A new performance frontier or Facebook theater?

India Carney as Carmen and Aaron Casey as Jose in Jay Scheib's Carmen for YoungArts
India Carney as Carmen and Aaron Casey as Jose in Jay Scheib's Carmen for YoungArts Courtesy National YoungArts Foundation

At the Pérez Art Museum Miami recently, visitors were startled to discover four singers on the stairway to the main galleries — and even more startled to join them in a live video. A few days later, hundreds of people watched a version of Carmen unfold onscreen and in their midst on the plaza of the National YoungArts Foundation.

Both events were part of a growing trend that encourages audiences to not just watch a performance but to be a part of it. The phenomenon is created partly by artists’ experiments with new technology and the participatory ethos of social media. Much of it is driven by arts organizations’ struggle to attract audiences as they compete with growing entertainment options and try to figure out how to hold people’s smartphone-splintered attention.

Especially for groups trying to lure a younger generation, for whom sharing online has become an essential part of any experience, interactive events look like an attractive way to get bodies in the door.

Recent examples range from the mainstream to the avant-garde. They include the Adrienne Arsht Center’s summer spectacles, like 2014’s H2OMBRE, in which audiences got soaked by water-spouting aerialists, and 2012’s The Donkey Show, in which Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was part of a disco night. At the New World Symphony’s popular Pulse series, attendees wander among musicians who pop up around the concert hall, mixed with a DJ and stops at the bar. At Miami Light Project’s recent Here & Now festival, Charo Oquet and Juraj Kojs cajoled audiences out of their seats and into the street to join their performances. In March, renowned dancer Eiko led crowds around Vizcaya for Tigertail Productions, making the sunset and Biscayne Bay part of her performance.

Is this the next frontier in 21st century performance? Or Facebook and Instagram-mediated dinner theater? Do interactive events heighten a performance’s impact by letting us experience it in personal, even physical ways? Or splinter our attention into distracted bits?

The answer is “it depends.” And two recent events demonstrate the potential and pitfalls of this new breed of performance.

PAMM was jammed on June 2 when IlluminArts, a small Miami group that presents classical vocal music in museums and galleries, staged David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning chamber opera the little match girl passion. The museum’s monthly First Thursday evening, with free admission and a DJ, drew a crowd of much-coveted 20-somethings, many lined up at the bar on the outdoor patio overlooking the bay. The combination of music and drinks seemed likely to keep them away from anything more than a glance at the concert. Yet some 400 people filled the museum’s performance space, a giant stairway leading to the main galleries. If many appeared to have come specifically for the show, some seemed lured by the crowd and the music.

Director R.B. Schlather, who has done open opera productions at a New York gallery, wanted people to be free to come and go, to make match girl a fluid part of their visit. But his staging brilliantly magnified the impact of Lang’s piece, based on the Hans Christian Anderson story of a little girl who freezes to death in the street and the moral questions raised by medieval passion plays, reflecting Lang’s ideas in simple but profoundly effective ways. The four wonderful singers (all with impressive résumés) spent much of the performance sitting on the floor midway up the stairs, looking mournfully up at passersby, whose sheepish hurry (intensified when they realized they were in a giant live video projected on a wall overhead) resembled the nervous way we ignore the homeless on the sidewalk — another inspiration for Lang. The video became not just a way to watch the singers, but each other.

Percussionist Michael Zell wandered the room, an echoing conscience who brought the music close. The singers’ pauses between sections, or the unexpectedly loud scuffing of people walking in, heightened our awareness of being in the space watching them. As the singers walked toward the camera, the video showed them looming and then disappearing. The image was a poignant echo of the moment when the little match girl dies and ascends to heaven.

The experience was unexpectedly powerful for the performers, said tenor Karim Sulayman. During a week of open rehearsals, visitors treated them like an artwork on display, filming them on their phones.

