Digital Presence Discusssion at The Theatre Centre

I attended a panel discussion on Monday this week at The Theatre Centre called Digital Presence which was intended to be a discussion reflecting on how the presence of digitized media in everyday life and other artistic disciplines has prompted changes in theatre creation and the dissemination of performance. Ironically (depending on how you look at it) the panel ended up starting late as the presenters were having some problems with their technology, namely getting some of the video to play, as well as connecting with one of the panel speakers, who was coming to us live by phone from Scotland. As it turned out, this all worked out perfectly for me since my flight coming into town earlier in the day was delayed, and I got to the theatre an hour late.
The panel included Michelle Kasprzak, Stephen O'Connell, Kristen Marting, Rob Kershaw, Kate Magruder and Ian Mackenzie as moderator. Unfortunately, the format of the discussion was not ideal. Rather than engage in discussion with each other and the audience, the speakers essentially presented their resumes, along with some of their thoughts about the use of digital media in performance. There wasn't much conversation; just a lot of talking.

Things opened up a bit when the audience got involved in the discussion. When speaking about using video in performance, it often comes up that this type of work, frequently just doesn't "work". Jacob Zimmer, who was in the audience, referred to Wolfgang Schivelbusch's book Disenchanted Night where the author talks about the advent of gas lighting, and how it took a two centuries for theatre artists to effectively integrate artificial light into their work. Zimmer suggested that digital media may be the same way; essentially, we just haven't had it at our disposal long enough to actually use it effectively in our work.

The way that a lot of theatre artists are (unsuccessfully) using video in their work today, reminds me of how artists were trying to integrate "movement" into their work in the 90's. One of the things that differentiates true interdisciplinary work from theatre with dance and video crammed in, is an understanding of how the different elements work to communicate with the audience in different ways, as well as a knowledge of which way works best. When I was working with bluemouth inc. we would have this discussion all the time; if you have text, movement, and video, that are all saying the same thing at the same time, decide which one works to communicate best in that moment and then cut what's extraneous.

Part of the challenge is that, for the most part, theatre is still primarily a text driven medium. A project usually starts with a play that's been written, and then directors, actors, and designers interpret it. Usually the play itself (assuming it's worthy of being produced) has all the information the audience needs to understand it, so when the other artists involved start duplicating things the playwright has already said, whether it's by adding movement or design elements, it's overkill.

During the discussion, Stephen O'Connell of bluemouth inc. referenced Public Recording's project /Dance/Songs/, presented last year at the Theatre Centre, as an example of a piece which integrated video very successfully into performance. Choreographer Ame Henderson's approach to using video is almost nonchalant; video cameras and projectors are present in the space and are used when it would be beneficial to get a close up of a performer's face, the same way that lighting designers will use lights to draw our focus to a particular thing on stage.

The one issue I really wish had been addressed on the panel, that never came up, is the effect that living in a digital media/internet/YouTube saturated world actually has on our audiences, and how theatre artists may need to modify their work, to accommodate this. Perhaps a good starting point for future discussions?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This brings to mind a muti-media show I did a few years ago where the video crashed but of all the performances we had that show was the best received. I think to some extent the more interesting conversation is about how living in a saturated digital culture effects theatre. More and more people are no longer getting 1 hour or two hour media fixes but are getting quicker 10 min jolts that often get to the point quicker and deliver a more direct hit. Also individuals can curate and create their own media more effectively then ever so you can have your media when and how you want it. The problem this poses for theatre is in attention spans and the general inconvenience of the ritual of theeatre. To the average public (to whom we still need to connect to on some level in order to exist as a community) to pay a fairly pricey ticket price to sit in a theatre at a scheduled time for sometimes over 2 hours seems grossly unattractive. The use of video in my experience rarely plays out as more then a low budget gimmick that probably read as cutting edge on a grant application (just like movement did in the '90s). It also serves to remind the audience that they could be enjoying you tube in the comfort of their own wherever. I've found the more a theatre experience tries to feel like cinema the more it fails. I had a great talk once with David Fox about the use of video that centred around the fact that film is a dead medium. It is an autopsy of sorts. Someone has gone through the footage and is presenting their findings and the result is fixed. A live actor is changing moment to moment and is alive (for the most part). Which is what i hope will not just keep theatre alive but but make it even more valuable to future audiences. In the digital media nothing goes away so it's meaning is lessened. There are some experience that I've had watching theatre that I can never have back but live only in my memory like a first kiss. Jacob is right we will find a more natural and successful way to integrate video into our work. It takes time. As a sound designer I still feel that sound is not really viewed as that important by many directors.