If you were witness to an act of violence, what would you do? Intervene? Move away? Or stand back and wait for someone else to get involved? Of course, largely, these decisions depend wholly on circumstance and none of us can ever truly know how we might react, until actually faced with the decision. However, a sociological phenomenon known as the ‘bystander effect’ suggests that individuals are less likely to assist a victim when there are other people also nearby. “The larger the crowd, the less likely it is that someone will intervene.”
It is the shocking phenomenon of the bystander effect that forms the premise of Jenna Watt’s live art piece Flâneurs, winner of a 2012 Scotsman Fringe First Award.
Watt tells me how, in 2010, a close friend of hers was the victim of an unprovoked, violent attack. What was initially shocking, and what the two of them found so intriguing later, was that there had been several bystanders to the attack who had witnessed yet not intervened.
Having studied theatre together, a theatrical collaboration became the way for Watt and Woodhouse (Watt’s friend who was attacked) to explore the ‘bystander’ phenomenon and the effect that the incident had had on Woodhouse.
What they created was Flâneurs, a live art piece written and performed by Watt and produced by Woodhouse, which tells the story of the incident, and includes video projection, audience interaction and verbatim interviews with Woodhouse himself as well as police officers in Edinburgh who are familiar with the bystander effect. “The piece is about 50% verbatim,” Watt tells me. “The rest I wrote to help move the story and the piece along.”
Watt admits that making work that tells a real life story – particularly one of a close friend – can be “nerve-wracking” as there was a constant wariness to not hurt Woodhouse in any way, and to remain respectful of him and his story. Watt describes how the whole experience has “definitely brought us even closer together” and that the project would never have worked out without each “having complete trust in the other”. After initial discussions about the attack, and after the decision had been made to collaborate on a piece of theatre, Watt tells me that she would send Woodhouse “writing tasks”, which he would respond to, and which, alongside his recorded interviews, built the base for the show. Through this method of working it was clear that Woodhouse, as the subject, was “always in control” and that “anything that he was willing to share in this way he was willing to have performed”.
Even though Watt is the only live performer, she is adamant that Woodhouse is “in the show too” not just from the use of his recorded voice but also as the story being told is his. Watt describes her intentions with the piece as “to hold up a mirror” to the audience, and to our society at large. To explore the audience’s initial reactions to the subject of the bystander effect, and to encourage them to reflect on their own experiences of violence.
Watt talks me through what she describes as the “big themes” of the show, namely, along with the bystander effect, the psychogeography of place and our individual roles as ‘flâneurs’.
Psychogeography analyses the emotional reaction that is evoked in response to a particular place, and came to Watt and Woodhouse’s attention after they discussed a fear of certain types of places that Woodhouse had developed after his attack.
‘Flâneurs’ is a term brought into popular use by nineteenth-century French poet Baudelaire and, later, by philosopher Walter Benjamin. It describes a certain type of archetypal character who is acutely aware of the urban geography of their city, which they leisurely explore as they take pleasure in their surroundings.
Although these are the concepts at the heart of the piece, Watt explains how the most recent re-write of the show (the same version which has most recently toured the UK) has been deliberately re-crafted to omit the terms “flâneur” and “psychogeography”: “I don’t want the audience to get stuck on the terms,” Watt explains. “It’s not a philosophy lecture, it’s [Woodhouse’s] story. I found that audiences sat more comfortably with it written like that. They’re taking in the story that I’m giving them, not being dragged down by the ‘big themes’.”
Although the terminology has been removed, Watt tells me that, through the piece, she hopes to explore the question as to whether we are all flâneurs, in that we all quite happily assume the role of “passive figure, wandering around and not engaging with others, yet also having a very acute sense of our [geographical] surroundings”.
Watt is also interested in the phsychogeographic connections that we build with our surrounding and whether our changed perception of our surroundings after a traumatic experience, such as experienced by Woodhouse, becomes innate or can be changed.
Ultimately, Watt hopes for the audience to examine their own gut reaction to their urban surroundings and “recognise where they stand”, particularly when placed in the position of ‘bystander’. She suggests that audiences might examine their own preconceptions about place and violence, and the stereotypes that play into these reactions: “in our society a ‘big man’ can only ever be seen as an aggressor, yet a woman is often expected to be able to diffuse a situation without violence”. The bystander effect taps into these stereotypes as “everyone looks to everyone else to be the one to intervene. You always have to weigh up the circumstance but, what a lot of people don’t realise is that maybe you are the best person to step in”.
Flâneurs is at Battersea Arts Centre on the 14 and 15 February. For more information and tickets, visit BAC’s website.