Nobody likes Audience Participation

When Ben McKenzie, Sayraphim Lothian and I began our Live Games and Immersive Theatre Company, Pop Up Playground in 2011, we encountered a common response when we told people about our work and invited them to come and play.  “Is it audience participation?” people asked warily, “I don’t like audience participation.”

We’d be at pains to describe in some detail how it was participatory but not the dreaded ‘audience participation,’ and the distinction between the two gradually became more well drawn.  It emerged through repetition that the ‘audience participation’ alluded to tended be of a similar cast.  A performer selects an audience member to come up on stage and be part of the action.  In this moment of choosing, there is an accompanying thrill of tension as much of the audience shrinks into their seats, away from the searching gaze of the performer while others lean forward with eager expectation that they might be chosen.  Depending on the performer in question, they will either choose one of the eager ones and the audience will breath a sigh of collective relief, or they will choose one of the shy ones, and proceed to victimize them in front of the awkward or cruel audience.  Those who enjoy the attention and are happy to play along, bumble through whatever task the performer demands and receive a round of applause at the end as they return to their seats and their friends.  Those who are less comfortable in the spotlight, struggle to keep up or become frozen, and receive a conciliatory round of applause as they shrink back into the darkness.

Most performers who use this form of audience participation are adept at finding the extroverts amongst their audience, and so the show continues on without calumny, but willing or not, the participating audience’s experience is structurally the same.  They are taken from the stalls, where the rules that guide their behaviour are familiar and understood – they sit in the semi dark, they watch, they laugh, they interpret, they applaud – and they are placed into a new environment where the rules as to how they can contribute meaningfully to the action are at best obscured, and so they can either transgress the expectations of this new environment – they can laugh, or talk back to the performer, or make faces at the audience to draw attention to themselves – or they can freeze, caught in the paralysis of not knowing and not being able to determine what is expected of them, while on full display in front of friends and strangers.

This is not what Pop Up Playground means when we describe our work as participatory.  When we place our audience at the centre of our work, we always carefully construct the social environment in which that participation takes place and the expectations that shape the audience’s experience and participation are made transparent from the outset.

Tellingly, the hesitation we’ve encountered around audience participation tends to come less from what we might call ordinary punters who might go to a few shows at the comedy festival or the fringe every now and then, and much more strongly from people who are far more engaged with traditional theatre and performance.  Indeed, six years on, we still find ourselves in a position of needing to go to some lengths to describe our practice to certain cultural institutions in a way that they can understand as performance.  Counter-intuitively, the cultural institutions that have supported us have often been those common opinion might assume to be the most reserved and conservative, and the greater resistance or apathy has come from the artists and institutions that think of themselves as the most experimental and cutting edge.

My take on this is that, at core level, play and games are a fundamentally democratic and negotiable form.  The power to frame meaning and value is distributed amongst all the participants, and the traditional structures that focus on aesthetics and the genius of the individual creative process are de-privileged.  Perhaps, at a time when the arts are under such pressure from conservative governments, threatening the established hegemony by asking artists to relinquish even a little of their hard won creative autonomy looks like too risky a proposition.

At core level, play and games are a fundamentally democratic and negotiable form.  The power to frame meaning and value is distributed amongst all the participants, and the traditional structures that focus on aesthetics and the genius of the individual creative process are de-privileged.  Perhaps, at a time when the arts are under such pressure from conservative governments, threatening the established hegemony by asking artists to relinquish even a little of their hard won creative autonomy looks like too risky a proposition.

If we look at the cultural industries in Australia removed from their context as either an economic or social good and instead view them as a social system, and we likewise strip away concerns over aesthetics and politics, then it becomes clear that the live theatre system in Australia has been subject to a series of enclosures that have lead to a system-wide collapse of the networks required for sustainability. 

The beginnings of this collapse can be traced back to the mid 1980s, with changes to government funding and arts administration that resulted in the closure of key community theatre companies and venues, and continued through the following three decades, most recently continuing with the Brandis raid on the Australia Council. Even though this has since been partially rescinded, the damage is done and its long-term effects on the small-to-medium performing arts community are yet to be seen.  Nevertheless, systems by their very nature tend to persist in the wake of sudden shocks to the environment by re-establishing themselves in the environmental niches left behind by the collapse of larger structures. 

This pattern can be seen in the emergence of the fringe theatres of the 1990s, the independent theatre companies of the 2000s and is once again being seen in the contemporary development of games and interactive theatre companies in the 2010s – each emerging to fill the spaces left by the loss of the large-scale professional community theatres.

