Theatre on the Street: An Independent Theatre Hungary Case Study

The Audience Has a Role, Too

Because sometimes the audience is guided by or interacts with one of the characters, it raises some questions: What is the relationship among the characters and the audience members, which leads to interaction? If this is not a voyeur theatre, does the audience also have some role in the story? The answer is yes. In most of our walking theater performances, we put the audience members in some kind of role in the story. They are usually voyeurs, who should face their position. They are visitors coming to see a village festivity in the performance Village Daycommunity members in Peer Gynt’s Childrenand visitors to see a community work camp in Arbeit Macht Frei.

While in a traditional voyeur theatre, the audience members are not conscious of their position—that they are passive witnesses of immoral actions happening in the story—in our performances they were confronted with this fact. We always focus on some social problems, and we believe we—as citizens—all have responsibility related to these issues. We have a responsibility to the communities we live in, the village festivities we visit and might support with our donations or entrance fees, and the services and institutions run by our taxes.

In some scenes, the characters are aware of the presence of the audience. They might interact with them directly or just communicate with each other in a way which is comme il faut for the voyeur audience. However, we also keep some scenes “behind closed doors.” These scenes are necessary for showing the genuine relationship among the characters and even the feelings or secrets they wouldn’t be open about in front of the visitors/community. In these scenes, the actors don’t communicate to the audience—they behave as if they weren’t there. However, it is important to make it clear in the dramaturgy which scenes are hidden from, or in interaction with, the audience members. When there is only frontal speech to the audience or some rhetorical questions, there can be fixed text.

Such an example is when in the Village Day, the mayor speaks several times to the visitors of the village. In other situations—for example during the walks when a guiding character initiates a discussion with some audience members—there is also space for improvisation, as depending on the reactions of the audience members, further text and acting can be different. But there are also quite predictable situations when interacting with the audience members. For example, if a character asks for help coming down from a tree, there is always one audience member who will help. Creating situations where the audience members can help the characters or be active in a situation can be empowering for the visitors. If they could contribute to the story of a drama, they might also shape our common future in the reality.

Let’s Eat and Drink Together!

Walking performances are not just a theatrical experience with a nice walk but many times also a gastronomic experience. In the Village Day, the audience tasted delicious local goat cheese (they later learned it’s actually not local but bought in a supermarket), drank lemonade with mint (which, in the performance’s storyline, they were told would be produced in the future factory of the village, which would never be built up), or were offered real homemade candies by a local poor woman. People like eating and receiving gifts, so gastronomic parts of the performances are popular.

But many times, when we accept something tasty and nice, we support immoral mechanisms. We are not just passive witnesses but also enjoyers of the immoral systems. The audience needs to confront the fact that their privileged situation has its price. Both at the end of Peer Gynt’s Children and Village Day, the audience members were invited for dinner. In Peer Gynt’s Children, they knew that the soup offered to them was confiscated from an evicted old woman in an earlier scene. In Village Day, the visitors ate the food during the festivities knowing it was made in corrupt and immoral conditions. In Arbeit Macht Frei, they had to eat while the characters who are public workers (people in Hungary who are unemployed and have to work for the municipalities and receive less than the minimal salary for their work) are standing next to their tables and are not allowed to join them and sit down—even if they are invited. The audience was left to consider if they should eat the soup offered by a sinner. Can they eat while an oppressed person has to stand next to them and is prohibited from eating?

On the other hand, audiences can accept something from the poor people. After the poor lady gave all her candies to the audience members, she starts to shout, asking why people didn’t pay for them. Should they give money to poor people even though they are attending a performance? Another character in Village Day asked the audience members to take a selfie with him in front of a nice background. After someone took the selfie with him, he declared the person is supposed to pay for the picture. Is it stupid to get tricked and pay the character, or are they evil if they don’t pay a poor person—even if they could? Although this is a funny, fictitious scene, such questions also refer to reality.

As outdoor walking theater is performed in public spaces, reality can interfere. The external conditions can’t be excluded like in a building. Sometimes these interruptions can be annoying (like when an airplane or drone made circles above where our performance was), but sometimes it can be magic. There were times when a faraway church bell sounded at a perfect point, or when an external homeless person tried to sell his stuff as if he was a character from our play, or when for the final countdown between the two usurists, three motorcyclists arrived at the scene, made two circles, and left—as if they were also included. As the circumstances and interactions with the audience members are always different with this type of theater, there are never two performances that are the same.

With very simple outdoor actions, we got people involved in community art who don’t have any access to culture and brought together social groups who hardly have positive encounters with each other.

Natural Solutions are Cheap, Nice, and Real

It’s also important to keep audience size in mind. We try to keep our audiences at a maximum of thirty to forty people. This way they can stay in a group, see the scenes near the actors, and fit in smaller places. Pedestrians may also join sometimes, but they won’t create a big crowd. When we organize such performances at Independent Theater Hungary, we don’t name the exact meeting place before the performance and only let people who have registered or bought a ticket for the performance know about it. This allows those producing the show to count how many people will join because just like having too big of a crowd, having very few people is not good either. If you don’t ask people to register or pay for tickets in advance, the number of audience members can’t be estimated. Initially, we thought that maybe there would be conflicts between the people who paid for their tickets and the pedestrians who joined for free, but it never happened.

Prepare for Everything!

As there can be disturbing (or even supporting) external conditions as mentioned above, it’s important to take them into consideration in advance, and prepare for them as an organizer or actor. Actors should be flexible, using their volume according to the changing external sound conditions (wind, loud noises, etc.) and being ready to improvise. They should be comfortable without dressing rooms, a buffet, or toilet—especially if the performance is at a park or on a hill where bushes are the only facilities for all these needs. It’s also important to account for weather conditions—not just for those working on the show but also for the audience members. As they are meant to walk, it’s helpful to prepare audiences and encourage them to bring items like a raincoat, sunscreen, water, and bug spray.

Although a walking theater performance is a sportier occasion than a traditional theater performance, the comfort of the audience still must be taken into consideration. Standing and walking for one to two hours might be tiring, and towards the end audience members lose their focus. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have scenes where they can sit down for a while. We usually have plastic pillows for the audience members so they can sit down in the grass or on the sidewalk. It’s important that such pillows are easy to clean. If it’s very hot, it’s also good if audience members can receive a glass of water or lemonade at some point.

It’s a Challenge, but It’s Worth Trying

We have been doing outdoor walking performances for eight years. One of our favorite spots is Gelért Hill. It’s a green hill with parks close to the downtown of Budapest. When doing a walking theater performance, it’s important to be brave, flexible, and open to surprises and adventure—not insisting on comfort and traditional solutions. After eight years, there are still no relevant walking theater initiatives in Budapest—maybe because of its challenges. But facing these challenges and trying such an adventure is worth it!

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