We are the audience; we are the performers


On a dank autumnal evening in 2013 I found myself in an old Royal Mail sorting office next to Paddington Station in London. Along with a friend, I had come to see Punchdrunk Theatre’s latest production “The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable” – an immersive theatre production that transported Büchner’s ‘Woyzeck’ into a fictional 1960s film studio. Punchdrunk are pioneers of what’s commonly known as ‘immersive theatre’; site-specific productions characterised by multiple narratives, non-sequential action and audience participation. Split into groups of ten, we were given masks to wear throughout (our ‘fourth wall’) and bundled into a lift before being let loose into a sprawling and disorientating four-storey maze of surreal sets, haunting soundtracks, bizarre dialogues and voyeuristic glimpses into snatched moments and fictional lives. This was immersive theatre at its best, and despite thinking that I’d struggle to engage for more than an hour (I was suffering from inbox anguish at the time), three hours later there we were; reunited through the haze after an intense and rewarding experience in which we had all been part of the action due to the blurring of boundaries between performers and audience.

My friend and I had been separated almost instantly upon arriving in the space, and were eager to discuss our experiences, to share stand-out moments, to compare notes, to analyse and deconstruct what we had taken place. However, after a few exchanges along the lines of: a) “Did you see (insert scene)?” and b) *blank look* “No?!”, we soon realised that we weren’t able to share our stand-our moments. Despite attending the same ‘performance’ we had managed to be part of completely different scenes, with only two overlaps (shared experiences) in the whole three hours. That’s the thing about immersive theatre at this scale: everybody’s experience is unique.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immersive theatre this week, as there are many parallels between a production like “The Drowned Man” and Connected Courses:

“Several reviews have complimented the scale of the production and the ambitious use of multiple narratives, whilst also commenting that the scale can at times make the experience feel fragmented and difficult to follow.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Drowned_Man_(2013_play)

Ring any bells?


Fast forward to the second week of Unit One of Connected Courses: Why We Need a Why. It’s been a fantastic experience so far, beginning with Mike Wesch in conversation with Cathy Davidson and Randy Bass (video here) contemplating the purpose of higher education and the importance of the WHY. This Storify to captures the opening event as it played out on Twitter, highlighting the main themes as they resonated with the #ccourses participants who were tweeting during the session.

Immediately after Mike’s opener, we launched the #whyiteach video project (still a few days left to contribute to this – hint hint), and it has been a joy to see the thoughtful, inspiring and imaginative contributions rolling in (both text and visual media) from #ccourses participants – and beyond!

Mimi Ito then hosted two ‘blogside chats’, Friday with Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the authors of Academically Adrift and Aspiring Adults Adrift (video here), then Monday with Vera Michalchik and William Penual, to discuss assessment in connected courses  (video here).

In case you’ve missed all of this, @paulsignorelli has written a couple of posts that offer excellent summaries of the unit so far: Connected Courses MOOC and #oclmooc: The “Why” of Connections, Collaboration, and Learning and Connected Courses MOOC (#ccourses) and #oclmooc: Connections (and Learning) Everywhere 

At this point I’ll quote Paul (both from the above posts):

Various learners often walk away from learning opportunities with tremendously different results and rewards”

Participation in the latest #ccourses session, earlier today, inspired interweavings so wonderfully complex (and tremendously rewarding) that it could be days or weeks or months before those interweavings are completely apparent.”

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?


I’m acutely aware that I’ll have no doubt missed other excellent summaries. One of the challenges of participating in such a vibrant community is that it can be a struggle to keep up with all the activity. It’s been brilliant reading and commenting on posts, meeting new people and pushing one another’s thinking – but alongside the ‘day job’ it can be difficult to keep up with everything when a community is so active.

We are all the audience; we are all performers.

