Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


The active audience

How creators design interactive and immersive performances


Published: 11 Nov 2022

Time taken : ~10mins

My first encounter with a performance that engaged the audience in a non-conventional manner was The Lesson by Drama Box, when it premiered at Toa Payoh Central as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) in 2015. For a show that was essentially a simulation of grassroots democracy, it was uncanny that SIFA had programmed it—intentionally or otherwise—to run the same weekend that the General Elections (GE) was happening.1 It felt like time had come to a standstill for two hours, just so that we could attend a dress rehearsal in preparation to vote during the GE.

The Lesson piqued my interest in performances where the fourth wall is removed for the audience to experience the work in a hands-on way as a ‘spect-actor’. During a theatre history module at university, I learnt that the concept of ‘spect-acting’ originated from Theatre of the Oppressed, which was pioneered by the late Augusto Boal between the 1950s to 1970s. In Theatre of the Oppressed, the ‘spect-actor’ has the agency to not just observe, but also directly impact dramatic action of the performance onstage.

In general, performances that require the audience to ‘spect-act’ typically involve interaction and/or immersion. On the one hand, interactive performance generally requires audience participation for the experience to move along. On the other hand, immersive performance places the audience directly within the world of the narrative. Depending on the nature of the performance, interaction and/or immersion can co-exist, or exist standalone without the other element.

While traditional sit-down performance remains relevant, interactive or immersive performance has garnered traction because it fosters greater intimacy between the narrative and the audience. For a few hours, the latter feels as if they are part of the world of the narrative, or even get to influence how the narrative unfolds. In recent years, interactive and immersive performance has gained currency amongst Singaporean artists. These range from live performances to made-for-digital immersion, created as a result of social distancing during the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I spoke to four artists who have a sustained practice of incorporating elements of interaction and/or immersion into their work: Han Xuemei (co-artistic director of Drama Box), Rei Poh (founder of ATTEMPTS), Oliver Chong (core member of The Finger Players) and Lemon & Koko (creator of the Secretive Thing series). In our conversations, we discussed several performances that I had previously attended, so as to communally make sense of what makes a meaningful interaction and/or immersion for the audience.

A controlled space to explore personal agency

As someone who has worked in tech, a term that I am acquainted with is ‘sandbox’—an isolated test environment for experimenting with and developing software. In my greenhorn theatre-watching years, I used to think that the sandbox nestled within interactive or immersive performance was one where I could try out an unlimited permutation of things without any consequence, a lá the virtual worlds that one can create within Minecraft.

As I attended more performances, it dawned upon me that this is far from the truth. In the first place, virtual world maps usually have a defined ‘edge’ that characters are not supposed to trespass. If that edge is somehow trespassed, the character dies and/or the gameplay ends. In that sense, the character is not free to do whatever they want without consequence.

While there is a value in giving the audience a space to be engaged in ways that they cannot do so in real life, their safety—physical, mental and emotional—is paramount. To that end, artists must be responsible for defining the extent of allowable audience engagement. Rei, a video game enthusiast himself, used the example of Dating Sim (beta ver. Zoom) (2020)—which put the audience through a dating simulation game—to illustrate how he extrapolates the principles of world building in video games into creating interactive or immersive performances: 

Video games are never 100% open. If you fall off the edge of the map, your character will die. That means the possible consequences of what you experience within the world of the video game is always curated beforehand—all you can choose is whether you want to go through that experience.

In Dating Sim (beta ver. Zoom), the audience is put through a dating simulation where women are objectified through the male gaze. However, the purpose of the performance is not to encourage objectification, but to subvert it. Hence, we limit the audience to strictly making A/B choices, rather than let them indicate their preferred date in an open-ended manner. This eventually creates the frustration of an illusion of choice, which will hopefully make the audience reflect on the horrors of objectifying women in a romantic context.

Reciprocally, the audience must recognise that the performer behind the character is as human as they are. Oliver, who played The Man in Fernando Rubio’s Time Between Us (2016), stressed that the audience must come in wanting to engage the performance in good faith, and not push boundaries for the sake of it. He lamented on the audience members who disregarded the parameters of the four-and-a-half day long performance:

Several audience members who knew me kept addressing me as Oliver, even though the Man is not supposed to know who Oliver is. It also didn’t help that there were also audience members who barged into the Man’s house just to play Pokémon Go, or sat on the Man’s bed without permission. These are not things that you would do when you visit your friend’s house in real life. Those things made not just the Man, but also myself as Oliver, feel horrible. It made it difficult for me to stay in character.

“The Man” (played by Oliver Chong) hosts audience members in his house during <em>Time Between Us</em> (2016). Photo courtesy of Ng Yi-Sheng.

So how is the establishment of parameters done in practice? For shows where featuring predetermined character dialogue and/or story arcs is key, this is indicated via stage directions present within the play script. In other cases, artists may compose a performance score (also sometimes known as event score). The use of performance scores is synonymous with the emergence of Fluxus, an international community of creatives interested in experimental forms of artmaking. While scores traditionally contained only musical notation, visual performance artists gradually adapted them to include descriptions of physical/verbal/other actions that are open to reinterpretation not just by other artists performing the work, but also the audience.

