Thursday, 29 April 2010

Mainlining Irony : Theatre, technology, and me.

A few weeks ago I attended an event at Contact Theatre. Convened by iShed , it was aimed at theatre people interested in combining theatre and pervasive media. The workshop, as it was described, was organized along the lines of an open space event, with participants splitting off into self-selected groups to discuss particular ideas. Each idea was a candidate for a 10,000 pound R &D commission to explore a new and exciting way of using pervasive media in a theatre project. Discussing one idea, someone remarked on how useful it would be if there were a system, based on galvanic skin response perhaps, or EEG readings, to monitor an audience’s response to a performance and tailor the performance accordingly. I couldn’t resist. “I know a system that does that” I said, and added, in the eager silence that followed, “a company of actors”. The workshop participants were nice people; nobody shouted at me, and I got a few chuckles.

I knew my interjection wasn’t going to be taken seriously, but I wasn’t joking. It seems silly to me to look for technological means to do things that human beings already do well, with skill and pleasure. It seems more than silly; it seems wasteful, and, as the reality of our unsustainable energy consumption dawns, wastefulness will soon become the least acceptable of social habits.

What, you must be wondering, was I doing there? Why would a person who felt that way attend such an event? Less than a year ago, I wouldn’t have. I would have said that what I treasure in a performance is the individual and collective virtuosity of actors, the relationship between actors and audience, and the bond among audience members experiencing the same show; that technology disrupts these connections, atomizing, distancing, undermining everything that I love about theatre.

I still cherish the same things, but I’m no longer so sure that technology necessarily weakens them; it’s just that most of the ways I’ve seen it used do. I began to believe that it was possible to use technology, particularly the new media, to serve what I love about theatre, perhaps even to draw new audiences to it. Instead of saying that I dislike the use of technology in theatre, I started asking how theatre is affected by the rapid pace of technological change. There are two sides to the question. How can theatre bear the comparison, and the financial competition, from the highly realistic and easily available media of electronic entertainment? To what extent can theatre make use of these newer media for its own ends?

To answer the question, in either formulation, in words, that is, in theory, I’d have to unpick the assumptions out of which they’re made. I’d have to ask further questions, “What is technology?” “What is theatre?” and “What can possibly said to be ‘it’s own ends’? Even then, I don’t think I would have gotten the kinds of answers I needed, answers I could immediately apply to the shows I was making, the shows I wanted to make. I’m on a practice-based course; I wanted to answer the question in practice, in theatre.

I decided to avoid the troublesome issues of narrative, text and character and defined theatre for myself, very loosely, as live and proximate performance. Since September, everything I’ve made has been a theatrical response to the challenge posed by current technology. If I were good at graphics, I could plot them on a chart for you. One axis would be marked from most to least theatrical; the other would measure the sophistication of the technology:

One of my approaches was to attempt to rival the beautifully rendered imagined realities of Hollywood and the gaming industry with the ancient techniques of storytelling and puppetry and the best SFX department on Earth, the human imagination.

An intimate Science Fiction show staged a round a pub table that uses simple, readily available props to illustrate its story. First performed in December 09, this is the most frugal and flexible of these projects. It needs no technical support, the props fit into my pockets and it can be performed just about anywhere.

Sales Pitch
Another Science Fiction show, this will most likely be both less frugal and less intimate but it will still be very low-tech. At the moment it is a work in progress, and very near the beginning of that progress, consisting of little more than a draft script and a casting choice.

Something else I tried was to explore the effect of actor on audience by putting the illusion of virtual presence right up against the reality of physical proximity.

I’m Listening:
A one-on-one performance that is also an installation, I’m Listening has received support from the Green Room. It puts a performer in a small space with a monitor playing a DVD suspended in front of her face, facing the audience. The screen invites the watcher to tell a true story, whether significant or trivial, then cuts to a recording of the actor’s face. The recording shows that face listening to a story. Inevitably, this is not the story that is actually being told at the time of performance and the reactions are either out of sync, or otherwise inappropriate. At the same time, the actor behind the screen is listening as openly and as compassionately as she can. The conflict between the subtle human signals conveyed directly and the recorded ones on the screen is what the experience is all about.

I've also been looking at the converse effect; how audiences influence actors. I call these shows experiments in crowdscripted performance.

