M. Scott Tatum
A brief history of “not-quite-live” theatre
Mechanical and projection devices have been used in theatrical entertainment since the mechanicals of ancient Greece and the magic lanterns of medieval times. In the 20th century, the work of the Epic Theatre, the Bauhaus and Futurists movements began to experiment with the use of non-human actors, broadcast technology, and filmic projections.
During the 80s, technology such as video, satellites, fax machines, etc began to be used to create art and performance. As the decade went by, computers became more sophisticated, new possibilities emerged. In Australia in the early 1990s Virtual Reality Theatre presented works at the Sydney Opera House, featuring the first hybrid human digital avatars. During the 2000s MIT, The Interactive Performance Laboratory at the University of Georgia, and the Virtual Reality Theatre Lab at the University of Kansas yielded an unprecedented expansion in the use of digital technology in creating media-rich performances. Dance and theatre, especially, were early adopters in these new performance modes and it is now common to see scenic elements, non-human performers, interactive elements, and an ever increasing complication to the way we see productions.
Netia Jone’s Where the Wild Things Are demonstrates a new frontier of performance technology integration. While generating drawings live utilizing several pieces of software, she accompanies the Los Angeles Philharmonic with storytelling that is not just background, but an interactive piece of the performance. She has control of the animated beings to the point where she can elongate a vowel sound from a singing pig synced to an opera singer or make the beasts hop to a different beat. Just as Maestro Gustavo Dudamel moves his baton each and every night, her digital paintbrush is creating each and every moment scene. This is hardly her first endeavor into digital projects. In her experiments as a digital artist working with classical music, she had attempted to find a way to capture what remains elusive to most purveyors of digital projection content in live performance: naturalism. Is it the effort to keep as much of the process as live and concurrently occurring as possible that leads to this unassuming naturalism? Is it her background as a serious student of music that makes her protective of destroying the beauty of a hearing a perfect performance? Or is it that she understands a basic truth about the use of anything in the arts; that the arts require a human touch? In discussing this, she recalls a time when an audience shouted, “turn off the video!” during a performance of piece and how this moment in history that we occupy is forcing a discussion of how to use the language we already speak (visually rich, multi-layered media) in an art form that sometimes avoids any sense of evolution. But as she mentions, “the only really new and modern thing about it is that it’s digital, and we’re dealing with ones and zeros, because the effects and the aspirations are the same as from centuries back.” This simple belief that, as history points out, we are engrained to attempt to understand through multiple senses allows her to start at a place that is rooted in, and therefore is more, human.
Caught by the Internet
While Ms. Jones strives to utilize technology in a way that is innovative and fresh yet very human, others are seeing the blunt object beat them about concerts, theaters, and on live TV. And not everyone generates their own ideas or technology. When more and more digital technology becomes used in the creation and presentation of music, dance, theater, and art, there is a real risk of losing the exclusivity and feeling of spontaneity of a first-hand experience. When a computer that is connected to the internet is the source of digital content, leaking it to the world is as easy as a click. And just as many artists, shows, and others have found their work online a new ray of light is shining on the honesty and integrity of artists everywhere. You just can’t get away with stealing other people’s ideas anymore. As Beyoncé demonstrates to the world her innovative edge in the American Market (Billboard 2011 Concert Performance of “Who Run The World? (Girls)), a fairly famous European artist created a piece of work that is just A Bit Too Similar and a year older than Beyoncé’s performance. While exciting use of projection in both, the ability to easily lift ideas and work from others through their digital artifacts makes this world of projection integration and other technological advances ripe for a lazy artist mindset. Hopefully the parallel arrival of savvy art consumers who notice such similarities will also encourage artists to create from scratch.
But what happened to using our imagination?
Either way, Ms. Jones innovative works for classical music or Beyoncé’s copycat efforts, the big question lingers: Is any of this really necessary? The Guardian asks whether the theatre should use our imaginations more and I tend to agree. While I quite enjoy the awe-inspiring use of a clever bit of technology to achieve something that can’t reasonably be achieved in any other way, there is something beautiful about not always having everything presented to an audience. Filling in the blanks, metaphorically, is an engagement method that theatre has used since its inception as storytelling around the fire. Creating images that replace your mind’s ability to connect the dots or imagine its own world could be seen as robbing away our own creative selves. It could, however, also be seen as a savvy attempt to meet audiences where they are in our media saturated world. And this is where, for me, things start becoming complicated and difficult to balance.
As a technophile who loves new technology and the powers and creative options it gives a widening group of people, I struggle with a lack of any sort of aesthetic training that teaches appropriate and adequate use. As a storyteller/director/designer, I revel in the simplicity of the spoken word or a single shaft of light or a well placed chair but know that I could find other ways to connect. It’s this middle space between what we are now capable of creating technologically and what we are capable of imagining with only our ears, hearts, and minds that many artists, myself include, now find ourselves.