Leaving Space at the Table

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Democracy is starting to feel uncomfortable. In 2016, we saw the rise of the ‘silent majority’ with Trump, Brexit, and the return of One Nation. In the most recent Australian election, all of our polling was proven wrong with another surprise victory going to the major right-wing party.

It doesn’t matter how often this same plot twist happens – each time I feel personally shocked. There are so few people in my immediate community that share these ideologies, so it always feels so absurd that they can achieve power. But of course, this is the nature of our 21st century echo chambers.

 In such a noisy world, we curate our communities so tightly that we get used to the sound of our shared opinions. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when everyone you know denounces the alt-right.

It has been suggested that the silent majority is a consequence of generations being taught that it is rude to discuss politics at the dinner table. Maybe it’s not so much that democracy is not working for us, but rather that we are not using democracy in the way that we should. Even if we disagree with electoral outcomes, it would be great if we weren’t always so surprised!

This feeling became our starting point for a new project by Counterpilot, the transmedia performance collective that I direct. All of our work centres around the audience experience, with interactive technologies and gamified narratives. In this case, we wanted to create a petri dish of democratic dissent; a context where strangers could be invited to debate and disagree with each other without having anywhere to hide. Our challenge though, was to make the experience apolitical – it was to be about the feeling of political systems, without any political bias.

The result was Crunch Time:

Here, twelve participants sit around a projector-mapped dining table and share an elaborate five-course meal with two unique twists. The first is that they must democratically vote on each ingredient that will be used in the preparation of the meal. The second is that the ingredients will be cooked not by a trained chef, but by a special guest whom each night is co-opted from a position of public leadership.

 Our guest chefs typically included politicians, artistic directors and CEOs from within the local community. Their attempt at cooking in response to the diners’ choices was filmed live and streamed to the table, from a nearby kitchen space. Though their role was performative in nature, the guest chefs served as participants in their own right, reading from an automatic teleprompter and navigating the circumstances of the work with as much freshness as the other participants.

There’s a particular look some people give me whenever I explain a project like Crunch Time. They raise an eyebrow, cock their head to the side. “But how is it theatre?

Of course from a distance, the project looks more like a dinner party than a piece of traditional theatre. Depending on an individual’s own frame of reference, I’ve also heard it being described as like an episode of reality TV, a video game, or a piece of installation art. But I maintain that theatre is in the DNA of this work.

I turn to Chapple & Kattenbelt (2006) for support here – where the notion of intermediality is used to position the audience as an integral part of the theatrical form. The audience acts as its own site of meaning with each member bringing their own lived experiences and cultural baggage with which to influence their reception of the work as meaning-makers. But they also become themselves one of the many media – as much a part of the work as the lighting, the video design, or the written script.

The bodies and minds of the audience members in the room become part of the confluence of media that makes performance. Intermediality is concerned with the space between where all of these components collide. While other formats like film (or in fact, traditional dramatic theatre) may seek to seamlessly integrate their components, contemporary performance thrives on empowering the spaces between, where reality and fiction can co-exist and where a constellation of forms crash against each other in time and space.

For another perspective on the argument, Peter Brook (1968) famously claimed that the DNA of theatre was comprised of three simple ingredients – an actor, an audience, and a space . In Crunch Time, the audience are simultaneously enrolled as actors. Throughout the experience, they are led to watch each other through a performative lens, with the understanding that the actions people take during this experience are both real and also un-real, provoked by the heightened nature of the evening.

The third ingredient, the space, becomes a powerful tool in enabling this mode of engagement. In this context, the space refers not just to the physical location, but the dramaturgical reality – the circumstances, rules and medial infrastructure that play host and give structure to the evening’s experiences.

There’s something hokey that tends to happen when participants are invited to improvise with a performer from within a fictional frame. They become self-aware, and they ‘perform’ with a layer of comfortable artifice, often making choices that disregard their own personal impulses, instead assuming that the exchange is merely a tool for moving the story forward.

When participants interact with fixed media though, there is seemingly less artifice. The media doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not, and so the participant is also invited to respond as their real self. The moment does not demand any particular falsehood in order to move forward.

