Friday, May 1, 2009

Backwards, Forwards

Not to go back to this well again, but there's a point here I want to tease out a bit and discuss. Among the controversial things that she says here, YJL calls theatre "our most backward art form." I thought about that for a good long while, did some other reading and then thought about it some more and I decided: I agree. Theatre is backwards and kind of regressive, especially given the way we approach it in this day and age. This is the part that makes me feel depressed and a bit cynical about it all. I'd really rather not, especially given that there's so much good talk, discussion, production, news, and excitement out there right now. Plus I'm in the middle of writing and prepping a workshop, but then I stop and have to do a gut check.

As I've mentioned before, I've been reading a lot about new technologies and the way it's changing organizations and businesses and the way the world is operating. And with each book I read, except for Mark Penn's Microtrends, which I bailed on, because it's crap, I felt, "Well, this doesn't really apply to my field. At all." I'm reading Wikinomics now and they lay out four principles of "Wikinomics": Openess, Peer Resources, Sharing and Acting Globally. It struck me that, in terms of operation and in some ways, necessarily, theatre doesn't really hit any of those points.

When I was reading Lawrence Lessig's work, Remix, I couldn't see a way for it to apply to theatre. Theatre can't really be open source. It's is stubbornly read-only. When Scott says here, that art is passively consumed, how does that describe theatre? We can encourage people to participate, but they can't rewrite, re-imagine, remix it. There are no (or relatively few) mash-ups in theatre and they're only done by professionals.

When I was in college, I had a professor who said that theatre had to justify its theft of time. Theatre asks a lot of its audience: it can only happen in one place, at one time; you're supposed to sit still and listen; once upon a time, you were expected to dress up for it. It's inconvenient, now, probably moreso than ever.

A while back, Isaac brought some of this up in this post, the effemeral nature of theatre. It happens once for you as an audience member and that's it. As a writer, you have to work with that. You HAVE to mention the gun in the first act, show the gun in the second act, so that when it goes off in the third, you haven't lost anyone. They say that, in movies, any writing on the screen has to be there long enough for it to be read three times, and that goes double true for theatre: you have to underline it so the bluehairs won't lean over and whisper, "Who is that?"

And let's not even talk about the subtle classicism involved: the 8 p.m. start time. So, if you don't have a certain kind of job, you can't make most shows.

What does all of that add up to? Backwards. And it's built in. Theatre is missing out, in some ways, on advances other arts can make. We're not really evolving. And that may be part of the frustration that younger theatre artists feel.

When I started thinking about this post, a few weeks ago, I was feeling a bit more down on theatre than I am right now. I actually meant to start this off saying that I was thinking of getting out of theatre, or at least de-prioritizing it in my artistic life, not for the usual "you can't make a living" stuff, but because it can so confining, artistically, stylistically, as an industry. And because it seems like the world is moving ahead at light speed and we're still chugging along in steamboats. Because it seems like if I want to reach people and affect change in the world and get a message out, there are so many great tools to use and using them in theatre seems so impossible.

I really do think that a large segment of our audience gets turned off because theatre is read-only and they're coming up in an on-demand, interactive world. Now, rather than feeling necessarily defeated, I'm thinking, how do we expand our thinking about what a theatre company is and does? How do we reach out to the people in read-write culture and bring them in? How does interactivity work in theatre? I think underneath a lot of the discussions we're having out here in the theatosphere is that question: how do we evolve? How do we evolve how we make our art? How do we evolve our organizations and institutions? Otherwise, we're neanderthals, wondering where the woolly mammoths went. (I know I'm mucking up the science. Sue me.)

But it's Friday, it's May Day and it's a day for thinking about revolutions. How do we revolve?


Chris Ashworth said...

Very interesting post. I wonder about the potential to remix, though. Couldn't we create a theatrical experience that did include a remix? I bet we could come up with some ideas for that. Not claiming they'd be -good- ideas, but I bet we could brainstorm at least a few.

And the write-only part, too. I wouldn't want to cry uncle on that one without taking a few stabs at (possibly crazy) ideas.

Okay, so, for example:

I was talking with Leon Ingulsrud from the SITI company at Humana this year. Now, it turns out Leon is a complete dork. (Which, if he ever reads this, he'll know I mean in the most loving possible way.) He's both a theater dork and a technology dork. So, we're dorking it up about both those things, and he starts talking about an experiment he wants to try in a future directing project. It basically boils down to creating a little computer program to pre-block a play, using a random number generator and a system of translating its output into a series of stage directions.

(At various points in this conversation Leon would take a break to move a piece in his remote game of chess, via his iPhone, with Will Bond. Beer, talk, beer, chess-via-iPhone, description of "fantastic random number generator", beer. It cracked my shit up.)

Anyway, so the idea is that this weird constraint on the construction of the piece would end up being really liberating--that really interesting things would happen if you didn't have the freedom to pick the "correct" blocking.

So what if we took this idea and made it live. Created some kind of live feedback mechanism where one or more audience members had influence over the blocking of a play each night. Maybe it's in the form of remote triggers that get fed into a system of cue lights on stage (Michael-Jackson-style glowing sidewalks?? perhaps more subtle...). Maybe there is a filter between the audience and the actors--for example, something to prevent them from going spastic with power at crucial moments, sending people running all over the stage.

Is that thumbnail sketch of an idea a good one? Eh, I don't know. There's a kernel in there I find intriguing, although the specific implementation would make it or break it. And maybe it's a terrible idea no matter how you implement it. But it's at least one way I could imagine a read/write culture coming into a live theatrical event. I bet we could brainstorm other ways too.

99 said...

Those are some definitely intriguing ideas. I think some of the work that the Wooster Group does invokes that "remix" sensibility and some of the work of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma does, too. I wonder about ways to include the audience in that, to allow them control. What's interesting about digital technologies is the way that a fan can, at home, re-cut, re-edit, mix and match to their hearts' content and explore the possibilities. You start edging into intellectual property down that road, but it's an interesting thing to think about.

Chris Ashworth said...

Another belated comment on this one:

It's interesting that several theater blogs have recently described theater as read-only or passive. (I'm thinking of both this post and also the one over here.)

I can understand that idea coming from folks who aren't theater geeks; sitting in a dark room watching a play sounds like a description of a passive state.

But it's weird that theater blogs written by theater geeks would go with that description. Certainly all of us have felt just how much a play can change depending on the way the audience is feeding it on a particular night.

It's a subtle kind of "interactive", but I think it still qualifies as interactive. The actors on a movie screen will do the exact same thing every time no matter what is happening in the room, or even if no one is there.

99 said...

For an audience member, though, it's largely the same experience. Outside of major accidents and those unforeseen things that happen in a live performance, there's actually very little that an audience can do to affect the actual work. Sure, the overall experience can be more or less enthusiastic, one audience might find something funny where another audience finds it sad, etc., but the play itself doesn't change. I don't mean it as a "passive" exactly, but as literally "read-only." It's a one-way communication. Which isn't to say it's less satisfying, in general. Many, many forms of arts are "read-only." We're just moving into a time when the mass arts are becoming more and more read-write, rather than read-only, particularly the arts that younger people enjoy. If theatre wants to connect to those audiences in a serious way, we need to explore ways of being read-write and portable, or at least ways of expanding the experience beyond the stage.