I know that while highlighting selected posts I’ll be missing so many other, equally wonderful #ccourses contributions. I am certainly indebted to several people who have written posts which I’ll be using as teaching resources (thank you – you know who you are as I’ve commented and tweeted), such as this one from ‪@l4lp reflecting on learner perspective: http://outloudlearning.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/five-whys/. I loved @Googleguacamole’s post “Round Students, Square Colleges” (an analogy which will resonate for many of us). The #whyiteach contributions are pretty damn amazing. I loved @Marj_K’s “Every new semester… I re-work the boundaries between the known and the unknown” ‪http://wp.me/p50q4Y-D – and I can’t forget this one from @EatcherVeggies http://teachingbeyondtropes.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/the-meat-of-it-whyiteach.html – this made a real impact. There are so many demonstrating real passion and richness of thought (which reminds me, I need to update the #whyiteach GDoc…)

I’ve connected with many wonderful educators already through #ccourses and it’s been amazing how quickly we have bonded through a combination of blog-based discussion and tweeting, which has led into back-channel communication of the Skype/Google Hangout variety. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know @Bali_Maha in that ‘kindred spirit’ kind of way where you meet somebody online and feel connected through sharing such a similar (learning) world-view. At this point I want to mention other people but then am wary of excluding others through reifying a specific group, if that makes sense!

I’ve always been fascinated by individual perceptions and experiences of learning webs, knowing that ‘my (imagined) community’ is different from ‘your (imagined) community’. I imagine #ccourses as one of those bubble screensavers, we’re all popping in and out of view, constantly growing and shrinking and moving and overlapping and intersecting – and sometimes missing one another entirely…

“Despite attending the same ‘show’ we had managed to be part of completely different scenes, with only one overlap (shared experience). That’s the thing about immersive theatre at this scale: everybody’s experience is unique.” (Me, at the start of this post)

This could equally apply to Connected Courses. In the past, I have been reluctant to join MOOCs when I’ve missed the beginning, feeling like it will be impossible to ‘catch up’. This whole #ccourses experience is leading me to view things differently. The community/network is welcoming and encouraging, and I’d strongly urge those who may be interested but possibly overwhelmed by the amount of activity to-date just to dive in! Say hi, follow the blog feed, share your thoughts – dip in and out as you can. I’ll be bringing my postgrad students (Research Methods) along for the ride when we hit Unit Four as I think this will be relevant for their course. To quote a #ccourses participant:

“It’s never to late to dive into a cMOOC.” 

And finally, here’s the advice from Punchdrunk:

Your curiosity is key. The more you explore, the richer your experience will be. Delve in, be bold, and immerse yourself.

Now, where’s that blog feed….

17 thoughts on “We are the audience; we are the performers

    • Thank you so much Howard! It’s been an interesting experience being intensely active last week – both #ccourses and #whyiteach – then having 2 days away at the weekend (offline) – and now back again.

      I maybe wouldn’t feel as confident dipping in and out if I wasn’t already comfortable with the #ccourses group and emotionally invested in this whole experience, but I hope to reassure others who may feel slightly adrift/overwhelmed that it’s ok to come and go – and i really do think that the #ccourses community is pretty special in this respect: very open, supportive and welcoming.

      It’s a damn good vibe 🙂

  1. I value that you are taking the time to reflect and find ways to re-assure “others who may feel slightly adrift/overwhelmed that it’s ok to come and go” I was speaking to Frances Bell about this very thing today – as facilitators of connected courses it is hard to know how to maintain the openness and also encourage those who may not feel as comfortable out in the open. Posts like this are a great model of what I can do to support my own students when the time comes. Thanks.

    The analogy to immersive theatre is also interesting – reminds me of the blurring of the distinction between teaching and learning in our dialogues about why we teach.

    • Thank you Mariana – i’m really glad you found some value in the post. I’m always aware of in-group/out-group dynamics in these kinds of courses, and the danger of participants on the periphery feeling overwhelmed by the amount of communication! I do think it’s important to create an atmosphere where people don’t feel bad about coming and going (Howard has done a great job of setting the tone here), or just popping up and saying ‘hello’!

      p.s. I’m blown away by your website. Your digital presence is awesome.

