Something to Chalk About: Designing my first Performance as Research Project

Research Question: If invited, to what extent will an audience engage with a participatory art event?

Through my work in this PaR course, I hope to explore various ways to engage audience members actively within the context of a performance.  This desire stems from a hunch that activating the audience at different points in a performance event (before, during, after, and/or later) will produce different levels of engagement with the performance material (themes, concepts, narratives, etc.).  Additionally, I wonder if active engagement in all four stages of a performance event will cause (or correlate with) audience members’ continued engagement with the themes/concepts/narratives of the performance in their every day lives.  

Figure 1. Selections of Audience-Participants’ work in Something to Chalk About? 

Project Design

From our initial readings (Bolt, Lee & Polland, Pearson, and Kershaw, et. al) curiosities have developed around

  • place/site-specificity
  • belonging/inclusion
  • intimacy and authenticity with an audience,
  • blurring the relationship between performer and audience

I knew that I wanted to design an initial project that invited the audience to share something of themselves – a message for others, a meaningful quote or image, a thought about their day, etc. – but was not quite sure how to elicit this in a performative manner without a “captive” audience in a room together.  However, I happened to see a performance entitled Chalk About at IPAY the week prior and it planted the seed of the methodology I would use.

During a workshop with Chalk About’s choreographer, Christine DeVaney I learned about her process of devising this dance piece for young audiences.  She and partner-choreographer, Leandro Kees, had never met before being thrown in a rehearsal room together and told to make something.  They began with an exchange of question-asking and verbal/dance response, which eventually layered to a duet-question/answer exchange, and finally one partner tracing a body part of the other with chalk while still engaging in this question/answer exchange.  From DeVaney’s method, I incorporated the invitation to chalk and talk with the audience and audience/performers during the course of the performance.

In order to work in “micro” scale for this first project, I looked back at my initial practice in developing project design from hunches: 

Figure 2. Practicing Project Design from Journal

In reviewing this initial mind map stemming from the question, “How do you create opportunities to acknowledge humanity in your audience?” I played with re-wording and refining this larger conceptual question:

  • What is the role of reciprocity when developing a relationship with an audience?
  • Is sustained engagement with an audience [of strangers] dependent on an exchange of some kind?
  • If given a clear invitation, to what extent will people engage with a participatory art event?

Landing on this final question I arrived at scale that could be achieved in this first micro project.  I sketched out a design for a side-walk chalk engagement event.  I created 4 statements of invitation which would become the four borders of the performance space: 

  • Something to Chalk About?
  • Take a Break and Create!
  • Let’s Chalk About Your Day
  • Admire, Inspire, Inquire

Next to each of these invitations I wrote a social media hashtag that I had verified had no previous existing posts attached to it: #asuchalks.  By including this hashtag, I hoped to invite audience and audience-participants to engage with the performance in another dimension, through social media.  In order to create some sense of hospitality within the performance and minimize obstacles to participation, I planned to leave chalk at various intersections of the sidewalk squares to keep the means of participation easily accessible.  I also planned to bring hand-wipes that would be placed in the center of the performance space for anyone who wished to wipe their hands after participating.  

I wanted to set the performance on ASU’s campus at a site with a large volume of people gathered, but not one that would literally stop all traffic.  Ultimately I settled for the intersection of Hayden mall and the Memorial Student Union.  This area often has various groups tabling and I knew people would be used to stopping and talking if they chose too.  

Figure 3. Sketching the Performance Design from Journal 

Assessment Design

With the performance elements designed, I needed to decide on how I would assess the engagement and effectiveness of the invitation strategy. I settled on four points of engagement that I would measure during the performance:

  • Active looking: audience member had to show visible signs of persistent gaze at the performance and/or the performance space. (Audience)
  • Participation: through drawing/writing in or around the performance space. (Audience-Participant)
  • Talking with others: either with me (Performer-Host) or with the audience-participants as they participate. (Audience-Inquirer)
  • Posting a picture/video: to social media and tagging with #asuchalks. (Audience-Poster)

I created a chart in my journal that I would use to tally interaction throughout the performance. 

Figure 4. Assessment chart in Journal
Something to Chalk About in Performance