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Audience Participation

The lights dim, my pupils dilate, the curtain draws. As the anticipation builds, I’m reminded of a roller coaster: the slow clicks of the train as it ascends the first hill. Music stirs, and movement erupts. The tension in the performance rises, manifesting in angular and twisted shapes. I grow anxious. Suddenly, the dancer’s movements grow soft and supple, seemingly reacting to me. It’s as though we are connected, intertwined in our own dance of lead and follow.

Yet I am not on stage. I’m in the audience. In my seat.

When we sit in a theatre, we are not merely “passive observers.” We engage in a continual exchange: the artist on stage transmits a message; we receive and refine said message; then we remit our interpretations and reactions back to the artists, beginning the cycle all over. This relationship between performer and audience — what Erika Fischer-Lichte refers to as the “autopoietic feedback loop” — is complex, with numerous factors at play (e.g., an audience’s proximity to the stage, the quality of the performers, the use of the “fourth wall,” etc.). However, all else being equal, I think we can start to boil this notion down to a basic concept: there is a give and take between audience and performer.

The artist’s “gift” is quite clear (i.e., the performance), but what is less explicable is the audience’s role in reciprocating. While often abstract, this feedback can also manifest tangibly: a standing ovation, a yawn, or even the absence of sound. And while audiences are ostensibly aware of the many ways they offer feedback to performers, I wonder if they are as aware of the effect this feedback can have on the very performance they are viewing.

As the holidays are in full swing, and we all bustle about attending those annual productions ofThe NutcrackerA Christmas Carol, or perhaps a sing-a-long of Handel’s Messiah, I hope we can all take a moment and think about the role we play as audience members. Let us be reminded that observation is active and does not operate in a vacuum.

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