Arnstein’s Model and Participation in the Theater: 1969…1969…1969…

In 1969, to “encourage a more enlightened dialogue” about citizen participation and citizen control, Sherry Arnstein proposed a model (below), to show the spectrum between Nonparticipation and Participation of citizens in social and governmental institutions. Her A Ladder of Citizen Participation(1) links power to participation, proposing eight “rungs” of engagement, from manipulation at the bottom through Citizen Control at the top. I also like her “Limitations to the Typology” section, in which she discusses the limitations of her model…

Arnstein’s concerns were largely clustered around hospital care, osteopathic education in medicine, and the de-segregation of U.S. hospitals. Way over on the other side of sociology in the same year, in the theater, Richard Shechner published Public Domain. In the last essay, The Politics of Ecstasy Shechner articulated a conceptual shift from theater as an art form to theater as a complex set of social and psychological transactions, advocating what he called Environmental Theater, meant to “liberate the space and democratize the relationship between actor and audience” (2) Shechner and Arnstein’s core assumptions include the belief that participation, collaboration, co-creation, are all positive modes, serving society by re-distributing power, resources, authority. Arnstein writes:

“My answer to the critical what [is “citizen participation”] question is simply that citizen participation is a categorical term for citizen power. It is the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future. It is the strategy by which the have•nots join in determining how information is shared, goals and policies are set, tax resources are allocated, programs are operated, and benefits like contracts and patronage are pareeled out. In short, it is the means by which they can induce significant social reform which enables them to share in the benefits of the affluent society.” (3)

The author of this blog post couldn’t agree more adamantly with Arnstein on this (with perhaps the exception being her final sentence, which hints that success within a capitalist structure would be the type of ideal agency enabled by social reform). This post will insist that, as the smaller, pan-logical doppelganger to the larger structures of human organization, theater has an opportunity (some would say, a responsibility) to experiment with social and political modes of participation, as ontological research. Participation in theater, “audience” participation, as a microcosm of (possibly only a metaphor for) citizen participation, is one of the only ways we can put such models, proposals, and relationships on their feet, into reality, analyze them, test them, and actually add them to the endless, living mise en abyme that is human culture.

That being said, the arguments for audience participation in the theater that I’ve heard most recently (arguments often interwoven with platitudes about Wisconsin) echo Arnstein’s “rungs”, suggesting (in various ways) that participatory performance can “train” individuals to be participating citizens, that it can “educate” audiences, and allow them to “express themselves.” What I find so fascinating about this, is that these seem like arguments for lower (less participatory) “rungs” on Arnstein’s ladder. What would allowing audiences to participate on higher rungs be like? Would application of these higher participatory modes destroy/remove/alter something crucial to theater’s operation in society? Would use of these modes undermine our work as an art form?

As an exercise, I’d like to apply Arnstein’s model to our current participatory modes in theater and preliminarily explore what these types of participation might look like in the context of our work in performance. I will be applying these rungs primarily to the work itself and to artist/audience relationships, but will also mention basic application to theater institutions and the “institution” of “theater” when these applications seem simple enough to express in a sentence or two…

1.) Manipulation. In this mode, citizen participation is fully engineered by those in power. In the theater, this is the traditional mode: tickets are purchased and individuals passively consume the stageproduct, which has been constructed to suit their projected, statistic desires. Likewise, theater artists consume the resources and sensibilities that are gifted to them by Boards of Directors, panels, and larger institutions both private and public, corporate and non-profit. Arnstein writes that within this illusory form of participation “people are placed on rubberstamp advisory committees or advisory boards for the express purpose of ‘educating’ them or engineering their support. Instead of genuine citizen participation, the bottom rung of the ladder signifies the distortion of participation into a public relations vehicle by powerholders.” (4) I think we could relate this to the season subscribers who “influence” the types of theater through (often projected) consumptive demands.

2.) Therapy. In this mode, pathologies are identified in audiences by those in power and then forcefully healed. I would link this to conceptions of “rupture” that perforate (yes, make holy, and hole-y) “political theater;” this theater is built on the assumption that people are basically stupid and need to have their “minds changed” or to be “made conscious.” In this mode, theater makers identify “social ills” and colonize their audiences’ worldview construction through bland, mimetic (and usually over-simplified) tropes. Funding institutions and theaters do the same, supporting projects which position artists as cultural psychologists (which, in turn, seems to encourage their selection of white men, who are clearly most qualified for this eminent role, as they are the most “sane,” “sensible” and “normal”…[sarcasm]).

3.) Informing. Writes Arnstein: “Informing citizens of their rights, responsibilities, and options can be the most important first step toward legitimate citizen participation. However, too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information – from officials to citizens-with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation.” (5) I think it’s fairly easy to see what kind of theater this might be, in which condescension, elitism, and a vast divide between artist/audience prevail. Informational post-drama in a professional arena is more popular in Eastern Europe than it is in the U.S. but it is most popular here as educational theater, skits and scenes developed to be performed by the powerholders in middle school gymnasiums, nursing homes, and prisons to inform less powerful people (children, the aged, the incarcerated, the sick, etc) about AIDS, bullying, genocide, and the like, without any acknowledgment that certain audiences might have expertise in one or more of the areas being addressed…

4.) Consultation. This is the mode that “documentary” theater usually operates in; when I read this (only number 4 on the ladder!) I got worried about the Focus Workshops for Institut_Institut, and how PPL is gathering information from the general public, consulting our audiences, without assuring their influence or impact. This rung, at it’s worst, allows those in power, or those distributing the sensible (artists), to soak in the self-satisfaction of “giving people a platform for self-expression” or some such thing, while simply using participants to justify their own agenda. However, the onus is on the artists in this situation, to incorporate, accommodate, and respond within this particular participatory framework. (In defense of the Focus Workshops they are parody of product-centered, institutional Focus Groups, group therapy, and a plethora of classification systems, in addition to being consultations towards the creation of work…what do we think about that though?) Also included may be the use of a “real life” event to make a play (Moises…) and the use of “real people” in performance. This rung really seems to be the most trodden by theater artists.

