Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs
Moderation / Chair: Renée Gadsden

Oh No It Isn't: Audience Participation and Community Identity

Millie Taylor (Winchester)


Summary: This paper explores how British pantomime uses shared activity, experience and knowledge to reinforce community identity. The spectator is engaged in physical or vocal activity in the completion of the narrative and of the performance. Some of the effects of this participation are that the usual laws of theatrical behaviour are transgressed, the distance between performer and spectator is altered and there is excitement about transgression and physical engagement that is unusual in a formal narrative within a proscenium arch. On the other hand, the participation of the audience is highly controlled, the new rules of engagement are clearly established, and the audience community is formed for this limited time and placed. If pantomime is argued to be a convivial event, it demonstrates that conviviality masks the power relationships and social structures that govern communities.



Twankey: Now, there you all are ... sitting in nice neat rows! Let's have a look at you ... Show us your teeth - No! Don't take them out, dear! (Aladdin, Guildford 1992)

Now I know you and you know me, but you don't know each other do you? Well, we'll soon put that right. I'm going to split the audience in two. Now I want this half of the audience to turn to this half and say very nicely "Good afternoon, How are you?" Shall we try that? After three - One Two three

Audience - Good afternoon - how are you

Wishee - Excellent. Now I want this side to turn to this side and say "Mind your own business". One two three ... (Aladdin, Watford 1992).

That was a typical introduction that the Dame might use in British pantomime. One of the tasks of the Dame (a male comedian dressed as a woman but not in drag) is to build a relationship with the audience and inspire their active participation in the performance. This requires a number of things: empathy with a grotesque character, involvement with the events of the plot, but most fundamentally, it requires the audience members to involve themselves in the performance, to act as a community, and to transgress the behavioural patterns associated with theatre going.


Rules and Anarchy

In pantomime there is a pattern of events that is followed during the opening scenes, during which the main protagonists are introduced and the plot is outlined. The "realistic" characters such as the hero and heroine will generally be introduced with a song. The villain often makes her/his first appearance in a prologue and may use rhyming couplets. The audience already knows that it is expected to boo the villain. The comedy characters will generally have an opening comedy spot which includes audience participation. The sharing out of the expected activities may depend on economic factors (the star chooses what s/he(1) will do, the other comics do other things), but will include introductions and gags, comedy interaction with audience members, the giving away of sweets, and the setting up of running gags.

During the opening spot the comic sets up the rules of participation for the audience. Generally this takes the form of "when I do x, you must do y". So, for example, "whenever I say 'hello gang' I want you to shout 'hello Billy', shall we have a practice - after three - one two three - hello gang". At that point it is mostly the children who participate. The comic will then berate the adults and try again. He will usually be satisfied by the third attempt, by which time the majority of the audience is participating. There are two problems with this. First, the comic must have the audience on his side before he can ask for their help. Secondly, inexperienced performers struggle to direct and control the audience until they realise how it must be done. There are tried and tested patterns that work, simply expecting the audience to join in leads to chaos.(2) This is notable because what appears to the spectator to be the opportunity for anarchy or transgression is, in fact, carefully controlled and orchestrated. One set of rules, "join in according to my instructions and as required in the genre", is established in place of another, "sit passively, silently and attentively".

Similar strategies are used when giving the audience a role in the performance. The comic will often leave an item on the stage for the audience to guard. It might be a gift for Cinderella or a box with the rent money. If the audience sees anyone approaching the box they must shout for the comic as loudly as possible. This is practiced and subsequently provides a running entrance motif for the comic, though it can occasionally backfire if someone accidentally gets too close to the box and the audience calls for the comic at the wrong time. If the audience fails to engage the audience forgets the words and the task of calling for the comic. This is more likely if there is not a regular occurrence of opportunities for participation.

