few key aspects that I planned to assess through the project.

  1. Audience Reactions:  are the primarily assessed factor.  I plan to record the performance and write a reflection on my memory of the performance as soon as possible after presenting it.  Additionally, I will send out a brief questionnaire to classmates after class.  The questionnaire asking for them to reflect on their experience of watching the show and reactions to key moments.  

Key Questions Assessed:

  • What reactions might an audience have to a safe discomfort?
  • How does an audience react when one or more of these elements shift?
  1. Audience-Performer Reactions: are key to understanding the success of specific aspects within the performance, notably the invitation strategies and behavior once inside the performance.  I will assess the effectiveness of each strategy by reviewing the video recording and conducting a post-performance interview with the audience-performer.

Key Questions Assessed:

  • What communication strategies, outside of speaking, are most effective in encouraging guided audience participation?
  • What reactions might an audience have to a safe discomfort?
  1. Effectiveness of Performance Structure will be assessed by video recording the performance and then watching it back.  I will record my impressions as a viewer and director and screen record my notes to align my thoughts in time with the performance.  

Key Questions Assessed:

  • What communication strategies, outside of speaking, are most effective in encouraging guided audience participation?
  • How can a performance create safe discomfort for its audience? 
  • How do site and situation communicate the role of an audience in traditional performance? 

In Performance

Prior to and following the performance, I journaled on my experience as the performer of this piece.  I felt very nervous about certain moments of performance, notably the mask work and the audience interactions because I was unable to rehearse these beforehand.  In many ways, the performance retained the plasticity of a rehearsal.  So many factors adjusted in the hour leading up to the performance.  For instance, I forgot to bring show programs as props and replaced these with my notebooks.  Moisés Kaufmann has said that there are no mistakes in theatre and this is true.  In replacing the program with my notebook, I decided that I would direct the audience-performer’s attention to the journal entry that housed my initial sketches that inspired the performance (Figure 5).  

Figure 5. Excerpt from my notes on Fusco’s article.

In performance, this created a lovely inside joke for the two of us to enjoy as she got to privately view my own thoughts.  It begot an interesting camaraderie and almost initiation moment.  This act, coupled with masking her, transformed her from an audience member into a full performer in the piece.

Timing: I struggled a bit with the time management of the piece.  Because I was not able to rehearse with all of my masks, props, and a participatory audience ahead of time, I worried that the piece would take me longer than ten minutes.  I also discovered a few snafus or unexpected interactions as I dealt with new stimuli live, which I recounted in my reflections following performance.

The Audience-Performer: Perhaps it was the clear framing of the audience as my spectacle, but by the time I turned to observe and mimic them, I confronted several apathetic and judgmental faces.  This made the task fo selecting an audience-performer quite difficult.  Luckily, Esther’s generous spirit called out to me.  

I reached out to her and she very readily took my hand with almost no coaxing.  I led her through the piece as scripted.  When I revealed my face to her she smiled.  She seemed to take her role in the piece very seriously and performed each step solemnly and with a generous spirit.  As I reached to hold her shoulder and whisper into her ear, she returned my embrace and leaned in closer.  

As I handed her the invitation, I found that I became distracted by a multi-tasking moment of having to withdraw the invitation, put my mask on, say my line, and withdraw the pen from my jacket.  There was a moment of unclarity when Esther asked if she should read the invitation aloud and I noticed that I responded in the same body language of Something to Chalk About? – any response was acceptable to my invitation.  

When Esther circled “Yes” on the invitation, I truly felt giddy and performed a little happy dance to celebrate.   Her consent led into the next major moment of the piece.

The Mask Reversal: As I describe in my post-performance write, I encountered a moment of decision when I realized that the mask might not fit Esther comfortably.  The worry that I felt put me back into my head and messed up some of the flow and alignment between the lines and the action of transferring the mask.  Eventually I elected to just keep pushing on knowing that she would not have to suffer too long till the end of the show.  However I wonder if that worry may have caused me to rush the end of the piece.  

The performance in its entirety.

Assessment

Audience Reactions: In assessing my post-performance notes, the video, and audience questionnaire the audience reactions were very clear on a few key points: the role reversal between audience and performer, the masks, and Esther’s integration into the piece as audience-performer.

Role Reversal:  In my post-performance write, I noted that:

It was interesting to read people’s faces when I finally made eye contact with each of them. Particularly with the first mask.  I read skepticism or boredom initially, a few faces bordered confusion or curiosity, and I can clearly remember one expression that was almost mask-like in its neutrality.  I think there was a mix of awareness at this point as to whether I was the performance or they were, but I sense that some people were clued in.  

