Designing for Audience Response.

Audiences are the preoccupation of those engaged in creating theatre: how do you get them to pay, and, (in both senses of the word) to attend? What are they thinking during the performance? What are they feeling? What is their experience? What, if anything, is universal in the experience of the individuals who make up one particular audience witnessing one particular performance of one particular play?

If this sounds like a litany for control freaks, then I should point out, now, that I don't believe water-tight answers to any of these questions exist. The exploration of these issues, however, has been a legitimate source of endeavour and consideration, always implicit and sometimes explicit, in the work of theatre practitioners for centuries. The user of any interactive, multi-media material is its audience. When the nature of that material is consciously educative, its creators are particularly concerned with audience response. What I hope to explore, here, is the way in which some theatre paradigms might instructively be applied to the design of such material.


The Realism Paradigm

The realism paradigm demands that when the fourth wall, (that's the one traditionally found between the stage and the proscenium arch), is removed, the audience witness, indeed experience, real action in sections of real time occurring between real characters. These characters wear real clothes, they sit on real chairs, they eat (if they are required to eat) real food. Above all, they experience real emotions, and the audience, in that sympathy which is either natural, or else so deeply culturally transmitted as to be virtually natural, catch a comet-tail glint of every emotion, too. So it is that we weigh General Gabler's pistols in our hands, just as Hedda does, prior to leaving the parlour in order to blow her brains all over the grand piano next door.

This paradigm is so much the staple of theatrical, and filmic, and televisual endeavour, that it is possible to lose sight of its effectiveness. It should not be doubted that sometimes the audience gets very close to the comet-head of the emotion - even though on rather more occasions it is left far back, thinking in the dark. Constantin Stanislavski , in many ways the leader of a way of working in theatre that sought (and still seeks) to transfix audiences to the glowing fireball of the emotion-comet, strove always to make the audience feel, rather than to think. This he achieved by the device of ensuring that actors felt those emotions on the stage rather than simply demonstrating them.

The fourth wall has an obvious concomitant in the monitor. I must point out, however, that Stanislavskian acting and production techniques work in other forms of staging, too. When the focus of the actor is, as Stanislavski demanded, directed at the action on the stage, the audience's focus will almost invariably be there, too. This will be true whether there is a proscenium frame to that action, or whether, the stage is set centrally, with audience on three sides, or indeed completely surrounding the action. I mention this only to demonstrate how powerful our propensity to suspend our disbelief can be.

Ancient staging techniques, predating Stanislavski's work, such as those employed by the Greek drama of the Fifth century B.C., still seem to have traded in the realism paradigm. Even though masks were worn, and even though action was presented in a variety of forms, audience belief in the truth of the action (to borrow a Stanislavskian term) was strong. The fact that these dramas used a split stage, [with dance and chanting from the Chorus operating in the circular "Orchestra", and dialogue and monologue from the two or three actors on the raised, rectangular "Skene"], did not dilute belief in that truth . Aristotle's observation of audiences experiencing "catharsis" in response to watching tragedy confirms this . The co-mixture of fear and pity which he identified argues that, at least in part, the audience identified with the sufferings of the protagonist - they knew that they had not murdered their fathers, enjoyed sexual relations with their mothers, and blinded themselves on the discovery of those pungent truths, and yet they had edged up close to the emotions involved - they had felt the unthinkable - they had been singed in the comet-tail.


The Objectivity Paradigm

For some theatre practitioners, feeling is not enough. More than anyone else, it is Bertolt Brecht, (1898 - 1956) who challenged the adequacy of sensibility. "Stop that romantic staring", proclaimed banners in the auditorium to the audience of his early play, Drums in the Night. No more would watching and empathising be enough, Brecht aimed to create conditions in which audiences would witness theatre in a state of sentient objectivity If audiences could be taught to watch and to think, then theatre might be something which changed the world rather than simply representing it.

The construction of Brecht's plays consciously fended off any conventional expectations of what theatre was like. His stories rejected any concept of tightly controlled form - no beginning/middle/end stuff. He created a style he termed "Epic theatre" in counterblast to the "Dramatic theatre" that had so far prevailed. In Epic theatre, each scene stands stark and clear; it resists the organic inclination of Dramatic theatre, where one scene leads to another. A disciple of Eisenstein, and, frankly, a fan of Hollywood film to boot, Brecht found theatrical adaptation of montage a source of energy in his Epic. Scenes often were subtitled - rather in the way that 18th century picaresque novels, such as the work of Fielding, let you know in advance exactly what it is that you are to witness. This is a conscious rejection of dramatic tension - the will she/won't she - that motors an audience's focus. With the tension of what might or might not happen removed, audiences were edged closer to thought, rather than feeling in response to the action.