The most political thing theatre can do

In an interview in 1980 actor and designer Barbara Ciszewska described the philosophy of legendary Geelong based community theatre company, The Mill, as …theatre isn’t just putting on productions but means creating an environment where people can start to bring forward their own ideas, a change from the passive observation seen in most theatre, to a much higher level of active participation. That means you have to be prepared to do anything that helps the group creative process; run a workshop, be a teacher figure, whatever, not just simply ACT. [Artistic director James McCaughey] says the most political thing theatre can do is to get people do it themselves. That’s what we try to do.1

This philosophy was shared by the newly emerging community theatre movement in Australia in the late 1970s and 1980s, which was at least partly inspired by the community theatres of Joan Littlewood in 1960s England and the Lehrstuck of Berthold Brecht in 1930s Germany. The Australian community theatre largely grew from the work of McCaughey and The Mill, alongside the actor-training instituted by Peter Oyston as Dean of the newly-opened Victorian College of the Arts Drama School. These first few VCA graduates were not only taught acting techniques, but also learnt production and management skills and were encouraged to seek out and create their own work as autonomous artists rather than waiting by the phone for auditions.  The first three years of graduates would go on to form the core companies of the Victorian Community Theatre movement, including WEST, the Murray River Performing Group and Theatre Works.  For the most part these companies took the community theatre ethic as far as moving into areas outside of the Melbourne metro arts district to work with local communities, leading them through workshops and script development processes to develop new works and then performing those works back to them.  The Mill often worked this way too, but is perhaps better remembered for its regular open workshop series involving the Geelong community, known as Mill Nights.

Meredith Rogers documents the Mill Nights in detail in her book, The Mill; Experiments in Theatre and Community, and she describes the provocation that drove the Mill Nights as a simple-seeming premise – that the people the company came in contact with would want to make their own theatre and that we could share our resources in order to make this happen.2 In the beginning, the Mill Nights were largely skills based – vocal training, movement, simple staging exercises and text interpretation – but as the nights continued and grew in popularity they grew more experimental and inclusive, using game-like structures and facilitated performance techniques to create evenings of themed and narrativised action.  Led by company members, these participatory events included recreations of Grand Final Night, Melbourne Cup Week, The French Revolution, ‘Casablanca’, various other well known films and Greek tragedies.3 Company dramaturg, William Henderson in an interview with Rogers, describes the process as one wherein, “We facilitated and we sort of had ideas, but the theatre was made by them on the floor and they were terribly proud of it.  They didn’t want to go off and be professional actors.  They just wanted to do art.” 4

A detailed description of the Casablanca Mill Night exists in the 1981 Mill Annual Report and is worth quoting at length here to give a sense of how the company and the community created together.

Every part of the evening was informed by some aspect of this famous Bogart film – design elements, atmosphere, character types, locations and songs – it was an exceptional Mill Night.  (It consisted of a pre-warm up activity, a warm up, a mass evacuation of the front theatre, group work, and a return to a transformed front theatre in which the results of the group work were shown.)


The evening began with the distribution, in the foyer, of overcoats and suitcases to all who arrived.  As the travellers entered the main space they were engulfed in the atmosphere of an international railway terminal.  A passport official provided everyone with international passports and directed them to place their suitcases in the baggage check (situated some distance from the waiting rooms).  Other officials announced the impending departure of the train to Casablanca (at regular intervals). Secret information was conveyed to each individual by means of the passport and this information produced many furtive and brief interactions between members of the waiting travellers.  Everyone was trying to locate their “contact” by means of a verbal code while remaining as inconspicuous as possible at all times.  Because of its hidden nature this activity was able to be contained during the warm up, which was based on the train journey to Casablanca.

Warm up

Participants carrying suitcases quickly learned simple positions that went with certain phrases (announced by the railway officials.)  “Passport check” meant that everyone had to line the walls holding up their passport.  “Time delay” meant that everyone had to sit on their suitcases and look about anxiously.  Six such positions were learned and repeated to punctuate the basic “traveller” activity of trying to fit into a very narrow space defined by two parallel lines (of masking tape) on the floor. When the train “arrived” at Casablanca five groups of people were formed around very obviously disguised company members each of whom had an envelope containing more secret information. This information provided each group with an identity, a song, a destination, and a manner of movement in which they were to leave the front theatre. Because each manner of movement was different, and each group’s destination required them to cross the front theatre, it soon became filled with an amazing array of group movement.  A system of random police checks impeded each group’s progress at various times giving group members a chance to observe others.  A built in song signal added competitive outbursts of different songs to this mass evacuation. Having arrived at their destination each group began to work on a dramatic situation similar in structure to one from the film. 5

This analysis of the Casablanca Night demonstrates how the company members and the community participated together in the production of a fictionalised, stylised world in response to a shared creative stimulus.  There are obvious commonalities with the participatory events being produced by Secret Cinema in Melbourne.  In both The Mill Nights and the Secret Cinema events, performers and participating audiences work together to create a liminal and temporary social space, governed by a negotiated set of rules in which they employ symbolic improvised rituals to embody and enact a given story.  In short, they play together.

