The Postmodern Audience
(This essay is part of an exploration into using internet media in theater performance. For part one of this essay, click here).
Because the internet can seem like an unending flood of information, I feel it is first important to reflect on how the contemporary audience receives information, in order to explore how new media might integrate into theatrical experiences. It seems nothing less than obvious to say that the internet has affected our lives, but how exactly?
Reactionary critics of cyberspace and social media – of which there don’t seem to be any shortage – decry its focus on immediacy and surface level information gathering. Lyn Gardner of The Guardian wonders whether Twitter “only serves to further reduce our attention spans and our ability to connect with anything that needs to be said in more than 140 characters.” This gross concern over attention span and disconnect within the contemporary audience is echoed over and over in such discussions. The implication is that the contemporary audience is unable to engage with rich and meaningful theater which requires deep personal investment and sensitivity. Have we become, as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times puts it, “a culture addicted to speed, drowning in data and overstimulated to the point where only sensationalism and willful hyperbole grab people’s attention”? And if so, are we missing the most significant communication signals?
Some artists seem frustrated with their audience. How can these people possibly appreciate theater’s meaning, they kvetch, if they are unskilled at penetrating comprehension? I counter that we aren’t. Instead, I suspect that audiences today are more adept at processing information. We are attuned to pick up narrative cues and contextualize it at astounding rates. As an example, here’s an unscientific assessment of your own computing power. Take note of how much information you can process, despite shots edited rapidly, harshly juxtaposed, and often without full beginnings or endings in each clip as one might expect would be necessary to fully grasp each clip’s narrative. Granted, the emphasis of this video is on spectacle and stimulation, but it also serves as an example of our potential processing speed.
Certainly, YouTube can be a home for a kind of contemporary circus, where elements of acrobatics, clowning, and illusion can ignite our sense of possibility and awareness of the world we live in. While the speed of information doesn’t always allow for on-the-spot rumination, if you’re like me, you may still find your imagination engaged after-the-fact. So, in the end, reflection and appreciation aren’t senses that we’re stripped of – even when we’re bombarded with stimuli rapidly – because they are part of the way we process information. However, in some ways, the bombardment of multiple stimuli can be a richer experience because its juxtapositions create a gestalt that focuses our attention away from singular narrative to greater collectivity.
Let me interject here to say that I have nothing against the singular narrative, or Aristotelian defined “crisis drama.” The comforting simplicity of this structure supports intimate exploration of character with a greater degree of psychological realism. But I might also point out that sociologists, such as Professor Reymers, increasingly consider reality to be a process that “is driven by the communication gestures and symbols that we exchange with our selves and with others.” To put it another way, our identities or characters evolve and are recognized through our actions communally. I suspect contemporary audiences have become acclimated to understanding this implicitly and seek out evidence of how interpersonal and communal actions affect social networks.
This is a significant distinction worth recognizing between different modalities of viewing. Independent reflection on the individual (ie. the protagonist), told through singular linear narrative, might be satisfying for the detached pupils of DesCartes; it expresses our desire for explicable causality and symmetry. But the postmodern audience is aware of the pieces which make up a greater network.
I believe that the art-for-art’s-sake movement and reverence for the fourth wall have diminished what sociologists call network density, or “the extent of interlinkage among [individuals], usually expressed as the ratio of the number of existing links to the number of possible links” (Reymers). Certainly, naturalism allows for at least one link between the actors and the audience, since the audience serves as voyeurs to the drama. But in some cases, this is the only link they are given. Popculture references, while of arguable value, further stimulate an audience because they create a second link, as we mutually recognize cultural contextualization. Asides or otherwise breaking the fourth wall (if it is sincere engagement and not just direct address, which depends upon the talent and intention of the actor) creates yet another link. Satire or social commentary create another, as we contextualize political topicality. And so on, and so forth, until a successfully engaging drama turns its audience into active participants, and we feel a significant lift in the communal experience.
This isn’t a newfangled requisite of today’s tech-obsessed youth, as reactionary critics of cyberspace might have us believe. I imagine the experience of attending the City Dionysia in Ancient Greece had significant network density. Greeks were ostensibly engaged by the narrative, sure, yet also aware of the mythological source material, a sense of what the gods might think of this event, how the production might be holding up within the festival’s contests, and that the intermingling of hierarchical classes into one audience was unique.
The problem with some contemporary artists, however, is that they fail to recognize how their own naval-gazing can neglect network density. Clearly, this is a terrifying thought for artists, because it implicitly renews pressure to be marketable or relevant. In this way, art has become insufficient in its own sake. Rather, it is a competitive field, affected by market factors like any other.
Even the stylistic innovations of the last century and a half fail to be engaging in their own right, without a greater meaning that enriches experience. Through cultural exposure alone, even without academic training, contemporary audiences have become attuned to techniques of stylistic abstraction and can comprehend them fluently. Take as evidence, the following examples. They are all reductive of their stylistic allusions, but the theory holds true that a viewer can grasp them despite their dissonance.
Theatre of Cruelty
In the end, postmodern audiences – aware of the artist, stylistic technique, and cultural context simultaneously – aren’t the superficial philistines as critics accuse. They are simply acclimated to the artist’s bells and whistles, and hungry for greater social meaning on a level beyond the individual. In its absence, they will accept the stimulus of popculture references and YouTube circus as substitutes for satisfying a network of greater density. This fascination may be a result of social media or a factor adding to its popularity. But if we ignore the network of interaction that modern audiences experience outside the theater, we remain an analogue art form. Perhaps functional, but lacking something dynamic.
So what is the experience of cyberspace? How does it work as a space where we congregate? And can theater happen there?
Where to next?
- Part Three: Cyberspace is a Place
- Part Four: Implications and Guiding Questions
- Go Back to Part One: Theater in Cyberspace