Brecht consciously rejected the theatre-technology of illusion. He favoured non-naturalistic lighting and makeup. He was interested in forms of popular theatre, e.g. fairground shows, which took place in daylight; which set no boundaries around an audience who were free to come and go as they pleased. He also employed devices such as narration, half-mask, and song, specifically to nudge the audience out of any tendency to suspend their disbelief. Song might allow direct address from character (singer) to audience.

Verfremdungseffekt, is the term Brecht used to express his ideal. Popularly known as the A effect , or alienation, it might be better translated as the effect of distancing - of shifting the audience's focus on the action so that they recognise that they are watching a play, not reality. Freed of the burden of believing in the truth of the action on the stage, they could consider the arguments the play contained. Actors, similarly, had to be trained not to identify with characters they played. If the actor presented the character as an entity outside him/herself, he/she forced the audience to re-evaluate the character, too. Actors were to use "geste", meaning both gist and gesture, in the presentation of the character, rather than trying to inhabit the skin of the character. The actor, as John Willett has observed, was "to make himself observed standing between the audience and the text".

There are many attractive notions in this paradigm for interactive multi-media material . If the material is to be educative, then it is surely right that the user should be invited to think about the issues as the interaction occurs. Distancing and reflection must be a desirable result.

Like Stanislavski, Brecht has been a major influence upon theatre and film. His ideal, to create a theatre that was popularised and didactic, to find ways of unleashing theatre's potential to be a factor that shaped the world, has been taken up by many theatre practitioners - particularly, perhaps, those working in theatre-in-education (TIE).


The Spect-actor Paradigm

This paradigm is a contemporary development in theatre - again, one which has been enthusiastically adopted by TIE practitioners. I believe that it has the most acute application for the production of multi-media material - it presents an ideal to which educative interactive programs might profitably aspire.

The term, "spect-actor", is one coined by the Brazilian theatre practitioner, Augusto Boal. Boal's work, like Brecht's, is motored by an impulse for social and political change. Unlike Brecht, through Invisible Theatre and, more particularly, Forum Theatre , he has developed new theatrical forms in which members of the audience cross, ultimately consciously cross the boundary between watching and taking part in the action.

In Forum Theatre, Boal's method is as follows. With a company of actors, he explores the life of a particular community: he identifies a source of social tension, or "oppression". Having done so, the company then devise a piece of theatre to present to that community, which finds a way of showing one character, the "protagonist", experiencing that element of "oppression".

After the piece has been performed once, with the protagonist inevitably no further forward in their attempt to break the oppression, the company then offer the audience the opportunity to change the outcome. The piece is performed a second time. On this occasion, any member of the audience can at any time approach the acting area and shout "stop". The action stops and the member of the audience, a "spect-actor", can replace the actor playing the "protagonist" and attempt to break the oppression. The other actors, well-schooled in the business of maintaining the status quo, will respond with new improvised dialogue and actions which will probably manage to defeat the "spectactor's" attempt. At any point other "spect-actors" can intervene, by shouting "stop", and attempt to apply their own solutions.

If any means of breaking the "oppression" is discovered by the audience, then it may be that the oppressed in that community will have learnt strategies for changing their lives. As the Forum continues, spect-actors may take the opportunity to replace other characters in the piece. In doing so they will be able to experience the power of their "oppressors"; perhaps more importantly, they may devise new strategies of "oppression" missed by the company, which might be experienced in reality.

Even if it does not succeed in breaking the oppression presented in the piece, an audience may well still have made invaluable progress towards learning strategies for minimising its effects. At the very least, a community which has taken part in a piece of Forum Theatre will have had its consciousness raised.

To illustrate this abstract account, I offer one of the examples Boal records of his Forum work in his book, Games for Actors and Non-Actors, (Routledge, 1992). His company visited the small community of Godrano in Sicily. As one might expect, life in this rural community is over-shadowed by the ultimate "oppression" of the Mafia, however, Boal notes that while "everyone was unhappy in Godrano among the unhappiest were the women and the girls. Everyone was oppressed, but the most oppressed were the women who were married or soon to be married" .

In response, despite the objections of the police, and with only the syrupy blessing of the Sindaco (leader of the council and mayor) to encourage them, the company devised a Forum piece exploring the oppression of women in Godrano.

