Deconstructing the Dream: Audience Participation, Audience Engagement and Theatre

Extracts and reflections from my MSc Project (Aug 2019, Supervisor Dr Guido Orgs)

Starting from my primary school education, I had an immense love for theatre. However, when I progressed to secondary school, specifically during my GCSE’s, I developed a love for science. Deconstructing the various elements of our universe fascinated me. Unfortunately, instead of being encouraged to fuse my two passions, I was made to believe that science and theatre were mutually exclusive. I spent my teenage years believing the two fields would always conflict, and that I would never be able to choose both. Initially inspired by the work of Dr Beatriz Calvo-Merino whom I was blessed to have as a BSc project supervisor, where I investigated ‘The Effect of Mood Induction on Emotional Perception of Movement Stimuli’ – a study on dancers and non-dancers; I then continued to fuse performing arts and sciences in my MSc project on the PANC programme.

This blog post is an insight into my MSc project to inspire those who like me, were made to believe they could not fuse fields. I highly encourage everyone in the field of Neuroaesthetics, no matter what style of art – performing or creative, that you will be encouraged to continue this amazing work and strive to make your ideas come to fruition.

Image Credits: Lettwan Greaves


Theatre is a means of communication as it is a medium used for the exploration of societal themes. This develops a conversation between the actor/s and audience as psychologically and physically bodies contact with the information that is circulated throughout the performance (Karmakar, 2013). The dynamic between the actor/s and audience is important as theatre cannot exist without an audience as the actor/s must have someone off-stage to communicate the message to (Karmakar, 2013). As well as the actor/s and audience, producers and directors collaborate to fuse theatre and society; hence all parties influence and exist within each other (White, 2013).

When looking at the structure of the theatre building, ‘the space’ is used to describe where the audience sits and ‘the place’ is used to describe the stage where the actors are positioned within the performance (Runcan, 2015). In traditional theatre those in the space do not cross into the place, the audience member does not have the right nor obligation to participate in the action on the stage (Goffman, 1969). However, in contemporary theatre, the nature of the audience has moved from passive to active (Gassner, 2007). The body sets the stage for action, as the body is active before the spectator is consciously aware of it (Gallagher, 2005). Spectators cannot be passive as the human body is active at resting state (Albert, Robertson, Miall, 2009).

Theatre styles such as Forum and Immersive theatre have broken this traditional layout through audience participation. Rather than the actor/s being in complete control of the performance, they allow the audience to have some authority over the flow of the performance. This control is passed back and forth between actor/s and audience - it is highly dynamic and complex (White, 2013). Also, when a spectator becomes an audience participant the spectator remains consciously aware that they are still an audience member. During this process, the spectator becomes the performer, the performance and the audience. At the end of the performance, audience participants return to being theatregoers who reflect on their experience (White, 2013).


Therefore, present researchers hypothesised that audience participation will elicit higher engagement in audience members who participate compared to audience members who remain spectators. To investigate this, researchers designed a controlled field experiment where they collaborated with ‘Flute Theatre’ to devise a live theatrical performance for audiences across two consecutive evenings. The performance was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ which included intervals where scientists explained neuroscientific findings*. The study was a 2×2 independent measures design with an IV of participation, which consisted of two levels: ‘audience participation’ and ‘spectator’. ‘Audience participation’ was operationalised by allocating audience members who would be invited on stage to participate in the live performance by playing three games with the actors. ‘Spectator’ was operationalised by allocating audience members who would remain in their seats during this participation period. The DV was engagement which was measured through self-reports and heart rate using Empatica E4 portable wrist sensors, inspired by Vicary, Sperling, von Zimmermann, Richardson and Orgs (2017). Using portable wrist sensors was highly important for the ecological validity of the study, as researching audience aesthetic responses to live theatre is important for our development of an understanding of the psychological impact of theatre.


Findings revealed no significant effects of participation on heart rate, and no significant effects of participation on all but one self-report measure. There was a significant difference in the bond audience participants felt with the scientists’ performance compared to the actors’ performance. An explanation for this finding could be that there may have been unconscious mutual synchrony (White, 2013) between audience members and scientists compared to audience members and actors. This may have occurred because the performance was a collaboration between theatre and science, the performance had elements where scientists would speak directly to the audience explaining neuroscientific findings. Furthermore, the audience participation period was administered by scientists. Consequently, it may be argued that when the audience participants were on stage they felt as though they were contributing to the understanding of science.

One explanation for the non-significant effects of performance may be that the participation period was not Forum or Immersive theatre, it was merely an element of participation. Perhaps using a Forum or Immersive Theatre styled performance where participants could control the narrative may have elicited different levels of engagement between spectators and participants. A second explanation may be that due to mirror neurons, watching someone participate may elicit the same sensations as participating. More discussion points are stated in the report.

Personal Reflection

Overall, what I think is important to take away from my research project is how wearable technology can enable Neuroaestheticians to take their research outside of the lab and measure audience aesthetic responses in real-time. This project is also an example of how theatre can be deconstructed for scientific research. Given the opportunity to replicate this study, I would use Forum or Immersive theatre and improve the self-report measures.


Albert, N. B., Robertson, E. M., & Miall, R. C. (2009). The resting human brain and motor learning. Current Biology, 19(12), 1023-1027.

Gallagher, S. (2005). How the body shapes the mind. Oxford University Press.

Gassner, P. (2007). The end of the audience: How the nature of audiences changed. Global Media Journal-African Edition, 1(1), 120-129.

Goffman, E. (1969). The presentation of self in everyday life, London: Allen Lane. Goffman, E.(1974) Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Cambridge MA).

Karmakar, D. (2013). Theatre and Communication: Relation Between Actor And Audience. Global Media Journal-Indian Edition. (4)2.

Runcan, M. (2015). Strategies for the Embodiment and Disembodiment of Spectatorship: Don’t Cry Baby and Hotel by Eugen Jebeleanu. Studia Universitatis Babes-Bolyai- Dramatica, (2), 7-26.

Vicary, S., Sperling, M., Von Zimmermann, J., Richardson, D. C., & Orgs, G. (2017). Joint action aesthetics. PLoS One, 12(7), e0180101.

White, G. (2013). Audience participation in theatre: Aesthetics of the invitation. Springer

*My project was a section of a large collaboration with researchers from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience - UCL, see the project website below for information about the collaborators, hypotheses and findings.

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