Theatre in a Mobile World

Critiquing Convention and Calling for Innovation

In the theatre world, the desire to reach new audiences is important not only as a monetary venture, but also as a way to experiment with new ways of doing and defining theatre. Cultivating new audiences is usually part of the mission statement of any theatre, troupe, or individual artist. The survival of any art form is dependent on introducing new generations to the enjoyment of the form and its possibilities for eliciting unique experiences on the part of its audience. Finding what connects with younger audiences, especially the emerging generation of college graduates and Millennials is crucial in these two aspects, serving to create potential lifelong patrons and identifying shifts in the currents of theatrical efficacy. As a theatre educator and theatre artist, my work straddles the line between what reaches an audience in performance and what reaches the students in the classroom. For that reason I have a unique perspective on what may interest potential theatre audiences of the future; and there is one thing that is growing in application amongst the classrooms of the twenty-first century and has made me think about its potential for the theatre—mobile platforms. Yes, I’m referring to content accessed through apps on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices and their crucial implementation into the theatre of the twenty-first century.

The many descriptions used to explain the speed at which information travels in our world today are already worn out tropes—perhaps reiterating the sentiment of the trope itself and how fast the world has changed in the two and a half decades since the internet became a widely accessible part of our daily lives. Terms like “live-tweeting” have come to signify the immediacy not only at which a person can share an experience, but also that there exists the potential for a group of people to find interest in connecting to the experience through the digital eyes of the person doing the tweeting. Never in the history of humanity have more people in more places been able to access practically any event as it unfolds in real time. Events like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the more recent protests against police violence in Ferguson and Baltimore have unfolded on the global stage of mobile technology. The world is immediate and the people in it are aLIVE twenty-four hours every day. And theatre is largely resisting this world. Think about it: we (mostly) ask our audiences to commute to a particular location, step into a dark building, shut off all access to the outside world, be quiet, and not disturb us as we attempt (not always with success) to transport them to the world of a play that is—to hit on another tired trope —a reflection of the world we have asked them to ignore.

As theatre artists, we must tap into the potential of mobile platforms to extend the qualities of our art that differentiate it from other art forms [as] [i]ncreasingly, more and more individuals see digital space as the home of their truest selves.

At this point I am going to say thank you for continuing to read beyond that last statement. Please understand that I am not advocating that we allow people to talk, text, browse Facebook, and generally “check out” while hard-working artists that have stretched their bodies, minds, and creative spirits for weeks put themselves on the line for their audiences in order to awaken thoughts and feelings that go unexperienced in the course of everyday life. But the world we theatre artists seek to create in our theatre spaces seems out of touch with the world of the twenty-first century. At times, I worry that theatre itself has become a tired old trope of a bygone era.

What makes theatre powerful, what gives it efficacy amongst the arts and other mimetic art forms, namely film, is that the events of a performance unfold in real time; living, breathing bodies working from conflict to resolution live and in front of an audience. This element of the “live” is what builds the shared experience between performer and observer, giving theatre its power to touch audiences deep within their psyche—the work of cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have, for more than two decades, shown that empathy and embodiment are powerful ways in which humans learn and experience simply through observing the actions of others. And for this reason I do not want to change what the theatre does best: presenting real live human beings for the sake of telling human stories to an audience who experiences a greater version of their own individual humanity through the actions of the people they are watching. But I must admit that I believe this picture of humanity has spread into the digital, online realm—whether for good or ill.

As theatre artists, we must tap into the potential of mobile platforms to extend the qualities of our art that differentiate it from other art forms. The digital space (I choose to use “digital” rather than “cyber” to define nonphysical space, as the content that one encounters online is usually referred to as having been digitized) should be considered for its ability to add another layer of a live performance to our experience. This space is designed to exist in conjunction, even in collaboration, with the physical space each person occupies. Increasingly, more and more individuals even see the digital space as the home of their truest selves. And yet, most who attend the theatre are asked to remove themselves from it. But the whole concept of space and the ability to perform within it is being challenged in our ever-increasing digital age, where the intersection of digital and physical space sparks the impetus for performance creation. Some theatre artists have already begun to explore the ways in which live space is informed by digital space in order to create new and engaging work.

