For the ancient Greeks, theater was a public expression of deeply held-cultural beliefs, a religious experience based on a shared understanding of mythology, as interpreted by individual playwrights. By Shakespeare’s time, the theatrical experience had become secular and dependent on audience reaction. Theatergoers not only cheered or booed depending on their approval of characters onstage, but were known to throw insults, rotting vegetable, or worse at actors they did not care for.
Today, the audience is expected to sit quietly behind the fourth wall, laughing or applauding only at appropriate times, and woe be to those who attempt to inject their opinion of a play in progress. When Peter Pan was first produced onstage, J.M. Barrie worried whether or not audiences would be stirred from complacency into clapping for Tinkerbell. Even criticism is the jealously guarded right of a privileged class. But some companies are working to bring theater back to the people.
Last year, London’s Royal Opera house produced Twitterdammerung, a collaborative creation written entirely by “tweets”: micro-blog messages of 140 characters provided by 900 creative minds. Dubbed the People’s Opera, this publicity stunt yielded great press for Twitter, along with a work that was, in the words of one critic, “actually not that bad at all. I mean actually watchable, listenable and rather funny.” For a concoction created by committee, it’s an amazing testament to the power of collaboration.
High school and college students have long created their own original works, full of inside jokes and topical humor, to be produced by their peers, for their peers. Today, some schools in Tucson, Arizona are taking that aesthetic to younger children. Opening Minds through the Arts (OMA) is an educational program dedicated to using music to help students succeed in other academic areas. First graders, under the tutelage of graduate students in opera programs, have one-upped the Twitter opera by writing their own operas, words and music, and then performing them for classmates and parents.
In the same city, a nonprofit organization called Stories That Soar! has been providing schoolchildren the opportunity to stretch their creative muscles and participate in a collaborate theatrical experience since 2001. Troupe member visit participating schools, introducing a talking chest that wants to “eat stories.” Children are invited to submit their original writing to the chest, and these pieces are then reworked into a play that is acted out by adults. Children get to watch theater that is not only on their level, but created by their peers.
From classic audience-participation performances such as the Do-It-Yourself Messiah, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, to modern phenomena like The Buffy Sing Along, it’s clear that audiences want to get back into the act and become part of the show. Using one of these models, combined with the communication power of the Internet, your theater can also create a true community theater program.