Toward a Digital Theater

Essays that begin “Toward a…” typically argue for whatever follows the ellipsis. In this case, I have no intention of trying to advocate for a Digital Theater. Not because I don’t want one, mind you, but because I believe one is coming whether I want one or not. That is to say, I believe that we are going to see fundamental changes in how we’re able to make and experience theater, all of them in one way or another digital. Advocacy not required.

Those fundamental changes have already come to how we talk about theater, how we produce theater, and how we market and sell theater. Twitter chats about theatrical innovation, theater blogs, Tessitura, theater websites, Facebook event invitations for openings, Talkbacks, script submission via emailed PDF, Kickstarter campaigns, digital programs for shows: the list is too long to detail. Digital advancements are here already — it’s almost as if they snuck up on us — and they aren’t going anywhere.

More importantly, fundamental digital changes have also already come to virtually everything else human beings do, from diagnosing illnesses to teaching children to grocery shopping, and I don’t see any reason why the digital era should leave theater, alone among all human endeavors, untouched.

Let me re-assert that I’m talking about live theater: that’s what I think is about to be transformed (though perhaps a better word might be “expanded”). The way some audience members experience plays is going to change, and the ways in which some of us make plays for those audience members is going to change. We are going to incorporate digital ideas and innovations, more and more often, into the telling of stories.

Some will hate this change and fight it. Some may hate it and, I fear, abandon the art. (Some of us might *be* abandoned, too.) Some of us, I suspect, think about our practice in fluid enough terms to incorporate whatever changes might come. And some of us are already working to make those changes happen.

Language is almost certainly going to have to change. Think of the word audience, with its etymological implication that we simply listen to a piece of theater. I’ve used it twice already in this essay, but it’s simply not accurate any more — not really, or not all the time. Consider this story:

Not long ago, I spent an hour at E-GEAUX, a piece of digital theater conceived of and created by my friend Joseph Price, and I found myself utterly perplexed by the task of describing what I did that evening. You see, the show incorporates live data from the Facebook accounts of audience members who choose to share it; in addition, we were encouraged to tweet during the show, using a certain hashtag, and some of our tweets were actually integrated, real-time, into the story we were being told. On three different occasions I was referenced during the narrative. Pictures of me and my young son were projected to the audience. By the end of the evening, I wasn’t sure whether I’d gone to a show or been in one. Our vocabulary is no longer sufficient.

The anecdote I’ve just shared makes me realize that I have yet to actually define what I mean by digital theater. My delay in doing so here is simply the result of the fact that I don’t know how. I think it’s going to take ten thousand or more of us, playing around with ten thousand options for the next five decades, to figure it out, really. The definition will become clear in hindsight, after we’ve figured out how to make it happen. We’ll experiment our way to an understanding.

Will the future look something like E-GEAUX? Probably not. As clever as the show was, it felt a touch like a gimmick: like the point of the story (a tech tycoon giving a demo of new software) was simply to do all those digital tricks I’ve mentioned, and as innovative as they were, the novelty would undoubtedly wear off quickly. In short order, we will need to figure out how we can use these digital innovations to help tell a non-digital story: to integrate them into our tool belt, along with light boards and acoustic tiles and other technologies, and deploy them only when necessary.

I can already hear some dubious folks asking: is this a flash in the pan, or are there other examples of digital theater? Believe me, there are plenty. Max Sparber’s play NSFW, as I understand it, is intended to incorporate a Twitter feed — the tweets contributed by audience members — into its set design. The HotCity Theatre in St. Louis recently made news by commissioning a social media play. More and more theaters are offering “tweet seats” — places in the house in which it’s acceptable to tweet during a performance, ostensibly about the show one is watching. Spend time on Twitter talking theater and you’ll learn about many other high-profile examples. These are the harbingers of change.