      • So nice of you to have a look at stuff I am doing and offer me some feedback…Anything that sucks is my responsibility and anything that ‘rocks’ is thanks to DS106 🙂 They have been holding my hand online for a while now. Enjoying getting to know and seeing how much #ccourses is keeping you away from you day job 🙂 great to read your enthusiasm on Twitter.

  2. While I have never been to an immersive theatre production, I can really relate to this post! I’m so afraid to be missing great conversations in #ccourses, but I have to hold on to the belief that I’m finding so much of great value, it’s ok that I am missing part of the show. I’m glad my post contributed to your thinking (I’m @L4LP), and I’m happy to say that your post will help me to explain the dynamics of MOOCs in the future.

    • Hi Catherine – I must admit, it’s helped my thinking when it comes to MOOCs. Takes the pressure of when you accept that you’re going to miss a lot of great stuff – no matter how hard you try… Just enjoying the bits I’m lucky enough to experience!

  3. What a vivid description of your immersive theater experience! I have never participated in one, but you brought it alive in a way that made it the perfect analogy for #ccourses.

    You are one of the people with which I have felt such a valuable connected spirit.

    So many great people in this course. I encourage more people to comment and tweet on others’ posts, as this is how the connectedness grows, at least for me.

    GREAT post. And thanks for the mention. 🙂

    • Hi Susan – thanks for stopping by! I’m loving our #ccourses adventure. Looking forward to Howard’s unconference to find out more about how people feel it’s going generally 🙂

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  5. as always, an engaging read. I saw my Drowned Man experience in a slightly different light. The immersive and connected aspects were important, but I was also fascinated by what I called the ‘messy chaos’, which is something education struggles to do well. That the story was unique to each watcher simply because they saw fragments in different orders. They filled the gaps with their imagination and then had that challenged as they saw more the performance. I saw it twice and each time it was a completely different chaotic experience, like a sound collage.

    We have so much of the learner experience in HE scaffolded and structured; yet life rarely is. It is discontinuous, chaotic, fractured and creative. There are questions without answers, or answers before we know the questions. There are bits that we fill in and that is where learning happens. Being told the answer and even worse being asked to regurgitate it from memory does not replicate many of the aspects of the way we live.

    Anyways, I wrote a blog post about it http://peterbryant.smegradio.com/?p=419

    PS: I am seeing Punchdrunk’s NY production in 10 days called ‘Sleep no more’. Can’t wait.

    • Hey Peter! Thanks for popping by – just read your post (good stuff!) and am now wondering how many other edu-type people (that have been to an immersive/promenade theatre) have been struck by the parallels… I’m sure it’s not just us! Certainly a useful frame of reference for many edu experiences…

  6. Lovely post Helen. The tension between structure and participation reminded me a little of the paper we wrote on the Mobile film that you do with your students. Though we were looking at creativity, I am wondering if something similar applies with participation. Your experience of immersive theatre didn’t just happen. While punchdrunk were removing some traditional constraints like seating and the proscenium arch, I’m guess they were subtly inserting some structure. Let me know if you hear of any immersive theatre in Manc.

    • Thanks Frances! Without a doubt it’s highly structured, choreographed and planned – has to be due to multiple story lines and different scenes playing out in different places at the same time. There are so many layers to work through as you’re able to roam around the sets, look in drawers, read private letters (belonging to the characters)… a real labyrinth of intrigue. Similar characteristics to an ARG in many ways.

      Will definitely let you know if I hear of anything coming up! We’ve not had much in Manchester. The first time i’d experienced anything like this was Punchdrunk at MIF, but that was about 5 years ago and haven’t noticed much since then – although there’s a company called Pigeon Theatre that might be worth checking out. Also the ‘new’ Cornerhouse (Home, is it?) – have a feeling there might be something coming up there. We should definitely go!

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