“It became very upsetting,” Sulayman said. “People only acknowledged us through their own screens. It was like we were these voiceless people who needed people to listen.” In performance, however, the audience was unnerved. “They didn’t know how to react,” Sulayman said. Lang’s piece came alive for artists and audience in ways that would have been impossible had the two been separated by the formal distance of a traditional proscenium theater.

The YoungArts Carmen two nights later, for the popular free Outside the Box series, was far more elaborate and conceptually ambitious — yet alienating. To be fair, director Jay Scheib (an acclaimed experimental director of theater and opera who is an alumnus of the prestigious national YoungArts Week, as were the talented young performers), said this was a work-in-progress. But YoungArts’ resources provided Scheib with an elaborate production that gave it the trappings of a finished show. Add drinks and food for sale and the scale of the plaza, and Carmen felt like a spectacle.

Scheib created a simultaneous live and filmed performance. In a pre-show interview, he said he wanted to visually amplify the piece, like microphones amplify sound. Two cameramen followed the actor/singers, their footage projected on the towering main building. Meanwhile, the piece was staged so that people could get close to the action. There was a central platform for pianist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, surrounded by tables and rows of chairs; a few scenes took place there, with a few more where actors moved briefly amidst the audience.

Most of the show, however, took place in an elaborate hotel room set, on a bar behind it, or in closed-off dressing room and “shantytown” sets behind the video and sound equipment. All were at the back of the plaza, and relatively inaccessible, so that only a few people got close. And TV, especially on a big screen, is an eyeball magnet. The result was that the vast majority of the audience stayed seated and watched the video, as if they were in an arena for a concert watching on the big screen. The set-up distanced the audience more than pulling them in.

If you did get close, the performance could be unnervingly intense, if chaotic. There were five arias from the opera, with the plot confusingly transposed to the present, with contemporary dialogue, and elements of what seemed to be a chase/crime drama. India Carney, a finalist on TV’s The Voice who played Carmen, grappled sexily and violently in the hotel room with her Jose (Aaron Casey). She hovered over the toreador Escamillo (D’Angelo Lacy) lolling on the bar (where people theoretically could order drinks). All gave vivid, gutsy performances under what must have been the unnervingly close scrutiny of cameras and strangers.

But at one point a woman and little girl, leaning against the window of the hotel set and watching the video on the building rather than the action a few feet away, took selfies, treating the gorgeously talented artists as a backdrop. At the Eiko performance at Vizcaya, people captivated by the beautiful surroundings and striking imagery she created snapped photos constantly. One photographer made such a nuisance of himself, even blocking the audience’s view of Eiko’s final moment, that she had to shoo him away.

“Sometimes I wish I could stop people from taking photos, because I think then they are not paying attention to the dance,” Eiko said afterward. “But I can’t.”

That kind of self-absorbed, social media-driven reaction is a risk at interactive events — particularly in Miami, where plenty of people like party-style events with an amorphously artsy aura, sans the demands (and rewards) of paying attention. But arts groups are usually willing to take that risk if it means at least some of those folks will come back for more.

“A lot of people question the value of this type of programming” and whether it brings people to other concerts, Craig Hall, head of communications for New World Symphony, wrote in an email. “While those are important questions, they’re not the only important questions.”

Events like Pulse and the free WALLCAST concerts, Hall continued, “FAR outperform traditional concerts in terms of the audience’s involvement in promoting them, using social media,” and spreading the word on the NWS in valuable ways.

Whatever the shortcomings of this particular Carmen, it still brought out hundreds of people to experience and think about the opera.

As with everything in the arts, the answer depends, finally, on the artists and their work. Director Tarell Alvin McCraney’s version of Romeo and Juliet for Outside the Box last year also deconstructed a classic work and put the audience in a new relationship to the actors. But for many reasons, it was a far more powerful and resonant experience. Afterward, the excitement in the crowd was palpable — as it was at PAMM after match girl. Interactive performances aren’t going away. Here’s hoping they make art come alive in new ways.