Publication Date

April 2015

Advisor(s)

Anne Swedberg

Major

Theater

Language

English (United States)

Abstract

Japanese kabuki theater of the Genroku Era facilitated the transformation of audiences into engaged, active participants in the co-creation of performance. Spectators shaped performances directly through their bodies and voices and indirectly through their participation in organized groups providing theaters with financial support. Actors and spectators frequently engaged in intimate or sexual relationships and always maintained close physical proximity during performances. Theatrical performance depends on the co-presence of spectators and performers. Performances are created by the physical presence of actors and audience in one time and place. Within the space of performance, these two groups are in continuous and instantaneous exchange. Theorist Erika Fischer-Lichte refers to this self-perpetuating cycle of exchange as the autopoietic feedback loop. The continuation of the feedback loop for the duration of a performance is inevitable, but the degree to which each group participates actively in this loop depends on the structure and nature of the performance. From the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, audience reception often was neglected by theorists and actively minimized by theater practitioners. When the job of the director became more integral to structuring performances in the twentieth century, some theater practitioners initiated a movement to bring the public’s focus back to the audience’s role in performance. In Europe and the Americas in the 1960s, many directors constructed performance experiments that sought to highlight the elusive but undoubtedly important role of the audience. Fischer-Lichte describes three interrelated processes that many of these experiments utilized in order to influence the dynamics of the autopoietic feedback loop: role reversal between actors and spectators, the creation of a temporary community within the time and place of the performance, and physical contact. Kabuki theater of the Genroku Era provides a prime example of a theatrical form that relied on these processes in assigning a pivotal role to audiences. This essay explores the means by which kabuki performances shaped the autopoietic feedback loop and facilitated active and engaged spectatorship. Through investigation of kabuki performances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the perspective of contemporary Western theater theorists, this essay considers possibilities for future experiments in influencing the dynamics of the autopoietic feedback loop in performance.

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