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Flip the Script: Invite Theatre to the Digital Party


April 17, 2016 by David

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(Audience take to the stage at Naked Lunch)

My last theatre visit at IETM couldn’t have been more different from the first.

Having begun with entirely text-led autobiographical one-person show The Radicalisation of Sadettin K., last night I was plunged into a psychedelic fault-line between life and death, based on the writings of notorious cult poet William Burroughs and communicated through a dance-opera-music-live-film -poetry-ritual-carnival-participatory-mash-up.

I was slightly disappointed to be so far up in a balcony seat when the dancers told us that the most dangerous section of choreography they could think of was the one where it was all happening for the first time – at which stage (above) we were invited up to join them, and half the spectators willingly took to the floor.

It was an invitation issued with humour, encouragement and a sense of the collaborative – not a sense of imposition.

In that sense, it echoed the masterclass in empowerment and trust issued during the second IETM keynote speech earlier in the day, when Joris Weijdom flipped the script of all the other sessions I’d been to on the need for digital technology to develop theatre, and was the first who made a case instead for the need for theatre to develop the digital technology.

On a journey through the facts, figures and case studies of…

The Internet of Things (devices talking to one another, not humans, online)

Transmedia Storytelling (a variety of different media platforms offering simultaneous entry-points to view, participate within and influence a single story)

Mixed Reality (the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualisations, where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time)

…he proposed two crucial conclusions.

Firstly, that the seemingly revolutionary ideas born of digital technology such as performers, audiences and spaces being in multiple locations at the same time with a ‘connected experience’, audiences influencing the ‘output’ of what’s happening on stage, and multiple realities sharing the same space is what live theatre has always done.

They’re not discoveries from the digital age – they’re phenomenological principles that theatre has been trading on for thousands of years, and they go some way to helping define that essence of the ‘live’ I was confronting yesterday.

Secondly, having toured us through a few future proposals of mixed reality first-person story gaming such as The Void, which places you in a massive physical space with a VR headset and sensors on, and onto which is grafted digital worlds and environments with which you interact (for ‘interact’, read ‘shoot aliens / monsters / dragons / insert-masculine-Hollywood-hero-adventurer-cliché here’) his plea was for the theatre knowledge held by the conference members to be applied to these new worlds.

Depth of narrative experience, emotional complexity, doubt and the problem of human justice doesn’t tend to figure when you’re exploding aliens with your holo-blaster.

This was a clever appeal to invite theatre in to the tech party as the story experts and experiment with what happens, rather than the dogged YOU NEED TO CONVERT YOUR OUTDATED PASSIVE AUDIENCE EXPERIENCE message that was being blasted out in previous sessions.

We might not be making theatre in those worlds, he suggested, but we’d be telling stories in a different way, and perhaps encouraging new audiences from the theatrical world to visit the tech world.

The vessel for change suggested here was the honouring of depth of story first, and then seeing what might follow as a result – again, flipping the script from the assumed need of audiences to experience everything differently.

Essentially he identified a site of brinkmanship for the live and the digital. This was exemplified by a performance he’d attended, where he’d found himself getting frustrated by the perceived inability of performers to synchronise their live interaction with his digital experience.

Upon talking to the makers afterwards, it was proposed that perhaps this tension only deepened one’s experience in the virtual world – by encouraging tensions, flaws or accidents within the ‘perfect illusion’ of the virtual, interrupting that perfection momentarily so that you’re conscious of moving in and out of the real, you’re less likely to allow your brain to just ‘go to sleep’ in the illusion.

As a metaphor for our broader interactions with the digital world in day-to-day life, it takes me back to Douglas Rushkoff’s quotation from my second IETM blog and the tendency of the ‘peripheral’ to continuously hijack our engagement with what’s directly in front of us (when our screens aren’t already the thing directly in front of us, at least). For all its fantastic social benefits of connectivity, community, positive action and democratisation, at worst it’s simply soporific, a new opium of the masses.

It also put me in mind of an example I’d given to a couple of people over the last few days to describe my relationship with pervasive media storytelling, in particular when it struggles with its pretence to really be another world because it’s littered with contrivances and convolutions of plot – or just not particularly subtle (I know not all of it’s like this – I sense I’ve been unlucky in my selection of shows so far).

When theatre declares its artifice to the audience, essentially showing its hand and saying ‘come and share in the game – we’re not pretending to be something we’re not’, the invitation is honest. This came up as a question in other session: when do you need to make the technology visible, and when is the illusion the point?

Again, all answerable on a case-to-case basis, but ultimately it’s about how you apply one to the other and how far it’s done with a sense of artistry that can support the storytelling: whether it’s a psychedelic foray into a drug-fuelled near-death hinterland, or a man standing up in a space and just telling his story.

These are absolutely exceptional times for technology: that much has been clear in the last four days. At the end of this little digital odyssey at IETM, Joris Weijdom’s invitation felt like a useful model to apply to the ongoing evolution of my playwriting.

Invite the digital in, and give yourself permission to be invited into the digital.

Remain playful – look for the edges of the game.

If applying technology, take on the gaming principles of action, response, hypothesis and new action in the creative process, until you can verify its purpose.

Test. Test again. Test again. Listen and adjust.  

Design your dramaturgical rules carefully, and entertain your audience through a puzzle for the imagination.

I’ve definitely had my values reasserted in my reactions to Live Art in Digital Times. I feel more embedded in what I want to achieve in my work, and more prepared to defend the value of crafted playwriting – but not just in conventional spaces. I want to open a few more doors, test the digital water, and explore where it might take me.

Keep evolving everyone.

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  1. Liz Pugh says:

    I’ve just read all your blog pieces from IETM Amsterdam; and found them insightful, useful in terms of processing my own responses to provocations – either by speakers or by the performances, and a great reflective coda to the past few days: thank you

    • David says:

      Thank you Liz – that’s really nice to hear. People have been great at re-tweeting but it’s lovely to hear directly that they’ve been useful. Please do share them on to others if you can as well, or even tweet your favourite! Hope you enjoyed IETM and maybe see you at the next one.

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