At what point can a work of theatre no longer be called a work of theatre?
While definitions may be elusive (springing as they do from ever-changing experience), they serve a useful function: setting one thing apart from another. Sometimes the best way to go about defining something is by stating what it is not. With this in mind, is it appropriate to call something ‘theatre’ which does not involve the actual presence of human beings performing in front of other human beings? Director, playwright and theologian Max Harris claims that the theatre’s ‘medium is flesh, the flesh of the actor or actress who is, together with the audience, the irreducible minimum beyond which theatre disappears.’ This implies that the presence of the performer and the audience are central to any definition of theatre.
If this is so, several contemporary theatre companies are riding the ragged edge of the definition in their current productions. With the rise in popularity and drop in cost of various forms of digital technology, it has become fairly commonplace for writers and directors in the theatre to experiment with ways of integrating technology into theatre performances. This integration often amounts to a substitution of silicon and steel for flesh. For example, last year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival the theatre company Look Left Look Right produced a Skype-based performance called ‘You Wouldn’t Know Him, He Lives in Texas’ in which performers and audience members were on both sides of the Atlantic. The show centred on a long-distance relationship sustained by Skype between ‘him’ in Texas and ‘her’ in Edinburgh, and a live audience was invited to watch ‘him’ or ‘her’ depending on where they were. In addition to the live (i.e. physically present) audience, others could watch online.
This production and others like it not only raise questions about whether they can be considered theatre, but perhaps more importantly, they also raise questions about what we consider to be entertaining and, thereby, lead us to question the nature of humanity. If humanity is understood to be inherently relational, it makes sense that we would want to ‘look in on’ a developing relationship, even if that development is mediated by technology. But if theatre and humanity are both predicated on relationality and connection, does such a connection need to occur ‘in person’? Sure, video conferencing is amazing, bordering on the magical at times, but I think most would agree that it falls far short of sharing the same physical space as those on the other side of the screen.
One of the strengths of the theatre is that it has the power to present the dailyness of human life in a heightened way and thereby enable us to engage with ourselves vicariously through the performance of others. With this in mind, I would suggest that there is something inherently compelling and irreplaceable about the actual, physical, embodied presence of a performer performing in the same space and same time as the audience; and that physical presence facilitates vicarious engagement. This suggestion can be grounded theologically by way of the Incarnation of Christ: through the Incarnation weight is given to the idea that fleshly encounter communicates something more than detached transmission of digital information–a truth made all the more profound on this Good Friday. This is not to say that digital tools have no place in the theatre, only to say that they ought to be used judiciously and with an awareness of some of the pitfalls that might arise when they are used.
Have you seen or experienced a work of theatre that, from your perspective, effectively married the realm of the digital with the realm of ‘analog’ theatre? If so, did the digital element contribute to your engagement and lead you to question your own life, the nature of humanity, or the world around you? Conversely, have you seen the pitfalls of this integration first-hand? In what ways did the digital elements detract from engagement? And finally, does this exploration lead you to see any significant parallels with theatre and the Incarnation?