• Amy Burvall

How Life is Like Dinner Theatre: On Embracing Participatory Culture

First watch this:


This was indeed life not too long ago. Until, perhaps, the “YOU” was inserted as a prefix to “TUBE”, among other advances.

In the ’80s, I recall watching Videodrome, primarily because my New Wave idol Deborah Harry of Blondie was starring.

Someone has uploaded the entire film here , but here’s a gist:


“Television is reality, and reality is less than television”

Talk about “participatory”! That scene is clearly dystopian, but I think offers a bit of insight into our present relationship with media and our devices. To what extent have we become part of our gadgetry, and how have our ipods, iPads, smart phones, GPS systems, laptops, and (soon to be) Google Glasses irrevocably transformed us as humans? What’s more, should we lament or get on with the program, as it were? After all, Darwin did say that

“it’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent…it is the one that is most adaptable to change”.

This was glaringly evident as I had the opportunity to speak – water-cooler fashion – with two of my talented colleagues – one a drama teacher and playwright, the other a professional musician. We were discussing the massive shift in audience / performer relationship given the ubiquity of mobile phones and WiFi in particular. The drama teacher was a tad perturbed by the distractions caused by “distracted” audience members texting, tweeting, or keeping tabs on their social media through performances. He was nostalgic for days of yore before the deluge of devices.

But devices don’t tweet, people do.

The musician reiterated that the audience “is what it is”, and that it would be best as a performer to embrace the paradigm shift and play along with the participatory culture enabled by technology. She quipped, profoundly:

“We are living in Dinner Theatre”

Dinner theatre is inherently distracting. It’s rife with multi-tasking. One eye/ear on the actors and another on the roast beef.

On the plus side, it’s relaxed and informal, and potentially engaging, if the performers interact with the audience in some way.

She proposed that performers (and I would extend this to presenters and teachers) capitalize on 2 things:

1. the apparently innate human desire to participate, share, and be involved

2. the ability to engage with the audience as afforded by our communication technology

It might indeed be a little arrogant to expect full attention from any audience, if by “attention” you mean complete silence with eyes glued to the stage. But I think we need to change our definition of attention. Personally, I am more engaged with a speaker if I am tweeting soundbites or using the Internet to synchronously explore resources he shares. It’s even better if I’m able to have discourse with fellow audience members without disturbing the performance. Professional speakers need to pony up to the backchannel because

a. it’s not going away

b. the tweeters will provide you with free publicity

c. you can have fun WITH your audience for a change

The top speakers I’ve seen have actually set up a monitored backchannel and are adept at interacting with their audience in real time.

I’ve tried having students backchannel during a TED talk video or other presentation (although it takes a bit of training), and the results are fruitful. I’d rather have them contributing to the collective conversation (especially the introverted ones) than staring blindly at the screen and/or fiddling with non-relevant things on their computer.

Dana Boyd, who works with Henry Jenkins reminds us in this blog post that a “participatory culture” is one

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter

  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created)

So whether life (and teaching) is becoming more like dinner theatre or even a cocktail party, we know it is no longer a one-way street. We can’t expect zombie-like attention nor should we desire it. As performers, teachers, public speakers we need to

connect rather than direct

Bring on the backchannel, baby. And I’ll have a side of potatoes au gratin with the show, please.

#tweeting #communication #dinnertheatre #YouTube #backchannel #etmooc #edcmooc #henryjenkins #participatroyculture #media #Videodrome #DanaBoyd #TV

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