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Tuesday, 26 September, 2000, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
Interactive arts: You, the audience, decide

Audience participation has hit the mainstream: the pot-boiler novelist Lord Archer has made his acting debut in a play in which the public decides his fate.

A decade or so ago, the line between art and reality was clearly drawn, with the audience typically cast as the passive observer in all but the most obscure arts events.

Today, this line is blurring as playwrights, performers and television producers embrace the cult of interactivity.

Big Brother - interactive TV
Big Brother: Gave viewers a stake in the outcome
In last month's Edinburgh Fringe festival - one of the world's biggest arts events - mobile phone-toting audience members could sign up to receive text messages from performers.

Channel Four clocked up its biggest audiences of the year with its surveillance gameshow, Big Brother, which offered viewers a say in who won the 70,000 jackpot.

And on Tuesday, the best-selling novelist and disgraced Tory peer, Jeffrey Archer, made his professional acting debut in a self-penned play in which the audience acts as a trial jury.

In The Accused, Lord Archer plays a doctor suspected of murdering his wife.

Audience members are sworn in and asked to vote on whether he is innocent or guilty using electronic voting pads.

Art imitates life

Lord Archer wrote the play after abandoning his campaign to become London mayor following allegations that he had asked a friend to fabricate an alibi for a libel trial in 1987.

Character from Ed Fest text message play
Static's 'Man': Early days of text message theatre
As in the real-life trial over allegations that Lord Archer had sex with a prostitute - a case which he won - the doctor's fate depends on whether a woman who claims to have been intimate with him is a liar.

Further drawing on past events for inspiration, Lord Archer asked his former rival in the mayoral race, Ken Livingstone, to act as foreman of the jury. His recorded voice delivers the final verdict.

Although the Edinburgh festival play Static employed more cutting edge kit to allow its actors to communicate directly with the audience, it was text message theatre in its infancy.

The conversations were one-sided, intended to provide further insights rather than giving subscribers a chance to dictate the action.

Guerillas of the arts

Involving the watching crowd in the action on stage is nothing new - Shakespeare, Brecht, Tom Stoppard and Alan Aykbourn are among the playwrights to blur the boundaries between art and life.


Avant garde and educational theatres have been doing interactive work for donkeys year

Peter Ride
Yet Peter Ride, of digital arts development agency DA2, doubts mainstream companies will ever fully explore the possibilities of interactive theatre.

Because such companies have to cater for all possible tastes on a tight-as-possible budget, they take fewer risks.

"But avant garde and educational theatres have been doing work around audience participation for donkeys years."

As well as developing online films, in which the viewer unravels the story by navigating around mock-websites, DA2 has worked with Blast Theory, a company branded "theatre renegades" in 1998 for holding raffles and kidnapping the winners.

The resulting work, Desert Rain, is part art installation, part interactive war game in which audience members try to rescue an assigned target.

Mission complete, the actors hand over a swipe card which activates a video of the target's real-life experiences in the Gulf War.

"The audience is completely participating and the role of the performers is to create the piece, facilitate the action," Mr Ride says.

Will Self
Will Self: Passers-by became his muse
What Lord Archer has done in The Accused - allowing the audience to chose between two conclusions - echoes early experiments with interactive stories on the internet, Mr Ride says.

These online tales, in turn, took their lead from the children's books which pose a cliffhanger on each page with two possible outcomes.

In June, the novelist Will Self tried another twist on the author-reader relationship when he took up residence in the window of a London gallery.

Armed with a laptop and a pair of dark glasses to protect the inscrutability of the authorial gaze, Self spent a week writing a story based on the people who came to watch him.

"Anyone entering the gallery will be subject to fictionalisation," read a sign on the wall.

Unnerved by Self's interpretation of their throwaway comments and personal foibles, many fell oddly silent.

Clearly, the step from reader to muse can prove a discomforting experience.

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