Do you think I’m crazy to make such strong assertions? I can tell you I’m not the only one making them, for whatever that’s worth. Do you think the idea of people participating in the creation of the theater they interact with is ludicrous? I can tell you that a whopping 36 people (out of a crowd that couldn’t have been very much larger than that) chose to share their data the night I visited E-GEAUX. Almost all of us wanted into the story.

And that, fundamentally, is my point: more of us expect interaction now in everything we do, thanks to the digital age in which we live. We expect our social networks to be layered into every experience. We expect to be able to make choices. We expect our worlds to be personalized. We expect to be at least somewhat in control. We carry the entire internet and every single relationship we have in our pockets. We don’t always wait any more; we tweet to fill the time. We don’t have to ponder, if we don’t want to, because we can search. We don’t pine and feel lonely; we connect. We don’t agonize; we comment. Why should we shut all that down just because we’ve entered a certain building? If we make people do that, theater’s going to feel more and more strange and inaccessible.

We need to start creating a kind of theater that welcomes digital possibilities. That breathes more slowly, perhaps, allowing time for audience members (there’s that term again) to stare at their phone screens for the length of a 140-character comment. (Or at least let them decide whether or not they mind missing a few lines of dialogue in order to have a chance to say something.) We need to find ways to seamlessly and smartly integrate those comments into our art.

We need to find a way to personalize our storytelling for our audiences. Incorporate the contents of a random audience member’s Flickr photo stream into a play about a photographer. Replace character names with the names of another audience member’s family. (Just used “audience member” twice!)  Project the names of everyone who has checked in on FourSquare before a performance onto a series of digital headstones in a horror comedy set in a cemetery. I kid, but only a little: the possibilities are nonetheless endless.

We need to ask ourselves what we can do to keep inventing and stop wringing our hands about what might be lost in the transformation. Of course things are going to be lost. Things have been lost before. We have survived, and we’ll survive again. And we’re still going to make plays in which actors simply walk around on stages wearing costume and reciting lines while people sit in chairs and watch them, without any digital enhancement, at least for the foreseeable future, if not for a long time. (Digital theater may not be for everyone, and that’s all right.) But the full future isn’t guaranteed to us. Our art form could actually die, or at least fall into full-on marginalization, if it doesn’t evolve. That’s what sometimes happens. And I don’t want it to happen to us.

5 thoughts on “Toward a Digital Theater”

  1. Gwyd, thanks for the thoughtful and generous write-up of the show and support on Twitter and beyond.

    In this reading of the show, it seems like the plot is a meta-conceit: the e-Geaux technology demo is a theater technology demo that suggests a few features for future integration of technology and live performance.It’s an interesting reading, but we also hope (and I think) that there’s a fun, funny, thematically coherent show that stands on its own too! (And if it doesn’t, I blame the lead performer. First thing I’m doing in any potential remount is recasting that guy.) But we’re definitely in agreement that e-Geaux (beta) has a certainly flexibility in presenting tech because of its setup; the challenge will be to incorporate these technologies into everyday plays about detectives, businesswomen, and vampires.I’d also be remiss if I didn’t hijack your forum briefly to plug the team that made the show possible. While Amy Couchoud and I conceived of the show, Allen Leis, Chuck Harmston, Cat Deadman, Jason Pittman, Derek Hills, and Hannah Poferl were all essential in teasing out what possible from our melange of theater, mobile tech, and social media. It was a truly multidisciplinary project. I mean to do a write-up sometime about what it means to expand a production team beyond traditional theatrical disciplines. Though, if I remember correctly, you’ve got some experience under your belt with that too.

  2. Enjoyable read, and as a practitioner engaging in the creation of digital theater, I agree entirely that a vocabulary (and what a vocabulary presumes about comprehension) is part of the next stage of development. Simply describing what this is presents difficulties sufficient to impact box office receipts. 

    1. Thank you, Robert. Oh, the impact on the box office: yes. If for no other reason than to make sure we don’t lose our shirts while experimenting, we need to figure out how to market what we do.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top