Picture a show with no video, no projection design, no treadmills moving scenery on and off the stage. Easy enough. But now imagine a theater without recorded music, without amplified sound, without electric lights. No simple feat. Actually, can you recall the last time you saw a play without any technical assistance, a show in which the media wasn’t somehow multi?
In January, New Yorkers enjoy two major festivals—COIL and Under the Radar—as well as satellite events and individual productions, most of them described as experimental, many of them actively engaged in questions about the use of stage technology: Are new developments a way to enhance live performance, or does mediation interfere with the very idea of liveness itself?
Theater has long embraced tech, from the deus ex machina of the Greeks to today’s latest digital effects. Designers have moved eagerly from daylight to gaslight to complicated electric plots, from natural acoustics to body miking. Directors began to use film onstage as soon as the 1880s, with video and computer graphics later to follow.
Yet unlike a movie, which can be played again and again, or an image on a website that can be instantly retrieved, theater can’t be reproduced or recovered or restored. Yes, we can watch a video of a performance, but that never truly re-creates the experience of sitting in the theater. As the essayist Walter Benjamin wrote, “Even the most perfect reproduction . . . is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space.”
While theater has adopted each new breakthrough, it also continues as a place to deny the technical infiltration of our lives, to reconnect to that presence Benjamin describes. Almost no play begins without a command to switch off our cell phones, to prohibit our recording devices. Stage productions invite us to step away from screens and lenses, to focus instead on other people, live before us.
Melis Tezkan, Okan Urun, and Ayça Damgaci, creators of Turkey’s Lick but Don’t Swallow, a tale of an angel/porn star at UTR, believe that their use of video actually enhances the liveness of the performance. “From our point of view,” they write in a recent e-mail, “technological content makes the theatricality more present, more visible. New dimensions and possibilities of playing occur to the actor.” However, the creators rely on video that’s purposefully shoddy, always announcing itself as recorded.
Marianne Weems, artistic director of the Builders Association, tends to use more refined tools. But in Sontag: Reborn, a solo show about the late philosopher that she has directed at UTR, she’s interested in the same interplay between the live and the mediated that preoccupies Lick‘s creators. “The frictions there are the most fascinating thing,” she says, “where you get to see the live performer, and then you see the tools that are being used to complete the magnification. For me, the pleasure is in looking at both of those things.”
Increasing that friction, director Kenneth Collins and video designer William Cusick, who created Temporary Distortion’s Newyorkland at COIL, try to achieve a distinct separation between live and filmed segments. Collins claims an interest in exploiting questions of identity and representation. “The world of the film in our work is oftentimes much more romantic and idealized than the sense you get of the lives of the characters onstage,” he says. “It is almost as if the film is showing how the characters wish they were in real life.” Conversely, Jay Scheib, who directs World of Wires, an adaptation of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder TV series at the Kitchen, doesn’t make any such distinctions. He argues that Wires‘ projections simply serve to “amplify the performers. I am using technology to make things more live.”
Yet Tom Ridgely, who co-directs Waterwell’s Goodbar, a glam-rock tragedy of a young woman’s sexual exploration, doesn’t share the same belief that video emphasizes presence. While he embraces the lavish music videos that Goodbar provides for each song, he trusts that the strength of the live performances will work against any audience alienation they might produce. “If there’s a human being strutting, sweating, and howling up on a stage, in the end, it doesn’t matter what’s on the screen behind him,” he says.
If some January shows simply make use of video, two pieces in the COIL Festival are actively about film and video. In David Levine’s Anger at the Movies, various professionals screen and discuss film clips that misrepresent their careers. Let Us Think of These Things Always. Let Us Speak of Them Never., created by Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulish, explores the films of Ingmar Bergman and Serbian director Dusan Makavejev.
But while the actors in that piece watch films on laptops, the audience never sees their screens. Instead they watch the performers re-enacting the scenes, observing, in the words of Hixson and Goulish, “the sweat and drool, the eating and spitting of apples, the drip of chocolate over hands, the smell and taste of the world.”
Levine, however, encourages his audience to focus on the screens he provides. “Why is that still considered radical, when we all have flat-screens at home and listen to Auto-Tune?” he asks. “Why wouldn’t we bring in laptops and video and vocorders and AI and all that?” Similarly, Caden Manson of Big Art Group, which debuts Broke House at Abrons Art Center, says: “We video-chat, blog, tweet, and post images to our friends and family. It’s important for us to speak the language of the everyday, and that language is image.”
Some theater artists believe there’s a danger inherent in confronting an audience with these mediated images uncritically. Mariano Pensotti, author of El pasado es un animal grotesco, which uses minimal tech, and Daniela Nicolò and Enrico Casagrande, creators of Alexis. A Greek Tragedy, which uses video, both at UTR, warn against technology used only, in the words of Nicolò and Casagrande, “for its aesthetic effect, a sort of decoration of the scene.”
Rabih Mroué, a Lebanese performance artist with two shows in the COIL Festival, resists this decoration. He uses deliberately outmoded technology—VHS tapes and players—to help audiences question “the use of images today, how we deal with images, how we can have doubts about them, how we can understand them.” Mroué says that in a culture like ours so overrun with images, we require art “to desacralize them and to deconstruct them in order to continue our lives.”
However these artists choose to approach new technologies—decoratively/critically, high-tech/low-tech, distracting/enhancing—they know that any device they use always functions in tension and in concert with the core of theater, the live bodies of the performers. As Scheib says of his show, “The most complex technology onstage are the actors.”