The piece concerned a young woman, Giuseppina, whose wish to go out to supper was referred by her mother to her father. Giuseppina's father refuses her permission, unless one of her brothers accompanies her. Her eldest brother is of the opinion that "a woman's place is in the home, and that the stupider and more ignorant she is, the better she is" . A second brother merely exploits the situation as an opportunity to betray Giuseppina's misdemeanours. Her youngest brother appears to take her part, but only if she behaves in a way of which he approves. The piece ends with Giuseppina refused permission even to go out for a walk while each of her brothers leaves to pursue their own leisure.

Following the first presentation of the piece, Boal records two male members of the audience "ordered their wives" home. The women refused and the Forum began. Young women from Godrano tried but failed to achieve a different outcome to Giuseppina's story, until one "showed what was for her the only solution: force she went out for her walk". This was accepted as a solution to the immediate oppression.

The second phase of the Forum proceeded, with spect-actors taking the roles of other characters in the piece. This precipitated more lively debate, as male members of the community adopted the "oppressor"-roles that they were identified with in reality by the female villagers of Godrano. By contrast, a male spect-actor's adoption of Giuseppina's role drew a chilly response from the women. Boal notes that:

the male actor (even if he was a spectator at the beginning) was still, as far as the women were concerned, a male actor; the woman spect-actor on the other hand was one of them, a woman on stage, standing there in the name of other women.

From this experience Boal makes a discovery which I think is crucial to our concerns here:

when an actor carries out an act of liberation, he or she does it in place of the spectator, and thus is, for the latter, a catharsis. But when a spect-actor carries out the same act on stage, he or she does it in the name of all the other spectators, and is thus for them not a catharsis but a dynamisation.

This, I believe, perfectly describes an ideal interactive experience for the multi-media audience. The element of game, of unreality, which Boal throws around his Forum theatre permits freedom of expression for the audience. While the Forum is in operation, there are ground rules which promote absolute safety for the audience; the index of their security is their willingness to cross the line from spectator to spect-actor, (their desire to straddle the hyphen). At the same time, a dynamic of realism is also in operation. Identification with the action - with the oppressor, or more probably the oppressed - gives urgency to their willingness to become directly involved in the action.

The spect-actor paradigm established in Boal's work, as I have hinted in the above paragraph, seems to offer a very satisfying synthesis of the other paradigms I have outlined. It moves effortlessly between belief and reflection; between feeling and thought. It makes available to its audience a rich variety of forms of learning: learning through observation; learning through empathy; learning through distanced consideration; learning through repetition and variation; learning through (safe) direct experience.

The challenge for those involved in the production of multi-media interactive material is, I believe, to meet Boal's ideal: something which this author, for one, has so far signally failed to do.


Multi-Narrative: Some early problems encountered.

The species of theory, outlined above, was very far from my mind when I was first asked to write some dramatic scenes for the Childbirth Project. I was presented with character profiles and a selection of situations in which to place those characters. This I did. I was asked to give these characters and situations different treatments; this I also did. I believe that my first error, however, was a stylistic one. I wrote as though for television. The scenes then, almost inevitably, acquired the argot of the lowest common denominator of television - the soap opera.

As a writer, there were aspects of the work which I found technically interesting, indeed demanding. To have three separate versions of the same scene proved curious to me. Tom Rogers requested one strand of each scene to have a negative outcome, another strand to be neutral in outcome, and a third strand to have a positive outcome. The rationale for the existence of these different strands was that a user would be enabled to witness, and, vicariously, to rehearse, a situation which might be equivalent to an aspect of their own, real-life experience. Any writer, especially a writer of drama and theatre, will instinctively look to gathering points of tension and conflict in order to make a scene work. Conflict is the raw fuel of drama, and tension is the engine. If, then, you have to write a positive out-come to a scene which you have already worked through in a way that seemed to be dramatic, the experience can be, for the writer, enervating.

We focused, for example, upon the character of Denise. Aged 16 or 17, the profile stated Denise to be "in a failing relationship with her boyfriend", and to be living at home with parents who are "less than happy with news of the baby". Tom asked that I write a scene that followed Denise's initial pre-natal visit. She would return home and the question of whether she should keep the baby at all would be discussed.

The "negative" scene was relatively easy to write. Denise was frosty with her mother, the only other person in the house on her arrival; they interrupted one another, they did not really hear what one another was saying, and, generally, miscommunicated. David, Denise's boyfriend, interrupted the action with a series of botched attempts to phone her; not to ask her about the ante-natal appointment, only to harass her about some academic work which he wished to filch from her. Denise's father's arrival only made matters worse. He entered the scene a man with a mission - determined that Denise should abort the baby. The scene ended with Denise storming out of the house. It was fun to write. A positive version of the scene proved much more difficult to accomplish, mainly because my shoulders ached with cringing. There were more resolutions per square yard than on Princes Street during Hogmanay. I am still not very satisfied with my final draft, which seems to lack only mid-western inflections to belong in an episode of the Waltons. And yet it was interesting to discover how little sometimes had to be changed, in order for the intention of a character, or, indeed, the direction of the scene, to be radically altered .