The Tectonic Theater Project's 'The Laramie Project'

5.) Placation. Arnstein links this rung to consultation, as they both promise direct results of citizen participation, but (she says) both fail to deliver. She says: “at this point, citizens may realize that they have once again extensively ‘participated’ but have not profited beyond the extent the powerholders decide to placate them.” In performance, this mode seems quite similar to consultation, but I think it speaks most pertinently to issues of casting and race, and tokenism at large. In the theater industry, the first four modes of participation often result in pathetic attempts to include underrepresented and minority groups solely on the terms of the powerholders. This is an incredibly complex issue, but in theater work itself, it seems this rung manifests itself in wish fulfillment, i.e. the desires of the audience are accurately deduced (how??) and their resolution is manufactured within the frameworks of powerholders. More participatory dramas about Iraq, the audience dons gear, and then after the show the audience feels…well… successfully placated: pats on the back all around for participating in such an important and political show, we really learned something tonight about reality, etc…The experience itself however, remains completely phantasmic and often constructed by powerholders without sufficient information (due to the lack of collaboration/participation from others in their process perhaps…).

6.) Partnership. For the sake of our appropriation of this model, number 5 seems to be the first rung on which an audience would actually be invited to colloquially “participate” in live theater, following very strict directions and rules. In Partnership mode however, the artists acknowledge and act on their need for the audience, via actions like hand-raising (“how many of the people here tonight….”), and stand-up comedy and improvisational theater-type input. Yet the relationship between artist and audience is preconceived and static, constructed by the artist and the mode’s framework. In this mode, participants are told what kind of participation they are allowed to have, and exactly what they should provide through their participation; the illusion of “free content” is limited by the social context of the performance even though the participants and the artist(s) enter what (at its best) feels like a titillating collusion. Ugly Betty calls this “interactive theater.”

7.) Delegated Power. For Arnstein, this rung gives citizens their own type of power, pitting their strength alongside (but often against) powerholders. Participation is structured so that citizens are given full power in some areas (but no power in others). Aleotoric performance modes fall into this category. When audiences are allowed to solely determine certain performance outcomes, content, and other elements, but have no influence on other aspects of the performance, power has been delegated/a powerholder’s sensibility has been distributed. Even if the entire performance is formed dually by artists and audiences and the divide between them is extremely blurry, the space, the time, a certain number of participants, the framework for the experience, etc, are all controlled by the artists. This mode is very popular in performance art and classical avant-garde music, seems very interesting and useful, and certainly has a lot of books, articles, etc written about it.

8.) Citizen Control. Is there such a thing as audience control? For me, this final rung is most interesting and confusing in a theatrical context, because it places pressure on our conceptions of art itself, and who “gets” to make it. I assume that this rung would simply be a flexible, experimental mode of community theater, with authority (performers, director, playwright) regardless of the mode of the performance itself, shifting between various community members, with form and content directly born of the community/audience. But this is difficult because it assumes that those who are usually considered “professional artists”, and those in power in political spheres for that matter, are not participants, or members of a community. This mode could also be some kind of flash-mob performance, simultaneously arriving in the heads of more than one person, and performed by and for the same group of people. It’s very difficult to make a distinction between that and say, a bunch of people talking to each other at a bar (see Arnstein’s own Limitations to the Typology). Damn that vanishing point between art and life…and between power and powerlessness.

Habitat for Humanity ("Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry founded on the conviction that every man, woman and child should have a decent, safe and affordable place to live. We build with people in need regardless of race or religion. We welcome volunteers and supporters from all backgrounds.")

So my questions become: is it useful then for us as theater artists, our identities analogized with the “powerholders” (“realize your privilege as an alcoholic realizes that she has been operating predominantly under the influence”) to seek a higher rung for participation in our own communities, outside of theater, so that we may experiment with each of these modes, including number 8? And if our “own community” is really the theater industry (in addition to the neighborhood in which we live, the institutions in which we work, learn, and participate), should we increase participation in it as well as in our local-through-federal governments?

Schechner concluded that Happenings (beyond Kaprow’s original Happenings, which have always seemed to me to have existed more in the “really fun party with artsy activities” mode than in any other….) were the highest level of participation and democracy, yet participants remained hierarchized through their level of knowledge about the event and its structure, and Happenings for the most part were no more un-scheduled and un-structured than some of John Cage’s conceptual compositions, which likewise appropriate participants and chance elements into a “work” authored by an artist. This, it seems to me, might be best associated with rungs 3 and 7.

Art is Life: Allan Kaprow invites attractive art students to lick jam off of a car's hood

In conclusion: we always talk a lot about why individuals become theater artists. Usually it has something to do with being an outcast, with being lonely, and needing to be a part of something, and step outside the self. It seems that participation in public performance gives individuals a sense of personal authority and confidence, an ability to narrativize conflict and analyze human behavior (and hence deal with ones own life and its conflicts, and empathize), and a sense of being important, useful, and deserving of attention, etc, etc, etc. Even if not everyone should/can commit their lives to the absurd pursuit of theater, it does seem beneficial for more people to get the chance to participate in theater, especially past the 3rd rung proposed by Arnstein…thoughts?


(1)Arnstein, Sherry R. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224
(2) Cameron, Kenneth M. “Books in Review: Dionysus in 69 and Public Domain” in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, Dec., 1970, pp. 432-436
(3) ibid. Arnstein, p. 216
(4) ibid. Arnstein p. 217
(5) ibid. Arnstein p. 218



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