Does digital technology have a place on the stage?
Theatre is a room full of seats. It is a plank of wood with a man in tights balancing on top of it. It is clapping. It is not a computer. There are no computers here. That, at least, seems to be one sweeping takeaway from a report that claims less than half (45%) of 207 surveyed theatre organisations see digital technology as important to the creation of work.
The Digital Culture 2015 report is the third annual survey from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts – a £7million fund run by Arts Council England, Nesta and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It suggests that, while theatre organisations see digital technology as important for marketing and archiving, they place significantly less importance on digital creation of work than the arts sector as a whole. According to the survey, only 8% of theatres indicated they have created standalone digital projects. That’s compared to 23% of those interviewed across the entirety of the arts.
Commenting on the report, Hasan Bakhshi, Nesta’s director of creative economy, said that signs organisations are pulling back on digital experimentation should be “cause for concern”. Is he right? Is the theatre sector falling behind when it comes to engagement with digital technology? Or does the report miss the point when it comes to the overlap between theatre and the digital?
Looking in all the wrong places
“This kind of research does nothing but pollute the discourse around computing and art,” Hannah Nicklin, theatre maker and game designer, told me. Nicklin has worked with companies such as The Space, Pervasive Media Studio and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). She pointed to a number of issues with the report, ranging from the fact that surveyed organisations are already linked to ACE, to problems with wrapping questions about creative production together with those about marketing.
“While Nesta’s job is to lobby for funding for innovation in arts science and technology, it’s completely wrongheaded for them to couch this research and the questions in primarily distribution, marketing and monetary concerns,” she said.
Aside from focusing on digital technology as a marketing and distribution tool, Nicklin told me that ACE and Nesta are looking in all the wrong places for inventiveness. “People in theatre and performance, installation and 3D art have been experimenting and making work using computers and networked media for over 35 years. There is not enough effort going towards understanding the contexts that give rise to this. At the same time, there are whole new practices emerging in games, netart, physical computing, pervasive games and media, as well as other areas I probably don’t know about yet.”
Computers on stage
While Nicklin advocates greater attention for organisations outside of the traditional theatre space, the other end of the performance spectrum is also showing signs of interest in expanding digital output. In conjunction with the National Theatre’s (NT) current production of Wonder.land – a retelling of Alice in Wonderland created by Blur frontman Damon Albarn, playwright Moira Buffini and director Rufus Norris – the NT has set up an installation encompassing Oculus Rift headsets, avatar creation and augmented reality face-tracking.
The centrepiece of the installation is an Oculus Rift experience involving a scene from the play rendered in virtual reality. Put on the headset and you’re faced with a giant, floating, toothy, disembodied cat’s head. Like the show it stems from, it is heavy on spectacle and light on subtly, yet those behind it are confident it can be integrated into theatre productions in a deeper way.
“We’re expanding and extracting from the storytelling that’s going on in the auditorium. NT Live has been able to relay the production in different ways, so we’re looking at this being a means by which we can tell the stories, either directly related to a production or even beyond and outside of that in its own right,” Johanna Nicholls, digital producer for The National Theatre, told me. “Immersive storytelling outside of the auditorium is something we’re really interested in exploring and developing.”
Nicholls went on to explain her interest in creating VR projects for productions with a less explicit connection to digital technology. Giving the example of Jane Eyre – another current production at the NT – she spoke about the possibility of handing artists and developers a budget to create digital offshoots that touch on the themes, rather than the form of their show.
Potentially outsourcing projects such as this to independent companies and organisations seems like a good way to broaden the scope of what a theatre space is. It demonstrates a willingness to experiment with the performative aspects of virtual spaces rather than physical spaces, but it ultimately hinges on convincing audiences that there is worth to VR beyond superficial spectacle – very much the same challenge facing VR developers in general.
While putting VR headsets into the corridor of a theatre is a particularly blunt example of the overlap between performance and technology, it’s important to remember there’s more to digital engagement than computers in buildings. In its broadest sense, the ubiquity of smartphones in our lives means that even the most physical productions are likely to tap into the habitual rhythms of digital life.
Less abstract is the notion that digital technology upsets the very idea of what a theatre space is – that performance (while not necessarily live) happens just as much on a PS4 as it does it does on the stage of the Olivier in the National Theatre. While Nesta’s survey takes its data from theatre organisations, a true look at digital performance would involve reconfiguring the idea of what a theatre is.