Where is real?

fantasy mapAs part of an opening exercise in a recent dramatic theory class, my students were asked to respond with coloured Sharpies to a variety of prompts scattered on chart paper around the room. Some were prosaic and materially grounded: “What is real [in a theatre performance]?” “Who is real [in a theatre performance]?” Some more obtuse, bordering on the grammatically absurd: “When is real?” “Where is real?” (The fifth journalistic ‘W’ question: “Why is real?” was beyond our collective comprehension. And the ‘H’ question “How is real?”—glossed as “How are affects of realness activated in a theatre performance?”—was the topic of the whole course.)

It goes without saying that real stuff—audiences, events in the world, material objects—are always the building blocks of theatrical performance. This is well-trod ground. But some genres and styles deliberately and strongly keep that realness in the background. The currently dominant European theatre tradition, dating back at least two centuries, leverages material choices like the darkened theatre and fixed linear rows of seating in comfortable chairs to support conventional cognitive boundaries of theatricality to phenomenologically bracket out things in the real world that should be ignored. Darkness encourages the architectural features of the theatre’s ceiling and walls to go invisible. Likewise a comfortable seat with limited peripheral visual interest mutes self-reflexive attention to one’s own audience body as body and augmenting the eye as I. This relegation extends to real stuff used on the other side of the boundary as the foundation on which to overlay a fictional world. Via theatrical transposition or what Josette Féral describes as the mental act of carving out the space of theatricality from the mundane, the real stuff of actor bodies, props, and stage space is set aside in favour of their fictional correlates. Although sometimes we may choose (and it is a genre choice) to ignore it (or as Coleridge instructs to “willingly suspend our disbelief” in its not-fictionality¹), realness in theatre simply is.

Carol Martin, in her seminal work, Theatre of the Real, delineates a particular view of the real. For Martin, the real resides primarily in history— in the activities of a lived past—and in documentary— in the evidential and historiographic archives of that past. Examples in this style include testimonial forms like verbatim and autobiographical performance that transport real words and life stories from there and then to here and now. The constructed world of the performance claims a close affinity to the real world just beyond. What distinguishes these documentary forms from fictional forms is differing engagement with the question “What is real?” The key feature is that the ‘what’— the content— is real (as in having an autonomous historical antecedent). In the documentary sub-genre of the ambivalently real storyteller of autobiography, we might also add “Who is real?” as a relevant consideration to mark aesthetic interest in the duality of the ‘fictional’ character self and the actual autobiographical source/narrator self. (See Philippe Lejeune “The Autobiographical Pact” for a more developed articulation of the tripartite autobiographical self.)   

By turning its attention to the nature of the encounter between audience and art, participatory theatre is intimately concerned with realness but in a very different manner than documentary theatres of the real. Returning to the students’ prompt questions, the one that seems to be most pertinent to participatory theatre is the where of realness. Where is real? What I am suggesting is that in participatory theatre the aesthetic interest in realness is spatial, located in the space of creation between audience and art and also in the audience itself. Whereas in documentary theatres of the real, the affect of realness is on the stage, for participatory art the affect of realness is in the audience. In this participatory theatre is like immersive theatre in its point of aesthetic interest. The drama is inside the audience experience; the content of the performance is often incidental or operates as the catalytic vehicle for the participatory audience action.

Questions: How does this affect of realness located in the performance-as-event and in actual audience action/experience change the stakes for this kind of work? Does real-ish-ness assist in the activist transference of experience to real life á la Brecht or Boal? Or is this affect of realness still primarily an Aristotelian emotion that dissipates afterwards into inaction and passivity?

Can I participate not “for real”? Is the affect of realness in participatory theatre a fixed innate quality? Can it be increased/decreased? Can participatory theatre shed this affect of realness in the audience body/performance event or can it be “papered over” somehow? What would be the purpose/outcome of such a manipulation?


¹ This is a favourite soap box. Allow me to step up: Coleridge does not ask audiences to suspend their attachment to reality and to believe wholeheartedly in the reality of the presented fiction. No. Coleridge is offering something more rich and subtle. He asks us to “suspend our disbelief.” Describing a painted backdrop of a forest, Coleridge invites us set aside our critical stance about its realness, to remit judgement that it is not a forest. Not to believe that it IS a forest, merely not to worry about it for now.


Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Biographia Literaria.” The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. W.G.T. Shedd. Vol. 3: Biographia Literaria. New York: Harper, 1884.

— — —.  “Progress of the Drama.” The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. W.G.T. Shedd. Vol. 4: Lectures upon Shakespeare and other dramatists. New York: Harper, 1884.

Féral, Josette. “Theatricality: The Specificity of Theatrical Language.” SubStance 31, no. 2-3 (2002): 94-108.

Lejeune, Philippe. “The Autobiographical Pact”  On Autobiography. Edited by Paul John Eakin. Translated by Katherine Leavy. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989. 3-30.

Martin, Carol. Theatre of the Real. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s