This initial impression of the audience upon first seeing them matched up with one audience member’s memory of the performance: 

“I was intrigued. I wasn’t sure I understood at first, but then it seemed very clear that you were playing with actor/audience roles.”  – Audience Member 2

I think this level of suspense or unclarity works to some advantage at this point in the piece.  It mimics the relationship between audience and performer present in Two Amerindians… by blurring the line about who is really the subject of the performance.  However, I think that by the time the audience-performer is brought into the piece it’s important for the majority of the audience to be clued into the conceit that there is a duality of role going on.  This begs the question as to whether clarity on this point was achieved to the degree I believe necessary, as well as how necessary is it to an audience to understand this duality at this particular moment?

Masks:

“I honestly kept looking at the mask. Especially the shape of the face and was fascinated by how African (black) you looked. Just by the ‘bone structure’ of the mask.” – Audience Member 1

I found this particular response from an audience member to be highly informative given the underlying research of the piece.  As a white woman wearing a white, neutral mask and all-black clothing, I find it fascinating to know that they read otherness very clearly.  This strong reaction supports the efficacy of the integration of masks into the piece as a way to other the performer from the audience and creates a sense of uncanniness.  The mask allowed me to transform myself into a “humanoid object” in this audience member’s mind.  The ambiguity, which another audience member noted (below), that the mask allows the performer to evoke primes the audience to project their own thoughts and feelings onto the performer.  In this way, I think I was able to tap into some of the voyeuristic and fetishized qualities that Gómez-Peña and Fusco’s audiences embodied.  

Figure 8. Exploring the “Uncanny Valley” in my notes on Fusco.

“I return to the ambiguous mask and how it hid your identity as much as your intentions, thus freaking me out a bit, and you know how much I love to be made uncomfortable in our art! Masks are another portal into uncanniness and this piece hit a lot of sweet spots for me as an audience participant and admirer of good, smart art.” – Audience Member 5

“The most memorable moment for me was when you removed your mask and placed it on Esther’s face. I remember wondering if you planned it with her because it looked soo natural. She didn’t look surprised or anything” – Audience Member 1

While I’m not surprised that someone might note the mask reversal as the most memorable moment, I was delighted to hear that this audience member thought the moment might be preplanned.  This is a testament to finding the right audience member to interact in the piece.  As I move forward with audience participation (particularly around integration into performance) I should keep this in mind. Not every audience member would be as trusting and generous as Esther.  For the piece to remain effective, the performer must read that je ne c’est quoi energy that a successful audience-performer gives off.  

Another audience member noted a concern for Esther as she entered the piece: 

“I was concerned for Esther that she maybe didn’t know she was going to be onstage, but either way she handled it with ease.” – Audience Member 2

I find the relative truth of experience interesting in reading this comment and comparing it to the video and my impressions.  I definitely sensed reticence, fear, and dread among some members of the audience just before the moment I chose someone.  I also noted three people who I believe would have gone willingly, but weren’t exactly itching to volunteer.  I read Esther’s energy as completely open and willing and I believe her eager acceptance of my offer with very little fanfare or dithering signals a level of excited consent.  However, I find it useful to read this comment as possibly projecting this person’s own fear onto the situation, which helps add to the tension of a moment like this.  As the creator, I can adjust the tension this person might feel based on my handling of the audience-participant once in the piece.  This idea of projection also extended to the white mask, as another audience member noted:

“Clown was easier [than the neutral mask] to access because we could see mostly see your face, but the motionless white mask evokes fear. Probably because you can’t intuit what the wearer is thinking.” – Audience Member 3 

I agree that reading emotions or reactions off of a clown mask is much easier, because the performer has access to almost all of her face.  This audience amber notes that the white mask evoked fear.  While they attributed this fear to a lack of confidence in what the wearer is thinking, I again wonder how much of that is projection of what they might be feeling.  This recurring theme of fear present in the first half of the piece seemed to effectively trigger a sense of discomfort that I was aiming to achieve for the audience.  The question remains as to whether the audience felt safe or not in that discomfort. 

Safe Discomfort: While I did not ask the audience to comment directly on their experience of safe discomfort, some of their responses provide a window into elements that can create safe discomfort.

“I think what I responded to so intensely were the pantomime elements you incorporated into your piece. I loved how ambiguous your mask was, and the moment we made eye contact I was completely hooked. I thought the mimicry was so smart because it inverted the power structure immediately; a passive audience is now the spectacle, and suddenly made self-conscious.”  – Audience Member 5

Self-consciousness as a byproduct reaction could be an effective emotional state to prime an audience for change work or transformation.  The key is to make them just self-conscious enough to be uncomfortable and not push them so far as to alienate them or shut the down.  I imagine that invoking a sense of play after stirring up that self-consciousness might help.  In I Wear the Mask. It Does Not Wear Me. I incorporated play through mimicry of the audience and intrigue as the audience-performer and I shared secrets.  These playful moments, as some audience members reflected, definitely prompted curiosity and intrigue which I think contributed to hooking the audience in past the discomfort.  One audience member reported reacting by being, “a little on edge about what would happen next (in a good way).” 

