The Fourth Wall was practically insisted upon by 19th and 20th century theatre practitioners. A night out at the theatre was a collective experience where audiences found themselves strictly ‘watching’ something without interacting with it, separated by a fourth imaginary wall.
Nowadays, it's not uncommon for that wall to be repeatedly broken during a performance or not exist whatsoever, such as immersive performances.
How is this change in imaginary space affecting the theatrical experience? What does this say about what type of experience audiences are demanding? And finally, how can the experience audiences are demanding help our society during a troubling time?
The classical theatre set-up where the fourth wall is never broken is a full-on voyeuristic endeavor where audience members draw pleasure from observing something deemed ‘forbidden’ by the existence fourth wall separating them. Many types of voyeurism can be identified in this classical model such as explicit voyeurism with nudity or sexual acts on stage, complicit voyeurism where an audience must witness a moment of violence and is not able to intervene, or accidental voyeurism that happens when an audience member witnesses an accident such as a fall, a missed line or a technical malfunction.
Immersive theatre is becoming extremely popular and demand for it is on the rise. From a simplified perspective, it seems audience members are looking to take part in something rather than sit back and watch something happen. Experiences like Secret Cinema, where audiences are immersed in the world of a specific film and given characters and tasks, is always sold out. Other, more fringe experiences give a more political connotation to “do something” rather than “sit back and watch.” One such example is Lebanese director Lucien Bourjeily’s 2014 “Vanishing State” at Battersea Arts Center that implicated the audience in drafting the Middle East’s countries borders along with French and English diplomats (Sykes and Picot) at the end of World War I.
With the rise of things like virtual reality, augmented reality, and immersive theatre the role of the audience is transforming itself from a passive voyeur to an active participant. It’s no surprise to anyone that the world is currently under political, economic and natural threats. Speaking for (and to) my generation, we are getting ridiculously closer to a time where we will be the ones fully in charge. I think this rise in demand for immersion is somehow evolving parallel to our socio-political-environmental maturity of thought. It seems like we are on the brink of a third world war and global warming is way past being ignorable.
Make or watch theatre that sparks change, use your newfound skills by applying them outside of the theatre or fourth wall to your everyday life, and start changing things you have control of so that in the near future we can deal with the big problems as they fall into our laps (thanks baby boomers, you guys are great).
I think this is a wake up call for all of us to start changing and taking charge- and what better place to start practicing then in the theatre, where the problems are still made-believe? •
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