The Arthropologist

Some Houston arts groups take audience participation to a new level

Some Houston arts groups take audience participation to a new level

"How did you see that?" Watson asks Sherlock Holmes after spotting a dangerous invisible wire.

"Because I was looking for it," replies Holmes, the detail-conscious sleuth of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective series.

What we see is shaped by what we know and expect. Consider this: At my high school graduation party, I was instructed to go down to the basement to find my gift. I returned empty-handed, not noticing a red-bowed bicycle in the center of room. You see, my dancing feet had never seen the pedals of a bike. It was the last thing I would ever be looking for. Not true of the thief who stole my new bike during the party. (I bought some smashing outfits with the insurance money.)

There are more famous stories of people not seeing what's in front of them, many of which are chronicled in neuroscientist Oliver Saks' books, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, along with his "TED Talks." Vision is highly subjective. "Seeing is irrational, inconsistent and undependable. It's like hunting and like dreaming, and even like falling in love. Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer," writes James Elkins, in The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. 

Should you want to understand the science behind this phenomena, head to David Eagleman's TEDx Talk. Eagleman, director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, knows his neuroscience. For a more poetic take on the subject, I suggest Lawrence Weschler's biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing Seen.

So what does all this have to do with art?

For some artists, like Australian choreographer Clare Dyson and her collaborator/lighting designer/brother Mark Dyson of Dyson Industries, just about everything. Their newest work, The Voyeur, takes in consideration that the person sitting next to you is seeing a different performance anyway, so why not make it really different? This weekend DiverseWorks audiences will bypass the usual theater seats to enter the stage area where they will find a giant cardboard box with various size peep holes. Inside it are dancers Clare and Jonathan Sinatra, an Australian-American, performing an intimate dance. Free to roam around the box, the audience takes an active part in watching. It's a "build your own dance" experience. For the Dysons, the faultiness of vision is a plus.

The idea of The Voyeur is enticing. Who here doesn't get a little thrill when the house lights go down? Audiences are often voyeurs to the work, but here, the performers are also voyeurs to the audience. Watching other people watching becomes part of  the piece.

"We are aware of the presence and movements of the audience. It's a bit creepy," admits Clare. "The audience becomes their own community. They take responsibility for what and how they watch."

Kevin Holden, leader of the collective Horse Head Theatre Company, has a similar mission. During Horse Head's stunning debut play, the grim Red Light Winter by Adam Rapp, audiences were free to wander about, change seats or get up to get a beer. Some even sat on the stage in the east Village apartment inches away from Troy Schulze's riveting performance as the suffering writer. Their next play, Fault Lines by Stephen Belber, opens later this spring and promises to take this idea a step further.

Sean Patrick Judge whipped the audience into an anxious tizzy during his powerful performance in the Nova Arts Project production of Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing), directed by Matt Huff. The audience is actually listed in the Dramatis Personae in the script. At one point, Judge brings an audience member on stage (a plant) and simply forgets about it him. At another point, a man (also a plant) storms out. Judge leaves the safety of the stage space, entering the off-limits audience space to speak directly to people. It's equally unsettling and disturbing.

"It was empowering to put the audience in the hot seat," says Judge. "It felt like a role reversal; now you are the observed and I am the observer."

Eno, an Oppenheimer Award winner, has little interest in audience comfort. Mildred's Umbrella presents Eno's The Flu Season, also directed by Huff, later this month.

And then there's the dreaded audience participation. Israeli dance master Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company masterfully engineered a dance, Anaphaza, where his dancers invited audience members on stage for a little social dance. It's sweet, funny and painless. I should know, I was dragged on stage after a failed attempt at invisibility during a Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performance. This piece has been performed so many times in Houston that people either willingly volunteer or try their hand at being invisible.

Artists have a long history of shifting the watching hierarchy. Playing with how and what we see and do seems fair game. If vision be faulty, so be it, and let it be artful. During a rehearsal visit with the Dysons this Tuesday, as the lone voyeur, I saw one dance. This weekend, I fully intend to see another. Truth be told, we are never just watching. In Dyson's work we are all voyeurs and volunteers, free agent seers, shaping our own experience, taking charge and becoming active participants of the story unfolding in front of us.

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Performing to a blur, Jonathan Sinatra and Clare Dyson of Company Clare Dyson Photo by Rachael Parsons
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Sean Patrick Judge as Thom Pain in Will Eno's "Thom Pain (based on nothing)" produced by Nova Arts Project at DiverseWorks Photo by Sarah White
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Amy Burn and Troy Schulze in the Horse Head Theatre Company production of Adam Rapp's "Red Light Winter" Photo by Anthony Rathbun