Bringing ‘Live’ Back to Life: Technology and Its Use in the Theatre

Try to remember the last time you’ve experienced a truly ‘live’ moment. A genuine moment of flesh-and-blood reality, where the breath of life is felt, tangibly, by the prickling of the skin, and unadulterated sights, sounds, and smells linger beyond short-term memory. We all started life alongside this sensation of flesh-and-blood reality, but what we now call a ‘live’ moment seems to have transformed into something altogether more digital.

It’s not surprising that scientists have said our brains have become accustomed to life at a virtual pace instead of a physical one.

Let us consider live-streaming app Periscope, where we watched the Senate Democrats’ sit-in against stalled gun control bills (and showed our solidarity by engaging with said senators over social media — in real time — with the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak). There’s also social video platform Twitch, where we all became one player as we tackled one of the iconic games of the millennial generation, Pokémon Red. And, of course, we can’t leave out real-time photo app Snapchat, where we not only put flower crowns on ourselves, but also witnessed one of the biggest feuds in pop culture reveal its latest twist, live on our mobile phones — and take sides. In our current habits of cultural consumption, our everyday experience of reality has been supplemented by a technological rendering that seeks to approximate and, perhaps, even eventually replace the real. While this description might sound like something right out of The Matrix, in truth the technological advances that form the foundation of this argument are much more subtle. We’re not in some dystopian future whereby people are literally plugged into an alternate universe. We’re actually in a pretty exciting and exhilarating world — technologically speaking — whereby digital devices and programs have allowed us to experience different kinds of reality at infinitely fast, almost-instantaneous speeds.

The Matrix (Source: Jhinnel/Blogspot)

The Matrix framework in all its glory | Source: Jhinnel/Blogspot

This is hardly a recent development as far as narrative forms are concerned. For decades, film and television have been slowly shifting our consumption habits from one of leisure into one of obsession. We’re branching away from relatively brief one-to-two-hour interludes in the middle of our evening to, on one end, multi-hour escapes into another reality altogether, and on the other end, multi-second video clips that, when viewed in sequence, reveal dramatic tales to rival classic telenovelas. Netflix has turned the once-frowned-upon habit of binge watching into an art form, and you only need to hear about the lengths in which Game of Thrones fans go to avoid spoilers to realize that people take these digitally fabricated realities to be as serious and as real as life itself.

Behind the scenes at the BBC (Source: BBC Studioworks)

Behind the scenes at one of BBC’s studios | Source: BBC Studioworks

Even outside of narrative forms, we find ourselves inundated with digitally filtered realities that are becoming de facto ‘live’ moments. Breaking news coverage has for years employed green screen trickery to near cinematic levels in order to provide the sensation of “being right there at the scene” — and when the digital filter is revealed, the results are ‘dramatic,’ to say the least. Given all these examples, it’s not surprising that scientists have said our brains have become accustomed to life at a virtual pace instead of a physical one.

What, then, of the theatre? What of this, on average, one-to-two-hour long dramatic form, whose very essence relies on the physical and the ‘live’? In the professional theatre industry, this conversation on technology — in particular multimedia technology — and its place in the art form has been around for a long time. The temptation is to match the cinematic special effects of ‘live-ness’ that we see on film and television, on stage. We see projections and video used all over the stage as sites of replication and enhancement of a live moment, perhaps suggesting that the only way us modern audiences can understand ‘live-ness’ is to see it through digital eyes. If this is the future that awaits theatre, then it’s a future that would certainly bring the perennially dying art form to its knees. There must be an option for using technology in ways that will not only go where the camera has already taken us, but also transform the idea of performing ‘live-ness’ altogether.

Luckily, in the hotbed for experimentation that theatre inherently is, there are always other solutions. To that end, we look at two shows that have debuted in recent years at the recently revamped Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA): the Wooster Group’s 2014 production of Cry Trojans! (Troilus and Cressida) and Milo Rau/IIPM & CAMPO’s 2016 collaborative production of Five Easy Pieces.

Cry Trojans! (Troilus and Cressida)

Troilus and Cressida (Source: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)

Troilus and Cressida | Source: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

In 2012, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) commissioned New York-based Wooster Group — a regular of the experimental theatre scene in America — to adapt Shakespeare’s Trojan-War epic Troilus and Cressida into a new work for the World Shakespeare Festival. British playwright Mark Ravenhill led a British team and cast that will play the Greeks, while Wooster Group founder Elizabeth LeCompte led an American team and cast that will play the Trojans. Both parties rehearsed on their own in their respective countries, and only came together to present the piece shortly before its world premiere.

What resulted was a culture clash of the wired kind, with classic Wooster Group elements of live mics and video feeds literally clashing with Ravenhill’s (and RSC’s) more traditional acting approach. The show was not exactly a resounding success, and after 2012 LeCompte brought it back to the States and continued to develop it. By 2014, the piece has re-emerged as Cry Trojans! (Troilus and Cressida), with a revised story that shifted the focus away from the culture clash of the original and emphasized the plight of the Trojans — all interpreted through a controversial Native American lens (LeCompte’s cast was mostly white) that was already part of the company’s original concept during the RSC collaboration. In September 2014, the piece made its international debut in Singapore as part of SIFA.

One suspects that in Cry Trojans! we are seeing [Sisyphus’] same struggle but adapted for a modern audience.

