Taking part: the whole spectrum (or No more Mr Nice Guy, when participation goes bad) / by Rachel Briscoe

Given as a provocation at Unfolding Theatre's Taking Part discussion event at BAC on Fri 17 March 2017.

Taking part is a massive subject and it’s something central to our work, in lots of different ways. In the interests of this being a provocation, I want to talk about some stuff I don’t have the answers to, that we’re trying to figure out. I want to talk about the ways of taking part which we in theatre tend to ignore – because they’re maybe more difficult.

But let’s rewind. In 2015, we did a project called Tooting Field Days: six monthly activity days in Tooting. My favourite one of these was the July one. 

Starting in Tooting library, a fantastic group of participants made bird puppets, and decorated an enormous orange bird. Having acquired other random library users who wondered what on earth this random mix of people were doing, we set off across South London to walk a green route that is in danger of being built on. 

 Making puppets and decorating the giant orange bird in Tooting library.

Making puppets and decorating the giant orange bird in Tooting library.

Part-parade, part-adventure and part-protest, this group of around 50 people helped each other through fences (legally) and along overgrown paths. We stopped in a community garden run by a local charity who work with adults with learning disabilities. Here we had a picnic, chatted with the people who worked in the garden, some people bought plants. 

Then the bird parade set off again, picking up new friends as we went. Ninety minutes later we arrived at Clapham Junction. I think everyone felt a sense of achievement – physical but also having walked in solidarity with strangers, in defence of green spaces, with a piece of art they’d created. It was a lovely day – and satisfying for us, as well as the people who’d taken part. (Annie talked in her provocation about the need for a two way relationship between artists and participants in 'taking part' work.)

 Survivors' photo - everyone who made it all the way to Clapham Junction.

Survivors' photo - everyone who made it all the way to Clapham Junction.

I want this kind of experience. I want to make this kind of experience for other people. But I also want other experiences.

In the kind of art that people don’t take part in (or take part in an imagination/ empathy-based way) there is a whole spectrum of emotions: there are plays that make you laugh and plays that make you cry or get very angry, paintings depicting the best bits of humanity and the atrocities we commit. In theatre-based work that people take part in, I think the bit of the spectrum we explore is narrow: people have a nice time, within a microcosm which is probably more utopian than daily life, they learn, they grow, they create.

Just like I don’t always want to watch nice, comforting stories, I don’t always want to give people nice, comforting experiences. Sometimes I feel like the thing people choose to take part in should be difficult or uncomfortable.

This isn’t sadism, I want people to be happy as much as the next person. But I do think we need spaces where people can feel angry or sad or realize how frustrated they are by something.

Theatre can put a frame around the difficult stuff, create a delineated space where it feels safe to consider something tricky. Theatre in which people take part can do this in a really embodied way. And this can actually contribute to people – or society’s – well-being in the slightly longer run.

But I think we rarely do this.

I think –in UK theatre- we’re limiting the vocabulary of what taking part means. We’re limiting its ambition. I think this is different to other artforms, I think with other artforms we expect and accept a variation of experience – perhaps we’re much readier to be challenged.

  250 cm Line Tattooed on Six People  by Santiago Sierra

250 cm Line Tattooed on Six People by Santiago Sierra

Probably at the more controversial end of visual/ gallery-based arts is Spanish artist Santiago Sierra. A lot of his work is playing on the idea that everyone and everything has a price - and that social and political conditions mean massive disparity between different people’s prices.

250 cm Line Tattooed on Six People Sierra paid 6 people to have a line tattoed on their backs, and they stood there, side by side. In exhibitions there were photographs of this.

Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes played on the status of some immigrants in Germany (in 2000) who were legally prevented from taking paid employment – and simultaneously vilified for sponging off the state.

In much of his work there are people taking part in the exhibition, paid to endure arguably de-humanising activity; other people take part by paying to look at the people who have been paid for the dehumanising activity.

Sierra, along with other artists like Thomas Hirschhorn, make work which requires people to take part - but simultaneously problematises the act of taking part - both in the artwork and the society on which it comments.

  Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes  by Santiago Sierra

Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes by Santiago Sierra

I tried very hard to think of more theatre examples for this different type of taking part and eventually came up with a good one. All you need to know is a piece by Davis Freeman, which I saw  in Kaaitheater in Brussels in Jan 2015.

So basically Davis comes on with 3 dancers and each dancer is holding a gun. And they put the guns down on the floor at the front and he’s like I’m going to explain how these 3 guns work. Each of the guns is a different type of gun that was used in a real life shooting - Columbine and a couple of others.

And Davis is like, I’m gonna explain how to use these guns, in case you ever need to... apparently there was a kid at Columbine who got hold one of the guns but didn’t know where the safety catch was, so couldn’t use it to defend himself.

So Davis explains, super dispassionately, while the dancers dance around. 

And then he’s like, you should practice, you probably don’t have these guns at home so we can do that now. 

And a moving target is much better, so we’ll use the dancers. 

And he invites people from the audience to come and shoot the dancers... and then I kind of became really conscious -he’d introduced them before- that one is called Mohammed, one is a black guy and one is a woman.

As the individual audience members come up, he asks them which dancer they’d like to shoot, explains what to do and again very dispassionately, makes this commentary, ‘I suppose this is quite like Ferguson really…’

It turns about that all the people who volunteered on the night I saw it were white guys. Everyone was sort of laughing, sort of incredibly uncomfortable. And he is so polite and the tone is so ‘this is a great opportunity to practise...’ which is very disconcerting. And the people onstage I guess are the ones that are taking part, but we in the audience are too.

