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The World Wide Theater at Our Fingertips

Theatre practitioners have a conflicted relationship with internet technology as it relates to performance. Sure, it’s great for conducting ticket sales, but most people in the industry have taken a stance against internet-using in a theatrical space. Whether it’s “tweet seats,” streaming performances, or social media management, the internet has been stigmatized in the theatre industry as a necessary nuisance. However, this is in reaction to a clunky attempt to integrate the internet into the theatre. What if we rethink the very nature of the web’s potential to shape theatre? What if the internet is not a means to an end, but rather an end in itself? How can the internet become a realized part of the performance, not just a supplemental marketing tool to promote the performance?

Our idea to produce and present the Leaving Dynamite show (a poetry-theatre project exploring male youth violence in America), and livestream the show from New Orleans on HowlRound TV originated from Stephen King’s “pay what you want” novel The Plant. King planned to release a new novel in online installments that his readers could pay for at that their discretion. Stephen King’s experiment ended up failing because readers lost interest in paying for vignettes of an incomplete work and King was unwilling to release more portions for free. But we wanted to take this idea and tweak it. In running a livestream, our goal was to create a similar workshop environment where, after a week of practices and rehearsals, we would give our audience, composed entirely of livestream viewers, the opportunity to watch the first staging, in full and for free, of an unfinished piece. The allure of this accessibility lies in giving audiences the opportunity to see a piece of art not as a refined final product, but as a living and continuously ongoing work.

A man on stage looking at a TV
An actor on stage for Leaving Dymnamite. Photo by Alex Ates and DCW3. 

We were determined that the spirit of a festival based around the connectivity of social media technologies, and specifically, the immediacy of livestreaming, remain alive and well.

Leaving Dynamite was livestreamed last year. Launching the livestream was an accomplishment in and of itself, since neither of us had ever attempted anything like it before. With the success of that first process, what evolved next was the thought that perhaps we could take this livestream idea to the level of a full-fledged theatre festival, using multiple livestreams as a bill of performances for people to watch with scheduled show times for when the streams would begin playing. This idea would bring theatre to the people, literally, rather than making people physically travel to a theatre. And so we set up a Leaving Dynamite Wordpress page complete with a little blog for us to post our thoughts relating to the production. As other individual commitments and projects arose and interrupted our focus, our little blog began to fall by the wayside. The blog was the rough draft of asserting our work into the public browser. It was an easy, surface-level assertion, but we found we could not maintain it. Our idea to manage our mission on a blog platform was idealistic and illusory, but part of a necessary first development process. We came to realize that failures and alterations would become the nature of this experiment. We were determined that the spirit of a festival based around the connectivity of social media technologies, and specifically, the immediacy of livestreaming, remain alive and well. We wanted to create a festival whose stage is the internet itself, a space capable of fitting any number of actors on stage and audience members in the house, all the while allowing them to interact with each other instantaneously.

Reach Out and Touch with Social Media
Many people, and artists specifically, perceive social media—and technology in general—as the death of the human touch, but we see social media as a passport to humanity. There is something incredibly empowering about the potential reach of social media. As performers, we’re accustomed to looking out into a crowd and seeing strangers—this is nothing new—but now, with the help of technology, we can connect to strangers miles away, in other states, or even other countries, and those strangers might pass our work on to their friends, who might pass it on their friends, etc., and all of this can happen instantaneously. Social media presents the best opportunity we have for a truly international community and a universal theatre. Perhaps, in some sense, social media is the ultimate manifestation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. The internet is the place where people everywhere can go to for information and watch art unfold in front of them. However, unlike Shakespeare’s Globe, there are no groundlings on the internet; all audiences have the same seat and the same opportunity. Your only admission ticket is a common internet connection.

When we first set out to create a festival, we were looking at it from the perspective of a festival in a physical world that just happens to take place online. Over the past year our thinking has shifted. If we can have a conversation between Boston and New Orleans (our respective locations) with the same immediacy as a face-to-face conversation, perhaps communication technology has rendered physical space irrelevant and time truly subjective. The fact of the matter is that our new technologies allow us to share a dual existence. We are both present and telepresent. Dhiraj Murthy, a theorist working with social media and its effects on contemporary culture, writes in his text Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age that “computer-mediated communication in general often makes us feel as if we’re in a non-technological space, which has the immediacy of face-to face communication. This occurs through the process of ‘telepresence,’ which is defined as the ‘perceptual illusion of nonmediation.’” Telepresnce then refers to the consciousness a person inhabits in a virtual space because social media and communications technologies make personal interaction possible without the need for physical presence.

As artists and creators we feel a responsibility to venture into the new frontier and begin responding to the interconnectedness of humanity and technology.