There are moments when the audience is given a stronger role in the plot and so is made to feel that it is participating directly in the action. The most famous moment when audience participation is required in order to complete the plot is in Peter Pan (Barrie 1929). When Tinkerbell is dying, having drunk the poison left for Peter by Captain Hook, Peter tells the audience that she can recover if the audience believes in fairies. To prove that the audience members believe they must clap their hands, "Clap if you believe in fairies". Nowadays, this action is usually accompanied by shouting and stamping from the audience, but the premise remains the same, without the direct participation of the audience the plot cannot continue. This device of giving the audience a task, the completion of which allows the plot to continue is used in many pantomimes across the country. For example, towards the end of Cinderella the Ugly Sisters often imprison Cinders in a cupboard before the shoe-trying scene. The audience has to alert the Prince to her presence (Cinderella, Manchester 2003, and Cinderella, Birmingham 2003). In Mother Goose's Silver Jubilee (York 2003) the cast require someone who has never done anything bad to save all of Yorkshire from corruption through greed by saying "Ah Bisto". A child from the audience performs this task.

There are also certain catch-phrases associated with performance that the majority of the audience knows from previous experience, such as "It's Behind You" and "Oh No it Isn't". New audience members soon learn what is expected from the rest of the audience and from the surrounding material.

Rowena: That Idle Jack is the key - he's a rotter isn't he?
Audience: No
Rowena: Oh Yes he is
Audience: Oh no he isn't
Rowena: Oh - shut your faces or I'll fillet your furbees.
I'll give you a clue what I plan to do
It's bad and beelzebubbish
I'll get Dick and that Tom cat thrown out of the town
What do you think of that?
Audience: Rubbish (Dick Whittington, Barnstaple 1998)

"Oh yes he is, Oh no he isn't" is a pattern that could go on forever, but the comic will break the rhythmic pattern by inverting the phrases, reducing the phrases or introducing a punch-line or verbal abuse, as above. Whichever device is chosen, it is the comic who starts, controls and finishes the moment of participation. The other audience participation opportunities above are controlled within rhyming couplets, so that it is not only the convention and the character that exerts control, but the verse pattern imposes rhythm and pace (in practice, this doesn't always happen as planned). The audience will look forward to such moments, possibly without noticing the control that is exercised over it.

Sometimes the physical separation between audience and performer is altered. Some performers, generally the comics, speak directly to the audience, others, the hero and heroine and the minor characters, maintain the illusion of a fourth wall even when soliloquising in speech or song and facing directly out front. The comics do not simply speak to the audience, they also throw things to the audience, chase through the audience and, in the songsheet, sometimes invite several young volunteers onto the stage. In this way, the liminal space between performers and audience is constantly shifting, and the comics control the liminal space or the distance between performer and spectator by controlling the participation. This makes the audience feel that it is involved in the performance, while the performers maintain control of the events, which allows for some scenes to be played out without participation. It also demonstrates the importance of the comics in interacting with the audience and providing the bridge between the worlds of pantomime and audience.

These devices and the same types of rule-setting are apparent in audience participation in comedy performances and especially in children's theatre. The effects of this participation are to encourage the audience to act as a body and therefore to take part in a communal experience, to become a community for the time and place of performance.



Victor Turner (in Schechner 2002: 57) used the term liminoid to describe activities in contemporary societies that take the place of rituals. Such liminoid rituals effect only a temporary change, allowing the participant to experience a transportation for that period. Such moments of transportation can be experienced at all types of performances, but many forms of populist theatre employ the devices of active participation to strengthen the possibility of such experiences occurring. The question is raised whether this participation allows for the experience of community? If so, does this experience of community have a relationship with the idea of "conviviality", since the reverse has been argued, namely that "convivial institutions [are] recognised in the sustaining of community" (Smith 2001: 10)? The question then is whether pantomime is a convivial institution.

Turner identifies three phases in this ritual activity: Separation, Liminal activity and Reaggregation. These might relate to the separation in time and place of the performance; the ludic recombination of events and activities as led by the comedians and engaged in by the audience; the post-performance activities and conversations as the audience re-engages with its everday experiences. This argument would suggest that pantomime has a place as a liminoid performance, itself a ritual, and as part of the Christmas ritual for a large proportion of the British population.

