Jacobean theatre plans

Theatre in the electronic age

New communicative technologies are enabling paying punters from different time zones to collaborate in real time to construct the story.

'Now we need to introduce someone. So you need to clap.' This cold direction was given to rows of onlookers, including me, at Live at the Gilded Balloon, a variety and chat show at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world. The daily event was held in front of a live audience, then made into a podcast which over a million people listened to. We were given this instruction for the purpose of the recording; a new act was being introduced on line. We didn't even know who it was.

The arrival of new technologies in the theatre has transformed the relationship between the audience and the performance. Sitting back to be entertained is so pass' punters are becoming part of the show, to be directed as much as the actors. The stage no longer simply sits in the proscenium like a large television; rather it becomes the whole world around.

'Normally you go to a theatre and just sit there and watch it, then leave,' says Mimi Poskitt, artistic director of theatre company Look Left Look Right, which uses new technologies in its shows. 'These new performances ask you to get involved. The onus is on the audience to help make the story. The actors just guide it.'

Many plays at this year's Edinburgh Fringe – a testing-ground for theatre trends – were based around new communicative technologies. Look Left Look Right's 'You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas' used Skype to explore modern-day long-distance relationships, causing critics to dub it 'love in the time of Facebook'. It's a play in two halves, acted out simultaneously in Edinburgh and Austin, Texas. The Edinburgh audience is invited to a party by the main female character and introduced to her new boyfriend in Texas via the videophone service. The American audience sees the relationship in reverse, through the male character's eyes. The show is also streamed to a third audience – the online community – inviting people to communicate via Twitter. The result is live theatre where we may never actually see the actors in the flesh.

These technologies aren't only making audiences into members of the cast; they are also becoming integral to the plot. In 'Midnight Your Time', a one-woman play, written by Adam Brace, that premiered at Edinburgh, a middle-aged mother, played by veteran British actress Diana Quick, talks via a webcam on her laptop to her daughter working in a Palestinian refugee camp. The camera projects her grossly enlarged face live on to the theatre wall as she acts, so we are both looking at her, and looking at her on a screen at the same time. The image flickers and sometimes disappears altogether letting us know that this is a technology still facing hitches and hurdles. In the plot, this faltering symbolises the communication gulf between mother and daughter.

New technologies are particularly popular in one-actor plays; arguably, they have led to a revival of interest in this tricky theatrical form. Previously, a monologue would have to rely on the strength of the actor alone.

Good technology, bad art

Sometimes rather than serving the story, the technology swamps it. Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner disparages the use of too much gadgetry on the stage. 'Technology can be a wonderful thing; many very old theatre technologies including limelight were new once. So I certainly don't have any objection to theatre-makers using every single tool at their disposal,' she says. 'But often it seems to be a case of boys just getting over-excited about their new toys. The technology has become the show, rather than being in service of the show. Back in the 1980s, I remember once joking with a colleague that the growth of computer technologies would eventually lead to a situation where actors become redundant and we would simply go to the theatre to watch the set.'

So is the new techno theatre art at all? (g)HostCity – a mini-festival of downloadable site-specific performances by artists, writers and performers – also ran at the last Edinburgh Fringe. Laura Cameron Lewis, the mastermind behind this exploration of Edinburgh, describes the event as a collection of artists' responses to the city over time. Each artist's performance was made available online and could be experienced at any time. Cameron Lewis cross-examines her own method: 'What makes it art rather than just being on Twitter or Facebook? There's an artist around at some point who has designed the shape of it. But it's everyday and art at the same time.'

The alternative fringe isn't the only place where technology has transformed the theatrical experience. This year, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon reopened with a new thrust stage, designed to radically alter the way in which its audiences experience the Bard's work. The Royal Shakespeare Company's ambition was to 'create a modern take on the courtyard theatres of Shakespeare's day'. The maximum distance from any seat to the stage was almost halved, from 27m down to 15m. But the most crucial aspect, shared with much of today's technologically enhanced theatre, was a commitment to bringing actors and audience closer together. Tim Pigott-Smith, actor and Royal Shakespeare Company board member, says: 'Audiences now spend a much higher proportion of their time looking at actors on film and television screens, and they prefer the close-up, they like being right there, in the thick of it, where you can see the whites of the actors' eyes, not simply take it for granted that they do have eyes.'

