In recent months, as coronavirus closures and quarantine measures began to hint at more than a few empty rows on the calendar, performers and venues rallied around the internet, not just as a crescent means of distribution, but as a new stage for which unique performances are uniquely conceived.
As co-creator and researcher of the Telematic Embrace Project, I, along with Andrea Paciotto, professor at SeoulArts and Director of CultureHub Europe, have been looking into the narrative possibilities of theatre performed online for nearly two years. On February 7, 2020, our research held a telematic performance exhibition with performers interacting between New York City and Seoul, Korea. It was a novel idea, at the time. Two weeks later, the Prime Minister of South Korea would declare a national emergency due to the spread of coronavirus. Three weeks after that, the President of the United States would do the same, and our experiment would become as mainstream as the tune to “Happy Birthday.”
Bard College Theater's Zoom-presentation of Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest (1990) combined movement, design, and live performance to such effect that it was picked up for an additional live-streamed run through New York's Theatre for a New Audience. CultureHub, the arts and technology incubator co-founded by La Mama and SeoulArts, has been running Downtown Variety, a weekly livestream featuring short-form contributions from national and international artists. Though I’m currently based in Italy, I recently took part in Brooklyn's own Moliere in the Park's Zoom-reading of Richard Wilbur's English translation of Moliere's The Misanthrope (Say that 5 times fast!) and Tartuffe. This is to say nothing of the efforts that independent artists have made to adapt to the form, launching countless livestreams on social media.
The diversity and aesthetic of the creations that have flowered from this moment of necessity are breathtaking and, from a research perspective, exciting. Yet, in nearly every case, creators have presented their works alongside the expression of an underlying rejection of the form: we have to do things this way because of coronavirus, but we can't wait for our return to theatre-proper. This is reasonable, and the merits of an old form are as evident as the form is old, but I thought I would open up our research to ask the other question: what if telematic theatre, theater done via the internet, wasn't a phase? What if it was here to stay?
I came to this research from 10 years with the director Peter Brook's international company. Those who are familiar with his work may see this as a kind of sacrilege. In fact, it was my skepticism that drove me to it. Setting a computer interface at the heart of the human relation that theatre is based in is so profane that the very term 'telematic theatre' seems oxymoronic. That may be our first clue to understanding it. It is not theatre. It is a new form.
For ease, let's look at telematic theatre in its extreme, that is to say, as a live form in which the narrative elements are strictly conceived or adapted for, and engaged with by means of, the telematic medium. The physical limits of the form are set by the space it inhabits: we need the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo can lay a brush to it. IMAX has been around since the 1970s, but its digital expansion into commercial cinemas in 2008 has changed the way films are shot and projected. Even in theatre, we take it for granted that we will have some idea of where to set our eyes. In terms of telematic theatre, our space is the internet, and our limits are the ones inherent to that space.
Our own experiment in February had a runtime of a bit more than two hours, and was hampered by the lags in sound or video quality that one might expect in livestreaming a call made between two individuals moving about the streets of New York City and Seoul. Long-form content and roving actors don't seem to be the problem: even the new quarantine pieces we've seen so far have encountered similar obstacles, many of which should be chalked up to the technical learning curve, but fidelity is a big issue. No one would sit through a movie if the audio and video were unreliably synced, and no one would sit in a theater if the stage lights weren't working. In the end, we dealt with our audio-visual issues the same way we would if the stage lights did go out: improvise!
Spontaneity seems inherent to the internet, and it's linked to the concept of personalization. After all, it is a personal computer, and our internet search histories read like the ticker tape of our impulsive minds. Then, can I choose the backgrounds of the piece I am watching? Can I control other design elements in my viewing experience? Narrative elements? Character choices? Music? How many variables will the dramaturgy of the new form relinquish to my control?
And how might an audience interact with one another through the performance? In a traditional theatre, we'd hear ooh's and ah's, laughter and applause, and the occasional shushing of a cough drop. In telematic examples, we've seen chat rooms running in real-time with the performance, audiences asking questions, making observations, and receiving responses from the creative team like a simultaneous talk-back. In our research we've entertained the idea of isolated audience rooms designated by theme or some discussion related to the piece, or set up by audience members themselves.
Also inherent to the internet is access. Indeed, the greatest success of the internet experiment has been its ubiquity. The Zoom performances have necessarily exploited this element, and the results are not unsubstantial. Not only have artists been able to collaborate in distance, but in most cases what would have been a local audience of hundreds in the traditional theatre-setting has ballooned to an international audience of thousands. What about access in terms of the stories being told there?