This performance dynamic is inspired by a style of automatic instructional theatre known as autoteatro, first defined by Sylvia Mercuriali & Ant Hampton. In autoteatro performance works, participants follow instructions, acting as both performer and observer for themselves in stylised or unfamiliar circumstances. In this way, Hampton & Mercuriali suggest that an autoteatro work acts as a “’trigger’ for a subsequently self-generating performance” (n.d.).

Being made to operate in this instructional context means that the participants must navigate the porous boundaries between the real world and their self-generated arts experience. Such ambiguity prompts a level of self-awareness, as the participants become conscious of the part that they are playing. In this way, participants become audience to themselves as actors, as much as they witness the other actors around them.

The work develops a uniquely liminal position in this genuine-but-manufactured zone of aestheticised reality. On one hand, nothing matters because it’s just a game and in gameplay we know not to take things too seriously. But on the other hand, the currency of the evening is established as food, which though trivial still feels strangely personal when it’s going to end up in your mouth.

And so Crunch Time is theatrical because it depends on this particular balance. It also depends entirely on the audience, innately trusting them to be interesting and to develop a genuine throughline in conversation with the work.

Crunch Time runs for two and a half hours, throughout which there are lots of fixed elements and carefully designed stimulus. But there is also space. Space for the audience to be surprising, to distract themselves with their own tangents, and to unpack their own roles in the moment. The balance between open and closed elements becomes a rhythmic dance like sex or music – riding the waves of give and take in order to craft the best possible circumstances for impact.

And in response, our audiences delivered time and time again. Like the sub-plot about a vegetarian diner who campaigned for one course to be meat-free, securing promises that were quickly abandoned as soon as bacon was available to be voted on. Or the diner who lunged across the table to knock someone else’s token out of the way, manipulating the outcome of a vote and feeling immediate shame when the significance of this act was pointed out by other diners. Or the conspirators who rallied the whole table to abstain from a vote in the hopes that they could bypass a set of ingredients that nobody wanted (spoiler: the system doesn’t work this way, and they ended up with cloves).

Giving so much control to the audience is both high-risk and high-reward. But maybe it also says something broader about culture too. That in a true democracy, we need to leave space for everyone to be heard.

Nathan Sibthorpe is an award-winning contemporary performance-maker and AV Designer. He was previously Queensland Theatre Company’s Geek-In-Residence in 2012-14; the Festival Director of Short+Sweet Queensland from 2013-16; an Australia Council JUMP artist in 2012; and the Creative Director for Markwell Presents Cinematic Theatre Company from 2016-18. Nathan is currently the Director of Counterpilot, a transmedia performance collective based in Brisbane. Counterpilot’s most recent work, Truthmachine, received four awards at the 2019 Adelaide Fringe, securing future presentations in Brisbane, Melbourne and Hong Kong.

Nathan has been nominated for eight Matilda Awards, receiving the award for Best AV Design in 2017 (Blue Bones) and the Lord Mayor’s Award for Best New Australian Work in 2018 (Crunch Time). In 2011 he received a Green Room Groundling Award and in 2017 he was the recipient of the Dr Don Batchelor Award for Drama Research at QUT. As a performance-maker working in various capacities, Nathan’s credits include: Truthmachine (Counterpilot, 2019); Crunch Time (Counterpilot, Metro Arts & Next Wave, 2018); I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You (The Good Room & Brisbane Festival, 2018); Spectate (Counterpilot & Metro Arts, 2017); Tyrone & Lesley in a Spot (Queensland Cabaret Festival, 2015); and Some Dumb Play (Metro Arts, 2012). As an AV Designer, notable credits include: Blue Bones (Playlab 2017); Plunge (Seeing Place Productions 2017); Wireless (JWCoCA 2017); Viral (Shock Therapy Productions 2016); and He Dreamed a Train (Brisbane Powerhouse 2014). Nathan teaches performance studies at QUT, where he holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts with distinction, and a Masters Degree in contemporary performance.