The Disappearing Fourth Wall: Law, Ethics, and Experiential Theatre

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Mary LaFrance · 15 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. L. 507

Abstract

The cutting edge of experiential theatre blurs the lines between performer and audience. Both the performer and the audience are vulnerable. Audiences may be subject to assaultive or disturbing behavior or images. The performance may take place in an unconventional venue that poses safety hazards. A single audience member may be alone with a performer, who may engage in provocative or shocking behavior, including verbal abuse or touching. The performer may invite similar conduct from the participant. Typically, the participant does not know in advance what will take place and does not sign a waiver. While the performer has a script or a set of instructions, the performer knows nothing about the mental or emotional state of the participants and thus may undertake some personal risk as well. Some audience members have reported anger, hurt feelings, or a sense of violation or betrayal as a result of their experiences. In one instance, a stalker pursued a performer as a result of a particularly intimate production. Another production led to a post-performance physical altercation between a spectator and performers.

This Article explores the ethical and legal issues that such boundary crossings raise. It concludes that simply labeling an event as “theatre” does not immunize the performers or promoters from liability for physical or emotional harm that results from the performance. If the safety and well being of the audience, performers, and bystanders is sacrificed in the name of ever-more-daring dramatic experiments, the entire industry may suffer. The challenge for experiential-theatre practitioners is to develop a voluntary code of conduct—involving audience screening and advance disclosures, supervision of spectators throughout the performance, and careful consideration of the appropriateness of content and venue—that will reduce the risk of harm to participants without undermining the essential elements of the dramatic experience. The difficulty will be in finding the right balance.