When I was a student at Duke, I would hear intriguing things in passing, such as the weary looking fellow on the student bus recounting how he’d written a twenty page term paper in the hospital as he recovered from a collapsed lung. Another time I overheard a letter read aloud from a recent graduate who claimed that he’d been busy “translating the works of Martin Heidegger, planning a trip to Cameroon and writing a play in the middle of which the audience seizes the script and rushes the stage.”
In the intervening years, the thought of a play that opens the possibility of an audience coup has captured my imagination. It looks as if we are moving ever closer to the audience taking over the script of art, entertainment and even politics. The first hint was the spread of reality television, wherein the audience saw that so-called unscripted dramas could wield as much influence as the scripted dramas doled out by the usual Hollywood tastemakers. It didn’t take long for viewers to smell the insincerity and see that these unscripted shows were contrived, but I think that these shows have endured in popularity in part because they feature some improvisation of a select few who were once just part of the audience. Fans can still hold the hope of auditioning for an opportunity to write part of the script of a favorite show. For instance, knowing that it would not be impossible to win a reality competition series gives the audience more power than they had in earlier days of television, which suggested few aspirations aside from achieving the socioeconomic status of families portrayed in shows.
With the spread of social media, the line between the audience and the authors/producers has blurred so much that it can be difficult to distinguish between the two at times. I would guess that the audience still doesn’t have as much power as it seems. For example, the internet still talks about television more than television talks about the internet.
As for politics, I’ve seen more power shifted to the audience this year than in previous elections. Bernie Sanders’s supporters changed some of the script that is the Democratic Party Platform. Donald Trump seized the GOP script and rushed the stage all the way to the Republican nomination.