Early in 2018 the New York conceptual and performance artist, Jennifer Rubell, made an exhibition of herself. For several nights she stood on a pedestal in a Manhattan gallery and invited the audience to squash a custard pie in her face.  Before they could do so, audience members had to sign a three-page contract which set out the rules of engagement, and what they could – and couldn’t – do in their encounter with Rubell. They could squish the pie into her face, but they couldn’t hurl it. 

Rubell’s piece offered an artistic intervention in the #MeToo debate, making audiences think hard about their actions and how consent operates. But like many pieces of contemporary performance, it also redefined the boundaries of performance itself. 

As they do in everyday life, rules serve a purpose. Performance artist Marina Abramovic discovered this, during her 1974 Rhythm 0 in Naples, in which she lay passively, surrounded by objects ranging from knives to body oil. 

The audience were invited to utilise these objects as they desired. The performance ended prematurely when one participant put a bullet in a gun and pointed it at Abramovic’s head. 

“The public can kill you. If you give them total freedom, they will become frenzied enough to kill you,” observed Abramovic subsequently.

Also in 2018, Buzzfeed detailed a number of incidents of assault by the audience which had taken place on cast members of Punchdrunk’s long-running New York immersive production Sleep No More. In London, the Guild of Misrule self-reported incidents of assault on the cast in its immersive The Great Gatsby. It may be that in these instances some audience members were confused by the fact that the shows involve interactivity, and misunderstood the nature of the invitation. But it is just as likely that those who behave inappropriately in these fictional worlds are the same people who behave badly and overstep boundaries in the real world. 

As a result, both productions have beefed up the rules and put in place procedures to protect casts for whom the performance space is their workplace.

For the most part, audiences and performers over the last couple of hundred years have entered more traditional theatre spaces clearly knowing the boundaries, and understanding the unwritten contract between them which keeps the actors on the stage and the audience in the auditorium. 

The exceptions include the British tradition of pantomime with its carnivalesque disruptions involving audience participation, and performances for the very young. Most three-year-olds have no conception of the fourth wall and – given a lack of parental restraint – are as likely to storm the stage as stay quietly in their seats.

But most adults do know and accept the conventions. Even if they dislike a production, few people barge out in the middle but wait politely until the interval or the end. It is a rare moment in theatre history – think of the premiere of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey in Dublin in 1907 – when the audience tries to storm the stage.

Early on in our theatre-going lives most of us learn it is our job to sit in rows quietly in the dark and it is the performers’ job to stand on stage in the light. This would, of course, be puzzling to Elizabethan playgoers, who went to the theatre during daylight hours and would have expected to interact with what was taking place on stage in a highly vocal manner.  

It was the introduction of candle-lit indoor productions which started the shift to a different relationship between stage and audience, in which the latter sat more quietly. The process was hastened in the early 20th century when electric lighting became widespread in theatres, leading to a fully darkened auditorium. 

But what happens when the rules of spectatorship are changed? 

In Boris Chamatz’s 10000 Gestures the naked or near naked cast invade the auditorium clambering over the audience. I found it thrilling when I saw it a couple of years ago, but I can understand that the unprepared might see it as an invasion of personal space in which they are touched without giving prior consent. How too does a production and its impact change as the world changes, particularly at a moment in time when many women are reliving trauma related to the resurfacing of the sexual harassment because of the #MeToo movement?

Or what about Ontroerend Goed’s Internal, a piece which seductively invites the audience to give away secrets in a one-to-one situation, and then betrays those secrets to the wider group? Or Blast Theory’s 1998 Kidnap in which they invited people to pay £10 to enter a lottery to be kidnapped. Would-be participants signed a disclaimer form. Two months later, after a period of surveillance, two of the entrants were kidnapped and held for 48 hours with their incarceration live streamed. The participants could leave at any time by using a safe word they had included on their disclaimer form.

Kidnap offered participants a get-out clause, but in most instances, particularly in a public space, an audience will go along with what the performers ask them to do, not least for fear of getting it wrong and looking stupid. The power dynamic puts them at a loss, although as the late Adrian Howells, a maker of intimate and one-to-one performances par excellence, once declared: “nobody ever actually died of embarrassment.” But he was acutely aware that sometimes you feel as if you might.

Nonetheless, it is a rare audience which challenges the power of performers, as happened in Badac’s 2008’s The Factory at the Edinburgh fringe, which attempted to cast the audience as Holocaust victims. Some members of the audience resisted all attempts at coercion, much to the chagrin of the company.  

The more intimate the experience the more important it is to have boundaries in place to protect both audience and performer. I once found myself at a One on One theatre festival where I was unexpectedly asked to remove all my clothes. I refused, but in other circumstances I have quite happily taken my clothes off because I was forewarned about the nature of the performance, knew where the boundaries lay and could make an informed decision about whether I wanted to participate or not. 

If performers must be confident that the audience will behave courteously towards them, so audiences must also be assured that there are safeguards in place to protect them. Particularly when the performance puts the audience in a place of potential vulnerability and risk.

In It’s All Allowed: the Performances of Adrian Howells (LADA), Deirdre Heddon and Dominic Johnson write: 

Howells’ one-to-one performances required personal agency on the part of the performer and audience-participant, clear boundaries, consent, and the co-creation and mutual management of ‘a place of vulnerability’, in which one may be challenged, exposed (sometimes quite literally), and even embarrassed. The risks, Howells asserts, are worthwhile when intelligently designed and held, and can be coped with by even the most exposed of participants. 

Howell’s gift, in pieces such as Held, Foot-washing for the Sole and The Pleasure of Being: Washing / Feeding / Holding was to make his audience feel safe, however intimate the performance and situation in which we found ourselves. It is something every artist needs to pay attention to, in whatever sphere they practice. As both theatre and performance explore new forms and seek to rethink the engagement and informal contract with their audience, we all need to be clear where the boundaries are drawn, what the nature of the invitation is, and what responses are appropriate.  

A fully engaged audience is an active audience. As Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment has observed, the company’s work at every performance “strives to create that quite fundamental contract that says: we are here, you are there, and this is the moment when we are engaged together.” But even sitting in a seat in the middle of a row in a traditional theatre space is not necessarily a passive act. Unless you have fallen asleep.

Forced Entertainment: Tim Etchells interviewed by Matt Trueman