The freedom to decide the level of engagement

Between 2017 and 2019, Esplanade commissioned experimental arts company Emergency Stairs to present a trilogy of postdramatic works at Huayi — Chinese Festival of Arts, all of which were directed by Emergency Stairs’ artistic director, Liu Xiaoyi. According to Xiaoyi in a previous interview with Offstage, he prefers creating works with performance scores rather than scripts, which explains the open-endedness of the ways in which the audience could engage with this trilogy. 

Considering the propriety and decorum that is typically associated with a national performing arts centre like the Esplanade, I vividly remember being unsure about what to expect when I attended FOUR FOUR EIGHT (2019). For one, the audience could interact with the protagonist (known as “L”) via email up to two months before the production run. Additionally, the actual event was a durational performance that required the audience to take instructions from a printed ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ booklet that guided them to partake in a variety of activities around various non-performing venues within the Esplanade.

Since FOUR FOUR EIGHT was to be experienced without any chaperoning from front of house staff, it was fascinating to observe how my fellow audience members chose to engage with the work. While most participated solo, some did so in pairs or even groups. Some diligently completed the activities in the booklet in one shot, whereas some arbitrarily took multiple breaks at pit stops that were not part of the durational performance, or even left without completing the experience.

This made me wonder: is passive participation a bad thing?

While I was not able to speak to Xiaoyi about FOUR FOUR EIGHT specifically, I posed this question to my interviewees. The consensus was that all degrees of participation — as long as they did not pose any danger to the artists or other audience members — are equally valid.

Rei opined that a major consideration in designing interactive and/or immersive work is ensuring that it caters to both active and passive audiences. He cited the example of Attempts: Singapore (2018), which involved investigating the identity of a missing character named Anne:

Whenever I create a work, I consider how it can also be meaningfully experienced by those who choose to participate passively. In creating Attempts: Singapore, I made sure that there were multiple ways the audience could participate. For those who are hands on, they could solve the puzzles required to unravel Anne’s identity. For those not as hands-on but still willing to explore the space, they could casually browse the items within it. And there is also space for those who simply wish to retreat to a corner and watch other people participate.

But what if the work does not have a central storyline that will unfold regardless of how the audience participates, like in Attempts: Singapore? Xuemei suggested that the way the work is marketed is important in setting the expectation that the experience will only go as far as the audience is willing to take it. She shared the strategy that Drama Box adopted for MISSING: The City of Lost Things (2018), a sprawling four-hour experience that required audience members to individually commute to a place of their choosing that they associate with a loss in their personal lives:

For MISSING: The City of Lost Things, it was important to market the work to an audience willing to participate actively, rather than to sell as many tickets as possible. Hence, we decided that as a precursor to the ticket purchasing process, interested audiences would first have to SMS a mobile number belonging to Drama Box. This served as a heads up for the prospect of having to engage in text messaging during the actual experience, and from there, they could decide if they still wished to attend.

And if all else fails, there is always the equally valid option of exiting the performance midway.

Remembering the visceral

A few months back, I attended Assembly by Drama Box, which was presented as part of Esplanade’s Feed Your Imagination (F.Y.I.) series. My fellow audience members and I were given the liberty to physically roam within the set as the actors performed. For one and a half hours, I followed three teenagers around a haunted school compound, as they reenacted scenes of peer pressure and bullying that happened during their time as students. 

A scene from Assembly (2022) by Drama Box, where the audience could physically roam within the set as the actors performed. Photo by Zinkie Aw, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

The million dollar question that naturally arises: Why immersion, as opposed to letting the audience stay within the usual confines of a proscenium arch or black box theatre?

I posed this question to Xuemei, who shared with me that when she was directing the performance, she thought long and hard about how to present the theme of bullying in a manner that would be engaging for school-going youths. She eventually decided on infusing elements of horror into the performance, in a manner that would leave a visceral impression on the audience. According to Xuemei:

The intention was for the audience to freely wander around like spirits in a haunted space. I wanted to flesh out how the spreading of rumours and hearsay that contribute to bullying can be more horrifying than the supernatural.

As Xuemei explained this to me, I recalled the exasperation that I felt towards not being able to follow all the characters at once, which meant that I could never get a full picture of how the bullying in this school took place. I also recalled the second-hand fear that I felt from not knowing what would appear next to emotionally haunt the bullied characters.

Lemon & Koko concurred that the key to effective immersion is less about ensuring that the audience leaves with concrete intellectual takeaways, and more about sensory stimulation. We discussed Secretive Thing 215 (2020), an individual experience which I found memorable for the Orwellian atmosphere of surveillance that it created

Yours truly being ‘surveilled’ via WhatsApp message at <em>Secretive Thing 215 </em> (2020) by Lemon & Koko. Screenshot courtesy of Lemon & Koko.

