I’ve been trying to come up with a way for live, proximate performance to tap into the enormous potential of the digital sphere. I’m not the only one, obviously. It’s seemed to me though, from the admittedly small sample of performances that I’ve seen, that such experiments tend to put the live at a disadvantage. To put it more bluntly, they make what actors or other performers, do in the moment, less interesting, not only to watch, but also to do. I wondered if there was a way to use digital technology to make what performers do more interesting; to raise the stakes, emphasize the liveness, and at the same time seduce the online generations into realizing the joys of my favourite art form. . Maybe, I thought, because I tend to think in epic terms, it might help theatre to survive, because it seems to me that in this century it might well die, or change beyond recognition. This was the area I was determined to explore in my MA .
I came up with a few ideas, which I’ll be writing about later, but all of them needed several collaborators and/or a good deal of equipment and technical expertise that I didn’t have, so I set about making alliances, talking about my preoccupations, and finding things out. I was in the very early stages of this when Gareth Cutter asked me if I would perform in the December Cabaret Formerly Known As Bucket, a gleefully subversive and exuberantly odd cabaret event held regularly in Manchester. I’d performed there before, but never on my own. I wanted to do it, but I didn’t have any appropriate material ready, and, being a single parent on a Master’s course, didn’t have time to make any. I said yes.
A couple of weeks before the show, it occurred to me to use it to try out my ideas for making use of audience suggestions. No material? No problem. I’d ask the audience to text me things, and I’d do them. I’d call it “crowdscripted performance”, that had a nice ring to it. Bucket always had a friendly crowd, it felt like a safe space to try something crazy out. I’d put on the silver makeup I used when reading Science Fiction stories to kids at the library, cobble together a vaguely robotic schtick, and become their puppet. It would be a rough pilot for some of the more sophisticated ideas I vaguely hoped would come together soon.
The audience loved it, and Gareth asked if I wanted to do it again. I did. I wanted to make it better, to add Twitter to SMS as a means of getting messages, to polish my robot act, make it slicker.I told him how popular it had been with the crowd when I, as the robot, had interfered with other acts, how very many of the text messages had urged me to do so. I said that one of the things that alienated modern audiences from theatre was the respectful silence and distance it was granted. I said that one of the joys of cabaret was how much a part of it the audience felt, whether this was expressed as cheers or heckling. I thought that maybe, many people were too shy to heckle and felt left out, maybe the robot served a need for them, allowing them to be part of what was happening without feeling exposed. The true task of the robot, I argued, was as a liberator of audiences; a proxy heckler.
Could I please, I asked, meddle in the other acts?
He gave me pretty much free rein to heckle him and interfere with his own act, and said said that there were a couple of other acts that might be suitable for the treatment, suggesting I ask the performers. I did, and both Chris Williams of Drunken Chorus, whom I knew, and Garth Williams, whom I didn’t, agreed. I did my best to explain that once into it I’d have little control and might change their acts beyond recognition. They said to go ahead.
I rigged a box file with a blinking LED to tell the audience when I was receiving their messages. It would remain off during the acts where the robot’s interference wasn’t appropriate. I wrote a pastiche of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics to make it clear to the audience that I wasn’t going to break my neck, or the law, and to explain the rules of the game I was inviting them to play. I promised myself that I wouldn’t do anything to injure my bad knee, or break character, because this time I’d thought of everything that could go wrong.
If you’re not smirking already, please start now.
The first thing that went wrong started when Gareth, in character as political candidate Bill Bucket, offered one member of the audience a free beer. It didn’t take long for the texts to start coming in asking me for a free drink. I bought two, and broke character on the third, explaining that I was buying these out of my own money and couldn’t afford to get the whole audience drunk.
The second thing that went wrong was actually the first. Talking to a friend who was sending requests through Twitter, I realized I wasn’t receiving his tweets, among my first requests.
The third thing that went wrong was that I was asked to sing a Spice Girls song, then one by MC Hammer. I’d forgotten to tell the audience that this robot was an old model, and its pop music database ran only to some time in the mid-80’s.
What didn’t go wrong was the interfering with other acts. Garth played off me beautifully, his character getting more and more pompous and sniffy. Chris came along later, when the crowd was decidedly merry, and let me take his glasses off, though not undress him, managing to simultaneously ignore and collaborate with me, which also worked a treat. On the part of both, it took fortitude, improvisation experience and quick wits: I barely left either of them in peace. I danced in front of them, took things from them, spoke into their microphone, the works.
Even though they had agreed, I sought them out after the show to apologize. Each told me it had been challenging, but fun. They said they had enjoyed working with me. Unusually for me, I hadn’t felt that I was working with them. I had barely been aware of them, feeling no complicity, letting them do all the work. Generally, complicity with other actors is the single most important element of the shows I’m in, the one I can’t do without. Here,I had none; the robot belonged to the audience.
I hurt my knee, of course, which was my own fault. I was also, constantly sliding out of character, ever more so as the evening progressed. This may have been something to do with the informal nature of the event; we were in the bar, mostly, and people did keep talking to me. I reminded myself a bit of how my young son plays; he interrupts his imaginative games to clarify what he needs me to do in them, then drops back into pretending, seamlessly. Mostly, though, I think it was either lack of discipline on my part, or a failure in the setup. I have some changes in mind that might help, but they meen involving more equipment and at least one other person, and as my pay for such events doesn’t even cover my traveling expenses, this might be tricky.
There is no question in my mind that audiences love being able to affect performances in this way. I’ve never had so much positive feedback about anything I’ve done. There is also no question that some audience members hate having my Robot interfere with the other acts. I had an exchange on Facebook with one audience member who hated it so much that he kept saying so on my personal page until I blocked him. Because I want such conversations to take place in public, and because the developing relationship between new media and theatre interests me so much, I’m reproducing that discussion, in full, in my next post.
Please see my post of 15 March for a full list of the requests I received on this occasion.