In both The Mill Nights and the Secret Cinema events, performers and participating audiences work together to create a liminal and temporary social space, governed by a negotiated set of rules in which they employ symbolic improvised rituals to embody and enact a given story.  In short, they play together.

This kind of work by The Mill, and to a somewhat lesser extent by community theatre companies such as WEST, The Murray River Performing Group and Theatre Works, prefigures the contemporary movement in live performance, which has emerged over the last decade: games as theatre and play as performance.

Some great black spider

To understand what happened to this approach to direct community engagement with the performing arts and the companies that pursued it, it is important to consider the changes to funding and support structures as they have unfolded over the last three decades, and how these changes have fundamentally altered how the place of the performing arts in Australia has come to be defined.

Arguably, the undermining of the support networks for the arts community has been going on ever since their establishment.  The Australia Council has been embattled for most of its existence, and the arts have been regarded with suspicion and outright hostility by sections of the media and politics from the outset.   An entire thesis could be written detailing a two-hundred year depiction of Australian arts culture as the province of elites and bludgers and, most insidiously, that Australians as a (mono)culture simply aren’t interested or sophisticated enough to understand the arts.  It doesn’t seem to matter how many times artists write defences of their practice, detailing the value the arts adds to the country and the community (at all levels, economic, social and cultural), the image of the arts as contrary to some kind of essential ‘Australianness’ seems impossible to shake. Of course, much of this is an inheritance of our colonial foundations and our post-colonial anxiety.  However, the historical cultural cringe not withstanding, the last forty years has seen a concerted attack on the structures that have supported the creation of Australian culture driven by increasingly neo-conservative policies from governments on both sides of the political divide.

The 1994 Parliamentary Research Services background paper, Arts Policy in Australia describes how the Hawke Government’s attempt to redirect funding to smaller companies and groups and to restructure the Australia Council in line with the controversial recommendations of the 1986 McLeay Report brought many issues to a head. There were debates over funding being biased toward large flagship (urban) companies, over the proper roles of the minister and the Australia Council, over the Australia Council’s structure and level of funding, over establishing the Creative Fellowship Scheme and over the perennial question of whether the Federal Government should be involved in arts support at all6

The debates described here have a familiar ring.  The responsibility of the government to support the major companies versus their responsibility to ensure local and low cost access to the arts, excellence versus access (as though the two are somehow mutually exclusive), and the appropriate level of funding remain ongoing themes.

The McLeay report committee was tasked with investigating the conduct and viability of contemporary funding structures and failed to agree on whether the government should be involved in funding the arts at all.  Much of the report was criticised by the community at the time for its assumption that “the arts is an industry” and for embracing the recommendations of the earlier, highly negative and controversial Industries Assistance Commission report.  The McLeay report made the argument for devolution, suggesting that the national focus of the Australia Council should be defrayed to state-focused bodies, and that the Australia Council should “have delegated authority for deciding between applicants for small grants in ongoing programs to appropriate agencies and authorities closer to the field.”7  In response to the suggestion, Stephen Hall, director of the 1986 Sydney Festival, described the Australia Council as “imperially controlling the Federal Government’s arts funding like some great black spider, but also, in its own arrogant and arbitrary way.” 8

Two years later, the then shadow minister for the arts, coalition senator Chris Puplick, released the Coalition’s arts policy which stated; “The so-called ‘arms length’ principle has become an excuse for Ministers to ignore and avoid their responsibilities for defining and promoting a proper national arts policy. In the next Coalition Government, the Minister will accept and discharge this direct responsibility … The Australia Council will be abolished and its functions transferred to the relevant Department responsible for the Arts, thus bringing Commonwealth policy into line with that adopted in each of the States.” 9

This then is the political background to the series of cuts to funding that radically undermined the existing theatre environment of the time.  In the period since the establishment of the VCA Drama School and The Mill, the theatre landscape in Melbourne had grown to include the major theatre companies (MTC and Playbox) as well as ten professional alternative and community theatre companies and six dedicated suburban theatre venues as far afield as Hawthorn, Box Hill and Essendon.  By the end of 1987 the cuts began, with The Mill the first to lose its funding and close, followed over the years by the closure of companies including WEST, The Church, Whistling in the Theatre and Anthill.

