Content

Modern Technology as a Theatre Staging Medium

07 12 2021


The Mountain. Credits: Jordi Soler

Author: Zoran Petrovič

What can modern technology add to a performance? Is it something that paralyses it, given that the performing arts are considered immediate, live art? Or is its use advisable if not essential to keep up with the times and speak to the modern human? Is it not the lack of modernity in theatre that is to blame for the lack of interest in it? Can technological progress and new media sprout a genuine, immediate staging experience?

There is nothing in cyberspace and the screened technologies of the virtual that has not been already performed on the stage. The theatre has always been virtual, a space of illusory immediacy.” (Causey, 1999, p. 383) The author of the article refers to Herbert Blau’s claim that “there is nothing more illusory in performance than the illusion of the unmediated”. (Blau, 1987, p. 164) Why, then, resort to such technological solutions when they cannot offer anything more than what theatre already entails in the first place, or if they cannot fundamentally enrich it?

In any given historical period, theatre has always flirted with the prevalent technology of the time. If theatre is a mirror of society and “one of the most powerful and efficacious procedures that human society has developed for the endlessly fascinating process of cultural and personal self-reflection and experimentation” (Carlson, 2018, p. 180), then the never-ending quest for its essence and attempts to give this essence a concrete form are impossible to execute with, among other things, what surrounds us here and now. Or indeed with what triggers technological innovation.

When searching for answers to the questions above, one should perhaps keep in mind the fundamental essence of the performing arts. Theatre cannot exist without us humans. It reflects our existence and our actions. At the same time, it is also part of us, just as we are part of it when we decide to be. Max Herrmann, one of the pioneers of theatre studies, defined theatre as a social game played by all of us: “The original meaning of theatre was derived from the fact that it was a social game – played by all for all. A game in which everyone is a player – participants and spectators [...] The spectator is involved as co-player. The spectator is, so to speak, the creator of the theatre. So many participants are involved in creating the theatre as a festive event that the basic social nature of its character cannot be lost. Theatre always involves a social community.” (Herrmann, 1920)

Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, known for his contribution to phenomenology, hermeneutics, and existentialism, defined art as the means by which a community develops for itself a medium for self-expression and interpretation. In his 1936 essay The Origin of the Work of Art (Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes), he claims that rather than merely representing reality, works of art embody interpersonal understanding. Instead of simply mirroring the mental state of society, they are one of the driving forces behind its development, with theatre being a medium for social interaction.

If we acknowledge the notion of art as a means to communicate emotions, self-expression and interpretation, it should be no surprise that it has resonated with our very core ever since the dawn of self-awareness, as evidenced, for instance, by studies of cave paintings across Africa, France and Spain. These show that people used ways of artistically expressing themselves as early as 20,000 years ago, long before other habits that are considered characteristic of civilisation emerged.(1)

The use of this or that medium in theatre is primarily associated with modernity but, in fact, all theatre used to be modern at some point, just as all media was once new. The human body, mask or puppet – all indispensable elements of artistic expression since the birth of theatre – can also be deemed media of communication. However, for the purpose of bringing stories to the stage, theatre used to seek new ways of engaging people through interaction. In keeping with technological development and progress, this gave rise to the use of new media. “Both theatre and media are the result of human imagination, they are projections of dreams, wishes, and desires.” (Wynants, 2019, p. 10-11) There is also one other, much stronger common denominator. Theatre in itself is a medium that uses and needs other media for its self-realisation.

Interestingly, the vocabulary of the ancient Greeks – who invented the notion of deus ex machina in the 5th century BC along with a crane (mēchanē in Old Greek) as the technological solution that allowed the actor to appear as a god or goddess and reveal or solve the seemingly hopeless situations in the plot – didn’t distinguish between art and technology. The word ‘technology’ derives from the Greek root ‘techne’, meaning art, skill or craft, and was originally used to denote applied arts.

In Technology in American Drama, 1920-1950, Dennis Jerz explores the relationship between people and machines, between dramatic arts and staging technology in an age when the general public increasingly adopted technology as an indicator of the American dream. Jerz’s studies suggest that in its reliance on various techniques that imitate the real world, theatre may be understood as technological, and that the realms of art and technology have only recently diverged from their classical roots – ars (Latin) and techne (Greek). In their original forms, both words simply meant skill (Jerz, 2003).

