When Will Technology Come Centre Stage?

lightbulb light lights

Technology and its place in theatre

Naomi Curston believes that technology will increasingly make its presence known onstage as it seeps ever deeper into the fabric of everyday life.

Technology is vital in theatre. Almost every performance uses it on stage: in the lighting, the sound, the set and the effects. But it can be more than just a tool. Some productions see more potential in it.

In fact, avant-garde companies sometimes use technology as a very central facet of their performances. Their work doesn’t necessarily revolve around story and character, meaning that they are freer to use technology more creatively. Mainstream theatre, meanwhile, hamstrung by audience expectations, generally keeps it behind-the-scenes.

However, the world is changing and so too is theatre. The experimental constantly feeds into the mainstream. Maybe, the day is not so distant when technology will permeate all forms of theatre, both on and off stage.

“Avant-Garde” theatre: technology as protagonist

The precise definition of ‘avant-garde’ theatre is debatable, but it is important: because the root of any definition of it is about relinquishing focus on a script. Avant-garde theatre can still include text and dialogue, but the theatre makers might not begin their process by focussing on a narrative.

This more organic process means that traditional conventions can be overturned. It also means that different elements of a performance – actors, technology and text – might hold more equal weight in the finished product. One element does not necessarily dictate the others. And, if the actor becomes more device than character, it naturally follows that other devices are as important as their human counterparts. Technology could become a protagonist – and this is more than theory. There are numerous examples of it within experimental works.

‘House/Lights’, a Wooster Group production first shown on stage in 1997, truly centralises technology. The stage is a cacophony of light, sound, film and movement. During the performance, tungsten bulbs swing as the action onstage becomes frantic. The light bulbs themselves are, at that moment, just as crucial as the actors beneath them. The film on several televisions, too, melds with the live movements of the actors. Microphones alter the sound of spoken word to create a tinny quality that compliments pre-recorded voiceovers – and the two intermingle seamlessly. Without the technology on stage, the performance would be entirely changed: it is integral.

Reviewers of House/Lights have gone on to deem The Wooster Group, generally, as master conveyers of a world that is digitalising:

“The world according to The Wooster Group is the world that most of us live in now – any of us, that is, who spend time with some kind of computer, cellphone, television and/or recording device.”

This observation by the New York Times is crucial because it suggests that, perhaps, the only way to truly represent a world where our attention is constantly toyed with by technology-facilitated distractions, is to give it centrality on stage. It is its prominence that confuses; the audience does not know where to look. If other reviewers and practitioners agree, it makes sense that the mainstream would wish to absorb this idea, at least in part.

Theatre and Gaming: Blurring the lines

More recently, experimental groups are tending to use technology in ever more diverse ways, and a bridge between theatre and video games is beginning to be built. Although the mechanics that theatre sometimes borrows are not necessarily ‘using’ technology in the literal sense, the identifiable structure found in some immersive promenade pieces could be enough to illustrate the freedoms and restrictions of virtual reality.

A space constructed with the intention of allowing an audience to explore a world – where they may be rewarded or punished for their decisions along the way – is, in essence, a virtual reality. Audiences know they are free to touch and explore such a world in a way that they could not if the space was ‘real’, but there is also an awareness that there are limitations to the exploration, and that this ‘reality’ is being controlled. Unlike House/Lights, technology is not used as a physical ‘actor’ in this kind of work, but it still characterises the entire production.

Coney is a company that regularly employs game mechanics: a prime example being its 2009 production of A Small Town Anywhere: a virtual reality where audience members became characters and made decisions, just as they might in a game at homeHowever, this company have taken the theatre/gaming dichotomy a step further. They recently released an online game – What’s She Like – which is based in the same world as Headlong’s People, Places & Things. More than simple advertisement, it is a piece of art independent of the play, which can also double as a resource to better understand that world.

The point is, is that despite this, Coney describe themselves as ‘theatre-makers’. But perhaps it is not so surprising. This game can reasonably be said to provide a kind of immersive theatrical experience: there are characters, drama, and decisions to be made. It is not so different from their work on stage, and it begins to beg the question: can theatre be driven entirely by technology? Could it exist without stage and actors entirely? The liveness remains, after all.

Such a drastic overhaul may be unlikely to occur in mainstream theatre, and indeed it should not: it would strip theatre of its uniqueness… but Coney’s approach is still interesting. It blurs the lines between theatre and technology even more than the Wooster Group did. This progression of prominence for technology within the avant-garde might preclude a similar progression within the mainstream.

Changes in the mainstream

Historically, in mainstream theatre, technology has been decidedly less than prominent. It can be found in the lighting, sound and set design, but it is a servant to the text, a supporting actor to language’s lead. The primary goal of mainstream theatre is to entertain and seemingly, many large scale productions would achieve this via familiarity. The audience should be comfortable.

But a change is already happening in part; the tools of a technologically driven world are beginning to visibly seep into even the most traditional practise. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), is seeking to engage wider audiences through the use of technology, broadcasting selected performances across the country into cinemas. The next broadcast is of Cymbeline, on 28th September. TV psychological illusionist Derren Brown routinely uses video cameras in his stage shows, in order to project close-up tricks to an audience of thousands. His shows are also recorded. Then, of course, there are plays which deal with technology in their subject matter. Chatroom explores the dangers of online anonymity and cyberbullying: arguably placing technology as a central tenet of the play, although, ultimately, the real focus is how it lessens its users’ humanity. And these are just a few, obvious examples.

What next…?

So, there seems to be growing evidence that theatre is beginning to normalise technology on stage, even in the most conventional productions. Generally, it is still side-lined, but as it is becoming more integral to life, so the theatre must adapt.

The use of live video streams, both in the RSC’s work, and in shows such as Derren Brown’s Infamous, is something of a pale reflection of their use in House/Lights, but nonetheless indicative of a shift. For the RSC in particular, the presence of visible cameras must change the atmosphere in the auditorium. It is an extra level of connection: not just to the actors on stage, but to a wider cinematic audience. Intended of not, those cameras become actors. From this, and combined with plays such as Chatroom, which uses character to explore issues surrounding technology, it is not such a stretch to think that, ultimately, the two might converge, and mainstream theatre might begin to visibly use technology to help express the joys and pitfalls of a world so driven by it.

Written by:


Naomi Curston

Naomi is a writer based in Bristol. With a degree in ‘Drama with Creative Writing’, she is currently editing her first novel, as well as running a blog, Inching Forwards. When she isn’t writing, she can be found acting, directing and reading, and has plans to go into journalism.

All images courtesy of pexels.com.

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