 Davis Freeman and one of the dancers in  All You Need to Know .

Davis Freeman and one of the dancers in All You Need to Know.

And then Davis invites a 4th person to come and shoot him... he gave the guy the gun and was like, wait a moment until I get in the middle of the space and turn around. And then he walked to the middle of the space and as he turned, got a Stanley knife out of his pocket and ran at the guy yelling. *But* sort of as he turned, the guy was like ‘I can’t do this’ and put the gun down, and ran off the stage. I don’t know what would have happened if the guy had shot Davis.

I probably haven’t done it justice in describing it, but this piece, and the way it involved us the audience, raised some massive questions for me. It was a profoundly uncomfortable experience to be part of. I’ve thought about it a lot since. It was a brilliant piece of art.

I guess I started thinking about this stuff, the darker side of taking part, because of a piece we made in 2015 called Invisible Treasure.

It was about invisible systems and how we negotiate agency within them. Players took part in a number of activities in which they negotiated how they –as a group- would behave in response to a faceless power structure represented by a 2 metre high rabbit in the corner of the room. 

 A section of  Invisible Treasure  in which the group are rewarded for pleasing the rabbit.

A section of Invisible Treasure in which the group are rewarded for pleasing the rabbit.

In a section at the end, the space makes increasingly unfair demands on the group, and the only way to escape is to refuse to play – people made sit-ins, collectively shouted fuck off at the rabbit, all sorts of things. 

But sometimes people went along with the demands, desperate to please the rabbit (as they’d kind of been trained to during the game). A friend of ours made everyone kneel on the floor in front of the rabbit and beg forgiveness. He was very angry afterwards. ‘But I’m the sort of person who doesn’t follow rules’ he practically shouted at us. 

Some people were quite upset or surprised by their own behaviour in the game. It hadn’t been a nice and comforting experience for everyone. Robert Butler, the former theatre critic for the Independent on Sunday, described it as ‘a piece of participatory art where the act of participating becomes increasingly morally questionable’. 

I think this is only useful if there’s some way of helping players reflect – upsetting people’s sense of themselves was not the object of the piece. When people escaped the synthetic rabbit world, they emerged into an area where they could record their experiences by writing on the walls and use what other people had written to help them process – and talk to/ shout at us. I think people were able to contextualise their experience and see it as an exploration of how power structures work and a magnified version of our experiences within them.

 One of the questions audiences encountered when they escaped the space - and a variety of answers.

One of the questions audiences encountered when they escaped the space - and a variety of answers.

I don’t think the discomfort always needs to be a political thing – I’m conscious that the examples I’ve given have been. I think the dark part of the spectrum can equally be a space for melancholy in a society which is trying to medicalise the sadness out of people.

We’re making a show called Out of sight, in which the audience are blindfolded for the duration. It’s about care and caring for someone and what happens when you can’t do that anymore – and all the feelings mixed up in that, especially when that person is a parent. 

It’s a show in which we’re trying to give people an experience of vulnerability – without lack of safety. There’s a moment in the show, which in the narrative is the moment that the daughter walks out to her car after leaving her mother in the care home, where we invite the audience to walk, blindfolded and unguided. There are some tactile markers on the floor but they’re walking sightless, in a space they’ve never seen. 

After the R&D try-out we did, someone fed back about this moment:

‘I felt lost, I felt angry with you for just leaving me, like how do you expect me to do this on my own… and then I realised that is the piece, that’s how she feels.’

It’s wonderful when audiences ‘get it’... I don't know what percentage did!

I think it’s a piece with potential but I have no idea how we talk about it, in terms of marketing – come and spend 50 minutes reflecting on the difficult decisions that you may have to make for your parents and how that’s gonna make you feel... that’s not gonna shift tickets. But people afterwards did talk about how good it was to have that space to spend time with that stuff.

 Another pic from  Invisible Treasure  because it turns out that it's really hard to get good images for a show that takes place in the dark. Another helpful thing for marketing then...

Another pic from Invisible Treasure because it turns out that it's really hard to get good images for a show that takes place in the dark. Another helpful thing for marketing then...

In summary, I think that the success of the taking part work with ‘the ameliorative intent’ has made us shut down some other, rich possibilities. But how do we ensure the less comfortable work has integrity, doesn’t exploit, or break trust? This I don’t know yet. Some of the questions I think we need to ask aren’t exclusive to less comfortable work, they’re the same as we might ask on any project.

What am I the artist taking responsibility for?

What are you the participant taking responsibility for?

And – this is the tricky one- how have we agreed this?

With Tooting Field Days, the orange bird walk, we took responsibility for most everything. But people don’t always want to go on a magical mystery tour, where they’re essentially on a school trip. Sometimes they want to go outside their comfort zone – pick up that bloody recorder they’re terrified of, as in Putting the band back together. Sometimes they want to think about the difficult stuff. Or consider how ok they are with the world being run how it’s run. And this may not be a comfortable experience.

None of these –in my opinion- are better or worse ways of taking part. And when we’ve seen the profound effect that taking part can have, let’s not shut down any of its potential.

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(After the event, I had a very interesting chat with Fergus Evans, who prompted me to think more about how invitations to this kind of work are given, and to whom. That sounds a little cryptic but I don't want to misrepresent Fergus's points!)