By the 1990s, with the Hawke Labor government supplanted by the Keating Labor government and the Creative Nation policy launched, the major theatre companies had begun manoeuvring to secure their funding status as a separate category.  At the same time, the rest of the arts community was struggling to survive the wave of cuts and smaller, itinerant theatre troupes began to fill the spaces left by the 1980s companies.  These troupes existed outside of the established venue systems, moving between venues rather than being permanently housed in a space and also accustomed to working with little to no funding. 

Entering the 2000s under the new Howard coalition government, the community theatre movement had long-since collapsed and the fringe companies of the 1990s began to fold as their members moved into professional positions in the majors or out of the profession entirely. The Securing the Future report into the funding of the major theatre companies finally ensconced their position as a separate funding entity from the rest of the theatre community and effectively insulated them from the further cuts to come. Around this, the burgeoning of the post 2000s independent theatre companies drew sufficient attention to warrant an enquiry into the small-to-medium sector that resulted in little more than a business-as-usual approach to the funding of alternative theatre. Meanwhile the life expectancy of independent companies fell from between seven and ten years at the start of the decade to between five and three by decade’s end.

This concerted generational whittling away at the support networks that sustained all but the major companies of course continued in the Brandis raid on the Australia Council in 2015 and the establishment of the NPEA/Catalyst funding stream outside the Australia Council.  A move that was driven by an antipathy towards the arts community and the Australia Council is chillingly similar to the coalition’s 1988 policies.  While much of the funding stripped under Brandis was returned under new Minister for the Arts, Mitch Fifield, in response to agitation by the arts community, government support for the arts continues to be dwarfed by international funding levels and struggles for legitimation.

In light of all this, to me, the question becomes what has been the impact of all this beyond the destruction of community theatre and the demoralisation of the entire sector?

How I came to games

For those who don’t know me, I’ve been an independent playwright and director in Melbourne since 2000.  I was the founding Artistic Director of one of the early 2000s indie theatre companies, theatre in decay, and I’ve written plays for MTC (The Joy of Text, On the Production of Monsters) and a range of other companies big and small (mostly small).  On paper, I’ve had a pretty traditional career – my work as a playwright has tended towards narrative drama and comedy, my work as a director has been largely focused on staging the plays as written (most often my own) and the occasional flirtation with postmodern deconstructions of classic Greek texts.  So it might seem like drawing a long bow between this and the last five years of insisting that games and play are a new approach to making immersive and participatory theatre. 

However, at a closer look, almost all of my work has had an element of provocation and direct address to it.  I first found my way into theatre through local amateur youth drama and founded my first company out of my high school theatre. I worked extensively with student theatre once I got to university (arguably to the detriment of my undergraduate studies) and with theatre in decay, we made it a practice to break through the fourth wall as often and as violently as we could. From hurling abuse directly at the audience in the Comedy Festival (Noni Hazlehurst is Dead), to taking our shows on tours of pubs and band venues (The New Scum), to setting the plays in the front seats of cars parked down dark alleys with the audience in the back seat (Empire), to creating fully immersive environments for the audience to explore and interact directly with the actors (Bathory), to getting the audience to throw cups of water at the actors during the height of a storm (Drops in the Ocean), theatre in decay’s work was always about grabbing the audience by the shirt-front and shaking them until they engaged with us.  It was rough, it was underdeveloped, it was more energy than finesse, but it was live and it never pretended its audience wasn’t there. I think that this impulse to recognise the audience, to highlight their physical reality as a participant in the performance event, underlined all of theatre in decay’s work and continues, in a more sophisticated way, with the work we do now with Pop Up Playground.

Over the years as a playwright, my work has moved from its beginnings as quickly written and never-edited scripts that we’d hand over to actors and throw on stage in front of an audience, to the mainstage plays which were more considered and crafted works in which the rhythms of the language, consistent and deeper characterisation and – perhaps most crucially – a much more fully developed sense of world-building became the focus of the writing.

In contrast to the traditional relationship that theatre has with its audience, where a few address the many, games and play instead offer a space in which the few and the many interact with each other via a mediating system of agreed social interactions, or ‘rules’. Games designers have been at the forefront of this development for decades, both in the digital and real-world environments, but the experimental arts have only touched on the shaping of social interactivity occasionally in the last century, and more recently the performing arts (through live art and immersive theatre) have really only just begun to design explicit rule structures with a participating audience in mind.  As a director and a playwright, the work I do in making games has changed fairly little from the work I used to do making theatre. Instead, the medium has expanded beyond its familiar boundaries and so my thinking around the application of the skills has had to grow with it.  To explain, I’ll need to describe some of the work Pop Up Playground does.