The work of the New York Neo-Futurists, Nerve Tank, and New Paradise Laboratories Performance Theatre has resulted in new ways to approach performance and performance creation; and like much of the content in the digital age, the old formal lines that once differentiated one art from another—i.e., performance art from theatre—are effectively blurred. I offer no critique of these individual works or their intrinsic value, except to say that as a whole, they represent some of the more well received works and provide critical and interesting takes on the performative ways in which humans interact with one another through digital means. But these are all new and devised works that are specifically structured to leave room for twenty-first-century technology, where the performance is framed by or in conjunction with the technology, rather than extending into it. Nerve Tank’s production, The Attendants, places two performers in a plexiglass box and asks viewers to communicate with them through text messages that are displayed on screens visible to both performer and audience. The result is a performance that questions how we view physical confinement in a digital world. In 2009, the New York Neo-Futurists staged what they called “Twitter Plays,” or plays that had been tweeted at them (meaning these plays were contained within 140 characters and were responses to prompts originally tweeted out by the group) by people from around the world. In these examples, technology was purposefully designed or conceived to fit into the world of those performances. Conventional belief holds that the same methodology would not be as effective for say, Twelfth Night or Antigone, simply because the world of these plays is built upon different theatrical conventions relevant to the context from which they were written. But how much more powerful, effective, and engaging could these plays be if they communicated to their audiences in similar ways that their audiences communicate with each other?

People climbing in a glass box
The Attendants, a Nerve Tank production. Photo by Amanda de Simone.

Not all theatres and theatre companies have the resources to create new works like those mentioned above, nor do many aim to do such work. But all theatre artists seek to cultivate younger audiences that will hopefully become life-long patrons. The challenge, as I see it, is to find ways to extend the world of play literally into the hands of Millennials and the college-age demographic of 18–22 year-olds. Semester after semester I read the papers of this group about their experiences at the theatre, many of whom have never attended a theatrical production in their lives, and its clear that most get little out of what they have seen. I also speak with the theatre artists who, despite the rigorous rehearsal and preparation, are disheartened by the lack of interest and general apathy of college student audiences as the glow of mobile devices can be seen throughout the house on any given night of a performance. But for many, these devices are as essential to them as the limbs on their bodies. I know that if we could only get them to put down their damn phones then they might learn something or actually enjoy what they see, but that is the point: we are asking them to change and bend to our conventions and we are unwilling to ask ourselves, “why do they feel that what is on that device can better tell them about the world in which they live?”

The conventions of our art have changed in the past. It is only for a little over 100 years that we have come into structures specifically designed for the acoustical challenges of live performance, sat with the expectation that other members of the audience will be quiet and courteous, watched the house lights dim completely out, and applaud nearly ever performance we see no matter how good or bad it may have been. The conventions of our art form have changed over the millennia and must continue to change into the future. We cannot hold sacred conventions that marginalize potential new audiences simply because that is what we have always done. The truth is that no other art form has better possibility for incorporating mobile technology and the digital space into its conventions than theatre. In a time where I constantly read responses comparing a boring theatrical production to the exciting experience of the blockbuster movie my students attended, it is theatre’s live and immediate engagement that makes it flexible and able to meet these young audiences where they live: online.

Every play, regardless of when it was written, has at its heart the need to connect with its audience in powerful ways. The digital space is the conduit through which younger audiences plug into what they are experiencing.

The challenge is how to do this. How do theatre artists continue to stage the great works and new plays of our wide dramatic canon and yet allow for new conventions that include the use of mobile devices? The inclusion of so-called tweet seats has risen in recent years, whereby a certain number of seats are designated (away from the majority of audience members who abstain from using their devices) for audience members to use their phones and devices as much as they might like. Tweet seats and the “twittermission” are not without their [ovften vocal] critics, but they represent experiments in incorporating mobile platforms into live performance. And for those that make use of these opportunities, they seem to have a different experience of the performance than those that do not, as was the case with productions of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning by Tim Price done by the National Theatre Wales and live-streamed with accompanying online chat and discussion. Is this not what we seek from live performance: engaging effectively many different people from numerous backgrounds and ages all at one time? There is the opportunity to see photos and posts by cast members backstage and respond to the cast as well as with other audience members (in a way truly bringing them together during the experience without disrupting it audibly). Many Broadway shows have their own Twitter and Facebook accounts and regularly engage with audiences outside of the play-going experience. All of this expands the theatre experience rather than limits it. I have personally sat outside of a theatre while a production was occurring and watched the stream of Yik Yak users post their comments about their experience and watched as others added comments to that stream (although this was not encouraged as a part of the production). There is power in these digital platforms to give opportunity to our younger patrons to build community around the theatrical event in a way that is specific and effective to them, while at the same time, not shifting the conventions of the theatre so much that older (more…conventional) patrons can experience and commune with the production in a way that is most effective for them. It will truly be the art of community when theatre creates spaces in which multiple generations can be moved in their own ways at the same time.

Three performers on stage
The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, (l-r) Kyle Rees, Matthew Aubrey (as Bradley Manning) and Matthew Gilhooly.