Telegram, Telephone, Telepresence
Imagine walking down the street while texting. Your body takes up a physical space—you are literally a presence—which is why you can bump into people or parking meters, but you are also invested in a conversation with someone else, a person who isn’t physically present with you, yet whom you are still consciously communicating with. This presence or consciousness that allows you to inhabit the conversation is telepresence, and because of it we possess the ability to simultaneous exist as an intangible—a kind of electronic ether—and as a physical being. As the consciousness, and presence of humanity is shifting, we like to think about how theatre can follow its audience into the unknown. As artists and creators we feel a responsibility to venture into the new frontier and begin responding to the interconnectedness of humanity and technology.

Which brings us back to Leaving Dynamite.

Leaving Dynamite will be an ongoing festival. To accurately reflect the internet age and respond to the digitalization of the physical world, it has to be a timeless festival, a collection of work that is always live and always archived, that is old as soon as it’s new, but remains innovative.

A dime and a nickel
Leaving Dynmamite promotional poster. Photo by Alex Ates and DCW3. 

Pixels, Code, and Civic Connection
Inevitably, there will be those who say an attempt to integrate internet communication with the practice of theatre is inherently anti-theatre. One might say what defines theatre is the power of being in a space in the physical presence of others—the sharing of breath, the eye contact, the warmth of sitting close to a stranger. This perspective is valid. The ability of theatre to draw people into a physical space together contains an indescribable magic. Core to theatre’s purpose is to comment on the state of the world around us—our environment, our rituals, our status quo. Doesn’t the internet contain this same potential? The interconnectedness that the internet provides is undeniably vast. The access of its potential is remarkable. The civic power contained in an internet connection has astonished the world time and time again. As Murthy points out about the Arab Spring: “[e]ven if tweets in Egypt did not ‘help’ the movements in Egypt themselves, they did raise global awareness, which directly led to increased diplomatic pressure and humanitarian aid. This may not have been revolutionary per se, but it had some discernible impact.” Another example that’s perhaps closer to home is the recent fight for Net Neutrality, when the FCC opened up their site for anyone to make a comments on in June of this year, the server was so overwhelmed by an outpouring of people sharing their convictions and opinions that the FCC website crashed. The internet provides Americans with a new platform on which to petition their grievances and public opinion reacted so quickly that a government agency was overwhelmed. As theatre artists, it is essential to the creed of our craft that we not bury our heads in the sand or proclaim elitist seniority (“Theatre has been this way, so that’s the way it must stay.”) Why should we change? Why should we consider making a leap into the world of pixels, code, connection? Because it’s the telepresent world that is shaping our present world. We have a duty and an opportunity to dive in and “hold a mirror up to nature.” It is essential. And, in many ways, it is a pure pursuit of theatre as we know it: to be an agent of unique-to-the-moment comment and perspective.

Theatre companies have already started stepping out into the wide unknown of the internet. Philadelphia’s New Paradise Labratories has created two of what they call “cyberpieces,” plays on the internet that audiences can access at anytime and “watch” online. These web preformances, Extremely Public Displays of Privacy and Fatebook: Avoiding Catastrophe One Party at a Time electrify the DNA of theatre in a form of new, but familiar life. They create characters on social media profiles, conflict with internet communication (be it messages or emblems), and journey through the endless (spontaneous) opportunities the internet presents to us so simply, so easily. New Paradise explores how we can under go an odyssey with a single click.

Another theatre company, dog & pony dc uses the infrastructure of Twitter in their production, A Killing Game by utilizing hashtags to record the audience’s participation in an archival, all-accessible script of reaction and interaction. On dog & pony’s Storify account, a site that records Twitter threads into online scrapbooks, all Twitter interaction during a performance is catalogued for anyone to view. Like New Paradise, dog & pony creates profiles for their characters on common social media sites and encourages internet interaction by asking the audience members to “friend” or “follow” their characters.

Nature Theater’s videos express a physical and emotional language that would be difficult to articulate through any other delivery.

New York’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma explores concepts and pursues inspirations through internet videos prominently featured on their website. They explore artistic mediums, characters, and circumstances through video experiments that expand upon text or conceits. They have a series of “test” videos that explore stop motion animation. Using still photographs of their ensemble, the videos feature short monologues, vintage or original music, and the percussive movement of stop motion. Nature Theater’s videos express a physical and emotional language that would be difficult to articulate through any other delivery. If the videos were to be shown in a live theatre, on a stage, the content would exist in a contrary context. When one watches Nature Theater’s videos within the proscenium arc of their computer screen, the content stands alone creating its own world with its own set of stylistic rules. This is different from movies or television shows because the work is being created and conceived by an ensemble, a theatre company with a mission and an artistic intention that promotes the fundamental quality of theatre: presence, whether one is physically present or telepresent.

