Getting in on the Act: Activating the Arts

By Shelly Gilbride

December 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

What exactly do you mean by ‘participatory arts practices’?” a dancer recently asked me.

A Confessional Tale
We were on a rehearsal break and I was casually talking to a group of dancers and musicians about the research I was conducting for a report commissioned by the James Irvine Foundation. Being engrossed in the writing process, I had assumed that people knew what I meant by “participatory arts practices” even though my co-writers and I had only recently agonized over the nebulousness of the term and definition. “Like audience participation?” the dancer asked. Then she added with a sheepishly skeptical smile, “I hate audience participation.”

Her candor was refreshing and probably not unusual even though people tend to nod and smile when I geek-out about arts research. Her response gave me pause for two reasons. The first is because I agree with her. I shrink down in my seat when the eager clown descends into the audience seeking an innocent volunteer to embarrass, and I get bored during the inevitably way-too-long “call and response” moments in music concerts.

That conception of audience participation is not what the research in Getting in on the Act is about. Cringe-worthy moments of half-hearted interactivity are often what people think of when I bring up the idea of participatory arts practice or active arts engagement. Terminology is one of the problems. We don’t yet have a clear lexicon for this current wave of artistic practice in which participants are involved in the making, doing and/or creating. These are programs and projects that encourage people to play an expressive role–to participate or engage. But overuse of the word “participation” renders the word ineffective and most people tend to think of pre-show lectures when I talk about “engagement.”

Which brings me to the second and probably more important point her skepticism made me consider. She reminded me that the purpose of this report was not only to define and illuminate what we mean by “participatory arts practices” but to challenge perceptions and assumptions about the place of these types of projects and programs in the cultural landscape, to make people believe in the creative possibilities for audience participation and to assert that interactivity in the arts is here to stay and is worthy of documentation, notoriety and of course, funding.

Getting The Gist
Getting in on the Act explores the place of participatory arts practice in the larger cultural ecology and illuminates the challenges, implications and opportunities that these programs create for the nonprofit arts sector. We document some of the incredible artists, projects and organizations that are finding innovative ways to activate the creativity and imagination of the everyday artist.

From “Cocktails and Clay” nights at The Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago to the “Feast of Words’ writing potlucks at SOMArts in San Francisco to the storytelling events, social dance events and sketching marathons in cities across the country, people are engaging in artistic practice with fun, social and artistically interesting ways. While often this DIY art movement has a retro, back-to-basics vibe, it is enabled by the technological interactivity of the Wiki world we live in. In the report, we assert that participatory arts practices are much more than a passing trend, but a vital part in an inevitable shift to a “participation economy” based on a collaborative, open-source, interactive ideology.

After analyzing the defining characteristics of over 70 participatory arts projects and programs that are currently operating across the world, we developed the “Audience Involvement Spectrum.” The crux of the report, this multi-colored, five-stage framework describes the different ways people engage in the arts from “spectating” to creating. The framework illustrates how participatory arts programs work, and outlines different entry points for participation. I would have included it here, but it does not read well in newsprint, so you’ll have to go to active to see it (pg 4).

We use the term “audience” as the reference point because unlike the participatory arts mumbo jumbo, there is a relatively stable collective understanding of the word “audience” referring to observational or receptive participation (i.e. spectating, observing or attending). The “Audience Involvement Spectrum” blows that stable definition up as participatory practices blur the line between artist and audience, sometimes to the point of erasure.

Within the spectrum, we label the spheres of activity that include participatory arts practices as Crowd-Sourcing, Co-Creation and Audience-as-Artist. In crowd-sourcing projects, the audience contributes to the artistic process by contributing source material for artists to explore. A great example of crowd-sourcing is Joe Goode’s current project Human Kind in which he solicits stories from the public about different aspects of humanity and weaves those into his creative process. In co-creative events, the audience becomes directly involved in the real-time performance experience. Headlong Dance Theatre in Philadelphia has been exploring this type of engagement for years, creating works in which the audience is given tasks within the performance that directly influence the outcome of the work. The fifth and most participatory stage occurs when the audience activates their own creative practice and there is no distinction between audience and artist.

The Nitty Gritty
What does this mean for the dance community?

Participatory arts practices are inherently collaborative. Shared control over artistic outcomes can challenge the creative autonomy of the artist. The Bay Area dance community has a legacy of artists like Anna Halprin and contact improvisers that have always embraced democratic relationships between artists and audiences. But as more artists and organizations embrace participatory practices, questions arise for the dance field at large. What are the consequences to craft, technique and training? How does a dance artist engage with the public in dance-making and also maintain a sense of artistic empowerment? Can a dance artist maintain a sense of artistic integrity and create an atmosphere that encourages participation?

Many of the successful participatory dance programs that we found are conceived and generated by dance artists themselves. Participation is built into their artistic vision. (The exceptions being social dance parties and the Big Dance in London, a city-wide project that engages many choreographers to create dance in their communities.) Participatory arts practices cannot be forced upon artists and shouldn’t be seen as audience-building ventures or marketing schemes.

While Getting in on the Act advocates a rebalancing of the arts equilibrium to acknowledge and include participatory arts practices in the collective conversation, we are not saying that participatory practices are better or more worthy than any other types of art. There will always be a place for traditional dance concerts in which the audience watches a virtuosic finished product.

I do not want to diminish the power of sitting in a darkened theatre or a gallery hall and witnessing creative artistry. I personally have had extremely profound spectator moments, but I know that my experience of watching dance is directly affected by my kinesthetic knowledge as a dance practitioner myself. I am pretty typical in that way. According to a recent Dance/USA report written by my co-writers at WolfBrown, the majority of dance ticket buyers dance themselves. There is a symbiotic relationship between practice and attendance in dance that can be nurtured by the development of participatory dance programs. One is not in service to the other, but they are part of an integrated whole of arts engagement.

There is a persistent collective assumption that traditional experiences are the pinnacle of audience experience. In an interview I conducted for Getting in on the Act, one of the co-artistic directors of Attack Theatre, a dance-theatre company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania told me an anecdote that drives my point home. More than once, an audience member has approached one of the company members after one of their dance game-nights and asked them, “when is the real show?” That is what we are challenging in this report-the ingrained cultural hierarchy that prioritizes traditional spectator experiences.

This is the real show, folks!

Ultimately, Getting in on the Act is about audience participation. My hope is that this report will help to change the conversation so that people don’t cringe at the thought of audience participation and participatory arts practices are not an afterthought for organizations and funders. It is meant to inspire discussion and more importantly to inspire people to get out and be creative, to find the venues and mechanisms to make and do art. Read the free download of the full text at and share these ideas. Please send comments and questions to

Getting in on the Act: How arts groups are creating opportunities for active participation. Commissioned by the James Irvine Foundation, written by Alan S. Brown, Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Shelly Gilbride, Ph.D.

This article appeared in the December 2011 issue of In Dance.

Shelly Gilbride received her PhD in Performance Studies from UC Davis in 2009. She is the founder of PDA: Public Dance Acts and is a dancer with the Linda Bair Dance Company and A Mused Collective.