Certainly, there are many answers to the question of mobile platforms within the theatre. As I think about the ways in which theatre could embrace the digital space, it is difficult to provide detailed specifics, but I can envision a space in which younger audiences are more comfortable interacting with a performance or performer. Recently, I staged a new translation of The Play About the Antichrist by Carol Symes in which I experimented with approaches that allowed actors to tweet, during rehearsals and performances, about their experience negotiating their character, their process, and the contextual interplay between the history of the play and the current moment. While the audience reached online was difficult to assess—as we did not have the budget to incorporate a social media team to monitor all angles of this approach—the actors voiced a great deal of enjoyment with being able to publicly and openly share the work involved with their craft, even while in the midst of carrying it out—similar to how many theatre artists journal about their experiences.

A woman performing
The Play About the Antichrist, which incorporated the use of Twitter and Instagram as a part of the performance process. The photo features Taylor Toms as Gentilitas. Photo courtesy of Kyle Thomas. 

How much more powerful could a performance be if a young woman was able to communicate with Antigone about her own anxieties of doing what she knows to be right despite social pressure to feel otherwise? What if a young African-American man could be given the opportunity, in real time, to connect his own experiences as a black citizen of this country to the attempts by Iago to destroy Othello and then share those insights with his own digitally-connected community? What if we could connect together an entire audience to organize themselves in such a way as to also call for the strike at the end of Waiting for Lefty? Every play, regardless of when it was written, has at its heart the need to connect with its audience in powerful ways. The digital space is the conduit through which younger audiences plug into what they are experiencing. Perhaps it is through a show with a second cast that works to interact with audience members through mobile platforms, answering questions and posing discussion topics in character. Perhaps theatres and producers should consider the creative potential that an app designer may bring to a production team for a show. Perhaps the digital space may change the way the audience interacts with the physical space as it could provide histories, instructions, directions, and other important information regarding space and how it is navigated and negotiated. There are many possibilities, and in the twenty-first century it is imperative for artists and producers to feel free to explore how the digital space could enhance the theatre experience.

I think posing the question of social media as a part of theatrical conventions is extremely important in our digital age and I know that the theatre cannot cultivate new audiences if it continues to maintain its hostility towards a generation coming of age that has never known a world without the internet. Truly, if there is one thing that unites all generations of theatergoers it is the sense that the theatre represents a community to which we feel connected. Embracing the digital space only expands the reach of this community and provides access to possibilities and experiences that young and beginning theatre artists may not have, especially those in areas where there are few theatre opportunities to take in. And ultimately, if there is one thing I know and teach about theatre, it is that theatre is a collaborative art; and as such, our community of theatre artists will come up with ever more inventive and effective ways of reaching new audiences. The theatre will survive. The theatre will thrive in our twenty-first century.

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great article. And I agree with most of the observations. BUT I believe that lifelong theatre goers don't begin going to the theatre in their 20's. They begin as children. Ask most adults who love theatre and they'll tell you they were hooked by something they saw as a kid. THAT'S the demographic our field should be addressing rather than 19-22 yr olds in order to build audiences.

I appreciate the intention to extend a hand to the digital community; to embrace the screens, rather than attempt to run from them, or demand they be put away. But I wonder if it's part of our responsibility to build a place where we don't need the screens. A place where we can practice sitting alone, without them. Maybe we just need to make our theatre as thrilling as watching Netflix, so that it's worth putting the phones away. I know. We haven't gotten there, yet. Perhaps it's about enlisting the devices to GET the audience into the theatre. And then, once they are there, rock their world in a way that they won't forget.

Thanks for the thoughts Augustus! I think the way we little glowing devices is what needs to change. They are tools - yes, they can be tools for distraction, but they could also be tools for enhancement, particularly for enhancement of space. I agree with you that the first step is to get them into the space so that hopefully we theatre artists can stop viewing them as the enemy to live performance and start seeing the potential they could bring.

So many interesting and engaging ideas here. I will be interested to see and hear how various companies negotiate the reality of the digital world in the many different contexts in which they work. I cannot imagine there will be a "one-size-fits-all" approach to incorporating or negotiating the digital space, but many varied collaborations/combinations/solutions. I'm interested to see how the field continues to react and respond to the digital world. In my heart of hearts, I hope that we see a decrease in the need to be attached to our devices, that we find time to put them down and be in the moment -- something that theatre can do very well. Beyond the world of theatre, I think that creating a non-digital space is just as or more important than negotiating the digital into other aspects of our lives.

I'm also really excited to see what theatre companies do to stretch theatre into the digital space. I'd really like to see what complanies do for plays not specifically designed to incorporate the digital space. I also agree that theatre is an excellent way to help us understand the value of putting down the glowing screen and experiencing the beauty of a given moment. But, it's so important to have at our disposal the tools to make that reach into the digital space should any company desire to make that a part of their performance. In order to do that, we have to accept that the world continues to move more and more into the digital realm. Thanks for your thoughts!