Theatre changes people. Mostly, it does so in small ways by rearranging our mental furniture, hanging around for a bit and leaving odd things behind when it’s gone, with the result that we perceive things differently. Sometimes, its effect is much more dramatic, making us reassess our fears, desires, understanding, or our sense of others, at a fundamental level. That’s much rarer, but when it happens it can be literally life-changing.
It does all this through the licensed use of techniques which are in principle banned from normal life: deceit, manipulation, emotional pressure, pretence. Theatre lies constantly, deliberately and ingeniously and its only justification is that it does so to show a truth which otherwise could not be seen or, perhaps, faced. Then, as an unscrupulous film director says in David Mamet’s State and Main, ‘It’s not a lie; it’s a gift for fiction.’
Theatre’s power lies in how well those means of deception are applied. Its value comes from the ends to which they are put. If the smoke and music don’t work, we’re disappointed. It’s a bad production because, despite our hunger to comply, it has failed to convince us. We are hardly concerned with its purpose unless it takes us across the threshold into its own world. We want a story we can believe and we’re happy to be manipulated by the teller.
None of this is problematic where there is a relationship between actor and audience that allows them understand the terms of engagement. In most societies, theatre is a licensed ritual that happens in prescribed places at set times. It may be the Guild performing its Easter mystery play, the tribal storyteller at midwinter solstice or a West End Saturday night, but the boundaries between theatre and not-theatre, between desired deceit and unacceptable social exchange, are clear. Time, place and numerous little symbols warn us that we’re entering a space where the world is turned upside down, where black is not just white, but whatever colour the performers say it is, or none at all.
In crossing that threshold, the audience consents to becoming the active subject of the performer’s art, the instrument on which the art will be played. Although we take it for granted, that consent is fundamental not just to theatre, but to our freedom and dignity because we can withdraw it at any time. We can break Prospero’s wand simply by ceasing to believe in him. While we have that power, theatre works and so does democracy.
But today, partly in pursuit of that democratic idea, some theatre practice makes it difficult for the audience to give – or withhold – its consent.
Street theatre has often been motivated by a desire to forge new relationships with the audiences, particularly those who are assumed not to go the theatre. People’s consent in that relationship tends to be taken for granted since they can always walk away and the street is a public space. But things are more complicated than that, partly because, without a symbolic definition of theatrical space, people may have little real idea of what it is they are watching—especially when the aim of the performance is to unsettle by imitating reality itself. Entelechy Arts’ remarkable piece, Bed, constantly negotiates that tension in its aim of getting people to think about loneliness in old age.
Theatre can be a valuable means of education. In some countries, theatre groups take information about health, social practices and political ideas to people who may have little external access to education. The work of these artists, often in difficult and even dangerous conditions, can be very impressive. Even so, using theatre as a tool of persuasion means walking an ethical tightrope.
Do we condemn art as propaganda only if we disapprove of the message it is putting across? Surely there’s more to it than that. An honest art gives its audience space to think. It restrains the extent of its manipulation and protects our ability to question, to challenge and ultimately to disbelieve what we are being told.
These ambiguities are also evident in community and participatory theatre. Again, it is often commendable both as art and for opening creative possibilities to people who may otherwise have few. But who defines the group? Who identifies a problem and its solution? Who is the doer and who is the done-to, the liar and the lied-to? Cardboard Citizens handles these dilemmas well because, while the performances are persuasive critiques of homelessness, their forum theatre approach creates a formal space in which audiences can debate and respond.
Inequalities of power, knowledge and experience mean that, even where consent is sought and given, it may not be well-informed. We can hardly know what we are getting into if the experience is intended to open new perceptions for us. An honest practice that respects people’s equal autonomy may mean that consent is negotiated repeatedly as trust and understanding develop. The desirability of a social end – for who? – does not in itself the use of theatre’s craft of manipulation without people’s understanding and agreement. To be deceived into beliefs or behaviour erodes our autonomy and our responsibility.
Finding a way through these ethical dilemmas is much more difficult in practice than in theory. But it such complex negotiations are at the heart of participatory art. We reject political manipulation because we recognise it as an assault on our dignity and freedom. The challenge for theatre, in moving into ambiguous spaces and multidimensional relationships, is to find ways of securing consent so as to strengthen human dignity and freedom.
(This is a revised version of a text published as ‘Consenting Adults’ in Northern Stage Season Brochure Summer 2001)