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Rethinking Audience

As an avid viewer of all talks Ted, I stumbled across a fairly recent conference investigating storytelling entitled “Something Just Out of Sight.” This TEDx talk––the “x” indicating a locally organized TED event––was created and led by Ben Ferguson, Alex Falberg, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi, and Daniel Weschler, a group perhaps better known as Pig Pen Theatre Company. The aforementioned seven guys met in 2008 during their Freshmen year at Carnegie Mellon University. As they journeyed through their four years at Carnegie, they bonded over their enthusiasm to tell stories, their love of folk music, and childish sense of play. From these collective desires, they formed Pig Pen Theatre Company. Since then, they have performed Off-Broadway in New York, as well as toured to various theaters nationally gaining credit and acclaim with each performance.

Pig Pen Theatre CompanyIn their Tedx talk, Pig Pen emphasizes that “as a group of storytellers, [the] goal is to provide a space for the audience to engage in their imaginations.” Using a limited vocabulary of puppetry (constructed from house-hold objects) and folk music, Pig Pen pursues the essence of any given theatrical idea, leaving out extraneous detail and explanation. Thus, they allow the audience to experience the presented story together while also inviting them to fill in the details by personalizing the ‘essence-images.’ “Five year olds can brandish a stick at a cul-de-sac and suddenly he is fighting a dragon. The dragon is nowhere to be seen, but that scene is unmistakable.” Pig Pen gives us the stick and plays the action of fighting the dragon, drawing the audience’s imaginations to transform the stick into the sword and then fill the rest of the scene with their imagination.

Screen shot 2013-10-18 at 12.32.19 AMAmong many interesting conclusions in the Tedx talk, I find Pig Pen’s noble goal to engage their audience’s child-like imagination especially resonant. There is an inherent trust and cooperation with the audience in Pig Pen’s aesthetic. By working with the essence of theatrical ideas, Pig Pen forces the audience to engage with their pieces. The audience must complete the images presented with their own imagination for a holistic experience. Often, productions spoon-feed their audiences the story and its meaning, allowing the audience to disengage and rest; there is no work for them to do. The need to ensure the audience has a certain experience ironically works to deprive them of any experience at all. Like Pig Pen, we must think of audience members as new members of our ensemble. We can no longer think of them as separate beings come to view our work. No! They are working with us! We must trust that they too have creative impulses that we can tease out of them so they may engage in our stories.

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