On Aggro Performance: Audience Participation and the Dystopian Response to the Living Theatre’s Paradise Now


James Penner


In the 1960s, The Living Theatre attempted to reconceptualize the relationship between the audience and the performer. The Living Theatre’s most bold experiment was Paradise Now, a production that dismantled “the fourth wall” and encouraged the audience to take over the stage and participate in liberation rituals. Several scholars (Dekoven 2004, Shank 2002 and 1982, Tytell 1995) have emphasized the production’s subversive political message (anti-war, anti-repression) and the theme of utopian liberation within the performance space. However, first-hand accounts of the production suggest that audience participation in Paradise Now cannot be reduced to one narrative. In contrast to the utopian readings of Paradise Now, this article attempts to examine and theorize the dystopian responses to Paradise Now. It posits that The Living Theatre’s radical attempt to negate the voyeur mode of spectatorship produced a new aesthetic form: “aggro performance.” During an “aggro performance,” the notion of pleasing or entertaining the audience is no longer necessary or desirable. In an “aggro performance,” the performer adopts, in some cases, a hostile position vis-à-vis the audience. In theory, the performer attempts to provoke and shock the spectators in order to make them adopt a more radical worldview. Although “aggro performance” is predicated on fostering utopian forms of liberation, it also entails certain risks and dangers for the performers and the spectators who are “liberated” during the performance.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.