Let’s Get Small

A recent edition of Thomas Cott‘s “You’ve Cott Mail” focused on two different but related articles in The Guardian, one by James Meek on the influence of participatory culture on the theatrical event and one by Andrew Dickson about the Traverse Theatre’s experiment in broadcasting readings into 30 different cinemas around the UK. Both are interesting articles that deal with the challenges facing contemporary theater. The first is about how contemporary theater integrates and relates to a participatory culture that would seem to exist in opposition to the “viewed” culture of theater. The second article is about finding new ways to deliver the theatrical experience outside of physical presence, which seems to be hinged on a marketing effort to bring more people into the actual theater at some point.

But are these the right questions to be asking? Towards the first issue, an argument can be made – and I’ve made it- that theater is already participatory, if not obviously so. The success of the theatrical event demands presence on the part of the audience member, a kind of psychological awareness and emotional attention, a subjective engagement with the performers that allows for the suspension of disbelief and the mutual creation of an alternate reality. It is not as passive as it may seem, and perhaps that is a challenge in and of itself. Television is passive and we may well ask what, specifically, is demanded of the viewer/participant in video games and other forms of participatory culture? Is it deep engagement or something shallower? Theater, admittedly, doesn’t come with a “like” button (ala Facebook) or the opportunity to send a text to determine the outcome, like American Idol. But should it? When one is in a theater as an audience member, one is being asked to pay attention, to take heed, to focus, to empathize. This is not passivity, this is undoubtedly participation.

Immersive and participatory theatrical events have been around for a long time, they’re not really that new. One of my fondest theatrical memories was seeing Els ComediantsDimonis in Edinburgh in 1989. That was both immersive and participatory. But that experience was profoundly different from seeing Kristen Kosmas’ breakthrough solo show blah, blah, fucking blah in a tiny 30-seat theater in Seattle a few years later. One was an ecstatic group experience and one was a deeply moving intimate experience.

The idea that these immersive/participatory theatrical events are new and predicated on a video game culture is not entirely solid. Certainly the influence of video games, television, film and other broadcast media cannot be underestimated, but they are not solely responsible for the trend towards immersive/participatory theater. Their influence is wider, even, than that. Our visual and experiential expectations have been changed and we frequently see non-narrativity and the aesthetics of distractibility brought into the “conventional” theatrical event.

The difference is one of meaning. As the aesthetics of video games converge with film, we enter a realm where these media don’t – at least currently – pretend to point to anything more significant than themselves. They don’t accumulate resonance beyond a certain circularity of self-reference.

Theater, on the other hand, can take these reflections of a fractured reality and make them meaningful by pointing towards something beyond the shards and jetsam. In this post-dramatic landscape we place enormous responsibility on the viewer to make meaning of disconnected events, but we also place responsibility on the artist to be judicious in their choices of what is being presented. This kind of complex theater demands attention, thought, reflection and intimacy. It is deeply participatory and we should honor that.

Towards the second point, while televised/webcast theater may be the wave of the future, is getting bigger/wider the best choice? Is it really a way to attract new audiences to the theater? Does the experience of watching broadcast/webcast theater translate the experience in a successful way or is it just another form of content consumption? Is it capitulation to the idea that all content must be broadcast to the most amount of people possible?

Inasmuch as theater should adapt to the zeitgeist, there is extraordinary power in going the opposite direction, getting smaller and smaller, providing intimate live group experiences that overtly depend on proximity and presence. (I think George Hunka wrote about this recently at Superfluities Redux, but I haven’t been able to find the post). In a society that is increasingly mediated, where layers upon layers of information accumulate between individuals, where experiences are always being mitigated, where everything exists in a weird jumble of meta-ness (OMG! this is just like that scene in that movie/tv show/website) there is transformative power in trying to BE HERE NOW. The ephemerality of theater, the possibility of failure, the presence of living, breathing human beings bringing the imaginary to life, all these things can create a kind of group intimacy that is sorely lacking in the mainstream.

For a certain constituency – the “I saw them before they were famous” constituency – the immediacy and intimacy of live performance is paramount. Whether it is seeing a band play, or a poet read, or a particularly amazing play in an early incarnation, there is something special about being in an immediate setting and having the visceral experience of proximity to a great talent. It is a rush and a thrill to be close to an artist that is burning brightly and it is unlike any mediated entertainment.

There will always be grand spectacle and mass entertainment, I don’t believe that Broadway is imperiled by cultural shifts and expectations. But what is in danger of being lost through all the focus on marketing, and growing audiences, and constantly getting bigger, is the value of the immediate and intimate. If we focus on what we need – as opposed to what is merely possible – I think it is safe to say that connection, meaning and truth rank high on the list. Facebook is great. I love the internet. I love TV and movies, too. And if I were younger and had more agile thumbs I would probably love video games as well. But when I think about the fractured society in which we live, I think that we are less in need of big, heavily-marketed, mass entertainments and spectacles than we are of intimate, visceral, immediate experiences. We need to be brought together, not separated. If broadcasting the intimate experience of readings and performances helps to promote that cause, that’s great. But when we think about what we promote -and why we promote – theater, maybe we should think about what it offers that is different than everything else, not the same.

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