What Is This? A Welcome
The terrain of the internet is a scary one. As artists and creators we never know where our work might go or what it might become. Perhaps it will go viral and fade into obscurity after a day, or maybe it’ll become a meme, a running online joke. And who knows what will work and what won’t. But what we believe, faithfully, is that no matter how theatre interacts with the infrastructure of the web, it will succeed. Why? Because theatre is relevant enough and malleable enough to exist in any plane, through any medium. We just need artists brave enough to take a leap, to step out to where there is no solid foundation and start building. There is no precedent, but there is potential in what we know to be powerful: the act of theatre.

The risk is high. And the failure rate will, most likely, be high as well. As we explore a telepresent world that is complicated, new, and varied there will be a large amount of failure. But, we must all know, partnered with that risk is reward. Significant reward. Reward that could mean the redefinition of theatre in the contemporary landscape.

Maybe it’s a show where actors are in different locations but all acting out a single cohesive plot and reacting to one another’s parts as if they are on the same stage. Or a performance piece using real-time security camera footage to comment on the recent NSA security scandals and our conflicting desires for privacy and security. Or perhaps an adaptation of The Tempest using HTML coding and algorithms in which realities are actually created and dismantled before the audience’s eyes, critiquing the socio-economic relationship between mysticism and access to technology. The potential is quite literally endless, just as the internet itself. If you’re interested in using these tools and expanding mediums to create theatre and art, then send us a submission and help us both explore and create space in this seemingly infinite location.

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Thank you for the provocative piece. There is much here to inspire ideas and creativity. I have to point out a major caveat that you seem to avoid having addressed. There are indeed 'groundlings' in terms of theater audiences on the internet: people who cannot obtain broadband for reasons of geography and cost.

There are many counties in the US that still have a high percentage of residents without broadband: http://www.dailyyonder.com/...

The broadband research I follow points out worrying trends: "The figures below show the metro/nonmetro gaps in broadband adoption rates for various income and education levels in both 2003 and 2010. Adoption rates for all households increased over this time. However, the metro/nonmetro gap has in fact gotten larger in some cases – suggesting that rural households are now even further behind their urban counterparts than they originally were in 2003. In particular, the metro/nonmetro gap for households with lower income levels (less than $40,000) is actually larger in 2010 than it was in 2003. While the gap for higher-income households has decreased, these lower income residences seem to be losing ground in rural America – at least in terms of broadband adoption."

That's the rural-urban axis. What about other demographic considerations?

"This trend of increasing metro/nonmetro broadband gaps over time for
specific demographic groups continues along racial and ethnic lines.
Figure 5 demonstrates that for minority categories such as black,
Hispanic, and other race, the metro/nonmetro gaps are larger in 2010
than they were in 2003. The metro/nonmetro gap for whites was relatively
consistent in both years, while Asian households actually had higher
broadband adoption rates in nonmetro areas in 2010 (and thus had a
“negative” gap)."

(Both quotes from http://www.dailyyonder.com/...

I appreciate that you mentioned the possible end of net neutrality, which threatens to create classes of internet users which are more directly comparable to groundings. It's true that many more people might be able to watch or take part in a performance online than can travel long distances, but I'm also very wary of information technology utopianism when it comes to something important like having access to theater.

Looking forward to your next article!

This is very exciting. I am planning to close Stage Left Studio, my NYC theater, next summer because costs are too high and income is dwindling. My plan is to go to Santa Fe and create a developmental space there. And my hope has been that somehow I could find a way to grow an audience online and give away tickets to the local community, so that we have a live audience in the house, for the actors to play to, and an online audience, who would be invited to donate, or else pay a nominal fee to see the shows. I think this is the future of theater - online and live - together. I certainly will be submitting shows.

A terrific read and very energizing when thinking of theatre as a medium for change rather than a medium of stagnation. That being said, there are lots of logistics to sort out beyond the use of the technology and the ability to find an audience, mainly how to handle it with the unions. AEA currently doesn't allows producers, and theatre artists for that matter, to create a five-minute video as a sort of preview for their work. The big challenge of "The World Wide Theater at Our Fingertips" is not the technology or the ideas, but rather the legality of producing it when it comes to working with union practitioners.

As a general rule, using the internet as a theater is going to be a tough road to hoe for sure. But there is one way I think the theater community could make good use of the internet.

I've thought for years that Broadway should make use of this medium to attract more revenue and interest in their shows. The vast majority of theater fans live outside the NYC metro area and cannot make it to the theater on Broadway very often. I find this fact very annoying whenever an interesting show closes prior to my seeing it.

Would it be that hard to stream, or record then broadcast Broadway shows. Most people would not be looking for Hollywood quality recording at all. You could charge subscriptions or on a per-watch basis and reach millions more theater fans around the country and world.

Also, an alternative like this might help stop the in-theater filming by fans that can ruin the experience for them and those around them for the purposes of piracy. Give people a better, reasonably priced option and they will take it. This is no different then the Napster via Music Industry battles of the late 90's. Apple created iTunes and the rest is history. Sure...piracy will still exist but to a lesser extent and the artist will be getting something out of it as well.