So. I tend to start these blogs with one specific experience that expands out into a discussion of a larger topic.
I have a formula, I know.
But, really. I had a remarkable experience this weekend that I need to unpack with you. It just so happens to relate out to this new-fangled phenomenon of participatory theatre and theorist Rene Girard’s landmark book Violence and the Sacred.
Go with me.
Over the weekend, I went with my boyfriend to a very small theater in DC to see a participatory, clown performance called Butt Kapinski. Now, my boyfriend loves him some participatory theatre and the show won L.A. Fringe a while back and, hey, I’ve never seen a proper clown show before – let’s go! Regular date night activities.
When we got into the space, we sat onstage as the theatrically inclined are wont to do when invited to. We stared back at the rest of the audience who were 65 or so in number. Little did I know that this moment would be emblematic of my experience that night. We were all a bit jittery, a bit excited, a bit self-congratulatory for attending a performance so off the beaten path. We watched a stand up comedian and some sketch comedy videos. We laughed. There was a strong sense of camaraderie. This aspect would prove essential to the (debatable) effectiveness of the performance that followed.
Butt Kapinski, you see, is a private eye with a debilitating lisp who is dead-set on making a film new-wow (noir, you see). What he needs to make his perfect noir L.A. is the help of a willing audience, at least at first.
The performance progressed with the standard participation escalations. Butt asked the back row to create his theme music and they did so, poorly. Butt asked a single audience member to improvise vocal background music and he did so, very poorly. Audience members became murder victims, tenement dwellers (sitting in each others’ laps), noodle stand patrons, hookers and their engorged Johns … oh, yes, we went there together. An entire room of men standing and dancing proactively, playing prostitutes in Butt’s red light district. An entire room of women, hips slung low and legs spread wide, stroking their imaginary penises. Oh, yeah. We were deep inside the idea and yet, Butt seemed frustrated. He wasn’t getting the answers he wanted and his theme song didn’t come out the way he wanted it to. Even the board op couldn’t satisfy Butt’s dictatorial command. Mighty pushy for a clown.
Then, of course – as you knew all along – he set his sights on me.
I had told my boyfriend in the car on the way there that I hoped I didn’t have to participate. He has tried valiantly in the past to get me to open up in our college improv troupe and to push myself to improvise in storytelling games, but I’m just no good at it. I admire his ability to play, in the truest sense of the word. I’m a writer, I’m a director – I like a script. I am not a collaborative theatre artist’s ideal canvas.
I think Butt could smell that on me.
Butt – with his own personal spotlight as an additional appendage – crept toward me and addressed me as Father Macauly Culkin. I have enough acting background, so I took a stance and developed as much of a corrupt priest as I could muster. I took an imaginary cigarette from Butt and informed him that business was good, not that I had a conception of what that meant. Butt then began to interrogate me about the mysterious murders that had occurred earlier in the show. I utterly blanked. I had no clear direction for where to go. No clues to speak of, no inclination as to what the “right” ending of this story was supposed to be. I stammered as Butt’s hot industrial spotlight swung around my face. As I sat their tight-lipped – really just lost for an idea – Butt informed me and the audience that he had to use his big gun intimidation tactic.
The entire audience at this point was in on the joke. The last person that Butt intimidated was subject to the “big gun intimidation tactic” of being flicked in the forehead.
But, that’s when he brought out the duct tape. Butt proceeded to a rip a small piece of tape off and walk towards me. I guided the tape down to my hands thinking that I might be bound, but he guided it up to my mouth where he placed the tape and pressed it on to be sure that I could not move my mouth. Thinking I could contribute to comedy here, I began trying to say “Ok, Ok, I confess!” through the tape, but Butt interrupted me to say “Can you breathe?” Relief. “Yeah, sort of.” Then he held my nostrils together. I didn’t feel that my safety was threatened, I just felt that I was the focus of this moment of the performance which was very disturbing to me. My boyfriend, on the other hand, was upset by this. He put his arm around my shoulder and tried to make eye contact to make sure that I was Ok with what I was being subjected to, really, without my consent.
Once Butt took the tape off my mouth, we had a fun moment of him saying the confession and me trying to mouth the words as quickly and clearly as I could. I screamed and made strange noises when I was encouraged to. People got back to laughing again.
At the ending of the show – tread lightly for spoilers! – Butt reveals himself to be the woman we had all known that he was. She strips down to underwear, shows us her breasts to prove she is female, and then invites an audience member to bind her with the same duct tape she gagged me with. A man does. Later, she encourages an audience member to “save” her and a visibly upset woman volunteers mentioning something about how “it’s never alright.”
Did this fun little film noir send up just become a play about consent?
Regardless, that I and so many other members of the audience were the medium through which performer Deanna Fleysher conveyed the intent at the heart of Butt Kapinski really got stuck in my craw. You can ask my boyfriend; I literally name dropped Girard on the car drive home.
