Towards a Poetic Spectator

Theatre is close to poetry and music than it is to a novel.

--Jose Rivera


There is something painful in the attention required from the spectator [...]

He is summoned, not to experience pleasure [...] but to think.

--Alain Badiou, Rhapsody for the Theatre


Poetry has a suggestive character that helps resist capitalist thinking.

--PA Skantze (paraphrase)

"One Spectator Theatre" by Alexander Riazantsev

She zigzags through the busy, buzzing crowd to get to her seat. While she could have definitely stuck around in the foyer to mix and mingle a bit more, she considers the open house segment as a window for her to focus and retune her spectatorial eyes and mind—almost as if she is one of the musicians down in the orchestra pit, retightening and retuning the fine, delicate strings of their cellos and violins. The strings in her eyes and mind need to be primed for the music as well.

Because though she sits silently and still, she is not necessarily mute and immobile. For her, viewing is not just mere viewing; it is also the art, practice, and discipline of attending. To attend, to be attentive, to have attention, and to give attention—all of these are internal yet active movements that constitute crucially to the exercise and enterprise of spectatorship. The act of attending allows the full activation of one’s senses and the heightening of one’s faculty to observe.  It calls one to not only submit to the theatrical experience, but to reciprocate and continue the dialogue through the way of her unbridled imagination and critical reflection for nuances (whether audio or visual).


It is the same kind of attention that a poet possesses. The magnificence behind the poet’s gift of writing is deeply dependent on her gift of seeing. In viewing, reading, and describing the world around her—whether this world may be familiar or strange—she avoids the easy trappings of sweeping, motherhood statements in both her thought and language. Instead, the poet attends to the finer details of the world’s spectacle: the loud ellipses spoken between two people, the glorious gathering of dust upon that long-neglected desk, the peculiar tremble of her lover’s lips which signals a forthcoming betrayal. The poet also takes time and patience to listen to the tongues that speak and sing of metaphors, of synecdoches, of metonymies, of ironies, of foreshadows, of ambiguity, of allusions, of alliteration. We are often told that the poet is the weaver of words. But perhaps a more accurate depiction is this: the poet is, first and foremost, the weaver of images, and her words are her meditations, her prophecies.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the spectator should be a complete and absolute poet. Such pronouncement is not only too ideal but also a problematic cause given the widely communal, diverse, and democratic nature of audienceship. Alternatively however, I propose another argument in that the model spectator should be a poetic one, and not necessarily become a poet per se. It isn’t so much for the spectator to capture the poet’s talent for words as it is for her to adapt the poetic perspective towards images—most especially when viewing performing images. In turn, the poetic spectator is beckoned to expand the reaches of her attention wherein she is no longer satisfied with obvious questions concerning reason, linearity, and the literal, but rather interested in provocative subjects such as interpretation, moments and experiences, and the figurative. Bearing a poetic stance, spectating becomes more than just reception. It transforms into perception.


The poetic spectator is not an entirely new idea however. Various literatures, theories, and essays in the past have argued for the notion of an active, stimulated spectator. Susan Bennett (1990) for instance have always emphasised on the creative involvement of the theatre audience, and the many ways in which they contribute to the theatrical production. Jacques Ranciere (2007) had called for an “emancipated spectator” or one who is an active interpreter, who renders her translation, who appropriates the story for herself, and who ultimately make her own story out of it (280).  PA Skantze (2013) on the other hand had discussed the idea of an “itinerant spectator” or one who wanders and traverses through the time(s) and space(s) of her memory, and uses these remembrances as tools of engagement when viewing and interpreting a theatrical piece. But no matter what version of spectatorship you speak of, all of this call for a thinking practice of spectating that which regards the spectator as an intelligent, creative engager, and not just a passive receiver. What the poetic spectator wishes to add in the conversation is the idea of a spectating practice that goes beyond the understanding of verbatim by elevating one’s attention to details, one’s attention to the abstract and figurative images, and finally, one’s attention to the poetics of the theatre.


The need to push for a poetic spectator becomes especially imperative today unlike any other. In this day and age wherein Hollywood movies and television largely dominate, control, and generate obscene amounts of capital from the viewing public, the function of the spectator has now greatly reduced to that of a consumer rather than a poetic, critical thinker. So much so that it seems the audience of today is slowly losing the patience for attention, thus resulting in their refusal to engage with the complexities presented by abstract performing images, their avoidance of deeper provocation into their thoughts, experience, and insights, and the ultimate, dangerous tendency to settle for sheer literal reception instead of aiming for profound perception.


Performance-makers like Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook had since warned us against creating a theatre that is too demonstrative, too explicit that it renders the spectator intellectually and spiritually incapable to engage. Grotowski (2002: 19) calls such excessive theatre as the “Rich Theatre”—a largely “synthetic theatre” that materially competes with the technological advancements and exploits of film and television, almost to the point that it loses the live, organic relationship between the actor and spectator. Following Grotowski’s philosophy and principles, Brook illuminated on the idea of an “empty theatre” as a way of encouraging the spectator to exercise their muscle for attention and imagination in order to compete the story and meaning of the theatrical production. He notes that “emptiness in the theatre allows the imagination to fill the gaps. Paradoxically, the less one gives the imagination, the happier it is, because it is a muscle that enjoys playing games”. (1993:27) Poetry shares a similar feature with the empty theatre in that its form and language are designed to illustrate rather than demonstrate, stimulate rather than spoon-feed. It summons you to pay attention to the delicate, subtle details of imagery and gestures, while at the same time leaves enough gaps, enough ambiguity for you to fill in the meaning with the might of your own imagination.


Our poetic spectator sits silently and still, but not necessarily mute and immobile. The curtain rises to reveal not a mere stage but poetry of images, speech, gestures, and nuances. The curtain rises, and our poetic spectator’s attention rises too. Her senses are elevated and animated into new heights. The distance between the poetic spectator and the poetic theatre allows the intricate formation of their complex yet mutual understanding of each other. She absorbs and processes the performance the way an ekphrastic poet does to a painting: with an acute and astute eye for details, with a romantic, lyrical ear, with an infinite landscape of imagination. And the poetic theatre learns not to condescend, not to underestimate what the poetic spectator brings. 


Badiou, Alain. (2008) ‘Rhapsody for the Theatre: A short Philosophical Treatise’. Theatre Survey November: 187-238.


Barba, E. (ed.) (2001) Towards a Poor Theatre. New York: Routledge.


Bennett, Susan (1990) Theatre Audiences. London and New York: Routledge.


Brask, Per K. (2012) A Spectator: Ekphrasis Poetry. Canada: Fictive Press.


Brook, Peter. (1993) There are No Secrets: Thoughts on Acting and Theatre. London and New York: Bloomsbury 


Rancière, Jacques (2007) ‘The Emancipated Spectator’.Artforum March: 267-281.


Skantze, P. A. (2013) Itinerant Spectator/Itinerant Spectacle. New York: Punctum.


McSpadden, Kevin. (2015) “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span than a Goldfish”. [Time]. Available at:( Accessed: 3 April 2017