Artistry and technology combined to make this expected closeness happen. A cherry-picker (an aerial work platform) was brought in so they could experience what the view would be like from the highest seats. RSC deputy technical director Peter Bailey charts this transformation. 'In the old theatre, if you had the death of Cordelia, you'd have to shout the scene. Now you can whisper it. You can be heard. This new building is all about getting the audience closer to the actors, involved in the action, with a level of intimacy,' he says.

Actor Jonathan Slinger starred as Macbeth in the opening play on the new stage last April. He acknowledges how the new environment influences his acting. 'You don't have to shout as much. You can make your performance more naturalistic. Diction becomes more important than volume,' he says.

Slinger has also played at the Shakespeare Globe in London in 'The Winter's Tale', where he first discovered how the thrust stage changes an actor's relationship with the audience. 'There were three lines that asked for the answer 'Yes' or 'No'. I leant down towards a woman in the audience: 'Yes or no?' She shook her head. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. And I realised for the first time that Shakespeare wrote it with that in mind – that shouted response, which we've now lost. Any theatre space that doesn't allow for that – where you can ask the audience what you can do – you're not getting anywhere close to what he was intending. Stratford is still a long way from what you get at the Globe. But gradually over time this space will engender that.' Shakespeare's Globe has now announced the construction of an indoor Jacobean theatre that, like the RSC, will use new technologies to enhance old arts and reach out to new audiences.

Sustain your disbelief

It's wrong to presume that introducing and encouraging more intimacy and interactivity between audience and artist leads to less artifice. Technologies can be used to create fictions as well as reveal truths. Those watching, or rather participating in, 'You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas' presumed the breaks in the Skype transmissions were caused by the technology faltering. In fact, they had been plotted in. And Poskitt says improvisation is actually more difficult when new technologies are involved. 'To improvise well, you need to be in the same space as each other and see the chemistry,' she says.

Technology in the theatre can also introduce hurdles and hitches that more traditional methods and performances avoid. Gardner has pointed out the possible pitfalls. 'Of course, when you rely a great deal on technology things can go badly wrong, as Robert Lepage discovered with 'Elsinore' and Peter Stein with 'Troilus and Cressida' when both their first-night Edinburgh festival performances had to be cancelled due to computer glitches. It is seldom that a performance has to be cancelled because the stagehand isn't working,' she says.

Poskitt admits trial and error were involved in the technology used in 'You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas' and there were often unintended results. For example, they hadn't factored in the difference in time-zones that gives a very different feel to a performance. When they were playing to an evening Edinburgh audience, it was 11am in Austin. Now, Look Left Look Right are developing a performance that connects five or six different theatre companies in as many different locations, not just two. But Poskitt says they are going to try and make them all in the same GMT time zone, or a maximum of one hour apart, so that they are all in roughly the same mood.

'You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas' also experienced the problem of mono-conversational threads. In a traditional play, the actors can interrupt and'talk over each other. But Skype doesn't allow you to do that; it just jams. The actors had to give each other visual signals that they were about to speak, without letting the audience see, so they didn't continually cut each other off. Using emerging technologies in theatre inevitably leads to experimentation. Cameron Lewis says, 'What is really exciting for me about making work in [new] media is that there is no common practice, no rulebook. No one has set out how it should be done.'

Theatre in the cinema

But does technology really involve audiences more deeply – or does it distance them? National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) recently evaluated NT'Live – an ongoing series of National Theatre productions broadcast live to cinemas throughout the country. In June 2009, NT Live drew a staggering 50,000 viewers to the live cinema broadcast of Racin''s 'Ph'dre' starring Helen Mirren. The researchers said: 'One thing we found with the National Theatre project was that cinema audiences were seeing value that even the live theatre audiences weren't – they were getting things out of it that they wouldn't have got if they'd been at the theatre itself.

'The audience's proximity to the screen in the cinema, for example, resulted in cinema-goers feeling like they had a more intense and personal relationship with the cast than many of the audience in the theatre. We called this result Beyond Live.'

Cameron Lewis also says g(HostCity) drew audiences that might not have attended a traditional theatre performance. 'Computer gaming people, those interested in art, people who travel a lot – all of them weren't necessarily interested in being in a theatre show,' she says.

So is techno theatre just a trend? Or has the way we watch a play been transformed forever? 'Lots of people have asked that,' says Poskitt. 'I don't think it's just a fashion. It's not the only way to make theatre; not all performances should go this way. But theatre reflects the world we live in. Technology is now embedded in that world.' *

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