I’m fascinated with interactive theater and have been noodling on different ways to categorize audience agency. The following is organized by type of agency and roughly sorted by low-impact to high-impact.
A simple form of audience agency is the ability to choose where to focus one’s attention. Depending on the show, this might involve choosing which actors to follow or examining the environment for clues about the world (e.g. rifling through drawers or reading letters.
By choosing where to focus their attention, audience members can focus on the parts of the show which appeal to them the most. If there’s a lot of content happening at once, an audience member might feel FOMO (fear of missing out) which could negatively affect their experience but also encourage repeat attendance or fuel good discussion afterward as friends share their unique experiences.
A more sophisticated form of agency is casting an audience member in the role of a character in the fictional world. Casting the audience can immediately change their experience of a show, even if the audience has little other agency.
Giving the audience a specific role will change how they contextualize the plot and the setting. It encourages them to think about how plot developments might personally affect them, even if they never see those consequences during the performance. Having a specific role in the world can also lead to audience members identifying with specific actor’s roles and feeling deeper empathy for those characters.
Depending on the other types of agency present, casting audience members can provide them with clear norms for interacting with the actors (or the rest of the audience). This could include signaling when it’s appropriate to talk, what to discuss, or how to influence the plot.
A show can amplify an audience member’s agency by giving them freedom to shape their character. By taking an active role in defining their character, an audience member is likely to feel more attached to that character, embody that character more thoroughly, and potentially enjoy the character more than they might otherwise. This type of agency exists on a spectrum, ranging from allowing an audience member to select a character from a set of options, making choices that complete a partially created character, to creating a new character from scratch.
The above types of agency could exist without the actors every acknowledging the audience or without the audience having any ability to shape the performance. The remaining types of agency all involve audience members taking a more active role in the show.
A limited form of participation could have the audience being directly addressed by the actors and given tasks (hold my drink, deliver a letter, watch my back). These tasks can pull audience members more deeply into the performance, even if they don’t present the audience member with meaningful decisions or a way to affect the plot.
Another form of potentially limited participation could involve audience members engaging in dialogue with the actors. Through conversation with the actors, the audience can uncover details about the setting, the characters’ backstories, or the characters’ current state of mind. If the audience is driving the conversation, they can focus on the aspects of the show that most interest them. Actors can also use these conversations to help audience members flesh out their own characters.
A show can grant audience members a more powerful form of agency by allowing them to influence the broader narrative or plot. As with previous types of agency, narrative participation exists on a wide spectrum. The examples below assume that the audience is engaging with the actors while in character, though it’s possible that they are just affecting the plot through voting at key moments.
Simple types of narrative participation enable audience members to shape the specific content they encounter without altering the overall plot, character arcs, or conclusion. For instance, an audience member’s actions might prompt an actor to deliver a specific monologue, give the audience member a gift, or take them to different part of the set; these actions might not have any bearing on the rest of the show.
Another form of light narrative participation could have an audience member providing advice to a character or otherwise helping them reach a decision in which the consequences won’t be felt before the end of the show. For example, an audience member might convince a character to quit their job but the show might end before that character has a chance to follow through on that decision. This type of agency can enable powerful character scenes and leave the audience feeling empowered, without needing to develop a wide array of possible endings for the show.
A deeper form of agency is if the audience’s advice results in consequences within the scope of the show. Audience members can see the effects of their actions and feel as though they made a meaningful impact on the plot. The decision might ultimately have limited impact on the plot (i.e. not affect the rest of the show) or it could affect later scenes, character arcs, and the ending. Depending on the show, these decisions might lead to one of a limited number of endings or a unique conclusion as the actors improvise a resolution.
The above options have audience members shaping the narrative by influencing the characters; a more direct form of agency has the audience taking direct actions that affect the plot. This could take many forms such as stealing or uncovering a critical item (prop), rendering a verdict (in character), or revealing secret information at a crucial moment. With this type of agency, a show must be prepared for a wide variety of audience actions and be able to finesse them into a satisfying experience.
I hope the above breakdown is helpful for understanding the different types of agency that audience members can have in interactive works. If I missed something, or if you have suggestions for reorganizing it, I’d love to hear from you.
I only barely mentioned the tradeoffs of different types of agency – I’d like to discuss them more deeply in another post. For now, here are some things to consider:
- Agency can lead to emergent stories that the authors never would have considered
- Agency can add high variability to the quality of the experience
- Agency can result in greater immersion, engagement, empathy, or catharsis for audience members
- Making shows robust to agency can take a lot of extra work, both in script writing and actor training
- Agency can allow some audience members to make the experience worse for other audience members, through their creative decisions or disruptive behaviors
- Not all audience members are comfortable with or interested in having agency
- Shows can support the audience by having an on-boarding process that clearly articulates the permitted / desired forms of agency
Let me know your thoughts!