Emancipated Spect-actors: Boal, Rancière, and the Twenty-first Century Spectator

Susanne Shawyer


This essay makes the case for the “emancipated spect-actor,” a twenty-first century spectator and theatre maker who negotiates the isolation of the neoliberal subject by means of individual interpretive aesthetic acts that propose collective alternative realities. The author situates Augusto Boal’s notion of the theatrical participant-spectator (the spect-actor) within the larger context of his Theatre of the Oppressed practice, and then locates Jacques Rancière’s idea of the intelligent interpreter (the emancipated spectator) within his political and aesthetic philosophy. Reading Boal through the lens of Rancière, the author compares how each type of participant-spectator interacts with dominant ideology by disrupting representational norms, and then posits the emancipated spect-actor as a hybrid Boalian-Rancièrean participant-spectator who takes aesthetic action for social change. As a practical example of emancipated spectatorship, the author analyzes Emma Sulkowicz’s 2014-2015 durational performance Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight). This essay argues that the emancipated spect-actor can serve as a model for resisting contemporary neoliberalism through theatrical activism.

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