How does this relate back to Rene Girard and Violence and the Sacred, exactly? Well, Girard has some really interesting things to say about community, participation, mimesis, and most importantly, violence. I am a particular fan of his understanding of catharsis through the purging of a scapegoat. A good summary I found online:
… a paroxysm of violence would tend to focus on an arbitrary victim and a unanimous antipathy would, mimetically, grow against him. The brutal elimination of the victim would reduce the appetite for violence that possessed everyone a moment before, and leaves the group suddenly appeased and calm. The victim lies before the group, appearing simultaneously as the origin of the crisis and as the one responsible for this miracle of renewed peace. He becomes sacred, that is to say the bearer of the prodigious power of defusing the crisis and bringing peace back.
Essentially, what Girard argues is that a community – like the one forged between audience and performer – can build up tension and a desire for conflict. The way that communities tend to purge this conflict and restore peace – like how a play builds to a climax and then falls toward resolution – is by focusing on an arbitrary victim that comes to embody the conflict and sacrificing them.
I think that Girard is on the money with this theory, most clearly in participatory theatre. Not to say that I was some sort of martyr for Butt Kapinski, but after the show many people in the audience approached me to say how funny it was to see me struggle and what a striking moment that was in the performance. It had the air of gratitude: Thank you for absorbing that critical moment which we were building to together, so that I didn’t have to. A classier way of saying, “Thanks for taking one for the team.”
I was certainly an arbitrary victim, which is perhaps why I have thought about the experience all the way to a blog. There was something about the particular camaraderie that the audience at Butt Kapinski had built up that made this sacrificial ceremony all the more true to Girard’s theory. We built a community until we isolated a scapegoat – me – that could absorb the adversarial tension in the room: Butt versus the audience, the audience versus the audience, the audience versus themselves, etc. In a very down to earth artistic sense, this sacrifice is essential as an example to the rest of the audience: “You are not a passive observer in this room. You are not safe. You are complicit.”
This connection made me consider other participatory and interactive theatre pieces I have seen over the years.
Sleep No More – Punchdrunk’s revolutionary, sprawling adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – is more dance than theatre (There, I said it!), but nonetheless it is one of the most affecting pieces of art that I have ever tangled with. Masked audience members may enter thinking that they will simply be spectators; after all, they are told to begin with that they cannot talk. Right off the bat, however, the performer and facilitators make it clear that this is very much an active piece. When I saw it in July 2012, as we ascended to the top floors our guide reminded us that we should not try to stick together. With perfect timing, the elevator doors opened to a floor and only one person was able to step out before our guide closed the door, leaving that person utterly alone and completely lost. Now, it seemed, we truly knew what we were in for.
Singling out audience members is a trope in Sleep No More. Performers will grab random masked spectators and ask them to dance or whisper a secret in their ear or take them to a hidden room and tell them an essential clue.
In the case of Sleep No More, the tension that is built up is the camaraderie of the lost and frightened. The audience enters a completely new world together that they must try to understand. Audience members are “sacrificed” by performers, I think, to relieve the tension of distance between spectator and actor. The interaction is an acknowledgment of the presence of watchers. Nonetheless, for some, the relief of the interaction is “Someone had to get too close to the action to figure this out, but I’m glad that it wasn’t me.”
That brings us to Iraninan playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s challenging piece White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. If you have not seen this piece performed, go see it. If you have not seen this piece performed, skip over this part. I would not want to ruin it for you.
The catch of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is that the script holds all of the power in the room. It is the instructions. There is no director for this piece and no rehearsals; the actor reads the script for the first time, every time. The actor must follow and, naturally, so too must the audience. However, as the play goes on, it becomes clear that all of the actions that the script demands are tests to challenge the audience’s natural inclination to blindly follow orders.
At the play’s start, an audience member is volunteered to pour a nondescript powder into one of the two glasses set out on a table. By play’s end, the question of whether or not that powder was poison has been raised. The actor is told by the script to drink from one of the glasses and lie on the floor of the theater, not moving until the entire audience has left. The audience does not know which glass had the powder.
Imagine being the audience member who volunteered to put the powder in the water. That audience member is the sacrifice for the play’s intent. Their experience is the medium through which this play expresses its ultimate end. This is a perhaps extreme example of this idea, but it is also very powerful. If that actor dies, that actor and that audience member are literal sacrifices to the idea.
I’m not certain of what to make of this somewhat disturbing connection that I have stumbled upon. It will certainly make my experiences with participatory theatre a little darker in color. I think it gives us something to think about in regard to our relationship to the rest of the audience when we are observing theatre. Why are we willing to let a performer subject an audience member to extreme stress, physical humiliation, or intense vulnerability in a dark, confusing space? I think it is the same as with so many other things that humans let happen: it is easy to sacrifice a scapegoat to an idea because it’s not you, until it is.
Dare I ask, though: Why me?