The experimental arts have only touched on the shaping of social interactivity occasionally in the last century, and more recently the performing arts (through live art and immersive theatre) have really only just begun to design explicit rule structures with a participating audience in mind.

Broadly speaking, many of our games more closely resemble sports where the interactions are largely physical and strategic, and these games require the most focus on ‘the rules’.  Clarity around the goals of the game, what movements are allowed or not, what obstacles are placed in the players’ way and how they can be negotiated are all vital to ensuring that the players understand how to interact with each other.  While this describes most games, from football to poker, it is the design of both the narrative and the playing tools that draws on the skills most familiar to the performing arts.  A game such as Alien Zoo Break, in which teams of players compete to herd irregularly-shaped foam balls and blocks into the correct ‘cages’ with difficult-to-wield broom-like devices – requires clever design of the tools and a story that makes sense of why they’re chasing these things all over.  A game like this is mostly about making people laugh at the unexpected turns the little foam critters take, and to bond with each other as a team carrying out a ridiculous task, but it requires no less attention to the dramaturgy of the game-world in order to remain consistent and engaging.

Then there are our more explicitly theatrical games, which involve players interacting directly with improvising actors and discovering pre-written and recorded texts.  In a game such as Now Life in this House, our durational role-playing game of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, the actors are cast as the main characters of the world and the environment is designed so that the actors and players can interact with each other to achieve or obstruct the goals of the characters (as determined by Chekov).  Where the actors will have familiarised themselves with the text and explored their character’s objectives with a director, the players, more often than not, won’t be as familiar with the play text and/or the world of the play.  This must be made transparent for the players and so I, as playwright, work with the designer to develop and put on display in the environment the back-story of the characters and their world. Players can then explore the environment, reading newspapers reports about the Sino-Russian war that preceded the events of The Cherry Orchard, and can talk to our game host (who also played Fiers, the family butler) to develop a role for themselves to play once they enter the world. Together, over the duration of the game, the actors and the players develop strategies to achieve their goals, and the outcome of the situation (as determined originally by Chekov) can be radically altered.

Finally a distributed narrative street adventure like Outside: The Cloud, which, as I write, is in its third week of a nine-week series of episodes played out online and on the streets of Melbourne.  In this game, there are two modes of play, one in which players receive weekly instructions on where to find codes that have been hidden somewhere on the streets of the city and one in which they interact with each other and interrogate the actors playing the central characters.  Once players complete the missions that lead them to these codes, they enter them into a tailor-made website which then reveals a video or audio recording, or a pdf of a document, each of which is evidence of fictional events taking place in the game world around them.  Over the weeks, they build up their knowledge of this event by collecting the evidence, and they use that knowledge in live forum theatre style events, in which they interact with the actors playing the characters they’ve seen in the pre-recorded evidence and each other.  In these live, largely improvised events, the players and the actors debate the issues raised by the narrative of the game and decide on outcomes that will determine how the story continues.

All of these approaches place the participating audience at the centre of constructed social structures that enable and give shape to their agency, and to which they can contribute meaningfully to the procession of events.  These are all the skills of the theatre maker.  World building, character development, improvisation, scenic design, interpretation of text, audience engagement, script writing, performance… all of these things are the tools of the theatre.  The difference is that they are being employed in order to include the audience as participant, rather than distancing them as witnesses.

Real Innovations attack the roots

American copyright expert, Lawrence Lessig writes in his book Remix of the campaign against the introduction of recorded music led by composer John Phillip Sousa.  Lessig writes “In the world Sousa feared, fewer and fewer would have the access to instruments, or the capacity, to create or add to the culture around them; more and more would simply consume what had been created elsewhere.  Culture would become the product on an elite, even if this elite, this cultural monarchy, was still beloved by the people.”10 Lessig makes the argument that Sousa’s concerns were not only for the financial rights of the artist, but also for the ability of the wider community to participate in the production and communication of culture as art.  He goes on to write that Sousa’s fears were “not that culture, or the actual quality of the music produced in a culture, would be less.  His fear was that people would be less connected to, and hence practiced in, creating that culture.  Amateurism … was a virtue – not because it created great music, but because it produced a musical culture; a love for, and an appreciation of, the music.” 11

The 2014 Arts in Daily Life report produced by the Australia Council, demonstrates overwhelmingly that early participation in the arts is a powerful indicator of ongoing participation in later life, and supports Lessig’s assertion that amateur participation in the arts is vital to engagement with the work of professional arts companies. It’s at this level that community theatre companies play their most vital role; access and participation creates a sense of belonging, purpose and, most vitally, relevance. A community that has been shut out of this process will not value or defend arts and culture.

