As an audience researcher specialising in live performance, I’ve spent thousands of hours talking to people about the power and pleasure of being together ‘in the room as it happens’, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton musical famously put it. In Between Two Silences, Peter Brooks describes this sensation as “the supreme moment of communication – the moment when people normally divided from one another by every sort of natural human barrier suddenly find themselves truly together, and that supreme moment expresses itself in something which is undeniably shared”.
In one sense, yes – thanks to COVID-19, we haven’t physically been allowed to take part in that supreme moment of communication. But perhaps we can still find a way to feel like we’re together? In this talk, I introduce a range of (foundational and recent) research to argue that digital performances, too, can produce a sense of co-presence: a sensation that can break down those natural human barriers, and create a supreme moment that is undeniably shared. On the other side of the coin, I’ll also explain that this utopian live-performance experience hasn’t necessarily been shared by everyone. Some audiences have actively been made to feel unwelcome in that room where performance happens: people like disabled audiences, or those with caring responsibilities, or audiences from marginalised communities who are disproportionately judged and surveilled before they even step inside.
Rather than ‘live or digital?’, then, the big question is this: When we return to a post-COVID world, how can we balance that human need to congregate together in person with the equally-human need to welcome those who historically have been shut out?
Dr Kirsty Sedgman is Lecturer in Theatre at the University of Bristol (UK) and specialist in researching audiences for live performance. She is Editor of the Routledge Theatre & Performance Series in Audience Research as well as author of two monographs – Locating the Audience (Intellect 2016) and The Reasonable Audience (Palgrave 2018) – and has appeared on numerous radio and TV programmes, from BBC2’s Inside Culture with Mary Beard to Radio 4’s Front Row. Kirsty has recently signed a contract with Faber for a trade book bringing performance studies to a mass-market readership, in bookshops May 2022. Website: www.kirstysedgman.com, Twitter: @KirstySedgman
Dr. Kirsty Sedgman (Dept. of Theatre, University of Bristol, BS8 1UP)