First, imagine a theater with no actors. Now get rid of the stage. Then take out the walls and the chairs. What remains? The audience—a public confronted, as in a mirror, with itself, no longer able to escape by simply consuming the play being performed; a public whose relationship with theater can no longer be anything but an act of cannibalism, the consumption of their own dramatic condition.
In 2008, Barcelona-based theater artist Roger Bernat, born in 1968, created Domini Públic (Public space), a show in which those attending are presented with headphones and guided by instructions relayed so that they “act” among the pedestrians crossing a square. Rather than pandering to a fiction of a category of actors distinct from the rest of us, the piece isolates its participants and confronts them with the responsibility of having to perform, while also constructing an ephemeral social architecture. In Númax-Fagor-Plus (2014), Bernat stages a reenactment of the workers’ assemblies at the Spanish Númax and Fagor factories in 1979 and 2013, respectively, using declarations from the former struggle as theatrical protocols for workers who lost their jobs in the latter. Perhaps the most ambitious of his proposals, as much for its genealogical importance as for its scale, is Desplazamiento del Palacio de la Moneda (2014), in which social and neighborhood organizations in Santiago transported a small-scale model of La Moneda—the icon of democratic possibility damaged during the 1973 Chilean coup—to the lowest per capita income areas of the city. The mobile stage accompanying it gave onlooker-participants the chance to voice their concerns without preconception, turning them into actors for an unwritten scenario. Here, expanded theater becomes a far-reaching device for an audience destined to perform (or fail to perform) history.
Bernat’s work provokes a dissolution of drama, but that dissolution is also a generalization of the theatrical device. There is no theater because theater is everywhere. That generalized form becomes a critical tool at the paradoxical crossroads of the crisis of representative democracy, when new modes of interchange and knowledge production, fostered by horizontal technologies that erase the positions of emitter and receiver, contend with the return of fascist fantasies of unmediated access to communal truth. As Bernat states, “Democracy is not just a form of government, but a way of representing reality.” Taking a lead role in this scenario, participatory theater “takes on the responsibility of developing a critique of the devices—screens, platforms, networks—which run things today.”
—Paul B. Preciado