Justin Tornow is making an unconventional performance for The Commons at Carolina Performing Arts. It has no storytelling or narrative structure. It might not even be recognizable as a performance, in that Justin will not be directing dancers or actors in costumes to move on stage in a choreographed way. She’s creating a happening: an opportunity for a participatory experience for the audience. The audience will come into the performance space and do things.
During her rehearsal process—if this month of development time can even be called that—Justin is creating activity stations that will have written scores (written by Justin or others) for audience members to read and interpret. Consisting of instructions and suggestions for actions, some of the scores might be visual, others musical, and others textual. In these rehearsals, she develops an idea for an activity that audience members could do and then considers what their experience of that activity could be.
Justin asks herself a question like, “Could we have the audience do X?” That initial question quickly begets more questions that lead to the most fundamental question for her: “Why should the audience do X?”
Asking “why” is crucial for this project, because the answer offers what she sees as two possible directions for the performance. The first direction fits with conventional performances and has become reflexive for both artists and audience members: The answer to the “why” is that audiences “get” a specific takeaway from the experience. The meaning of it, the spectacle of it, the athleticism of it: Each audience member leaves with a fairly equivalent takeaway that the artist intended for them to “get.”
Justin doesn’t want to take this direction. To her, this convention of the takeaway turns the audience’s experience into a commodity, a symptom of capitalism’s control. The experience of attending a show is sold as a product, made by the artist for a profit and passively consumed by the audience. Audience members may even compare how much they learned or were entertained to the ticket price, to see if they got as much as they paid for. When leaving performances, I’ve heard people make comments to their companions along the lines of “That was a good show, but it wasn’t $25 worth of a show.”
Justin wants to avoid, undermine, even prevent this commodification of experience. She wants to answer “why” in another way that offers a second direction for this performance. Rather, she wants to not answer “why” at all, as not to offer the audience a commodified product to chew and swallow. Perhaps this could prompt real engagement for people to determine their takeaway for themselves. They could have agency in their own experience, instead of just being passive consumers. Rather than a performance serving as a time-out, when audience members pause their lives to sit in the seats in a dark auditorium and watch, the happening is just as much a part of their lives as the rest of their day is.
Through these rehearsals, Justin is trying to shift into this higher gear of audience engagement. At that crucial moment of asking “why” about a particular score or activity, Justin says she catches herself thinking, “What do I want the audience to get out of this?” and shifts to ask instead, “What are the possibilities that could come out of an audience doing this?” And she’s deciding that offering certain kinds of nothing is better than offering a very particular something. Let the audience ask—and answer—why.
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