The aim of the Childbirth Project was only to produce a tiny fragment of the material: to demonstrate that the technological and artistic demands of such a programme could be met. It struck me, almost immediately, how labour intensive the writing would be, in order to script the programme as a whole. With a full range of character profiles, designed to offer as wide a usership as possible the chance to benefit from the material, and the number of scenes one might want the piece to deliver dramatically, a massive writing undertaking would be required. When one adds to that the business of offering different versions of each scene, the writing demandss multiplies by three - always assuming that three different outcomes are sufficient. It might well be necessary to employ a team of writers in order to generate sufficient material. Following on from this, anything that was written would also need to be produced, directed and of course acted. I believe that the full-production costs of the programme, were it to be undertaken this way, would be huge.

The scenes which I wrote were designed to be watched. Interactivity was not my primary purpose: a user could do little more than select, at junction points, different outcomes to the scene . The paradigm adopted was the realism paradigm. However close to their own situation the scene depicted portrayed, I must regretfully state here that I doubt that the suspension of a user's disbelief would survive the operation of the mouse to make a choice. I am currently considering a fresh look at the writing of these scenes - adopting various aspects of the different paradigms outlined at the start of this article. I feel that the use of interior monologues - where the user could access the internal thoughts of a character would generate layers of drama, meaning and learning, thus enriching the material. It may also to possible to adopt Brecht's performance technique of "geste", where a character is demonstrated to the audience, rather than represented to them by an actor who is inhabiting the role: there would be minimal movement requirements for long periods of time if geste and tableau were employed, this would allow stills to be used, speeding up production and saving memory.

And what of Boal and the Forum? I would define any kind of state of unknowingness as a state of oppression. For the potential user of the Childbirth Project, ignorance of the minutiae of child-bearing might be exacerbated by "oppression" at the hands of professionals they encounter in the course of their pregnancy .

My colleagues are not yet convinced of the existence of the kind of technology which could generate the spect-actor paradigm. The programme would have to be able to provide text in an aliatoric way: it would have to maintain the "oppression" in a flexible and organic form in response to attempts to break that oppression which could not all be anticipated. I do, however, believe that this is only a matter of time.

As, I think, is clear from the tone of this essay, I believe the work is but begun.



Constantin Stanislavski, (1863 - 1938), Russian actor and director, formulated a system for actors, published principally in his books An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role. Aspects of his theories of acting form the root of the "method" school of acting, which has dominated the training of actors, particularly film actors, in America, (cf. Lee Strasberg, A Dream of Passion).

This aspect of Stanislavski's work is popularly remembered as the concept of "emotion memory", whereby, the actor, having determined through a lengthy process of exploration of text and character what emotion their character is experiencing at a given moment of the play, then trawls through their own experience for an equivalent emotion. The actor then superimposes this "emotion memory" upon that moment during the performance.

The split stage dynamic of classical Greek theatre offers a parallel with multi-media screen design.

For a thorough discussion of Aristotle's Poetics as they might be applied to multi-media design, see Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre, (Addison-Wesley, 1991).

John Willett, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, (Methuen, 1993. P.174)

The dynamics of Brecht's theatre, with it's adoption of montage, its use of music, of text to be read rather than hear - often displayed in the form of banners in early productions - has parallels with multi-media screen design.

So contemporary that it necessarily escaped Brenda Laurel's attention.

Boal offers a comprehensive account of his practice in Games for Actors and Non-Actors, (Routledge, 1992)

Boal, A. Games for Actors and Non-Actors, p. 31 (Routledge, 1992)

Ibid. p. 34

Ibid p. 35

Ibid. p. 35

The scene in its three forms can be read in Appendix 1.

This is not to say, of course, that the dramatic content of the Childbirth Project was the only aspect available for interaction. It would, of course, only be a small part of the picture as a whole: it would only ever occupy a portion of the screen.

I recognise that the word "oppression" has, perhaps, an unhelpful, colourful meaning here. And if it comes to that, Doctors, Midwives, Health Visitors, and Nurses are themselves the victims of the "oppression" of time, and market forces.


Simon Turley. January 1997.