Theatre Space

The inspiration for me to write an essay about this topic comes from an article in The Guardian, “Back in the 1980s as new technologies began to make their mark in theatre we still marvelled at West End shows in which sound, lights and even the set was computer-generated to some degree. Computers and other technologies have transformed our everyday lives and they have become a crucial part of the way theatre is made, and our theatre-going lives too.” (Gardner, 2008)It seems like an article defending for those traditional lighting and sound control equipment; nonetheless,it did bring up the subject that how we rely on technology in theatre nowadays. Indeed, the using of video appeared in theatre since a few decades ago, and it has become more and more dominant in theatre; from experimental pieces to large-scale productions, no one could escape from it. But is it essential to have video or projections on the stage? Does it betray the intrinsic quality of theatre? Many in the theatrical community — from directors to lighting designers to actors and critics — have openly attacked the work of video designers, saying it distracts the audience, breaking the spell of the performance. “In this age of attention deficit disorder, I can understand technology has a purpose,” says Matt Wolf, theatre critic for the International Herald and Tribune, wryly.” Technology can serve to replace the power of the imagination,” he warns. Mr Wolf says he believes in the old dictum that the power of theatre resides in “two planks and a passion” — when that exists, technology can only interfere.” It seems odd,” he adds, “that theatre is seeking to emulate cinema — let celluloid do what it does best.” But some influential voices have spoken up to defend them. “It would be crazy for theatre not to embrace new technology, especially video projections, the results can be brilliant,” says the Guardian’s theatre critic, Michael Billington. “Technology can also be overpowering on stage, but that is the fault of the directorial concept,” adds Mr Billington, who analysed the evolution of British theatre after World War II in his book State of the Nation. “For theatre to turn its back on new technology would be as if it had rejected electrically controlled lighting when it came into play in the 1880s,” says Billington.(Shaw, 2012)

In the opening line of The Empty Space, Peter Brook wrote that “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” (Brook, 2008, p. 11)Also, in Making Theatre: From Text to Performance, Peter Mudford mentioned that “It exists in the simultaneous present of actors and audience. A play only exists in the living present of the performance, creating its sense of inner vibration between audience and stage. The darkened auditorium and the illuminated space create a different relation, and make quite different demands on the audience to the projection of a film in the cinema. A play comes closer to life: a film tells us what to see, while the theatre plays on, and with, the inner worlds we inhabit.” (Mudford, 2000, p. 2)According to the two explanations of how theatre should be like, it seems that the using of video in theatre is hardly necessary.

So why has there been such a dramatic increase in the using of computer video and projection in theatre shows? From the technical aspect, much of the technology involved, whether or not we’re speaking about projectors or computer systems are becoming smaller, cheaper and extra powerful, to a factor where shows don’t need to have a vast price range to consider on the usage of video. A 10,000-lumen projector cost a significant amount of money about five years ago, and it was massive, heavy and buzzing; nowadays, you can get an equivalent power from a projector which is far smaller, quieter and cheaper. Furthermore, the tools to create footage also are plummeting in worth. Writing and compositing software, digital video and stills cameras become more affordable, capable of enduring higher and better resolutions and became easier to handle. What’s more, the technology has grown to be the show, as an alternative than only being in service of the show.Timothy Bird, for instance, moved from working in television production to theatre, because he thinks that television industry has followed a standard format for past couple of decades and has not changed much. He and his team drive straight on to the enemy’s denby playing his virtual tricks in the playground called theatre, which includes a computer-generated avatar sword-fighting an actor live on stage in his latest show and transporting the audience to the world of a computer game.