Here, the participant role plays a prospective employee of a totalitarian pharmaceutical organisation. Their suitability for employment is assessed through a series of tasks that are disseminated via WhatsApp messaging. They are graded by their level of compliance in completing those tasks, which take place within a public space surveilled by incumbent employees of the organisation. While I no longer recall what the assigned tasks were, what I do remember is the adrenaline rush from my attempted rebellion, and the paranoia of being watched. According to Lemon & Koko:

The sensorial experience of getting sweaty from running around a building, knowing that someone is constantly watching you—your body remembers it. It puts you into a headspace to think about where your actions fit within your personal moral compass.

Xuemei and Lemon & Koko’s sharing reminded me about how I sometimes leave the theatre remembering not what happened during the show, but how I felt about what I watched. Perhaps the body sometimes understands what the mind cannot, and that the point of interactive or immersive performance is to develop a reflexivity that is intuitive rather than intellectual.

A space for self-reflection

Just before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, I attended A Tiny Country by ATTEMPTS, which was presented at Centre 42 as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2020. The audience was split into four tribes, all of whom have a stake in the survival of an unnamed tiny country that is in crisis. In the style of Dungeons & Dragons, the audience had to role play members of each tribe and embark on campaigns to convince all four tribes to act on issues like immigration waves, famine and forced labour.

A tabletop role playing exercise that the audience took part in, as part of <em>A Tiny Country</em> by ATTEMPTS (2020). Photo credit: André Chong.

One thing that I have feared about being a ‘spec-actor’ is being asked to transform into someone else. The thought of effectively performing improvised theatre in the presence of fellow audience members is daunting. How do I stay in character all the time? What if I say something stupid? It was this fear that led me to being passive during A Tiny Country, as I limited myself to simple raise-your-hand actions and avoided anything that would draw the spotlight on me. However, my interviewees were unanimous in assuring me that audience members did not have to worry about fully immersing themselves into the shoes of another character.

Rei shared with me how his interest in video game design influenced his theatre practice. When he decided to marry the two to create participatory theatre, his hope was actually for the audience to experience a level of detachment from the characters in the story.

In video games, I constantly make decisions that will change how you experience the rest of the story. For example, my warrior character earns gold from completing a task—and I have to decide whether to immediately spend it on upgrading your armour, or to save it for later use. In such a moment, I am thinking as Rei Poh the player, and not as the warrior character. I need to step out of the in-game world and reflect on what has been happening. Only with this level of detachment can the self be reflected in the role playing process.

This sentiment was echoed by Oliver when I spoke to him about Every Brilliant Thing by The Finger Players, which he adapted and directed and will perform for Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts in 2023. Every audience member is handed numbered cards that describe the ‘brilliant things’ that have kept Oliver’s character (“The Boy”) alive in the midst of his depression. During the show, audience members take turns to read out what is on their card(s) whenever The Boy calls out those numbers. Lucky audience members had the responsibility of role playing significant individuals from The Boy’s past.

An audience member is enlisted to roleplay as The Boy’s girlfriend in a re-enactment of a marriage proposal scene, during <em>Every Brilliant Thing</em> by The Finger Players (2022). Photos by Tuckys Photography, courtesy of Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

For the work’s previous staging in 2022, Oliver joked that whenever extended role playing was involved, he would avoid handing out the corresponding cards to audience members whom he knew were theatre practitioners, because he did not want them to fully embody those characters as if they were acting onstage. According to Oliver:

Since I do not give the audience a lot of details about the character to be role played, the selected audience member has to enter an ‘in-between’ headspace. For example, when I invite someone to play The Boy’s girlfriend, the idea is not for them to fully believe that they are The Boy’s girlfriend, but rather, to imagine what they would do if they were The Boy’s girlfriend. So when The Boy proposes marriage to his girlfriend—when deciding how to react to the proposal, the selected audience member will still be taking reference from their personal values in real life.

Following this school of thought, it becomes apparent that no matter how enthusiastic one is in committing to role playing, the audience will still be processing their own perception of what another person would think. 

In that sense, interaction and/or immersion in performance is really for audience members to engage in self-reflection, rather than to didactically learn about how it feels to live someone else’s life.

1The SIFA 2015 edition of The Lesson ran between 9 - 12 September 2015. Incidentally, the General Elections that year took place on 11 September 2015.

Every Brilliant Thing was originally written in English by Duncan Macmilan and Jonny Donahoe. Oliver performed a Chinese adaptation of the script, which was translated by himself.

Every Brilliant Thing will be restaged as part of Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts from 2 - 5 Feb 2023 at Esplanade Theatre Studio. 

Contributed by:

Ke Weiliang

Ke Weiliang is curious about how living beings can hold space for one another through asynchronous and/or physically distanced interactions. By day, he works remotely in customer support for a fintech company. Outside of office hours, they run the Telegram community Channel NewsTheatre, which serves arts workers and audience members interested in the theatre scene in Singapore.

You have 3 out of 3 articles left this month. Create a free Esplanade&Me account or sign in to continue. SIGN UP / LOG IN