This is an interesting premise in terms of the historical correlation between the realms. First, there were light and shadow; and through interaction with living actors, their combination resulted in flickering, moving images. By gaining an understanding of optics and mechanics, and with the ensuing technological progress, humans built devices that were not only used for practical or research purposes but also, very quickly, to entertain crowds. The use of mechanisms and projections in theatre goes back to the ancient Greek deus ex machina and the medieval laterna magica. From the 19th century, one should mention panoramas, large panoramic paintings that enclosed the spectators, creating the illusion of a landscape, and dioramas, which combined hand-painted transparent linen, movable mechanisms and the live manipulation of natural light to create the illusion of movement. However, the most immediate precursors of the theatre of the digital age can be found among the artists and thinkers of the early 20th-century theatre. Above all, in the ideas and notions of Edward Gordon Craig, the futurists, and members of the Bauhaus movement, who wanted to enter the new era sidestepping human shortcomings.

Edward Gordon Craig, a man who introduced what would later become the widely discussed concept of the Übermarionette, built his vision on the superiority of the puppet as an expressive tool. His claim that for the theatre to be saved, it should be destroyed, and actors and actresses should all die of the plague, sent shockwaves through the theatre world of the time. Craig supported the premise that while accidents and displays of emotions are part of human nature, they are also the enemies of art, for art should not deal with “flesh and blood life” but with its opposite, “the world of visionary imagination”, which he characterised as solemn, beautiful and remote. If the actor could turn their body into a machine or a piece of clay that would surrender to their will unconditionally at all times, such an actor, according to Craig, could truly perfect their performance, creating art from what is within them and repeating it ad infinitum. (Craig, 1957) His argument, however, is said to have been against the actors of the time, not against the human performer per se.

In response, futurists and performing artists involved in the Bauhaus movement experimented with puppets, objects and light. In his 1915 work Manifesto of Futurist Scenography (Manifesto della scenografia futurista), the Italian futurist painter Enrico Prampolini writes about the urgent need to banish the actor from theatre, replacing them with light, sounds and movable elements that would embody the subjects of the performance instead. Similarly, Valery Bryusov called for the replacement of the living actor with a mechanical puppet carrying a phonograph inside it. (Kirby, 1986) Bauhaus members proposed a new type of actor, one created by light. Their production of Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s Reflektorische Lichtspiele (‘Reflective Coloured Light Plays’) was based on a dance of images created by means of light. To this end, the artists made a device using hand-painted lightbulbs and movable silhouettes. The result was abstract patterns projected onto a transparent viewing screen. (Hoormann, 2003)

Erwin Piscator is considered a pioneer in combining living actors with film projection. Using simultaneous or overlapping projections from multiple sources, Piscator engaged the actors on stage or their characters in dialogue with subjects created using the nascent cinema technology. His aim was to establish formal communication between the living and the mediated, between the past and the present, between the real and the imagined. (Willett, 1979) Josef Svoboda, his successor, built upon Piscator's legacy and advanced his ideas, creating mobile screens and kaleidoscopic productions that enabled interaction between living performers and projected images, often with pre-recorded or mediated versions of themselves. (Svoboda, 1993) These were not only visually stunning productions, but they also raised questions about identity and the mediated self.

In the early 1980s, performance events would increasingly include not only video technology but also information and communications technology, such as printers, fax machines, and even satellites. Since the turn of the millennium, our environment has become increasingly digitalised. This has been reflected in theatre with the emergence of digitally rendered subjects and actors’ doubles such as cyborgs, holograms, 3D avatars and robotic puppets who are able to autonomously respond to action around them. This is a moment where we should stop and honestly ask ourselves why we should bring digitalisation and screenisation into the domain of the performing arts when it is precisely these two phenomena that underlie the loss of interpersonal connection in everyday life. Why use them in a space designed for collective, mutual experience, and above all, for interaction between humans.

Sayonara. Credits: Tsukasa AokiIn his 2008 book Performance in a Mediatized CulturePhilip Auslander maintains that rather than complementing each other, different media compete with each other, the more advantageously positioned ones affecting the development and survival of the less. A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. Instead, it will oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them. Since this, by definition, is media cannibalism, the performing arts may rightly feel (increasingly) threatened. But what if we turn everything upside down and try, despite the ubiquity of communication and information media – or because of it – to stage a performance in the original sense of the word, exposing new media to the old and to the essence of theatre?