A Little Bird Told Me . . .
Like I’m Listening, this is an attempt to illuminate the relationship between the digital and the material by putting them up against each other, and it came out of the improvisation workshops I convened at Lancaster University. A collaboration between three performers, (one of whom is also a computer scientist) and a visual artist, it looks at private and public communication through the media of eavesdropping and Twitter. This show is durational, task-based and partly improvised and will be performed for the first time at the ‘pool side Emergency festival on May 22nd at the Bluecoat.

The Request Robot:
This is a solo performance with a very simple premise: the robot does only what the audience want, conveyed to her by text message, twitter, or perhaps some other technological medium. I wont explain further because I’ve written about it extensively in these posts.

The Remote Clapping Game
As the title suggests, this is not so much a show as a game, albeit a very theatrical one. I discuss the classic form of the game here. My first attempt to make it work at a distance will be at Manchester’s first Sandpit, a testing ground for social games. This will take place at Contact Theatre on May 15th as part of Play Everything in the Future Everything Festival.

This version of the game will be quite low-tech and only relatively remote. Eventually, I would like to develop it to the point where it has a dedicated website and can be played internationally, either with teams competing simultaneously in different countries, or with audience in one country and performer in the other.

The Crowdscripted Play
This was the very first thing I came up with when I started trying to think of ways to use technology that actors would find interesting. It is also what brought me to the event I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The idea is that a performance text would be projected into the space, which the audience could change during the course of the performance, leaving the actors to improvise what they would do with the new lines and stage directions.
I don’t know yet whether it would be an intervention on a well-known play or original material, or whether it would be scripted by the audience then and there. I don’t know whether contributions would be from the audience as a whole or a few selected writers, or whether there would be a selection process for the incoming text, or what such a process might be. There are a whole lot of things I don’t know about how it would work. That’s why I’m applying for the R&D commission.


  1. This all seems very engaging and you're clearly being very positive about investigating the relationships described. I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

  2. It would be fascinating if you could post some video clips of some of these performances.

  3. Thanks for commenting. I'm trying to arrange to have the Remote Clapping Game and A Little Bird Told Me . . . filmed and will post clips.

  4. The remote clapping game sounds like great fun. Skype, cameras and people around the world to start with.

    Do post videos of the performances, some of them are hard to envisage.

  5. In the US and in academia (the world I inhabit), incorporating technology and new media into the fine and lively arts is, at least for the moment, the *only* way to attract funding. I think you are on the right track here in beginning to approach technology as a companion instrument to theatre-craft and play.

  6. Thanks, folks. I'll admit that the most frugal approach, the one that doesn't actually use any tech to speak of, is closest to my heart. I don't like using tools I can't fix if they go wrong.

    But I don't think theatre can wall itself off from the 21st century, or ignore the vast audience to which new technology gives us access. I also like the anarchic, craftsmanlike approach and the generosity of the open source movement; and, because I read Science Fiction, I think in the long term. If theatre is to survive the next century or two, it has to start paying for itself again; either by appealing to a broader audience, or by becoming a great deal cheaper to produce.

  7. Really love the stuff about human Imagination as SFX department - made me think of the Phillip K D piece u showed at UCLAN last year - leaving the audience to construct the theatrical landscape within their own imaginations!

    Also, the request robot is really interesting, particularly in ethical terms - the way people will choose to request inappropriate, annoying and disruptive actions, because their request is faceless and they are somehow protected by the technology the use to to communicate their commands.

  8. We did an experimental session in eavesdropping for A Little Bird Told Me. People who have seen the notes taken down that night are really 'getting it'. They look forward to finding out how it's received at the event and hope to see peoples reactions caught on film.

  9. Chris, exactly! The Philip K. Dick piece I do now is a development of that one. It is the tabletop performance I mention above. It's got props now; matchsticks and their box, a candle, an ashtray, some pint glasses.

    I had the great pleasure of meeting Phelim McDermot at D&D NE this year, and we talked about this a bit. He said a lot of interesting things. Two that really stuck with me were that theatre has always made use of the latest technology, from the acoustics of ancient amphitheatres, through hydraulics and gas lights through to the 20th Century tech we think of as normal. The second was that theatre took place in real space, but also in imaginary space. When we spell out too much, not only in the use of video, but in other ways, we deprive the audience of the pleasure of helping us to create. I'd never thought of this before, but it explains exactly what I'm trying to do with my SF show.

    Hazel, that's great to know. I'd love to hear more about it when we meet on Wednesday. I'll put out an #ff for @albirdtold me on the Friday before the show, explain as best as I can in tweets about the eavesdropping and try to get us a remote audience.

  10. A Little Bird Told Me sounds great - if I can make it down on the 22nd, I look forward to seeing it.