By now, if you’ve been connected to the internet even briefly in the last 24 hours, you’ve seen—experienced, really—The Wilderness Downtown.
What? You haven’t? I’m so sorry—go now and experience it. You’ll be back in a flash, trust me—and if you don’t come back… well… it’s probably more important for you to see the source material for this blog post than my second-hand consideration of it anyway. (But please do come back.)
Okay… now that it’s just us who’ve been through that… visited that… oh, hell. How do you even talk about it? Is it a website? Is it a music video? Is it an old photograph album with pictures of your neighborhood in it? Is it a place to write? It defies description!
What I loved about the Wilderness Downtown interactive experience, for want of a better term, was how personal it was. By providing a small bit of information about myself—my childhood address—I was essentially commissioning a unique, tailored-for-me piece of art. Not the most moving or brilliant or even complicated piece of art, but one with plenty of engagement power—I was hooked right away. (And when the writing prompt popped up, the hook got buried much more deeply into the flesh of my cheek.) The images were clearly relevant to my life, but somehow—perhaps by their proximity to those images—the music, the flying birds, and the runner all seemed to connect to me, too. It felt… significant.
As the last notes died out, and I sat there in admiring silence, the first thought that occurred to me was this: theater can do this, too.
Yes, of course there are key differences: theater is a shared medium—one-to-many, in conventional parlance, rather than one-to-one. But why does it have to be?
For example: why couldn’t I write a play about the secrets that get revealed in our dreams, then ask every audience member to scribble a secret on a postcard when the enter, then integrate those secrets into a semi-improvised segment of the story? Or invite audience members to upload photos of their immigrant ancestors, then build a simple slideshow to project those images behind a play about Ellis Island?
Think about Neo-Futurists audience members shouting out numbers, then increase the volume and significance of their choices until it becomes an audible representation of static—a sonic landscape supporting a movement-based piece about chaos theory. That’s the kind of thing I’m thinking about.
Those are just a few ideas I’ve shared off the top of my head—there are, naturally, infinitely more. But the well is largely untapped. Why is that?
I think it might be partially because we think of theater as a passive experience: we fork over our dollars, settle ourselves in our seats, and expect to be carried away. And of course, when that happens, that’s wonderful! We’ve all been completely transfixed like that—if you haven’t, you haven’t been seeing the right shows. But it doesn’t HAVE to be like that, not always… and increasingly, modern audiences welcome opportunities to interact with the art they’re experiencing.
More importantly, we live under a kind of false assumption that when we go to the theater, we’re all seeing the same story—but of course we’re not. Confused? Consider this: at the most basic level, we’re all sitting in different seats: we all view the production from different angles, literally seeing slightly different things.
But it’s deeper than that—much deeper. We each bring our own life experiences to the theater, and those experiences—quite obviously—affect how we perceive the shows we’re seeing. I recently sat through IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY, laughing gaily with the audience, only to realize belatedly that both my wife and our theater companion, seated on either side of me, were crying. (Boy, did I feel shallow.) I’m sure the three of us would describe the play we saw in very different terms. Can we even really be said to have seen the same story at all? Largely the same, of course… but not entirely the same.
So why not take that even farther? Why not (here’s another random idea) give everyone in the audience a sealed envelope with a randomly-selected zen koan in it, then instruct them to open their envelopes at some poignant moment in whatever story you’re telling them? Would it matter if everyone was reading a different riddle?
The simple fact is that, whether we like or not, a great wave of personalization has descended upon us, culturally. The website for virtually every clothing manufacturer used to be a simple electronic brochure. Now it’s old had to be able to design your own shoe with your own features and colors, then save your settings and preferences for a return visit. You and I can both use Google to conduct the same exact search at the same exact moment and we’ll still get different results.
Offline, the trend is also strong. The generation of children born in the last few years will literally never understand the notion of having to be at the television at a certain time to watch a show, thanks to DVR technology. Television is entirely on demand. You literally can’t walk into a Starbucks and order “a coffee.” Every single drink on the menu has to be constructed to your own personal preferences.
And why shouldn’t the world be this way? It feels so much more organic and natural than the mass-produced assembly-line world we’re hopefully emerging from. That’s why we like it! It speaks to the strain of individualism that’s endemic to the American character.
What I propose, then, is that a genuinely American theater—as a by-product of this cultural transformation—will best survive if it adapts to incorporate personalization in some form: perhaps not as a core attribute, but as a featured alternative to a more traditional theatrical experience. We can’t all be The Wilderness Downtown all the time, after all—a story well-told is still a story well-told, and it always will be.
What do you think?