How do you solve the famous 'trolley problem'?

A new theatre show allows the audience to vote throughout. Would you make the right decisions?

Eva O’Connor’s new show, The Friday Night Effect, co-authored by  Hildegard Ryan, asks its audience to intervene at regular, critical junctures

Eva O’Connor’s new show, The Friday Night Effect, co-authored by Hildegard Ryan, asks its audience to intervene at regular, critical junctures

 

In its earliest days, theatre-going was not obligatory, but it was so strongly encouraged that the democratic state paid an allowance to its poorer citizens to attend. The implication was that the theatre was in some way essential to democratic practice. Mostly sceptical, full of debate and not conspicuously partisan, it worked like a rehearsal of civic participation, where citizens (whether women or slaves could attend is still up for debate) could engage with dilemmas and consider choices.

Choice itself, however, has always been a contentious issue. How unbridled is it, really, if the gods have other plans for us, or our more earthly circumstances limit options? To judge by the ever more interactive shape of theatre, audiences have rarely been made as conspicuous in their own decision-making, or quite as culpable when things go wrong.

In The Great Gatsby, soon ending its run in the Gate Theatre, the audience are treated often as participants, engaged in conversation by the characters and solicited for advice, while still aware that the narrative is preordained. There’s still a shiver of Greek fatalism to the outcome: damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Theatre often adapts to provide the things that other entertainments cannot, and in recent years that has been responsiveness. Why sit quietly and observe, when you can follow a story – sometimes physically, through transformed spaces – and interact? Such immersive performances conflate the viewer with the protagonist, allowing them to make choices that affect the story, or at least their own experience of it, within manageable parameters. It may be telling that, at a time of democratic disenchantment, a number of modestly interactive performances at the upcoming Dublin Fringe Festival foreground the fickle nature of choice in performance, while others make it an explicitly political subject.

‘Choose your own adventure’

Take the new production from Sunday’s Child, a company that has dealt mostly in issue-driven new writing in the past by writer/performer Eva O’Connor. Her new show, The Friday Night Effect, co-authored by Hildegard Ryan, is inspired by “choose your own adventure” books of many childhoods, asking its audience to intervene at regular, critical junctures. As three young women embark on a wild night out in Dublin, with some potentially grievous consequences, the audience is asked what they would do, and the vote guides the narrative. Another Fringe show, Lee Coffey’s new play, From All Sides, does something similar, putting two couples through the wringer of abuse, adultery and love, then asking the audience to decide their endings.

If an audience’s position can pivot completely, depending on how the question is posed, what does that say about the decisions of a society?

Such influence can be as troubling as it is thrilling. (Everybody cheated those “choose your own adventure” books, but a live performance leaves little room for backtracking.) Then again, regrets are akin to life: what other paths have not been taken? Could our story have had a better outcome?

It’s tempting to see that frisson as part of a wider political disillusionment. If, as Churchill put it, democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the others, the election of Trump and the Brexit vote can be enough to make you reconsider. (The Rubberbandits, in a form of street theatre, recently found huge support for Marxism and Transhumanism.)

At the National Theatre in London, a new show from Rob Drummond, The Majority, conceived in the wake of the Scottish referendum and Brexit, again teases out the fickleness of democratic process. Throughout his performance, the audience votes electronically in answer to a series of questions and ethical dilemmas.

One is the famous “trolley problem”: if a runaway train was hurtling down a track, certain to kill five people, would you pull a lever that redirects it, where it will certainly kill only one? (The majority vote yes.) If, hypothetically, you could save the same five lives by pushing one person off a bridge – essentially the same quandary with no buffer – would you do it? (The majority vote no.) If an audience’s position can pivot completely, depending on how the question is posed, what does that say about the decisions of a society?

Free will and determinism

This isn’t the first time Drummond has asked his audience to make difficult decisions. His marvellous play Bullet Catch, a magic act that was really a riff on free will and determinism – lets say, the illusion of choice – culminated with an audience member shooting him in the face with a loaded gun. And many recent shows have canvassed the audience in real time for opinions and instructions, from Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before (an audience survey in the form of a computer game) and Ontroerend Goed’s subversive take on elections, Fight Night (which began as an innocent popularity contest and invariably ended up as a working model of totalitarian control).

There are other, timely meditations on the nature of choice at this year’s Dublin Fringe, particularly on a subject about which, in Ireland, the Constitution allows no choice at all. The award-winning playwright Stacey Gregg’s new solo show, simply titled Choices, details a British woman trying to conceive using IVF treatment and an Irish woman travelling to the UK for an abortion.

Perhaps democracy, as the Greeks foresaw, is a kind of performance; perhaps its depiction onstage is a form of rehearsal. Today’s stages hint at another truth, that even when democracy and theatre are functioning well, the outcome won’t satisfy everybody. The point is we keep participating.  

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