Consumer participation and community move from social media to the theatre

The Donkey Show, where the audience is part of performance

It’s starting to look like no one wants to sit and watch anymore. Not even at the theatre. At two recent American Repertory Theatre productions, going on now in Cambridge, and Brookline, MA, patrons are part of the performance. In A Donkey Show, a musical riff on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the audience mingles with performers and even shimmies with bare breasted actors.

In another production, Sleep No More, an actively involved audience meanders through the sinister settings of a four-story theatrical installation, taking in the story of Macbeth in a completely novel way.  Wandering through forests and bedrooms, preferably in comfortable shoes, an audience member can choose how and when to proceed. Not unlike a video game narrative.

As you might expect, this approach to theatrical production is attracting a new audience. One that’s younger and more interested in the experience that takes place throughout the entire venue, not just what’s happening on the stage. While there is no shortage of critics – “intellectually barren” is one Donkey Show review that appears on ART’s website – the shows are sold out and being extended.  Even more interesting is that numerous people go to the performances more than once; some have even been attending weekly.

In the case of A Donkey Show, a production that’s successfully brayed through London and New York, you could argue that it’s nothing more than disco masquerading as theatre. But if you listen to director Diane Paulus, there’s both story and a context. The latter informed by those blurry days of Studio 54, which was, arguably, a theatrical experience in and of itself.

Since I can’t help but look at everything in pop culture from the perspective of a marketer, this story interests me less because it’s a different kind of production and more because it’s further evidence that the trends regarding the actively involved audience that we’re seeing in other media – video games, social media, websites, augmented reality, interactive TV – are beginning to appear everywhere.

Even iPhone apps have moved beyond the grip of one’s hands, instead calling for greater and greater physical interaction. Case in point is Untravel Media’s Murder on Beacon Hill. Using geocoded videos to take you back to Boston in 1849, the app turns you into an active sleuth attempting to solve the murder of the prominent Brahmin Dr. George Parkman.

Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill: Introduction from Untravel Media on Vimeo.

My last post argued that consumers are ready to become creators if we simply invite them to.  These examples suggest they’re also ready to become part of the story in other ways: as cast members in a live performance, not necessarily seeking the glory and visibility of American Idol, but willing and anxious to play the role of extras.

What does any of this mean for brands and marketers?  Do we invent new ways to tap into this willingness and enthusiasm? Do we encourage it?  Are there advantages in terms of awareness and loyalty if we do?

I think maybe yes. What do you think?

Denny Munl
Denny Munl

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