Our main research question stems from British artist and futurist Roy Ascott's essay Is there love in the telematic embrace? Published in 1990, Ascott posits that the answer to this question will not depend on the nature of the machine, but on how we decide to use it. In the course of our research, we've spoken to a woman torn between home and family at the border between South and North Korea. We spoke to a children's welfare worker about a young boy's struggle to remain connected to his indigenous roots while detained in the United States. We spoke to families in the United Kingdom who face separation due to new immigration policies. An online sex worker. Military families separated by deployment. Refugees who've made the long journey toward a new home. Rwandan communities still divided by the genocide. The internet may be stigmatized by charges of artificiality, having no warmth, and no viscera, but in many ways these people would say different. Presumably, their stories aren't on stage because you couldn't localize a big enough audience to buy tickets to see them. Perhaps you can on the internet.
Access strikes at the heart of one pervasive critique of today's traditional theatre: it no longer feels accessible. A form once thought too common is now thought too high. The average ticket price on Broadway is $189. In general, a local theatre must tell the stories which appeal to its local audience, but an analysis of the 2016/17 New York theatre season by the Asian-American Performers Action Coalition found that white and largely male artists were overrepresented onstage in relation to their overall demographic presence in the city. Perhaps unsurprisingly, similar findings held true for the roles of playwright and director.
A local theatre must also tell the stories which appeal to the audience it wishes to attract. In New York, that audience is generally white, wealthy, liberal, and college educated. So the stories have to be edgy or self-affirming without being offensive. Either unobjectionable, or comfortably incendiary, meaning they should be on the right side of offensive. If they aren't on the right side of offensive, they should at least look like the target audience, and hopefully they'll feature a celebrity or two, because everyone likes those, but the cost of a celebrity paycheck falls back on the ticket price, which is fine as long as we're attracting rich liberals.
As I am writing this, fires are burning across the nation in protest of the seemingly endless succession of murdered Black Americans at the hands of police. Every corner of the internet is splashed in conversation, debate, rhetoric, messages of solidarity, doubt, images of the protests, warnings and missives to the protesters, and well before network news had picked up on it there was the credible notion spread online that many of the fires were being set by infiltrators with alternative agendas. Meanwhile, most theaters have posted messages of support about as useful and self-preserving as politicians' "thoughts and prayers".
As institutions—theaters typically—can't afford the same freedoms of expression as individual artists, but recently we've seen accusations of outright censorship in the American theatre scene, particularly at the high school and collegiate levels, and in too many professional theaters as well. This may seem harmless when observed as a local occurrence, but when seen as a regional trend it becomes quite dangerous. If certain words aren't permitted to reach certain populations because certain populations are uncomfortable hearing certain words, and theaters pay heed to that, then what are they doing except reinforcing a positive feedback loop of increasingly dogmatic resolve?
Over on the internet, censorship is the primary conversation, but I would argue that's because, for better or for worse, it's the least-censored receptacle of ideas in existence today. So, if a new form emerges which is more immediately responsive, less restricted by local tastes or economic interests, more personalized, more accessible, and with a wider spread of message, then why aren't we taking this platform more seriously?
Artistic dogmas aside, the first problem may be that the platform doesn't have a platform. Every example of telematic theatre we've seen, including our own experiment, involves repurposing tele-conferencing softwares for artistic use, and there are only so many times we can watch actors in little boxes before the novelty is played out. What if they didn't have to be in boxes? What if a director could design the audience interface for their performance without knowledge of coding? What if the new dramaturgy emerged, half-theatre, half-online game, and a site where you could go to select among those games, and play with the actors and other online audiences around the world as the story unfolds? There is currently no interface and no software, which fully accommodates the needs of a creative form that doesn't exist. Our Telematic Embrace Research aims at introducing such a software to simplify the workflow, hoping to build on CultureHub's open source software LiveLab; but that process is long and costly, and funding typically finds the projects that have an audience, not the projects seeking to build one.
And how should the traditional theater compete?
It shouldn't. At least not directly. The theater should not strive to be the new form. Whatever we want to call it. If that new form truly comes into being, they need not occupy the same space. Google Hangouts didn't replace actual hang outs.
What the traditional theater could do is strive to be what only it can be: a place where people gather, bodies in the room, to witness an exchange of worlds that they have no ability to block, silence, or minimize. A place which aims not for the social network satisfaction of reaffirming what I already believe to be true, but where I am trusted to challenge my truths with questions whose answers must be sought in dialogue with my neighbor. If theatre is the collective, then let it ask something of that collectivity. Let it celebrate a true diversity of worlds and voices. Let it be that much needed forum where the complicated conversations may be had, and where the myths which line our allegiances are re-examined, torn apart, and reconstructed as nuance approaches to understanding. Let it not condemn those of us willing to have these conversations by playing easy sides and pointing easy fingers. If theatre is the collective, let it breed collective response to a world ripe for division. Let it point to something that we can only reach together. Perhaps, in the age of the internet, theatre need not be revenge, and if it's truly looking to transform itself, it would do well to learn from its internet-age understudy waiting in the wings.