Pure Research Report - December 2007:

The Unsuspecting Audience

by Moynan King and Sherri Hay

The Unsuspecting Audience explored the interstices between social and theatrical experience. Beginning with the premise that some social situations are performative, we set out to observe degrees and kinds of audience engagement in an uncontrolled public environment – and to question the concept of audience.

This research project is a continuation of our previous research project, The Invitation. In both of these experiments costumes were central to our research. While last year we explored if and when a group became a performance by dressing them up, this year we turned our attention to the responses and actions of the larger unsuspecting world: observing if and when ‘the public’ became an audience.

Over a period of three days we dressed ourselves in a variety of different costumes – costumes that ran the gamut from invisibility (blending in) to extreme visibility (deliberately standing out).

In the audience, we sought to observe:

-Ownership - to what degree they felt the performance was for their benefit.
-To what degree they felt that it was about them.
-To what degree they felt they could control it.
-To what degree they felt they ‘got it’.
-Their level of engagement with us.
-The cues the costume gave them that they were witnessing something that is deliberately performed.
-How the image we presented led to expectations and assumptions about who we were and what we were doing.
-How they themselves ‘performed’ – how they played along with whatever they considered the performance to be, or pretended not to notice us.

In ourselves, we sought to observe:
-How visible we perceived ourselves to be in each costume and each venue, and how much space we felt we took up.
-How we fell into the role elicited from us by the costume.
-How we fell into the role elicited from us by the audience.
-The combined qualities of the costume and venue.
Our level of comfort with the different kinds of attention we received.

Pyjamas and slippers
1. sat in the subway during morning rush hour
2. had coffee at Starbucks
3. went shopping at Winners

Twins: matching brightly coloured contemporary clothing
1. rode the subway during afternoon rush hour pretending not to know each other
2. went shopping at Winners

Victorian period dresses with corsets and crinolines
1. walked through the PATH underground mall, looking at a map, and occasionally asking directions, sat on the steps, ate breakfast in the food court
2. walked through the offices at Roy Thomson Concert Hall

Uniforms, navy blue sailor type with red stars on our chest
1. held the door open for people at the Union Station subway during evening rush hour
2. went to the smoking area and offered to light people’s cigarettes
3. held the door open for people in the skywalk

White bear suit and lady in business suit
1. went for lunch at Marché Restaurant, BCE Place
2. got money from the bank machine
3. had coffee at Starbucks
4. walked in the street

Some of our Observations:

Day 1
Morning – Pyjamas:
1 – In the subway we sat down on the bench, a lot of people were walking by and most of them ignored us. There was the occasional stare and an even rarer nod or wink of complicity. The TTC police came to find out what we were doing almost immediately; they were worried that we were ill or crazy and looked for our hospital wrist bands They went away and then returned about 10 minutes later saying that they had received concerned calls about us, and they asked us to leave.
2 - At Starbucks we sat in front of the gas fireplace and requested that the ‘fire’ be turned on. At first people seemed to enjoy our presence, but soon they seemed to stop noticing anything untoward. It was as if ‘morning, pyjamas and coffee’ – created a familiar picture. We blended in completely.
3 – While shopping at Winners, the store employees seemed to go out of their way to ignore us. There were only a couple of other shoppers there, who also completely ignored us.
{Insert Pyjamas Photos}

Late Afternoon – Twins
1 – We began along the Yonge subway line by getting on the same subway car from different stations. We didn’t acknowledge each other, and exited separately seeming to go our own way. We repeated permutations of this. When people noticed us they did a very comical double take but quickly looked away. There was no engagement at all. This is the only costume in which no one asked us what we were doing or talked to us at all.
2 – Winners. We sought out and tried on a variety of matching clothes in the store, then went to the change room to try on some more. Then we bought nylons. Again, there was no overt response or kind of engagement from anyone in the store.
{Insert Twins Photos}

In the performances of Day 1 we could divide the passersby into three categories: those who noticed us, those who didn’t notice us, and those who pretended not to. In our pyjamas people engaged with us, stared at us, made passing comments or asked us questions whereas with twins they didn’t.

In the pyjamas we went from very visible (in the subway) to invisible (in Starbucks). We wondered to what degree this was because we became more comfortable in our costumes, or how much of it was because of the context in which we placed ourselves. With twins the reactions of people did not seem to vary with the context.

People were worried about us when we were in the subway in our pyjamas. Apparently many didn’t think it was a performance, but they did feel some responsibility towards us, and felt they should call the police.
They thought we were either crazy or had Alzheimers. They were looking for our wrist-bands (as if we were missing a piece of our costume).

In Winners in both costumes, people avoided us, and when we compelled contact they acted as if the situation were perfectly normal. Our accomplice and photographer, Aiden, witnessed a conference about us during which the staff discussed whether they should do something.

In our pyjamas we almost felt like we were enacting a precept of Artaud. Though we got more response in our pyjamas, we felt that Twins was perhaps a more interesting performance .We could see we were evoking people’s curiosity even though they chose not to talk to us. And in this way it might have been more ‘theatrical’. Is it still an audience if they pretend not to look?