Perhaps we can trace back to our ancestors and take a look at how they dealt with new technology. “The Romans were the technology buffs who liked to show off their engineering skills,” according to David Wiles, professor of theatre at Royal Holloway. “They were interested in things like collapsing mountains, and using hydraulics to flood the stage.”“The Greeks would fly gods in on a crane, but in general they were more restrained,” adds Professor Wiles, who is co-editing the Cambridge Companion to Theatre History. “They were more theoreticians, interested in the science of acoustics in the auditorium.” (Shaw, 2012)Plus, there is a most notable and influential theorist/practitioner of the past century who infused video and projection into theatre in a unique way- Bertolt Brecht. Regarding Piscator’s innovative integration of multimedia in theatre, Brecht stated that his collaborator was “without doubt one of the most important theatre men of all times”. Inspired by Erwin Piscator’s multimedia innovation of victimisation film projections, newsreels, sound, and mechanical technologies within the theatre area, Brecht experimented with multimediain the theatre by including photographic slide projections, film, and slides presenting figures and statistical information all at once. These strategies contributed to the alienation experienceof Epic Theatre. Brecht’s notations on his play, Die Mutter, exemplify his use of multimedia within the theatre space,” Die Mutter is such a learning play and embodies certain principles and methods of presentation of the non-Aristotelian, or epic style, as I have sometimes called it; the use of the film projection to help bring the social complex of the events taking place to the forefront; the use of music and of the chorus to supplement and vivify the action on the stage; the setting forth of actions so as to call for a critical approach, so that they would not be taken for granted by the spectator and would arouse him to think; it became obvious to him which were right actions and which were wrong ones.” (Brecht, 2014, p. 79)Brecht, in shifting the theatre space from a singular narrative and singular intention of theatrical illusion to one of alienation, presented audiences with simultaneous actions on stage and multiple narratives to engage critical thinking. Piscator and Brecht were also influenced by the impact of the film industry and its impact on audience, presentational and narrative styles. The response of theatre practitioners to the fledging film industry and to the induction of multimedia into the theatre space was threefold: expansion, simplification, and inclusion. Some theatre practitioners argued that theatre needed to match the cinema experience by developing theatrical performances into a giant spectacle in the theatre environment. Again, it was theorist- practitioners who articulated this shift.

Soviet theatre director, Vsevolod Meyerhold recognized the impact cinema had on drawing an audience away from theatre. Meyerhold might have been influenced by the political rallies held in the streets of Europe. He observed the Italian political rallies of Mussolini and stated that it was “clear that the fundamental desire of the masses is to pack into great stadia with room for tens of thousands.” He argued that the “cinefication” of theatre meant that theatres must be fitted with the technological “refinements of the cinema” so that the space could “meet the demands” of spectacle theatre.

This plan was meant to attract more people back to the theatre. He envisioned “tens of thousands” of people in the audience arguing that “the modern spectator demands the kind of thrill which only the tension generated by an audience of thousands can give” (Braun, 1991, pp. 255–256)Earth Rampant is an example of Meyerhold’s spectacle theatre. It was performed in an open space and adapted several times to the locations. The performance held for the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in Moscow on the 24 June, 1924 included an infantry and horse cavalry and was presented to an audience of 25,000. (Braun, 1991, p. 189)Spectacular theatre grew in popularity and continues to produce lavish set designs and a large cast in the performance space. It now thrives in the form of the contemporary musical. Miss Saigon, with its helicopter on stage, is a contemporary example of a successful theatrical spectacle providing its audience with grand sets, giant props and exciting effects.

The second response was to simplify and to empty the theatre space by removing stage furnishings and scenery and replace the scenic elements with simple abstract or symbolic set designs. This approach focused on text and actor in the space. The work of English theatre director Peter Brook exemplifies this response when he simplified the contents of the theatre space by stripping away all objects.

The third response came from experimental theatre, which developed into the hybridised theatre of the new millennium. The experimental theatre practitioners were open to new presentational ideas, which led to the overt use of multimedia in the theatre space. Theatre’s take up of multimedia challenged established ideas about structure and spatiality of theatre. It also created new ways of presenting the narrative in the space, which contributed to the development of new styles in theatre. The audience could engage with multimedia in the theatre space through a variety of narratives in the form of dance, spoken word, puppetry, film, sounds, and any other form borrowed from the installation practices of the visual arts. Text and actors were no longer necessarily the dominant force in the space. Narratives expressed through movement, sounds, new audio-visual technologies, and music could independently and simultaneously share the same presentational space.