Performance can also be theorised as a ritual for the performers and attendance at performance can be theorised as a ritual for the spectators. However, audience participation in performance provides the opportunity for a different sort of ritual behaviour that is a combination of ritual and transgression or play. Thus, the joining in with, and familiarity with, the events of the performance (often referred to as the pantomime traditions) is part of the ritual. The shouting and responding in a place where passive behaviour is normally expected, is transgressive behaviour or playfulness, although one might argue that this is pseudo-transgressiveness, since we have seen that it is controlled and rule-bound. Richard Schechner suggests that this combination of ritual and play allows people to temporarily experience a second reality separate from their ordinary lives (Schechner 2002: 45), while Victor Turner argues that freed from the constraints of daily life and allowed to engage in playful or transgressive behaviour, people are uplifted and experience the camaraderie of "communitas". According to Turner's definition, transgression within the safety of defined boundaries leads to "normative communitas", the audience is returned to life having experienced a transformation for a limited time and place, within safe boundaries. In fact, it may be possible to understand pantomime as one of the last vestiges of the licensed carnival, although carnival depends on a balanced tension between the allowed ritual and transgression. Pantomime, as conducted in theatres, may have lost that balance and is predominantly ritual with very little real transgression.


The unique event

There are a number of ways in which pantomime performance is signified as being unique at each performance. In the same way that stand-up comedians interact with the audience and play off the information received so that the audience believes it has experienced a unique event, so too in pantomime. A device used by comedians in many types of performance, including pantomime, circus, comedy and even some musical theatre, is to arrange for something to go wrong and to deal with it as though it had never happened before. The point of these devices is to create the sense of a unique performance with live, fallible performers for whom the stage is a dangerous and embarrassing place. This is in direct contradiction to the idea that pantomime is a ritual, although such devices are expected, as the reflexive exposure of pantomime as performance is a familiar aspect of the genre. So, through such comic devices, and through audience participation, the performance is signified as unique, but the performance itself falls into defined patterns and uses familiar strategies.



I have argued that pantomime has a unifying effect on its audience, using signs operating within culture and, more specifically, within genre to allow the enactment of participation and the creation of a transient sense of community.

A lot of material exists in performance studies and performance theory about audience response and reception theory (see for example Eco 1979, Fortier 1997, Blau 1990, Bennett 1990), but this work generally focuses on the active or passive spectator in the creation of meaning. In this work the audience members make choices about what to look at (despite the attempts of the director and production team to focus the audience's gaze), and have freedom of interpretation. In pantomime the audience member might be regarded as passive in the creation of meaning - there is little room for the interpretation required by fragmented narratives and postmodern performance - but s/he has a role to play in the performance itself, participating in the comedy and the plot. The audience member has the opportunity to choose whether and how to participate. Herbert Blau (Blau 1990: 79) refers to the "participation mystique" as the most fertile experimental issue in performance, but the performances Blau refers to are those of an experimental avant-garde. In experimental performances the placing of the audience in or around the performance space, or the audience members' choice to move within a defined area allows for a different engagement of performer and spectator than in "realist" theatre performances where the audience position is specified, often static and from a single perspective. One might argue that there are similarities in the transgression and recreation of boundaries between pantomime and the avant-garde, but that is another paper.

Blau argues that the spectator "risks losing his identity" (Anne-Marie Albiach reproduced in Blau 1990: 148 as "actor and spectator interpenetrate". Alternatively, one might argue that the spectator gains independence through the opportunities for action afforded by participation. Blau argues further that the intimacy of participation may "preface or entail [...] a more radical separation" (Blau 1990: 149) of spectator and performance at the end of the performance when the spectator returns to her everyday reality. The exclusion and autonomy of the performance is thus increased as the spectator is thrust back into her role and separated from the performance suddenly and shockingly, causing a greater sense of loss than had there been no participation.

The question then is whether participation has similar effects in experimental theatre and in mainstream theatre genres where audience participation is widespread (as in pantomime, children's theatre and comedy).

In pantomime there are ritual patterns of participation as well as deliberate reference to community or recent cultural events, which act reflexively so that the shock of separation at the end of the performance may be ameliorated or removed. At the same time pantomime requires a ritual participation rather than free choice. One must question whether such ritual participation raises awareness of community and reinforces the identity and sense of belonging of the participants for the time and place of performance, or whether it has the effect, described above, of increasing separation between performer and spectator. Secondly, there is the question of whether this active participation provides an opportunity for "autonomous and creative intercourse" (Illich 1973: 24).



