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Hacking Theater In A Networked World

We come to the theater to satisfy a Luddite urge for something more visceral, more live and less mediated, more unpredictable than a two-dimensional screen provides. It is, then, no surprise that the theater selects for, and cultivates, in its practitioners a reticence to integrate new technology. Let's own up: collectively we are late adopters.

As theater artists, we have an obligation, I think, to remedy this, or we find ourselves sprinting (faster) toward our obsolescence and abdicating our duty to hold a “mirror to nature” in an increasingly technological culture. Let us hack theater for a networked world, using the internet's numerical, geographical, and temporal scalability to interact with new audiences, insist on an ongoing and authentic relevance for our work, test new forms, and propagate new possibilities while preserving what is essential about our discipline. Let us trust that theater is resilient enough to make this leap as it has made many others, and that it will survive a modest but important re-programming. And of course, in the pursuit of this remedial integration, let us seek methods that integrate deeply into the art and the aesthetic, rather than yield to the easy seduction of bolt-on and gimmicky technical appendages.

Austin, a bubbling cauldron of new works for theater and a world-class center of hi-tech startups should be a foci of this work, and yet its marvelous potential as a capital of innovation for digital integration with performing art remains largely unrealized. There are virtually no dedicated performance spaces with a functional wired internet connection with proximity to the tech booth/performance space, and only one, to my knowledge, offering a connection greater than low-end residential speeds (>15 Mbps down & 1.5 Mbps up). So our work is cut out for us in making good on these extraordinary possibilities in Austin.

Texas state capitol building in Austin.
Austin, Texas.

I've been collaborating with Beth Burns at Hidden Room Theatre, Graham Schmidt at Breaking String Theater, Ron Berry at Fusebox Festival, Paul Menzer and Matt Davies at Mary Baldwin College (Staunton, VA), and Philip Arnoult at the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD; Baltimore, MD) to work on disparate pieces of hi-tech integration into the work of theater on stage and off.

For Mary Baldwin College, we are currently working with the Shakespeare and Performance faculty and graduate students to co-create actorscholar.com as an experimental platform for digital dramaturgy (or "digiturgy," a term recently introduced to me by Cassidy Browning during the Cohen New Works Festival). We seek here more than a simple web publishing site (with fair use and copyright sensitive access-control that attends to professional and academic contexts, of course), but also a means of integrating open APIs and freely available web-based data streams to open up new possibilities for dramaturgical content and analysis (such as the ability to easily plot a play's locations in an interactive map so artist and audience can pull the kind of data they desire about the play's location(s)).

Let us hack theater for a networked world, using the internet's numerical, geographical, and temporal scalability to interact with new audiences, insist on an ongoing and authentic relevance for our work, test new forms, and propagate new possibilities while preserving what is essential about our discipline.

With the CITD, Mr. Arnoult, Susan Stroupe, and I are preparing to digitize and live stream for real-time interaction many of the events of Beyond the Capitals II, an international exchange project funded by the Bilateral Presidential Commission: American Seasons in Russia, a program of the US Embassy in Moscow, and which will travel throughout Russia this May. Our goal is to ensure that all of the American participants in the Beyond The Capitals I project can take the journey with us, engage digitally, and interact with the artists we will be visiting in Russia.

At Fusebox, we are in the early stages of building an Art+Technology platform to feature and sustain exploratory work, education, and presentations that innovate in the area of art and technology integration. This year's festival features a number of exciting works, including Motion Bank and Ant Hampton's Cue China.

In the Hidden Room, we seek to solve a distinct art/technology challenge with each project. The first challenge we undertook was to patch together two disparate geographical locations into one contiguous aural and visual performance space. In You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives In London (named so in Austin) / You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives In Texas (named so in London), we teamed up with Mimi Poskitt and Look Left Look Right theater and tethered a site-specific venue in Austin with the Roundhouse in London, with each venue containing a portion of the cast and a full in-location public audience. We picked up video in each location and cross-displayed it, "lining up" the people and equipment for mutual visibility for all participants. Additionally, we microphoned and cross-amplified the spaces such that if an Austinite opened a candy wrapper during the performance they could successfully annoy the audience in Austin and London. We then used a separate computer in London to encode the video conversation between the Austin and London locations, streaming the results to the web for a third, online audience. In all locations, a twitter hashtag delimited text stream was presented, and all audiences were encouraged to interact with each other and the performers for shared textual visibility.