“I loved the inside joke you and Esther shared, what was written on that paper?” – Audience Member 

Audience-Performer Reactions: To analyze Esther’s reaction to the piece, I have reviewed my post-performance notes, the video recording, and interviewed her.  From this data, I was interested in divining some answers to advance my invitation strategies in my work generally, but mostly wanted to experiment with guided one-on-one audience interactions.  Using the incorporation of an audience-performer I was able to test several communication and invitation strategies as well as develop more ideas on how to craft spaces of safe discomfort.

The First Invitation: 

“The characterization of the mask ‘expressions’ just from your head tilts or body language. Obviously, the mask was not changing expressions, but it was clear that you were able to communicate emotion and even humor behind a neutral mask.” – Audience Member 2

Figure 9. Initial invitation to audience-performer and moment of acceptance.

One audience member noted the clarity of communication even through the neutral mask that I wore.  Strong gestures, such as the extended arm in invitation make my intention as the performer clear.  Note the time signature of the video.  In the same second of invitation, Esther accepts. 

I interviewed Esther to better understand her reactions to the piece. She reflects that she processed the experience on two levels – intellectually and viscerally: 

“I had this intuitive sense.  It took me a moment to know that you were watching us.  That delighted me and made me lean in.  [On an intellectual level] I intuited that you were looking for something, so I leaned in further.  Does she want us to do something?  So I thought, I’m gonna wait and see.  And I thought I saw your eyes go back and forth [looking at the audience], and then I saw you walk back over.  My gut reaction: I thought she’s coming to me.  I felt overjoyed.  I wanted to do whatever this thing is.

The Second Invitation: 

The second significant moment of our exchange included the revelation of my face to Esther, followed by whispering my character’s manifesto in her ear.  

Figure 10. The whispered manifesto.

I signaled the secrecy of this moment when I put my finger to my lips in a “Shh” gesture as a revealed my face to her.  She smiled at me and I immediately approached her and placed my hand on her shoulder to lean in and whisper in her ear (Figure 10).  Her body language communicated acquiescence as she grabbed my elbow and concentrated on listening to my words.  I believe that the revelation of my face was a necessary give in order to gain a sense of trust with the audience-performer as I led them through the next phase. 

Interestingly, Esther experienced an initial reaction of wanting to not mess up: 

“I felt like I had some kind of obligation.  After you whispered in my ear I felt like I had some kind of obligation to share [what you whispered].  And when you gave permission that I didn’t have to share, I felt a little nugget of joy.  I just got to keep this poetic whisper in my ear.  I could just hear the secret and enjoy that and just be in this moment.”  

The whispered mantra became a major exchange between the two of us.  Later in our interview, Esther shared that she thought the secret we shared marked the beginning of us coming together as a team.

The Third Invitation: 

Figure 11. Series of mirrored actions.

The literal invitation – written and presented in an envelope stating “You’re Invited” (Figure 3) provided its own data for this experience.  It also played on theatrical tropes and provided more information towards my first research question from Something to Chalk About?  As one audience member noted:

“your question slip felt completely self aware in its triviality. It’s function isn’t to reveal something to you later; it functions as a record of a decision made by an audience, a simple “yes/no” question. It’s an admission ticket, not a unit of measurement, and that makes it an artifact of the experience.” – Audience Member 5

“I don’t remember my function during this [the written invitation], but I felt joy in getting to make a written response.” – Esther 

I never intended for the invitation to be read aloud, but Esther’s choice to do so actually folded her into the piece as a performance further.  With this simple action, she became both host and guest – welcoming the whole audience into the moment of decision while electing to join me on the journey that I had crafted.  

In opening the invitation, Esther experienced some difficulty removing the slip from the envelope:

“I was worried about time and the struggle of getting the invitation out.  Once I got it out, I could just sit with it and enjoy it.”

However, after she was able to remove it, her self-consciousness and worry abated.  When designing artifacts for the audience to interact with in future projects, I should definitely test out and troubleshoot everything possible.  Keeping the audience-performer in their body and out of their mind by minimizing such distractions could help to preserve the “magic” of the experience.

I asked Esther if she had any hesitation or trepidation about accepting an invitation to join me on an experience that didn’t explicitly state what we were going to do:

“I liked the mystery [of not knowing exactly what I was agreeing to].  [In theatre,] I don’t really like to know what happens next.  I just want it to evolve and unravel in front of me.  I was completely game to join [whatever happened next].” 