Day 2
Morning – Victorian Dresses
1 - We walked through the PATH underground shopping mall from Queen and Yonge to Wellington and Simcoe. On the way we drank coffee sitting on a staircase. We carried maps of the underground maze with us, and at most intersections stopped to consult them. When we did this someone usually stopped to offer assistance. Two ladies kindly escorted us to the food court, where we bought and ate breakfast.
2 - Roy Thompson Hall
The first person we encountered was the security guard who was expecting us. She launched into a long story about her mother trying to make her wear fancy dresses when she was a kid and how that just wasn’t her style. We went through the bowels of the building escorted by Production Manager Sean Baker. We went alone into the administration offices where no one took notice of us. One woman had to get up from her desk to let us pass in our giant dresses and made no comment or even eye contact. We went to the box office and made inquiries about an upcoming programme. In this environment of ‘Theatricality’ we seemed to be a non-event.
{Insert Victorian Dresses Photos}

Afternoon - Uniforms
1 - We held the doors open for people at Union Station. Lots of people said thank you politely in what felt like quite a formal interaction. Security arrived quite quickly and asked us to stop. They said we looked like we were promoting something, and added that if they wanted someone to open the doors they would have hired someone.
2 - In the smoking area people were apprehensive with us; no one let us light their cigarettes. We had a conversation with a woman about this fact, and she said that it was because they felt that if they engaged with us then they would have to give us something in return.
3 - We became quite mundane when we were opening doors at the skywalk, and felt like ushers. People were polite, assumed we were employed there, and asked us for directions quite frequently. There, in this costume, we assumed both an authority and a function.
{Insert Uniforms Photos}

In our period dresses we were completely visible, with a very clear audience. It was like we were performing for them. This must have been greatly affected by the Christmas season in which our research took place. There was a certain overtly consumable appeal to the costumes, as if we were performing what they imagined a ‘work of art’ to be. In this way the costume really was recognized as a costume. People quite willingly gave us directions. Interestingly, this is the one experience that didn’t vary from our expectations.

Wearing uniforms, on the other hand, was nothing like we expected it to be. In fact it was quite heartbreaking. We were performing conventional acts of helpfulness and it very much felt like a predefined role, and that we were not social peers of the people we interacted with. Uniforms may have their own class - that they evoked something beyond the costume itself. In the hostile interaction with security (who were considerably less friendly than the cops were in the subway station the day before) it felt like a uniform against uniform confrontation. We have speculated on whether the same actions in different costumes might have elicited a different response.

People were more comfortable, more open to our helplessness in our dresses than to helpfulness in our uniforms.

Throughout day 2 people had a very definite idea of what we were doing or who we were, as if it didn’t even require a second thought (unlike day 1). Dresses, because of the season and the period style, aligned us with Xmas pageantry; uniforms evoked something official and familiar as though we were part of something bigger. In both uniforms and dresses there was a tacit expectation that we were selling something. Interesting that no one minded us being there in our Victorian dresses (we got directions from a security guard) whereas we were asked to leave when in our uniforms.

Day 3
noon – Bear suit and business lady
When we arrived at Marché Restaurant we were greeted with enthusiasm by the staff and the patrons. They felt free to stare, smile, and come up and talk to us, though in reality they talked almost exclusively to Moynan (the business lady). Several people wanted pictures taken with us. We performed a number of commonplace activities like getting coffee and going to the bank machine, and the responses of our ‘audience’ were remarkably consistent throughout. Attention, enthusiasm, and a consistent clear sexual (heterosexual) overtone from the adults and a fascination mixed with fear from the children.

Though it wasn’t one of our initial interests, by day 3 we were attuned to the responses of the authorities. Aiden saw them hovering and checking us out, and they rode behind us on the escalator but they did not approach us.
{Insert Bear Photos}

This one was very fun and a good note to end on. Our ‘audience’ was completely there for us. Though our presence must have been on some level absurd, in some way we completely blended in, in a way that we did not at all anticipate. No one seemed to question why we were there; their response seemed to be unmitigated enjoyment. They did, however, make a lot of sociological assumptions – everyone assumed that Sherri (in the bear suit) was a man and that we were on a date.

We set out in our costumes to consider the concept of an audience in an uncontrolled public environment.

We perhaps had more control over the fact of an audience than we ourselves were first willing to admit. They are the audience in some ways because we decided that they were the audience. We put ourselves in their way and invited them to respond to us and, generally speaking, they did.

We realized, however, that we had less control than we had envisioned of how the audience reacted. We had imagined that the further out on the gamut of normalcy our costumes were the greater the reaction from the public would be. That was a bit simplistic. In some ways we had the most normal and human interactions as in the bear and lady costumes. The audience responded at times (to the uniforms and the pyjamas) according to a sociological bias, but to the bear and the lady costumes they seemed to react viscerally and emotionally.

We became increasingly aware of the fact that this was theatrical research yes, but it was psychological and social research too.

The context in which we wore the costumes was certainly a large contributing factor as well. We put on some of our costumes in multiple venues and noted the differences. If we were going to be completely scientific about it, and if we had had more time we would have done the same action in each costume. And done each costume at different times of the day.

This experiment clarified one important dichotomy for us; that of endorsed culture vs. surreptitious culture. It articulated for us that the kind of work we’re interested in exploring is one where people have a choice whether to have a theatrical experience or not. People count on life being mundane; it is in the chinks of this mundanity that interesting theatre can exist.

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