Clay Shirky is a writer and thinker, basically, about internet technologies and the economics thereof. There’s a video about his concept of cognitive surplus, and the internet, and how we use our free time, not just burnt out in front of the TV, but actually doing something via the internet:

I really like his comparison between gin and sitcoms. Using these things as a “cognitive heat sync,” basically, feels very true to me. On the other hand, it sort of ignores the history leading up to that — the whole history with theatre of the 4th wall. The 4th wall is a really new invention, since Victorian times. Basically, in Shirky’s timeline, the 4th wall appears just after we woke up from our collective gin bender and started doing something about this mass of people flooding into cities and using them as a resource. It was, in essence, one more way people knew their place in this new society — and that place, as in their job at the mill or their job at the accounting firm, was to shut the hell up.

Now, this is not true for all forms of entertainment, but the 4th wall became a much more solidified idea when movies really kicked off. Vaudevillians responded very well to comments yelled from the peanut gallery, as did Shakespeare’s actors, but actors in movies don’t do anything. All that happens is the people around you get pissed because you forced them to miss something with your inanity. So movies, which were a 4th wall, literally, in the box of the movie theatre, managed to reinforce social norms just by being viewed. Audience members did their own enforcing with their social animal anxiety about what other humans in the movie theatre would think of them.

And still, this has not been entirely historically true. One of my finer moments, as a young and bawdy college student, was going to see The Two Towers with a couple of movie buff friends who were home from college for the summer. We had a tendency to talk through previews and then, within reason, shut the hell up during the actual feature. So we made fun of the previews somewhat loudly, as usual, and just as the movie was starting and we were quieting down, this redneck comes up to us from his seat a few rows behind us and says, “Y’all are seriously fucking with my ability to enjoy my movie!” … and that was that. He went back to his seat, we looked at each other, laughed quietly as his redneck expense, and endured the unfortunately epic-length movie. It was, in fact, a summer past time with several of my friends to go to movies and make fun of them. I did the same thing with Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (no one seemed to have his ability to enjoy the movie fucked with because of our commentary, though). Talking through movies is an historically bad habit with me, in a weird reverse psychology way — because the actors aren’t actually there, I can snicker at their expense. But in theatre, especially small theatre, the actors are right there, and so, probably, are the producers, director, stage manager, designers, company managers, or any number of other people intimately associated with the production. I did talk in somewhat disappointed tones about some of the actors in On the Town at the 5th, recently, and realize too late that the Artistic Director, David Armstrong, was only a couple of rows behind me, but I assume he’s probably used to hearing a lot of unhappy muttering from various people, as well as a lot of rejoicing, since musicals really only satisfy half the large audience at any given time.

So my point is, to this day, not everyone respects the 4th wall, but we seem now to have it ingrained in us that ignoring it in front of real, live people is a strong offense. And, to most actors, who are focusing pretty intensely on their lines and blocking, or who might otherwise be proud of the show, it really is. Because they’re told it is. Since the actual theatre space is no longer an acceptable place to vent (and possibly, with a live theatre piece, change the show in some way), we turn to the internet.

The 4th wall of television was, according to TV history, broken in the late 90’s when the popularity of message boards met the popularity of Xena: Warrior Princess. Sam Raimi and crew broke the whole Authority barrier and listened to their fans. Xena and Gabrielle suddenly went from a lightly implied lesbian-esque friendship, to being heavily implied lesbians — because the fans wanted to see that. Fans wrote about that in their fanfic and then had the absolute pleasure of getting to see this happen, in response, on their favorite show. It was an amazing back and forth. And I think the meme of that — that fans can have a real, visible, and timely impact on what they like — spread really quickly via the internet, until suddenly we’re all questioning why we need to pay movie studios a huge percentage that’s not going to the real artists, or why we need to pay record companies when we really just support the band, etc. I think we would have gotten there anyway because of piracy, but I don’t know if artists would be listening as closely as soon if not for the whole Xena experiment.

So Shirky’s idea of the cognitive surplus’s need to not just get zoned out, but to participate, is an interesting one for live arts. And theatre artists are experimenting with this a lot now. There’s the whole flash mob movement, which range from people freezing in large numbers in public spaces, to people dancing and then dissipating when the song is over. I would call that performance art, for sure. Then there’s “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” which I’ve mentioned before — audience members were invited to live blog, tweet, and text about the show as they were watching it, which is the current level of comfort we have with that. My friend Kristen, who is in grad school in England right now, created a performance piece called Lautes Lichte, which you can read about here. People are craving that dialogue, that back and forth, instead of being told what media they should be interested in. Pop culture will always have peer pressure on its side, but we’re finding that peer pressure is being applied in the opposite direction — the consumers are making active demands, instead of passively “using their dollars” and only watching certain channels or buying certain records. They’re telling artists and marketers and large producing companies and small producing companies how they want to consume their media.

There is no longer any 4th wall. I can’t wait to see how this changes theatre in the coming years.

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