Digital and Analog

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a nerd, both for theatre and video games. I kind of love technology and think it’s amazing, but my craft is in theatre. I’m not a stage technician or engineer of any sort, either – I’m a director and dramaturg, with occasional forays into writing and acting. That’s pretty analog for someone who is so into digital.

Several months ago, I started playing Google’s blockbuster game, Ingress. I’ve scaled back from the game now, but the questions I initially asked myself, about how augmented reality could interact with theatre, were rekindled recently by an episode of the podcast The Amp Hour, with open source hardware maven Jeri Ellsworth as the guest. The show ran for over two hours, but – detailed tech speak aside – the augmented reality game system she created massively inspired me. This could be a new way of interacting with the world, from how we make Skype calls and watch television, to how we play games.

Right now, Ellsworth's augmented reality is something like this, but SOME DAY ...
Right now, Ellsworth’s augmented reality is something like this, but SOME DAY …

I also skimmed a few articles recently about how theatre artists are combining technology with theatrical performance. Technology and theatre have always affected one another – without the popularity of cranes in ancient Greek theatre, we would never have the term “deus ex machina,” which has become a term for an abruptly-solved ending, and without the amazing power of gas lights to allow us to watch theatre at night, we’d never have the phrase “in the lime light.” But lately, theatre has seemed a little … technophobic, shall we say. Inexpensive digital projectors are only now being adopted to project impressive sets. LED stage lights are being used more often as LEDs become cheaper, but they’re not in every theatre. I haven’t heard of an instance in which 3D printers are used to make set or costume pieces, but I could be behind the times on that.

A review I read of some shows in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Fest were scathing when it came to melding technology and theatre. “Subtle artists begin to behave like six-year-olds in front of a PlayStation,” the article quoted. When artists use technology just for the fun of it, digital and analog don’t play so well together.

Another article from last year regarding digital/theatre performance art blends spoke more favorably of the outcomes. The shows were:

At the Junction in Cambridge, young company Analogue presented Living Film Set, an autobiographical show that re-creates the moment when co-director Liam Jarvis’s father left the family home, 25 years ago. Using doll’s house furniture positioned on a complex tabletop computer screen that, when touched, triggers video and soundtrack material, the piece subtly succeeds in putting its audience in Jarvis’s childhood shoes.

In Bristol, meanwhile, Proto-type Theater enacted a test run of Fortnight, in which participants are guided around the city by text messages and emails, in search of “portals”: installations concealing RFID readers that, when triggered by a chip, will play a piece of music.

In London, sound artist Duncan Speakman and theatre company Uninvited Guests’ collaboration, Give Me Back My Broken Night, leads its audience through a future Soho. The maps we follow are not real, but computerised images projected from box projectors we wear like necklaces on to a sheet of A3 paper that we hold in front of us. These projectors are connected to a central computer, and there is a dazzling moment when I’m invited by my guide to redesign Soho Square – and my dream vision, drawn by a computer artist, instantly appears on my map.

Part of what is so engrossing for the average user about new technology is, per Lyn Gardner’s article, “…the idea that you must be present to experience it is being replaced by the suggestion that while it’s best to be there, if you can’t be then you don’t have to miss it entirely.” Social media takes advantage of that, and social media has been used as part of a variety of artforms, not just for advertising purposes, but to go into more depth about the characters. “‘[P]ervasive media’ – basically defined as mobile- or sensor-activated technology, from text messaging to the RFID chips used in Oyster cards on London’s public transport” leads to the experiences described in the block quote above, but the quote is from an article from 2010.

However, all of these new ways of using technology, whether successfully integrated into performance or not, seem to be lacking something, and that is an ultimate narrative purpose. The pervasive media pieces are more installation/performance art than plot-driven theatre, which is not bad, but it doesn’t tell a story. And, according to the Edingburgh Fringe review, artists that intentionally try to integrate technology into the narrative seem to fall flat on their faces. So, while there are exciting opportunities out there for both theatre nerds and tech geeks to get together and dream, it seems like these two groups could use a crash course in Aristotle’s Poetics (whether you like Aristotle or not, #1 Plot and #2 Character are definitely good points of advice for narrative-driven stories in all media).

I still dream of a theatre that uses augmented reality – through mobile phones or Google glass or whatever – to enhance story-telling. I’d love to try that. I have only a vague idea of what it would look like. But I can’t be the only one with such grandiose dreams for theatrical production. As we adapt to being cyborgs, we’ll adapt to using that technology to tell our stories.

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