Virtually Present: Theatre, Embodiment, and the Incarnation

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.’[1]  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,[2] 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?


[1] Max Harris, Theatre and Incarnation, Studies in Literature and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1990), x.

[2] “The New Players: How Technology Is Taking Theatre Out of the Theatre : Scotsman.com”, n.d., http://www.edinburgh-festivals.com/viewpreview.aspx?id=2479.

6 Comments

  • jfutral says:

    I guess at some point such experiences might start to move from theatre to theater, right? I have to say, “..he lives in Texas” sounds pretty cool with opportunities for different perspectives. My only regret with this show is that I would only realistically be able to engage it in two of the three ways possible. But the possibility for three distinct ways to experience the work sounds invigorating. Plus the conceit seems married into the story, so in that way additionally immersive.

    Choreographer Jonah Bokaer did a piece where the audience could interact with a piece of scenery via their smartphone, IIRC. That was kind of interesting. Merce Cunningham often used software (which he helped develop) as his choreographic tool. Some dance companies are experimenting with motion capture, but I have yet to see that be a significant part of the resulting stage production. Joe Goode Performance Group and Bridgeman/Packer are each doing some interesting things.

    There are some puppeteers who are creating 3D animations and controlling them as puppets. There is or was a popular cartoon recently that utilized that technique, I can’t recall the name.

    But by and large most of what I’ve seen on stage usually incorporates digital content primarily as scenery or interstitial moments. I do find myself warning some choreographers who go that route to be careful that the video shouldn’t becomes more interesting than the choreography.

    I do think there is more that can be done and we have really only touched the surface for what is possible. I don’ know that it will change the definition of theatre, per se. More likely just expand what can be conceived of as theatre, which I always find exciting. But I think any successful project will always have to incorporate the human physical interaction. Otherwise, doesn’t it just become a regular TV show?

    Joe

  • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

    I really appreciate this post, Dave, and I agree that theatre needs to remain embodied if it is to remain theatre. Other ‘events’ may be ‘theatrical,’ but theatre means people interacting with each other. Joe, what distinction are you trying to make between theatre and theater? Isn’t this simply two ways of spelling the same thing? (As it turns out, theatre is the most common spelling internationally, except in the US).

    I went to an excellent performance called Play.Stop.Rewind performed by four Scottish teens in Buckhaven. As you might guess from the title, the play started at the end of their saga and worked backwards, an effect they emphasized by intermingling embodied performance with video playing backwards at various points. It was a powerful mixture, and I think this is a great example of technology incorporated effectively into the embodied, incarnational artform that is theatre.

  • jfutral says:

    Theatre vs theater is just kind of an industry distinction some of us make as live performance vs recorded. The Alliance Theatre Company vs Regal Cinema Eight Theaters.

    I’ve also heard one person make the distinction as building vs the art.

    All made up distinctions I’m sure, but that is what I run across most in my work.

    Joe

  • jfutral says:

    There is a dance company from Australia, called Chunky Move, that is doing some mad work with real time digital graphics interacting/reacting with the dancers:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbjOMualLVs&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PLD9627F589315D392

    Again, this is digital interacting with the physical. Pretty much the only way to keep it theatre.

    Joe

  • Dave Reinhardt says:

    Thanks, Joe, for pointing out some of the ways digital technology has been used in set design. It’s interesting to think about the ways comparatively static objects (like a set or props) can, by way of human interaction, contribute to the engagement of an audience. It’s also interesting to think about the balance that must be struck between these objects serving the narrative or distracting from it. It seems to me, this balancing act must be considered whether the objects are physical or digital projections—something you have apparently raised with certain choreographers! I think you’re right in suggesting that when the set becomes the show something important about what is unique to the theatre is lost.

  • Dave Reinhardt says:

    Wes, your example of Play.Stop.Rewind helpfully shows how technology can further a story on stage without dominating. I was able to see the show as well and, in thinking back to it, realize that something might have felt amiss if there was no engagement with technology. I say this because the story centred on contemporary teenagers; and the lives of contemporary teenagers are deeply intermingled with digital technology. As such, it made sense for the production to use this very technology to help tell their story. So, beyond raising questions about the effect of the technology on the production, perhaps the more important question might be ‘what effect does deeply embedded technology have on everyday embodied living?’

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