Festivals and audiences: How P Project provokes and promises

Ahead of Take Me Somewhere, we look at how Ivo Dimchev's provocative play challenges the meaning of audiences in contemporary theatre

The BE Festival 2018 began with a performance of P Project, Ivo Dimchev's provocative play of participation and poetry – a show which arrives in May at Tramway as part of Take Me Somewhere. Dimchev offers the audience cash in exchange for participation, slowly pushing the volunteers towards more explicit actions, simultaneously challenging the boundaries of what individuals are willing to do and exposing the importance of the audience in creating meaning. It is a witty and tough concept, held together by Dimchev's apparently whimsical persona but frequently revealing a vague amorality in how the volunteers choose to represent themselves. It inevitably leads to awkwardness and, at BE 2018, walk-outs.

Within Take Me Somewhere, P Project isn't necessarily going to stand out as outrageous – there are plenty of opportunities for boundary breaking across the programme, but it does, at least, explicitly engage with the complicity of audiences in the process of art. Dimchev's attitude towards 'the fourth wall' isn't so much to break it as to render it irrelevant. Most theatre allows the audience to sit quietly in the darkness, and experience performance as if it were happening to other people – the actors, the director, the management team – and allows the artist to claim credit for its quality (or take the blame for its failure). This ignores the subtle interaction of audience and artwork, a collaboration between the watched and the watcher, that ultimately lends the event its value and meaning.

BE Festival, which takes the form of a competition, with edited versions of work competing for support across a week, is exceptionally conscious about audience development: it draws attendance from across the diverse communities of Birmingham in a way that is rarely achieved in Scotland. Due to its intense and short run, it develops a healthy atmosphere of debate and discussion, outside of formal structures, with the entire venue handed over to artists who create a vibrant space that encourages the kind of conversations usually limited to a brief cigarette break at the interval. While the vision of BE is to present the best of European theatre, and encourage emerging artists to develop their work, the immediacy and depth of the programming combines with this emphasis on discussion to attract a wider audience that is actively engaged with the meaning, quality and implications of the productions.

With Mayfesto, Take Me Somewhere and SMHAFF – and to a lesser extent, Glasgow's Southside Fringe – dominating the theatre programming for May, there is no other period, outside of the August Edinburgh Fringe, in which Scottish performance is at the centre of cultural activity. However, on the whole, Scottish criticism is rarely concerned with audiences and the festival productions are ultimately reduced to a series of aesthetic previews followed by star-rating based reviews. Questions about audience diversity or inclusion are often hidden away, and broader thoughts about the role of theatre in generating public debate have been an esoteric afterthought to the far more important issues of quality or auteurship.

Yet in P Project, the audience is under the microscope: how they respond to Dimchev's invitation, what content they provide and, perhaps above all, what they are willing to do either for money or their moment in the spotlight, becomes the essence of the show. And any reviews are commenting on the audience …

P Project, Take Me Somewhere, Tramway, Glasgow, Sat 18 May.

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