PhD Thesis: Immersion and Participation

Because theatre studies is a book field, a theatre studies dissertation is a draft of a monograph rather than a series of articles. I successfully defended my dissertation, Enactive Spectatorship in Contemporary Productions of Shakespeare’s Plays, in April 2018, and filed it in May 2018.

Metrics of success for my dissertation include its theoretical soundness, which I test through my digital projects, and a 2018 national dissertation completion fellowship award from the American Association for University Women. I declined the AAUW award in favor of graduating on time.

Abstract

Grounded in theatre and performance studies and digital culture, my dissertation maps a new critical model of spectatorship. Received theory on participation equates “meaningfulness” with the ability to impact a storyline. But I argue that a foundational part of audiencing is a dynamic I call “enactive spectatorship”—participating in canonical stories in a way that affirmsthe authenticity of a narrative. By analyzing recent immersive and interactive stagings of William Shakespeare’s plays, I discovered that specific production choices create a reward system that incentivizes this kind of participation. Considering a production with the model I propose illuminates this hidden economy of performance and reveals the entities invested in controlling which version of a canonical story counts as authentic.

With this research, I aim to provide critical theorists a tool for exposing the agendas that often underlie participatory productions and the rewards producers use to promote audience compliance and endorsement. Practitioners will be able to derive a practical guide book for creating the dynamic I identify, as my approach revolves around a formula of four mutually informing categories of production choice, illustrated through four different case studies.

While my perspective derives from theatre and performance studies, I also engage these questions with concern for the future of interactivity in a digital context. As I demonstrate in the full work, the contemporary media landscape’s ubiquitous digital interactivity has not so much created the audience dynamic I trace as it has made this quality visible. Though the dynamic is not new, it has now become urgent to understand its nuances. In increasingly mainstream contexts, the scale and scope of interactive technology is allowing dubious information to supersede critical reasoning in an audience’s endorsement of what qualifies as an authentic version of a story.

Moreover, many interactive practices that seem to satisfy spectators’ desire to participate also render them uncritical vessels for pre-programmed content. Amid this confusion, live events that engage questions of authenticity to a given canon—Shakespeare or otherwise—become the site where allegiance to a preferred version is enacted in bodies, not bytes. By mapping the ways in which producers offer the allure of meaningful participation in our most potent cultural institutions, I hope the tool I construct in the dissertation can shed new light on the entities who attempt to control a canonical narrative by incentivizing the audience to enact a pre-scripted role.

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