Play as audience-led performance

A seminal theory of participation that persists in its influence is Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation. From an article of the same name published in 1969 in the Journal of the American Planning Association, Arnstein’s model describes a ladder with 8 rungs, ordering levels of civic participation from non-participation to tokenism to citizen control.


Claire Bishop refers to (but quickly dismisses) the ladder in the conclusion to her book on participation Artificial Hells. Bishop thinks that “while the ladder provides us with helpful and nuanced differences between forms of civic participation, it falls short of corresponding to the complexity of artistic gestures. The most challenging works of art do not follow this schema, because models of democracy in art do not have an intrinsic relationship to models of democracy in society” (279). As I understand Bishop’s concern, the problem becomes particularly acute on the highest rung of the ladder, which seems to imply that citizen control means the displacement of the artists. In democracy (theoretically), the ‘leaders’ are just citizens temporarily wearing other hats. Leaders and citizens are essentially interchangeable. Leaders are the representatives or delegates of citizens but they have shared utilitarian goals. But between artists and audiences, there is an important distinction in the roles and relationship of creator and consumer/spectator/receiver that is central to what we think art is. (Or at least art that is assessed on aesthetic rather than utilitarian criteria.) Artists are doing something of utility to and for the audience, but they are also doing something else that requires extended control. The relationship in the creation of an aesthetic experience is innately and perhaps necessarily unequal. And so, it appears that civic power relationships between haves and have-nots are fundamentally different in quality than artistic interactions between haves and have-nots in theatre/performance/art.

Enter Ben Fletcher-Watson who takes up Arnstein’s ladder and applies it to Theatre for Early Years (TEY) — theatre for the very youngest children. Fletcher acknowledges Bishop’s critique but he side-steps it insofar as he is less concerned with aesthetics, arguing that TEY is already strongly utilitarian in its focus. From an instrumental or educative perspective, the distinction between learners and teachers is less definitive. Being a self-led learner where you are your own teacher makes sense. We get that. Being a self-led audience where you are your own artist seems less intuitive, leading away from virtuosic technique and creative expertise, away from what we think artists do.

Fletcher-Watson’s ladder is organized in three broad categories — non-participation (spectating and therapising) at the bottom, adult-led (educating, testing, interacting) in the middle, and child-led (co-creating, re-interpreting, and playing) at the top. Play is certainly an effective mode of participatory learning. The question is “Is it art?” “The claim that free play can be considered theatre is obviously contentious,” he writes with amusing understatement (35).

However, play shares a core raison d’être with art. The business of play is at the heart of being a child. It is how children explore, process, and understand the conditions and qualities of their world. It is how they absorb, reflect, and reimagine what it means to be a child. It is not a huge leap to say that this is what art does for (adult) humans too. Art is a mediation on what it means to human. Play and art meet similar cultural “outcomes.”

So by extension, what does play as high-agency participatory theatre mean for adults? Interactive, experiential sims might fit the bill, allowing immersive explorations of unfamiliar or future-oriented situations. Conversely, what is the aesthetic component of children’s play? Can children engaged in play be valued from an aesthetic perspective? How can we describe/capture the synergy between aesthetics and utility without setting those up as exclusive poles of value? How do we talk about a contingent and improvised aesthetics of participation without denigrating it as lesser? Is that possible?

I am hoping to see what this looks like first-hand in January as Young People’s Theatre in Toronto produces One Thing Leads to Another @ Young People’s Theatre, Toronto from 12-29 January 2019. (


Image source:

Works Cited

Arnstein, Sherry. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.” Journal of the American Planning Association 35.4 (1969): 216-224.

Bishop, Claire. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Verso, 2012.

Fletcher-Watson, Ben. “Seen and Not Heard: Participation as Tyranny in Theatre for Early Years.” RiDE: Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 20.1 (2015): 24-38.


2 responses to “Play as audience-led performance

  1. Pingback: Audience as citizen? (Part 1) | Upsurges of the Real: a performance research blog·

  2. Pingback: Partici…(“Say it!”)…pation | Upsurges of the Real: a performance research blog·

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