The show begins straight away with the actors, wearing live microphones, navigating through edited sections of Shakespeare’s text within the context of this Native American lens. Television screens that surrounded the stage suddenly came alive, and we see films such as Splendor in the Grass and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner being played on them. What happens next is disorienting, to say the least. We witness the actors talking in a stilted, formal manner, whilst also stealing glances at the television screens. Everything seems awkward and unrehearsed, as if the performers are always a second late to the next line. Over time, we realize that the actors are, in fact, listening to the movies, as cultural reference points to aid their performance as Native Americans, and are responding to them while also acting out the plot of the play — all in real time. There are certainly moments when this highly demanding stylistic approach work magnificently — and we applaud the performers’ Herculean efforts of concentration and precision — but most of the time we are left witnessing performers struggling with the amount of digital information flooding into their physical selves. It is as if the performers are performing another classical tale — that of Sisyphus and his never-ending task of rolling a stone up a hill. For Sisyphus, the point of the story is the entire struggle itself, and one suspects that in Cry Trojans! we are seeing the same struggle but adapted for a modern audience.

Cry Trojans! (Source: AndrewAndrewTubeTube/YouTube)

Source: AndrewAndrewTubeTube/YouTube

These performers all have one master objective: to tell the Trojan side of the Troilus and Cressida tale. However, burdened by the cultural information that is being fed digitally to their bodies, they fail to bring life to the characters they’re performing. In these moments, we see how technology is being utilized to dramatically dystopian effect. Instead of creating special cinematic effects to enhance the actors’ performance, the live mics and video screens are purposefully inhibiting the actors from performing. Thus, everything seems dead from an acting perspective. If we are used to seeing technology work effortlessly and smoothly in our daily lives, then Cry Trojans! is a reminder that technology can and will fail, and the inevitable glitch is amplified in its representation as a failure in the very act of performing. The theatrical language of being ‘live’ is failing and falling apart before our very eyes. Not quite The Matrix, but not that far off either.

Five Easy Pieces

Two years after Cry Trojans!, SIFA — along with other arts organizations — commissioned a brand new work from Swiss director Milo Rau and his company, International Institute of Political Murder. Collaborating with the Belgian arts centre CAMPO, Rau and the team created Five Easy Pieces, a documentary-style play that’s centered on the infamous case of child rapist and murderer Marc Dutroux, whose actions shocked Belgian society in the mid-1990s. The particularly unnerving — and simultaneously fascinating — twist in this production is that the show features seven child actors, ranging from 8 to 13 years old, with one adult actor serving primarily as narrator. The premise of Five Easy Pieces is that these children are performing as the various individuals related to the case — Dutroux’s father; families of the victims; even a survivor — in a documentary that’s being filmed live on stage.

Milo Rau and his young cast in rehearsal for "Five Easy Pieces" (Source: SPRING Utrecht)

Milo Rau and his young cast in rehearsal for Five Easy Pieces | Source: © SPRING Utrecht

What we lose in facial expressions due to the stage-to-seat distance, we gain by watching the zoomed-in faces on the screen; what we lose in narrative context due to the carefully framed shot, we gain in the live theatrical setup.

Five Easy Pieces (Source: Pamela Ho/Instagram)

Five Easy Pieces at the 2016 SIFA | Source: Pamela Ho/Instagram

The referenced “five easy pieces” are how the play is divided: each “piece” is a scene that consists of a filmed reenactment of an interview with an individual related to the case. We witness the before and after of each “piece,” where the adult actor would instruct the child actors to set up the boom mike and have the clapper ready for when he yells “Action!” Then, he turns on the camera — which is projected onto a big screen at the back of the stage — and films the scene. Thus audience members are watching the interview in two forms: in a ‘live’ theatrical form and in a ‘live-feed’ cinematic form. What we lose in facial expressions due to the stage-to-seat distance, we gain by watching the zoomed-in faces on the screen; what we lose in narrative context due to the carefully framed shot, we gain in the live theatrical setup. Instead of substituting the live performance, the camera is co-existing alongside it, so that the show can ask of the audience to themselves perform their own Herculean task of concentration and precision: to juggle the image of children reenacting a narrative moment with the information being doled out by their characters, some of which are brutal and particularly uncomfortable to hear from the young actors onstage. In doing so, the ‘live’ moment is doubly enhanced in meaning and execution. No special effects necessary — just some good ol’ live performance, served in two ways.

Bringing ‘Live’ Back to Life

In film, television, and our devices, the ‘live-ness’ of the posited situation is always being filtered and processed by a digital framework that, no matter how advanced, is still an approximation of reality. Yet many consider something to be real and living only after it’s been documented on some social media platform (also known as “pics or it didn’t happen”). Does Taylor’s caught-on-Snapchat confession (or Kim’s moment of manipulation, depending on whose side you’re on) still exist without our digital experience of it? Do the Senate Democrats’ act of defiance continue to hold resonance if we didn’t witness it first on social media, after House Speaker Paul Ryan shut off C-SPAN? Of course these moments exist and are real, regardless of whether we participate in them or not during their live broadcast. What we should really be asking is not whether we need technology as a filter — it’s here in our lives and it’s not going anywhere — but whether we should let what we call ‘live’ live only in the digital realm.

In the theatre — the realm of the ‘live’ — shows like Cry Trojans! and Five Easy Pieces do not let their narrative realities live simply in the digital. In their use of technology — albeit in vastly different ways — both challenge audience members to absorb and interpret the ‘live-ness’ of the posited situation through two filters simultaneously: the physical and the digital. We do this all the time whenever we’re interacting with technology through our devices (just think of Pokémon GO), so why can’t we do it in the theatre? By experiencing the stories of these shows at two distinct levels, audience members are able to train their muscle of cultural consumption; of interpreting and understanding stories and information. In watching performances like these, we do not blindly take in information but discern the many layers that comprise a living, breathing moment — thus bringing the definition of ‘live’ back to life itself. Now wouldn’t that be a moment worth being present for?


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