Access and participation creates a sense of belonging, purpose and, most vitally, relevance. A community that has been shut out of this process will not value or defend arts and culture.

A theatre form which has merged into its audience

In describing his work with WEST and making theatre with participants from the community, company member Neil Cameron writes that “A question remains though: in this context, what makes good theatre?  The process, however beneficial, can never be the only part of community theatre.  It must also produce a good result.  The theatre worker must make a good piece of dramatic art that works in the context.12 This anxiety over craft was the centre of much tension between the community theatre artists – some of whom felt that the inclusion of the community as performers beyond thematic contribution diluted the value of the final product.  In some instances, participants from the community were actively destructive/disruptive and, in more instances, they simply didn’t have the skills to carry off the execution of the performance at a level acceptable to the experienced performers. 

How, then, is an inclusive theatre to negotiate these complicated tensions between craft and community? Cameron proposes that, “In conventional theatre the differentiation in obvious.  The audience’s role is to watch and the theatre maker’s role to perform the show.  These clear delineations do not exist in a theatre form which has merged into its audience.”13 His solution is that “Theatre practitioners have to come to terms with the challenges that face them when they leave the controlled environment of purpose-built theatres.  They must learn to communicate their craft to all sorts of people and communities.  They must de-mystify their work and open it up to the layperson and yet still be the creative force behind the productions.  They must walk the fine line between being utilised by a community and being used by that community.”15

So, as artists and performers, how to gently exert an element of aesthetic control over the unfolding live event without excluding the meaningful participation of the audience?  In recent years, companies such as UK based The Agency of Coney and Splash and Ripple, and local companies such as Perth’s PVi collective and my own Pop Up Playground, have turned to exploring the systems and social contracts that give shape to play and games.  Tassos Stevens, the director of The Agency of Coney, says in an interview with Josephine Machon that “Game design is a brilliant discipline because it gives you a set of tools to enable you to understand how and why audiences are interacting as they are.  You can design the experience to facilitate particular types of action or play.”15

Stevens’ assertion that you can design the experience to facilitate kinds of action is, I think, the key to treading the divide between ritual and play that theatre has straddled so awkwardly for the last few hundred years and it forms the core of Pop Up Playground. 

The work of playful participation in a game ensures that everyone playing knows the rules.  The expectations of how everyone will contribute, how they will behave towards each other and what symbolic meanings underpin the language with which the participants will communicate, are all made explicit.  When this is the case, participants engage with the agreed upon temporary social systems and act according to their assigned function tending to adopt the attitudes of the tasks assigned to them.  Stevens describes The Agency of Coney’s approach to the extension of player agency “… we don’t demand engagement but invite it so people can choose the level of engagement they’re most comfortable with.”16 To ask a participating audience member to roleplay a character presents an immediately high barrier to entry before them; however, to present them with a systematised environment and tasks to achieve in it, players not only have no problem becoming other but indeed find a licence to express their own individual personalities within the context of “what if”. 

Play Now

This approach to play as a performance form, as prefigured by the community theatre movement of the 1980s, is being explored now by emerging companies and artists around Australia.   Three of the contemporary artists working in play at the moment are Georgia Symons in Melbourne, Jim Fishwick in Sydney and David Finnigan in Canberra. 

Symons describes her work as being guided by the question, ‘What are we offering to the participants?’ Interactive work is always about an exchange, a dialogue, and by designing an interactive experience, I’m making the initial offer on which that exchange is based. So what is the offer – what experience or question or dilemma or gift do I offer to the participants?”17 Her work has recently included collaborating on Earthrise One, a pop up Escape Room experience set on a space station in which players work together to repair the station; Get Lost, a street adventure presented as the official game of the National Young Writers Festival; and You must come alone to read the last book on Earth, a one on one live art experience for Melbourne Fringe.  Symons explains that she aims to “create an entirely different world and experience each time, according to the idea or the offer at the heart of the work. Perhaps one guiding principle is that I design works that train and reward curiosity. So I hope that the encounter with my work is one of mystery and wonder, and that audiences feel rewarded for taking risks and testing their curiosity.”18.

