The idea of adding technology to performance isn’t new. Even the Greeks used cranes to add spectacular effect to the entrances of actors portraying gods. But for anyone who isn’t yet on board that machines themselves are theatrical, I offer up Rube Goldberg.
Goldberg machines, which perform exceptionally simple tasks through complicated means, become processional experiences complete with dramatic tension and spectacle. They are full of virtuosity, possibility, and whimsy. It is through this lens that I suspect my Aesthetics of Space experiment will be conducted. How can we create a postmodern deconstruction of the online experience in a live place with the same sense of virtuosity and whimsy?
We perhaps begin by granting the audience processional freedom, as they have online. This is a somewhat familiar experiment with significant precedent. Often it centers around transforming the performance into an interactive role-play. Accomplice, for example, assigns roles to their audience members as they interact with rehearsed performers around the real world place of New York’s Lower East Side. Audience members find themselves the protagonists of an unfolding narrative drama. Despite the experience being carefully conducted, the audience retains a sense of free will. Blast Theory turns the role-play into more of a game, often like a scavenger hunt, in which audience-performers team up with far off internet-audiences and work against the Blast Theory agents. Even Coca-Cola got in on the action in anticipation of the new 007 film:
Google is taking these ideas of gaming even further with an alternate reality experience called Ingress. It’s essentially a first-person, real time platform adventure, except its played in the real world. Using a smartphone, the game tracks the user’s location and presents alt-reality situations that spin real world landmarks into parts of the game.
Perhaps most interestingly, Coney’s performance of RABBIT guided audiences around the National Theatre using their smart phones. This audience-turned-performer interactivity revolutionized the idea of an architectural tour, because the audience became aware of more than historical trivia, but also the site’s functionality in action. “By having an adventure in the building about the building,” said Tassos Stevens, Coney’s founder, in The Guardian, “we could transform the way people felt inside that place and the way they perceived the building.” The personalized and freeform processional experience was integral to the sense of discovery, while specific events (called “adventures”) occurred at key moments to tie the audience back together through a mutually shared event and to create drama. But these weren’t necessarily the highlights of the tour. At one performance, Stevens describes on his website, “After an adventure Rabbit led along the banks of the Thames on Valentine’s night, one player wrote that their most memorable moment was meeting a busker who was playing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on a banjo. They were almost certain that something so unusual and beautiful was part of the adventure. It wasn’t. But it’s the almost that’s key, the uncertainty that is transformative.” Here was an exploration of public space in a processional way that increased awareness of the place and its surrounds. Because the overt actor is removed, the audience perceives increased affordability with the place and thereby receives a more responsive experience. What may be significant for the technophobes to note is that these types of interactive performances provide evidence that audiences aren’t necessarily more passive and superficial, but actually willing to engage on a deep and experiential level.
Outside the realm of interactive performance, other companies have simply taken the Cartesian modality of actor-audience separation to an online platform. Companies like Avatar Repertory Theater and The SL Shakespeare Company (which, of course, works out of the Second Life Globe Theater) present their work within their MMORPGs.
Still others have sought to bleed the world of the play beyond the artificial bounds of lights up and curtain call. TerraNOVA Collective’s presentation of Feeder: A Love Story, which followed the story of a couple engaged in the fetish of feeding one another with such fervency that they longed for obesity, offered up a year’s worth of blog posts surrounding the production as a window into the character’s lives. While this is perhaps a rather familiar acting assignment simply made public, New Paradise Laboratories took the concept a step further with their meta-theater production of fatebook. The audience friended the characters of the play on facebook and watched the plot develop online before the performance. This information became requisite in attending the real world “party” with the characters, which served as the ultimate performance. Here, not only did they witness a deconstruction of the characters’ online avatars in relation to their real world personae, but the interconnected plot came to a head.
This meta-theatrical focus of New Paradise Lab’s fatebook seems valuable in helping to distinguish between our online interactions and how they relate to our comprehensive sense of self. It is from this perspective that I will seek to develop an evaluation of the modern self, in relation to social media.
Within a multi-roomed structure that allows me to create a processional experience, each stopping point will contain a deconstruction of a different interface of online tools. There is likely to be a natural flow to the space, though it won’t be strictly regulated if audiences want to change course. This is the natural experience of surfing online.
As the audience arrives, they will be explicitly instructed to leave their smartphones active, hopefully creating an immediate distinction from the anesthetizing rituals of passive theater going. Invitation to enter the space will arrive via text message, though a host will challenge participants to relish the moment between the phone’s signal of a new message and the revelation of what it says. How do we experience this moment of possibility, when an unseen member of our community has activated our social network?
An examination of the intimacy of video conferencing might center on the climactic scene of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House as Nora and Torvald struggle to reach one another across the artificial construct of their marriage. Will their conversation be paradoxically the most exposed they’ve had using and because of this media?
Online pronouncements with responsive commentary will be demonstrated through Romeo & Juliet‘s balcony scene told through facebook posts and comments. The discovery that someone is listening, along with validations of one’s own behavior will be expressed through these functions, forming a different sort of courtship. The tension created in their being unable to surmount the chasm created by the balcony will be echoed in their meeting through social media alone.
Another room will contain an exhibition of tweets by Vladimir and Estragon, voicing the existentially maddening experience of Waiting for Godot. As they shout into the void of Twitter, they will search for #meaning. The comedic absurdity will hopefully translate to this abbreviated format and parallel the unheard frustrations of Beckett’s original play.
All the while, the audience will be documented through Instagram, in order to memorialize, romanticize and publish the event-like experience to the rest of their online communities. What does it mean to have been part of something and to bring friends there vicariously through expressively stylized imagery?
Finally, as the audience returns to the entry, they will discover a circular arrangement of chairs, each one bearing recreations of their facebook profiles. The spatial significance of the chairs facing, grouping, and confronting one another, yet all while empty except for the audience’s avatars, may raise awareness of the significance of social media, as well as effectively ostracize those who haven’t yet joined the community, and perhaps divide the audience into camps of philosophy: the one being that this arrangement is empty, the other being that this arrangement is cohesive.
One aspect that I’d still like to incorporate into the experience somewhere is gaming. The event is perhaps not unlike a multiplayer role-playing platform, but how might I work in videogaming? I will invest further thought along the way.
In any case, I want to be clear that this does not yet fully integrate new media into theater. This is a subsequent goal toward which I hope to continue experimenting. But I feel it is of special significance to begin on the basic level of achieving some understanding of our online behaviors and how they influence the structuring of our communities. Diving headfirst into the employment of social media tools without first doing this initial investigation becomes yet another example of the mismashing of gimmicks, like tweet seats.
Where to next?
- Go Back to Part One: Theater in Cyberspace
- Go Back to Part Two: The Postmodern Audience
- Go Back to Part Three: Cyberspace is a Place