As I design invitations for audience engagement in the future I want to explore the balance between how to preserve a level of mystery and intrigue in the moment while making sure the audience-participant is comfortable and feels safe.  

The Fourth Invitation: 

Once agreed, I escorted Esther to her seat and indicated my desire for her to remain seated as I separated from her to begin the mask transference ceremony.  As a host, I took on several responsibilities to ensure her comfort – cleaning the mask, fighting momentarily with the ties to try and loosen them, and providing a moment for her to adjust to the mask.  Once she became masked, she quickly transferred her attention from me to the audience.  For 30 seconds she intently watches the audience, with calm, before returning her attention to me.  I wonder how relaxing into the piece more as the performer in this moment my stretch that calm attention further?  

At certain points, she innately picked up my movements and we began to move symbiotically (Figure 11).  Amazingly this happened almost instantly upon both of us becoming masked.  Considering the limited peripheral vision that the neutral mask allows, her ability to copy me so seamlessly was truly remarkable.  I wonder if modeling the mimicry at the beginning of the piece helped to set the tone of what physical actions were intended in the performance space? If so, I think the intention of the performance space could push further and really hold a mirror up to nature as the audience confronts that we are both “other” and a reflection of them.

I asked Esther if she was aware that our movements became synchronized.  She confided that she was aware of this and added:

“I suddenly felt like we were a team.  I didn’t feel on the spot.  We are doing this together, I don’t need to worry.”

I asked her at what point she felt that we bonded as performers during the performance and she indicating the process began with the whispered interaction and settled once we sat together (“When we sat – it cemented.  It started when we had the secret”).  Perhaps this action signaled us as equals on this side of the performance. She went on to add:

“I didn’t think of you as Kristina.  I thought, ‘I’m with the entity and we are doing this thing together.’” 

Effectiveness of Performance Structure: Overall,  I found the intended structure of the performance highly effective in setting up the constructs and intentions that I sought.  There definitely were moments I encountered upon viewing the video recording that I would adjust to clarify beats and capitalize on opportunities that I hadn’t thought of, but I will review these more specifically in the next section.  At this moment, I wish to analyze the performance structure as it appeared in performance.  

“The realization that the very performative actor was actually using the audience as performers!” – Audience Member 4

“The voyeuristic aspects of the piece, as an audience member I wondered am I the viewer or am I being viewed?” – Audience Member 3

“I thought the mimicry was so smart because it inverted the power structure immediately; a passive audience is now the spectacle, and suddenly made self-conscious.” – Audience Member 5

The clearest aspect of the performance structure seem to be the duality of role between the performer and the audience.  Multiple audience members noted their experience of having the gaze of the pieced shifted to them.  I interpret comments such as “am I being viewed” or “suddenly made self-conscious” to indicate a level of safe-discomfort derived from the site and situation.  By utilizing the construct of a theatre performance an initial contract of audience behavior is immediately present in the space.  Subverting that contract by revealing that the performer can also be the audience member and the audience can become performance fodder shifted the balance of power that I wanted to explore.  Bending the walls of the 4th wall/cage created uncertainty of the power dynamics that I think the performance was able to sustain until the end.  One audience member noted that they felt “disoriented” by the reversal of role from viewer to participant.  Ultimately, I think that the structure allowed the audience to realize that there was no passive role available to them.  

Pushing that idea forward in the future, I might explore the responsibility of the performer to the audience in providing them an outlet for expression or an option for action within the confines of the performance.  I asked the question, “What recourse does the audience have to change [the] dynamic [of being faced to reflect on the audience experience as a participant]” in my sketchbook on Two Amerindians Visit…. In my feedback, Dr. Hunt asked, “do we have a duty to give audiences a means of opting in and out, and is that duty continuous? Or is everyone of course already in possession of the right to opt-in and out all the time, anyway, regardless of our action?”  I find these questions continually swirling in my head as I reflect on this piece and look ahead to my next micro project.  While I do believe that everyone has their own innate agency to opt-in or out of experiences as they wish, there are multiple factors that make this difficult in a more formal theatre situation.  Unlike watching television, where it is easy to change the channel or leave the room if you want to opt-out of what’s on the screen, a traditional theatre piece makes it difficult to get up mid-performance.  There are social norms and expectations of behavior in this scenario.  While the Amerindian performance had more room for the audience to choose how to behave, the social contract of watching a piece of theatre is so strong that it’s almost taboo to enact your own agency to disengage fully from the experience and still remain present in the room.

This idea, coupled with my long-term personal desire to find effective means of lighting a fire within individual audience members to make change, lead me to believe that the artist must at least consider multiple levels of optional engagement or recourse for the audience to experiment with adjusting their behavior to make personal discoveries.  In this space, Boal and Brecht collide and I am still knee-deep in the mud with them playing with how that might look in a more traditional theatre setting.