Fishwick is General Manager and Head of Navigation for Sydney’s Jetpack Theatre.  He describes his design process as being:

“governed by the philosophy of ‘Yes-And’ above anything else. I work in an ethos of co-design: accepting and building on other people’s ideas to make progress. I also believe in rapid iteration – try a quick messy cheap version of an idea to test it out straight away, rather than talking about it for a long time. If the process of making a show is good, the product will be good as well.  Interactive works have three fundamental parts – Mechanics (the rules & structure), Dynamics (what it feels like to play the game), and Aesthetics (design, mood, tone). I can either start with an idea for the mechanics, then test it to get a sense for the dynamics, and then design an appropriate aesthetic (as was the case with Where Your Eyes Don’t Go), or start with a desired aesthetic, then work backwards to reverse engineer the dynamics and necessary mechanics (as was the case for Brain Problem Situation)” 19

The company’s work draws on contemporary pop culture and game mechanics.  Where Your Eyes Don’t Go, for instance, takes its inspiration from Doctor Who and H.P. Lovecraft and presents a pitch-black maze environment for players to explore and carry out a rescue missions in.  Similarly The Two Body Problem is a murder mystery dinner party set and performed at the Sydney Observatory wherein participants receive props and character notes to help them solve the mystery.

Finnigan is writer, producer, game designer and performer with Boho Interactive.  He describes the company’s process for generating new work as centred:

“around working with research scientists – typically climate or systems scientists, but also urban designers, epidemiologists… Our shows usually draw on concepts from sustainability science, systems thinking, game theory, network theory, complex systems science, resilience – these fields which are often gathered together under a broad heading of ‘complexity’. Basically, we’re looking at any sort of system in which lots of different elements are interconnected, and what arises from those interconnections. That’s the raw material for our games. Working with scientists, we’ll go back and forth with them, building up our understanding of the system – whatever that system is – and creating a systems model. That model – which usually looks like a flowchart diagram, plus a whole series of maps, lists, other visualisations – becomes the basis for the show we build. We then go through that systems model, looking for key linkages and systems dynamics we can turn into games.”20

Their most recent work, Best Festival Ever: How to manage a disaster, is part theatre show, part performance lecture and part board game.  It presents a small, participating audience with the task of designing and staging a simulated festival and uses simple mini games and skill testers – such as keeping a marble balanced on a cardboard circle and building structures from wooden blocks – along with encouraging team work and debate amongst the participants to demonstrate the complexities of systems theory and disaster management.

When reflecting on the advantages of playing with a participating audience, and the fluidity of approach to process between traditional theatre and playful theatre, Symons describes it as:

“… theatre-makers talk a lot about it being a “live” form, and a “dialogue” with the audience, but I don’t see or experience that in many of the theatre shows I go to. A lot of them feel as though they could have been filmed; that my presence there makes either no difference at all, or a superficial difference at best. There’s a place for this kind of work, and I certainly enjoy it, but as an artist, I’m not interested in my own voice except for where it comes into contact with other voices. I only ever want a conversation.”21

Finnigan describes the Boho approach to deciding on how much participation as:

“the audience is always participating – it’s just a question of how. Sitting passively in the dark watching and not talking is a form of participation – we’re just so trained by theatre conventions that we take it for granted and don’t realise it’s a choice, a compact we all (artists and audiences) agree on … If the audience are moving around outdoors experiencing your work, they’re feeling much more exhilaration, excitement, there’s opportunities for happy accidents and beautiful unique experiences, but you run the risk of losing their focus, of them being distracted, feeling lost or confused. If the audience are seated quietly and watching a well-lit stage, that’s ideal for delivering complex information and making sure everyone sees the same thing, but you’re talking at them rather than having a conversation, and you run the risk of boring them / annoying them if they feel like they can’t leave. … If we want to talk with them about how tipping points or regime shifts occur, maybe that’s best if we just explain it as clearly as we can, using whatever theatre imagery works best. But if we want to illustrate the challenges facing local government when they’re evacuating small communities from a potential volcano eruption, maybe we want to give them the experience of trying to make decisions and negotiate compromises with imperfect information.” 22

Symons describes her process for dealing with the uncertainties of a participating audience, saying: 

“Recently I’ve been moving away from systems with fixed outcomes which offer participants a limited number of choices at any given moment. I’ve found that these systems are more prone to collapse under the weight of participant spontaneity. Which is just nuts, because that spontaneity is the whole point of making live, interactive work. I work a lot with actors, which gives me a distinct advantage over other forms of gaming, in the way that I can account for the unexpected. Rather than mapping out a fixed number of possible paths through the experience, I work rigorously with my actors to create a shared language and shared picture of the world we’re inhabiting in a given piece. This means that, when participants take spontaneous, unexpected actions, the actors can all improvise from within the same shared understanding of the world, and the participant’s actions can be made sense of and synthesised with the rest of the work, rather than creating the fracture they’d cause in a more rigid system”.23

Teach us to play

Symons, Fishwick and Finnigan’s work are all examples of how theatre makers are using the traditional skills of theatre making and blending them with contemporary understandings of social meaning making to find practical solutions to the problems of, and uses for performance in every day life.  The emergence of games as theatre, or more properly play as performance – though it takes much of its immediate inheritance from modern formats such as digital gaming and makes use of pervasive digital technology to support it – is really a return to historic uses of theatre.

