Monday, 8 March 2010

Am I a Luddite?

If you’ve ever been to a show with me, you’ve probably heard me complain about how dominant technology is in contemporary staging. I gripe about the use of recorded music: It’s a quick, easy way to trigger emotion in an audience by setting off a string of shared associations, it’s ubiquitous in the movies and on TV, and a clear indicator of lack of theatrical imagination. I gripe about microphones: They erase much natural variation, giving all voices the same amplified quality; vocal projection was once a the basic skills without which it wouldn’t occur to you to call yourself an actor, and it’s really not that hard to learn. I even gripe, with reservations born of my respect for the skills involved, against lights: They add enormously to the expenses of production, and theatre, like every other industry, is, at some point, going to have to consider the environmental cost of its habits. Most of all, though, I gripe about the use of video. Projected or on a monitor, live or recorded, I don’t want video in my theatre.

Am I a Luddite?

I’ve been bothered by this question, off and on, for a while, so I’ve been trying to understand why it is that video in theatre bothers me so much. Am I just being reactionary, demonstrating that in the 21st century you can be an old fogey at 39, or is there something else going on?

One reason I hate it is that video is everywhere these days: I work sitting in front of a screen, I play, more often than not, sitting in front of a screen. I have a choice of screens on which to watch movies; they’re in my pocket, on my desk, on my wall. I make phonecalls, talking to the screen on my phone or the one on my computer. I read articles on them, some people read books. There are monitors on the train platforms, on the bus stops, on the walls of the theatre foyer, even, as of the new year, in the playground of my kid’s school. Is it too much to ask that an art form now defined, in part, by its liveness and proximity, should be free of them?

Standing in the playground at my son’s school, talking to other parents, my eye is always drawn over their shoulders to that newly installed monitor. It shows pictures of school events, the dinner menu, the school calendar; things I already know, or don’t need to. I can’t help looking; even when I make a conscious effort not to, the flickering change of images lingers at the corner of my vision, insistent. The same thing happens when I go to a show. I’ve come to see what these people do, here, now, unrepeatably, while breathing the same air as me; but let them share that space with a monitor and I struggle to unglue my gaze from its rectangular, eyeless face.

Take a flashlight and a candle into a darkened room and light both. The candle might as well not be there, right? It can’t compete. The flashlight is steadier, much brighter, more focused. Turn the flashlight off and you may find the candle’s charms; how warm the light is, how it flatters, how fascinating the flame’s subtle changes are, how it enlivens the shadows, populating them with its tremulous dance. Something similar happens with actors and video: set them against each other and somehow, the human is diminished.

Last year, I saw one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on stage: I hated it. I’ll probably regret writing this, because I know, and like, some of the people involved, but Kellerman, by Imitating the Dog, made me cringe. I’ll say it again: it was beautiful: well-crafted, inventive, clever; it looked and sounded amazing, and unlike much “experimental theatre” was stuffed with genuine experimentation. So why did I hate it? The question kept worrying away at me, and the answer I came up with was this: What I couldn’t accept, despite the stunning aesthetics of the thing, was the video, and the way it was used. Each performer stood in front of a video-close up of his or her face on the elaborate set, miked to compete with the soundtrack, delivering lines in sync with the movement of their own giant, pre-recorded mouths. Speaking of one of the company, someone I know assured me that she was an integral part of the devising of the piece. She had, I was told ‘artistic ownership’ and wasn’t ‘just a jobbing actor’. As someone who would would be proud to call herself a jobbing actor, I dislike the implications of the statement, but I understand why it was made. Their artistic input as devisers needed to be stressed because as performers, they were so hobbled by the set-up as to have very little. The artistry in performance, the minute changes in inflection and timing that make the difference between great and indifferent were largely closed off to the company, tethered to their own moving images, doomed to deliver reenactments of what they had been recorded doing.

Not all video use disenfranchises actors so radically. I will argue, though, that it always does so to some extent, at least in every use I’ve seen. The more video is used, the more cameras and monitors and cables clutter up the playing space, the less room there is, both metaphorically and actually, for actors to manoeuvre.

Am I a Luddite?

I’m not a technophobe. I own a laptop, and I bought myself an iPhone for my birthday. I have a Twitter account. Heck, I write this blog! I’m not arguing that theatre should fence itself off from technological development. Do that, and we risk becoming obsolete, or a cottage industry to serve the rarified tastes of the wealthy, like those who craft artisanal bread, or handmade shoes.

I’ve always believed passionately in the opposite of that: theatre as a popular artform. It’s in competition now, as never before, with film, television, digital games and the various other diversions that our many monitors can offer us. Is the answer to make theatre more like the countless varieties of available onscreen entertainment? Will that make people likelier to come out to see it? I doubt it. I doubt, in fact, that theatre’s diminishing appeal has to do with competition from recorded dramatic forms. People are willing to go out, in their thousands, to see, live, in person, what they know only from recordings; the huge success of stand-up comedy gigs, and the often-reported fact that bands now make their living from touring rather than record sales make this clear. Whatever theatre is doing wrong, it’s not the liveness, and it’s not the proximity.

I haven't read much of the history of the period, but according to Wikipedia, anyway, the original Luddites weren’t exactly technophobes either, though the way in which the word is usually used might well make you think so. They were weavers who, about 200 years ago, rebelled against the loss of their livelihoods from the institution of automated looms. Their solution was simple: destroy the looms. I doubt they objected to technological advance in its entirety; offer a Luddite modern medicine for his ailments and I can’t believe he’d turn it down. What they fought against was not progress, but the poverty and humiliation that came with industrialisation. What had once been a skilled trade, in which many took pride, was becoming unskilled labour. There were ever fewer jobs in weaving, their skills were not valued, and pay and working conditions growing ever worse. They were labour activists, artisans asserting the worth of their skills and the dignity of their craft.

It's probably pretty presumptuous of me, since my training in the trade has been patchy and my employment patchier, but:
I guess I am a Luddite.

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