By Brooke Schultz
Elm Staff Writer
When thinking of attending a play, the image that comes to mind is being seated in a stuffy theater for a couple of hours as an observer watching the performance unfold with absolutely no influence on the outcome. That is not the case with “Autoquette,” senior Anna Baldwin’s thesis production.
“Autoquette” tossed out the typical performance-centered play and relied entirely on the audience to create a unique experience for each group.
“‘Autoquette’ is quite different,” Baldwin said, explaining that it is an audience-driven performance based on the tradition of “Autoteatro.” “Unlike a play, this brings the audience into the next dimension, surrounding them and urging active participation more than many plays on a stage in front of the audience.”
The performance targets etiquette and its relation to evolving technology, particularly social media.
When you first walk into Gibson Center for the Arts, you are asked to choose an alias, or a username. Some were written in blue ink, some in green with names like “DonaldTDuck” and “Bling$CashGurls$.”
On the program, procedures were listed:
“1. Keep your identity a secret. It is private information that should not be shared lightly.
2. Your name, if spoken, will become the property of Norm and become a part of the performance.
3. Follow directions.
4. Try to have fun.
5. It should not be difficult.”
While the procedures are brief, they leave a lot of things up to the audience. Each experience can be different, depending on what name tag a person picks, what group a person is placed in, and what props they get. Everything is specialized for each participant.
The audience members were led into another room with instructions projected up onto a big screen. Each person was told to follow the instructions by their username. They could be walking, making shapes, playing music from the supplied computer.
The bodiless form of “Norm” appeared, taking in a variety of voices, acting as an omnipotent being that told the audience what to do.
The group divided up by colored name tags, and each led through staggered events. One group entered a room full of mirrors and directed to sit at a stool and listen to the directions on an iPad. A chorus of voices told participants to look at themselves in the mirror, to use the props in front of them, and lastly, to don a white mask. The white mask stayed with participants for the rest of the production.
Next, the group was led to a chatroom, each taking a seat at his or her own computer. They were able to say whatever they wanted without any filters. The communication flowed throughout the allotted time, with giggles sounding throughout the room as steadily as there were clicking keys.
In the last segment, Norm gave the group instructions in a small printed book, teaching them about etiquette. Each book differed in some ways, creating a multitude of interactions between the participants.
Sophomore Simon Belcher thought it was a cool idea and that Gibson was used well and creatively. Belcher didn’t know too much going into the production but had a feeling it was going to be non-traditional.
“I did like it, but I don’t think it necessarily succeeded for me. I also don’t think it is accurate to call it a performance. It was more of a guided activity than a performance and there lies both its strength and weakness. Since the audience is deeply involved with the show, any message will be realized by them and not given to them. However, if the audience does not participate fully or properly or willingly, the show falls completely apart,” he said.
Belcher specifically had issues with his bloc, who were unwilling to participate in some of the activities, taking away from the overall experience. “I think there needed to be a little bit more control or guidance so that everybody cooperates and ensures that the show progresses properly,” he said.
Assistant Professor of Drama Dr. Brendon Fox had a more cooperative group. He said, “I felt like the group I was in took on a kind of personality, and I got to know people in different ways. I think the masks kind of helped and also hurt how we got to know each other.”
Baldwin was inspired to do this type of production for her senior thesis after participating in something similar when she was studying abroad in Ireland last fall. She attended a performance of “This Is Not My Voice Speaking,” as part of an arts festival in Kinsale.
“It was just me and my two friends in the room,” she said. They were given numbers and told to do things like turn on and off a projector, go to the slide, and press play on a tape recorder. “It was fascinating and new. I just loved that it was so different.”
Baldwin has been involved in a lot of Washington College productions, such as “War Stories,” “The Fantasticks,” “LaBete,” and “30 Plays from Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.” She wanted to do something that had never been done before, and after some prompting by one of her friends, she decided to propose the concept.
“I think all productions are unique in their own way, but this one really plays with how much power you can have as an audience member, and do you need actors to have a performance. I think I know this building really well, and it was exciting to see it in new ways,” Fox said.
Baldwin’s hopes for the production to go beyond just being different. She said, “I hope the audience leaves with a greater understanding of etiquette in technology, an interest in new work that may be controversial, and a great experience to tell others.”