Community theatre, street theatre, political theatre – all of these are returns to community meaning making.  Games as theatre are no different.  They share the common root of inviting the audience to be a part of the performance and constructing modes of engagement that are transparent and help build fluency of performance.  They are systems with which professional theatre makers can create with and along side amateurs, and so contribute powerfully to increased fluency and competency across the community.  As Rogers writes of the outcomes of the Mill Nights, “Perhaps it may even be argued that this sharing of an esoteric language and of particular skills in a particular context was itself a way in which community could be created.”24

This playful approach to theatre making is unlikely to supplant the more traditional, fourth-wall-bound approaches in which audiences sit in the dark and witness examples of virtuosity carried out in the light. Nor should it.  Neither form is superior to the other. Both approaches are important.  Both can and should co-exist as they are two halves of a co-dependent whole.   Art in community – like play – facilitates, teaches and exercises the skills and expectations of negotiation.  Games, play and community theatre teach us to be active participants, to strategize and work together towards self-determined goals. 

In the meantime, as long as the performing arts in Australia remains disconnected from the wider community, public engagement with the arts is likely to continue to decline and risks further alienating itself from public life while niche art forms emerge to partially address the gap and struggle to establish sustainability.


1               Emmerson, Pg 52

2               Rogers, Pg 106

3               Rogers, Pg 124

4               Rogers, Pg 115

5               Mill Annual Report, Pg 21 – 22

6               Gardiner – Garden, PDF

7               Gardiner – Garden, PDF

8               Gardiner – Garden, PDF

9               Gardiner – Garden, PDF

10           Lessig, Pg 25

11           Lessig, Pg 27

12           Cameron, Pg 94

13           Cameron, Pg 7

14           Cameron, Pg 7

15           Machon, Pg 203

16           Machon, Pg 199

17           Symons, pers. comms.

18           Symons, pers. comms.

19           Fyshwyck, pers. comms.

20           Finnigian, pers. comms.

21           Symons, pers. comms.

22           Finnigan, pers. comms.

23           Symons, pers. comms.

24           Rogers, Pg 129

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Brown, S 2010, Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul. Scribe Publications, Carlton North

 Cameron, N 1993. Fire on the Water. Currency Press, Paddington

 Finnigan, D 2017 Personal Interview, transcript in the author’s possession

Fishwick, J 2016 Personal Interview, transcript in the author’s possession

 Fotheringham, R 1987. Community Theatre in Australia. Methuen Australia, North Ryde

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Lessig, L 2008. Remix. Penguin, New York

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Emmerson, D 1980, ‘Theatre Review, The Mill Theatre, Geelong’. TAGG Magazine, 12–23 December.

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Fishwick, J 2016 Personal Interview, transcript in the author’s possession

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(accessed on 28 Jan 2017)

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(accessed on 28 Jan 2017)

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Rogers, M 2016, The Mill: Experiments in Theatre and Community. Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne

Symons, G 2016 Personal Interview, transcript in the author’s possession

 Robert Reid

Robert Reid is a freelance playwright, director, game designer and academic. His plays, The Joy of Text and On The Production of Monsters, were produced by Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011 and 2012 respectively. 

Robert’s play The New Black was shortlisted for the Kit Denton Award in 2009, presented at the PWA National Play Festival in 2010 and work shopped by the High Tide Festival in the UK in 2011. Portraits of Modern Evil was shortlisted for both the Wal Cherry Award and the Griffin Award and was performed by Black Swan Theatre Company BSX in Perth. Eating Alone was shortlisted for the Griffin Award in 2013 and he was given the R.E. Ross Trust Playwright Development Award for his play A Mile in her Shadow in 2005. Sad Bird Boy and the Scalpel Fingered Girl won both the Best Independent Theatre Company Prize and the Best Overall Performance Prize at Short and Sweet Melbourne 2005. His play, Empire, was given a special commendation by Melbourne Fringe in 2004 and Pat Sabatine’s Eighth Birthday Party was given the St Martins Playwright of the Year Award in 2000. 

Robert was Artistic Director and a founding member of the independent theatre company, Theatre in Decay. Robert’s works produced by Theatre in Decay included The New ScumScreaming in America: The Bill Hicks ProjectAll of Which are American DreamsA Mile in Her ShadowSweet Staccato Rising and Empire.

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