Hidden Room's next project was to tune our technical process to enable transcontinental rehearsal. With Rose Rage, we conducted our rehearsals with actors located in London, Cornwall, Virginia, and Austin. This process took us through 75% of the rehearsal period before all gathered in Austin to present a run of this six-hour production.

Having been featured in panels at SXSW Interactive 2011 and 2012, Hidden Room was asked by SXSW to return in 2013 and present a performance. For this project, our goal was to discover integrated means to feed transmedia content to an audience during a performance. The piece was called Girl With Time In Her Eyes (story by Robin Jones and Beth Burns), and for it we delivered to the audience QR Codes via printouts and projection during the performance that yielded text messages, contact phone and email data, web URLs and other media which fleshed out the world of the play, offering clues to understand narrative mysteries, and enable teamwork amongst the audience as they sought to retrieve all the available information. In terms of creating a seamless tech/narrative experience, I think we learned more than we succeeded in this project, and yet it was a promising workshop for a later full production.

With Breaking String Theater and Hidden Room Theatre respectively, we've live-streamed various performances, Q&A sessions, and discussion panels including live textual interaction between audience members and artists. For Hidden Room's original practices production of Rose Rage and premiere of Paul Menzer's Invisible, Inc. we multiplied audiences, with synchronous conversation transpiring during the performance between digital audience members and artists. For Breaking String Theater's Vodka, Fucking and Television, we doubled audience size and integrated the Russian playwright's real-time responses and reactions into our post-show discussion. For Breaking String Theater's annual New Russian Drama Festival performances and panels we've increased audience members and included commentary and interaction from playwrights and critics located in Russia, enriching Mr. Schmidt's goal for the festival to foster cultural conversation between Russia and Austin. For these we've used both HowlRound’s livestreaming HowlRound TV channel and Google+ Hangouts On Air (G+HOA), and various hardware set ups, as well as Twitter to add additional textual interaction between audiences and artists.

Looking to the future, I am currently working with actor and director (and my partner) Liz Fisher to implement a method for collecting incremental digital feedback from an audience in real time that allows the audience to steer the trajectory of a narrative. This project is in stealth mode right now, and I look forward to sharing more publicly about it soon.

Our world is networked, and our theater need no longer be wholly defined by a proscenium arch, a black box, or any physical space (empty or otherwise). The consideration that theater, technology, and culture must proceed with some caution and with an eye towards preventing the loss of what is essential (and visceral and unmediated) is precisely what is needed in theater, technology, and culture. It is then the honorable responsibility of those theater makers most concerned with the cultural impact of digital media on our lives to live in the belly of the beast, to hammer out what this new theater is, and to present their considerations to the process. Unless we do, the field is left to those without these vital concerns, and we will all lose. Our increasingly digital culture needs Luddite theater makers to have a seat at the cultural table to hack a viable, rich, humane future through the deliberate and sophisticated integration of technology into art. Join us.


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Thoughts from the curator

An overview of the theatre scene in Austin.

Austin, Texas


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Robert, if we substitute "education" for "theatre" and "student" for "audience" in your excellent challenge, we'll discover a parallel mission. All the experiments and observations described above are thrilling. Let's apply ourselves to overcoming pig-headed inertia, in theatre and education, before irrelevance covers us all.

Hello Craig. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Love the insight here regarding the similar luddite tendencies of education (incidentally, I think there is also a corollary available that wraps in "Actors Equity" as a similarly backward-looking entity whose pure motives yield toxic results). Please keep me in the loop about places where you see the work progressing in either sphere.