In a chapter in The Politics of Decentralisation, called “Citizen Participation: Theory and Practice,” the authors make the point that not only should local authorities be concerned with improving the quality of public services but also the quality of government (153). I love this meta-argument. Not only should we make a better world and along the way there should also be better ways of making a better world. Citizen participation is often cited as a central technique for improving those governmental decision-making processes. Participation is good. When more people are involved in making decisions that affect their community, better decisions will be made.
Participation is also a “good” in theatre performance. Increasingly, under the aegis of the “social turn,” performance work aims to engage audience in active ways. We are asked to move. We are asked to make decisions. We are asked for our input, contributing not just our opinions but also personal biographical data. Participation makes for a richer, more deeply connective and therefore more moving, experience.
And so, my central question here is, “How is political participation similar or different from theatrical participation?” (I suspect this will take several instalments to even survey the territory, let alone come up with a definitive answer.)
To begin, It occurs to me that the basic role dynamic between elected government officials and citizens AND artists and audiences although superficially similar is fundamentally different. Power is held by politicians and by artists; they are “haves” where citizens and audiences are “have-nots.” Politicians and artists are makers or givers and citizens and audiences are receivers. Politicians and artists are the initiators of policies of ideas and experiences. The role of the citizen, like that of the audience is almost entirely reactive. Like voting, we might choose between options but we don’t (often) get to choose the options or shape the processes of choosing. So in respect of these similarities, there is undoubtedly some value in applying theories of participatory citizenship to participatory theatre. (And I will undoubtedly get back to that in a future post.)
But there are (at least) two key differences in the role dynamics between these sets of partners. First, citizens are stakeholders in a way that audiences are not. The work of government is tied up with the life of a community (or city, or country). Citizen participants are directly influenced in ways that are significant and lasting by government policies and actions and so through participation they are concerned with persuading their leaders to do “good.” Both leaders and citizens are part of a community with shared investments in being happy and well. This is not the case with artists and audiences. Although there might be a diffuse interest in “making the world a better place” through an artistic experience (and I am not denigrating this, not at all), any community they form is ephemeral and ‘being happy and well’ is not always the intended or desired outcome. Audiences are individualized in a way that citizens (by definition) are not. A theatre event is not a polis. The philosophical ground of shared activity is not the same.
And second, although artists and politicians are both “experts,” politicians are ostensibly interchangeable with citizens whereas that artists are not interchangeable with audiences. A foundational principle of democracy is that anyone can stand for election and become a representative of the people. (Now obviously there are persistent systemic barriers to this being true in practice, but nevertheless, the principle holds.) An elected representative is just that a ‘representative’ — a placeholder for the community at large, selected through direct exercise of political franchise. Setting aside the fact that artists are not elected, the important part is that they are not representatives of the people. They are not “just like us.”The ‘power’ of the elected leader is contingent, held in trust, whereas the ‘power’ of the artist is innate to being an artist and not transferable in the same way. Artists arguably have special skills in creating and communicating ideas and experiences. Moreover, their goal is creating and communicating ideas and experiences. They need to hold power/control in order to do what they do. Artists exercise control to shape a particular outcome that is given to the audience, whereas elected representatives exercise on behalf of, or as the voice of, the citizens.
So what does this mean for participation? If one way to think about participation is that it aims at moving people from passive non-participation to full and equal control (See my previous post that mentions Arnstein’s ladder), we need to consider what participation at the highest levels—“citizen control” or even “delegation” and “partnership”—look like in the political arena as distinct from the artistic arena. With different models of investment in shared outcomes and different patterns of interdependency between politicians/artists and citizens/audiences, it might become apparent that the same ideals might not apply.
What does Arnstein’s ladder look like for theatrical participation? Are the categories transferable? What would should the new rungs be called? But at a more fundamental level can (or should) audience participation even be measured in a linear fashion where ‘most’ is best to the point of complete redistribution of power/control? Is there an upper limit before theatre stops being theatre? Can everyone be an artist? This comes back to Bishop’s point about aesthetics and efficacy. (She says ‘ethics’ rather than efficacy. Where participation is an ethical good simply by virtue of being inclusive, simply because it IS.) Political participation is all about efficacy — getting (good) stuff done. If artists are displaced as control is increasingly shared, wither aesthetics?
Burns, Danny. Robin Hambleton and Paul Hoggett, The Politics of Decentralisation. Macmillan, 1994.