In the early 1950s, composer, John Cagewas influenced by the concepts of the Dadaist and Futurist performance. In 1952, he presented at Black Mountain College a performance combining multimedia elements of film and pre-recorded sounds with spoken word and movement. When applying Kirby’s definition of a Happening, this event meets the criteria. The performances were self-contained units, presented at the same time with a focus on the “found environment”and open to chance occurrencesthat might change the interactions. Cage included multimedia in the performance space by using tape recorders and film. Reminiscent of the Dadaist performances, Cage read a lecture as Charles Olsen and other performers sat with the audience and spoke lines. At the same time, Merce Cunningham danced, David Tutor played the piano, M.C. Richards “recited from a ladder”, and Robert Rauschenburg played music on an old wind- up phonograph. “A film played during the entire performance. A dog began to follow Cunningham and was accepted into the presentation.” The dog’s inclusion is an example of chance and found environment in the performance space. (Sandford, 1995, p. 19)Cage’s presentation and concepts influenced other artists and performers of his time. Allow Krapowstudied with Cagefrom 1956 to 1958 at the New York School. Kirby states that the “material and structure of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, resulted directly from this work”. (Sandford, 1995, p. 24)

Allan Kraprow’s Happenings in six Parts was performed in 1959 as part of the American Happenings that developed in New York. Kirby states that “despite Kaprow’s initial protestations and the objections of the other artists, the media picked up on the title as a label for an emerging genre.” Not all participants in the movement referred to their work as Happenings. For Oldenburg it was Ray Gun Theatre, for Robert Whitman it was “theatre pieces”. (Sandford, 1995, pp. 3–7)

An examination of excerpts from Assemblages, Environment and Happenings by Kaprow shows that spatial consideration was important in Happenings. Kaprow stated that the performance “should take place over several widely spaced, sometimes moving and changeable locals.” He also stated that “time, which follows closely on space considerations, should be variable and discontinuous.” This time should be either “real” or “imagined”. (Sandford, 1995, pp. 236–237)Happenings could extend performances over several days and allow the scene to change like an eroding extended art installation. These experiments opened up the idea of decay and construction of the fictional space. An example is Chair by Robert Ashley where a wooden chair was transformed “on each successive day”. (Sandford, 1995, p. 43)The ideas on compartmentalization, explorations in time and space, and grouping elements into unitary self-sufficient performances and enable more interactive multimedia elements to be used in the theatre space. The screen technology compartmentalizes performance into its space and is both interdependent and independent (depending on its application) of any performance outside of the screen. The audience is challenged to focus on a narrative in the theatre space.

This research suggests that multimedia redefines space and adds to its complexity. Multimedia is not a new element in the theatrical space. It began as static vertical displays used by theatre practitioner/ theorists such as Erwin Piscator, and Bertolt Brecht in Epic Theatre and later evolved in the arenas of experimental theatre and contemporary theatre into highly complex digital interactive multimedia elements.

When multimedia is taken up into the theatrical space, meaning is created in performance that might well contain digital, analogue and live acting. The space in the theatre becomes complex in function and complex to interpret. Playwrights who use multimedia elements have new forms of story-telling including the creation of virtual characters. These virtual characters still require the same development treatment in the writing of the character as those characters performed by live actors. The playwright has to rethink the idea of characters in the space because virtual characters can be located anywhere in space, thus expanding the performance space. The stage actions can be scripted to allow the virtual characters to “break skin” through the use of multimedia portals on stage which seemingly transform them into live actors. These possibilities require the playwright to acquire additional skills and equipment to produce and present their ideas to other theatre practitioners. Matt Adams once said the following as foreword in Blake’s book, “When we consider the digital in the context of theatre, it may be most productive to focus on the most significant and disruptive elements that it brings to bear on the artform. Theatre has prized itself as an interactive artform, especially in opposition to the cinema and television as each technology upstart the stage from which it sprang. However, the most significant characteristic of the “digital revolution” is an explosive new amount of interaction and participation that is profoundly different in volume and character from what has gone before. It poses new challenges for theatre that are only beginning to be understood. It offers new audiences and new communities. And it demands new forms of performance and new spaces to show it in.” (Blake, 2014, p. xii)or perhaps, we can just make the conclusion in a quote,“ clearly defined boundaries between the arts have been fading since Fluxus, Happenings and Performance Art for over half a century” (Fattal, 2004, p. 107). Happenings are new form of performance.