All performances contain elements of both ritual and entertainment (Schechner 2002: 71). In this case, the ritual elements are those that involve participation, the entertainment elements focus on the self-awareness and control of the performer and the virtuosity of the performance. This combination appears to inspire the audience to involvement with the events of the narrative and active engagement in the play of the performance leading to controlled opportunities for transgression. The reflexivity of the performance exposes the virtuosity of performers and signifies the uniqueness of the event. However, it is the audience participation that allows the audience to feel that it is transgressing or playing, and to become involved in a transitory communal experience. This involvement with others in a shared experience appears to give pleasure to adults and children alike.

There is no time here to consider in detail the content of the performance and its promotion of independence and anarchy to achieve goals. However, the denouement always re-states the existing social order, though with the hero in a different place within it. In this sense the content promotes the idea that informal approaches and independent action win the day, but make the assumption that the goal is within the existing framework. In the same way, the use of audience participation promotes apparent anarchy and involvement and gives the impression of independence and autonomy, but is always constrained by a set of rules.



So how does this relate to conviviality? Participation and transgression might be argued to relate to Illich's statement that a desirable future depends on individuals espousing action over consumption (Illich 1973: 57). However, the relationship of these behaviour patterns and Illich's statement is far from simple, as it assumes that pantomime is anarchic and open to spontaneous and independent action, which, I have argued, it is not.

My provocation to this conference, then, is to explore the contradiction between institutions and conviviality. Pantomime is a form in which the institutional reality is masked by the myth of conviviality. It therefore raises the question whether it is possible for convivial institutions to exist, other than by simply creating another set of power relationships and social orders that, during the moment of involvement, appear to allow free rein to individual expression. The pantomime audience may experience a sense of conviviality which is deceptive and which disappears as soon as the members return to the alienation of their fragmented lives.

© Millie Taylor (Winchester)


(1) In pantomime the comedians are predominantly (especially in commercial theatre), but not exclusively, men. In children's theatre these roles are shared.

(2)  Richard Schechner refers to such moments in avant-garde performances of the 1960s and 1970s, where confusion was sometimes created during audience participation by vague or ambivalent signals and rules (Schechner 2002: 95).


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Bennett, Susan (1997). Theatre Audiences. 2nd. ed. London: Routledge

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Eco, Umberto (1979). The Role of the Reader. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press

Fortier, Mark (1997). Theory / Theatre. London-New York: Routledge

Frith, Simon (1996). Performing Rites. Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press

Illich, Ivan (1973). Deschooling Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin

McGrath, John (1981). A Good Night Out. London: Eyre Methuen

McKinley, J. (2000). "It isn't just a game: Clues to rooting." New York Times Aug. 11th

Schechner, Richard (2002). Performance Studies. London-New York: Routledge

Smith, M.K. (2001). "Ivan Illich: deschooling, conviviality and the possibilities for informal education and lifelong learning". the encyclopedia of informal education <> (last update Jan. 23rd, 2004)


Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp. Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford: E&B Productions, Christmas 1992

Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp: An old tale retold by Roy Hudd. Palace Theatre Watford, Christmas 1992

Cinderella. Hippodrome Theatre Birmingham: Nick Thomas and Jon Conway for QDos Entertainment Plc, Christmas 2003

Cinderella. Manchester Opera House: Nick Thomas and Jon Conway for QDos Entertainment Plc and Paul Elliott, Christmas 2003

The Legend of Dick Whittington and his Cat: An old tale retold by Roy Hudd. Queen's Theatre Barnstaple: Hiss and Boo Productions, Christmas 1998

Mother Goose's Silver Jubilee by Berwick Kaler. York Theatre Royal, Christmas 2003

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs
Moderation / Chair: Renée Gadsden

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Millie Taylor (Winchester): Oh No It Isn't: Audience Participation and Community Identity. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 5.7.2004    INST