There is something attractive about the interaction between the animate and the inanimate. It is a dialectic that can produce conflict, which is a vital element in the performing arts. This is a game between what is similar yet contradictory, with a shift into the gap between them to decentralise the spectator’s perception. When the confrontation is there, it is up to us, the audience, to react. This is a point where intermediality and phenomenology blend into one.

Needless to say, this relationship can be established by using new media, but in principle, this is hardly a new process. On the contrary. The oldest and most straightforward type of non-human actor is the puppet. "Man has been making images of himself for so many millennia and in so many parts of the world that this habit has come to seem an instinctive part of human behavior. (Keene and Hiroshi, 1974, p. 13) When a confrontation between a living actor and a puppet develops, this may create feelings of alienation, connection and empathy, emotions that have always aroused interest. In many cultures, the puppet and the human traditionally complemented each other and worked together. Human and non-human actors would occasionally adopt each other’s features and movements. In Japan, bunraku and kabuki are said to have developed simultaneously. In Myanmar and Java, the birthplace of the wayang kulit and wayang wong types of theatrical performances, which can both take the form of a shadow play, a dancer's skill is still judged by their ability to mimic a marionette's movements. (Curell, 1975) These are interesting grounds for, and above all, the fundamental principles of the interaction and confrontation between the animate and the inanimate, which one can draw on in developing modern (puppet) theatre.

Information and communications technology can be a staging medium just as the puppet has always been, and the actor can interact with (new) media just as they do with the puppet. Just as object theatre can give a new life, function, substance or purpose to everyday objects, the stage can place technology in a new light. Rather than being mere elements in a theatre production, performing their original function, tech and media products are used and combined into new, unique entities, allowing new subjects of performance to emerge, their expressiveness to be explored, and relationships to form with everything else that the production has to offer.

This is a type of theatre that builds upon the legacy of the former, entertains the new, and seeks its own expression and message, all the while drawing on the essence that makes the performing arts what they truly are. A social game played by all for all.

The question of whether it is advisable to use modern technology in a performance needs rephrasing. Just as we often consider how the use of or lack of a specific set design, light, music, sound, prop, puppet, mask, word or movement informs the production, so, too, we should examine what we gain or lose by using modern technology. Its use is advisable when it helps to (better) engage and excite the spectator, encouraging them to become an integral part of the theatre event.    

 

***

Notes: 

1. Evidence of animal domestication dates back to 9000 BC, grain cultivation to 7000 BC, and the earliest permanent settlements in the Middle East to sometime around 8000 BC. (Brockett and Hildy, 2014)

References:

Auslander, P., Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London, New York: Routledge, 2008

Blau, H., The Eye of Prey: Subversions of the Postmodern. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987

Brockett, O. G. and Hildy, F. J., History of the Theatre. (10th edition). Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2014

Carlson, M., Performance: A Critical Introduction (3rd edition). Abingdon: Routledge, 2018

Causey, M., The Screen Test of the Double: The Uncanny Performer in the Space of Technology. Theatre Journal, 51/4, 1999, pp. 383–394

Craig, E. G., On the Art of the Theatre. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1957

Currell, D., The Complete Book of Puppetry. Boston: Plays, Inc., 1975

Hermmann, M., Über die Aufgaben eines theaterwissenschaftlichen Institutes. In Helmar Klier (Ed.), Theaterwissenschaft Im Deutschsprachigen Raum, (p. 19), Dermstadt, 1920, cited in Fischer-Lichte, 2005, p. 24

Hoormann, A., Lichtspiele. Zur Medienreflexion der Avantgarde in der Weimarer Republik, München: W. Fink, 2003

Jerz, D. G., Technology in American Drama, 1920-1950: Soul and Society in the Age of the Machine. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2003

Keene, D., and Hiroshi K., Bunraku: The Art of the Japanese Puppet Theatre. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1974

Kirby, M. and Kirby. V., Futurist Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1986

McLuhan, M. and Lewis H. L., Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994

Svoboda, J., The Secret of Theatrical Space: The Memoirs of Josef Svoboda. New York, N.Y. Tonbridge: Applause Theatre Books, 1993

Willett, J., The theatre of Erwin Piscator. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979

Wynants, N., (Ed.), Media Archaeology and Intermedial Performance: Deep Time of the Theatre. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019