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New Media as Performance

I began my career in the regional theater at a very young age, working in various capacities including actor, playwright, literary manager, director of new play development, and other roles, artistic and executive. Since seeing a regional production of Amlin Gray’s, How I Got That Story, in the early 1980s (through which I began to understand the Vietnam War), my heart has been invested in the production of new plays. I have been fortunate to be involved with a lot of them, even writing a few myself, and working with some really fabulous artists, too many to mention by name. However, I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the Internet and how it is (and is not) changing how we work and communicate and tell stories. While I still write plays, the production of digital media for the web has been my primary means of support for the past five years.

It’s remarkably like putting on new plays.

Today, I find myself looking for ways to create and experience new stories via new media. With text, video, audio, and interaction converging in increasingly accessible and portable devices, it’s exciting to think about what the classic form of drama, of a story acted out for others, might look like in the near and distant future. So, here are some reflections about new media as performance to share with those of you, who to my great delight and gratitude, are still making new plays.

Excellence is in the Collaboration
We often talk in website development about the separation of presentation from content, which echoes the difference between a play production and the textual medium of a play script. That separation enables a very efficient method of production. One person writes, another codes. One develops, another directs. Still, ultimately, no part of a play or a website is complete until it is combined, and made public. The content is eventually merged with the presentation, in a website or a live theatrical production. They have to achieve a combined excellence for the production to be a success.

Plays and websites begin with a core idea: “It’s a play about a guy who remembers the future,” or “it’s a website where people can talk about new plays.” We historically think of the person who articulates this into a “fixed” idea as the “author.” As intellectual property law defines, no one “owns” an idea; only a tangible expression of that idea. In today’s ultra-connected cultural production, we see lots of borrowing and stealing and tweaking going on, and multiple contributors to the “final” products. In theater, we call it “live,” in interactive development, we call it “dynamic.” In both cases, it implies spontaneity, interaction, and inherent changeability. It’s both collaborative and time-dependent. Moreover, because of the fluidness of live production and the ease of creating, editing, and duplicating digital media, it’s arguable if these forms can ever truly be fixed in a final version at all.

a woman looking at the camera
Emily Ball Cicchini. Photo by Emily Ball Cicchini. 

The Production Tells the Story
Once a project, digital or theatrical, is initiated, it goes through a pre-production development and design process. Art directors, like costume and set designers, render and present visual concepts. Content developers work on the text, i.e., the dialogue, often with a lead content developer or producer, much like a dramaturg or director, who asks the key question, “what is this site about?” Programmers work out the relationship of elements, the choreography and stage-worthiness, if you will, of the production asking “what database fields and relationships and forms and server calls will do what, and how fast can we make them?” They also anticipate audience’s expectations and reactions, and imagine if they’d prefer a drop down menu, a text field, or drag and drop touch screen method of response. What is the proper pace and rhythm for this material? Web development is quite directorial, and perhaps like an asynchronous rehearsal period. Discoveries and changes are made. Audio and video specialists provide movement and lighting and sound and texture and rhythm to the pages. Web developers, the ones who really know how to make the fine grain design and the code come together, are perhaps like the actors. They are the ones making the detailed artistic choices of gesture and movement and sound: How will the pages display, color and shape and font, top to bottom? What will happen when you mouse over that link? How and where on the page will the audio or video be embedded, and what will the player look like? What textual conventions are right for this website, of headers 1-6 and block quotes and ordered and unordered lists? Will images float left or right or center? It’s the web developers who are cramming to get things perfect in the “tech” rehearsals before opening night, the first public launch. As in new play development, there are often many different iterations, or versions, or productions as the original website continues to develop over time. Just like the trajectory of a successful new play—it might start in the regions, or a less search optimized website, and make its way through to subsequent larger and more commercial productions, or page rankings, evolving as it goes.

We Make Meaning Together
Both websites and new plays seek an audience. What is that relationship with the audience? Sometimes it’s a specialized audience; sometimes it’s a private audience. The audience can “subscribe,” or they can be a casual visitor or single ticket buyer. They can pay a premium, pay what they can, or be allowed free access (often supported by advertising). But all kinds of audiences now desire a more interactive experience—they want not only to watch, but also to be seen and heard. Perhaps the greatest challenge for both new plays and new websites is the growing competition for our audiences’ attention. We must remember that audiences are not passive, even in the traditional theater. They are constantly making choices, about what to watch, about verbal and mechanical response (clapping, laughing, and walking in or out the lobby doors).


Now, I’m not suggesting that new media can or should replace the live, un-augmented theatrical experience. But rather than rage against the machines, I ask you to consider the ways that being on the Internet or using a digital application is like sitting in the audience of a traditional or improvised piece of theater. Imagine that new media “supplements not supplants” theater, and that our culture is so diverse and vibrant that there is room for all kinds of personal and collective expression and reception.


Websites as Performance
Some good examples of relatively mature interactive websites that to me reflect the new play experience include Born Magazine, We Feel Fine, or JacksonPollock.org. These are sites that alter the perspective of being online and illuminate the human condition. Born Magazine combines literary text with cutting edge graphic animation and sound in a journal format. We Feel Fine aggregates all the “feeling” words posted on blogs in real-time and graphically represents them so that you can see the emotional pulse of the blogosphere. And simple, sweet JacksonPollock.org lets you paint like the artist, with your mouse as a brush. They are ambitious. They are artistic. They are generated by metaphors. They create an experience which tells a story and makes you think.

In addition to websites, networked digital technology is making possible the creation and production of a wide variety of creative expression. The video mashup movement shows potential as in this example by pop culture hacker Jonathan McIntosh who steals from film stereotypes to make a new statement about obsessive relationships in popular culture: “Buffy vs. Edward.”  There has been some theatrical activity, even ongoing companies and acting classes, with avatars in the virtual worlds of Second Life. And like a fine art e-book, a top-rated iPad app of 2011 is a very imaginative hybrid narrative/text/game called “The Fabulous Flying Books of Morris Lessmore.” New media is a field that is growing and reinventing itself.

Media, New and Old
Now, I’m not suggesting that new media can or should replace the live, un-augmented theatrical experience. But rather than rage against the machines, I ask you to consider the ways that being on the Internet or using a digital application is like sitting in the audience of a traditional or improvised piece of theater. Imagine that new media “supplements not supplants” theater, and that our culture is so diverse and vibrant that there is room for all kinds of personal and collective expression and reception. The printing press didn’t stop theater. Neither did film, radio, or television. And neither will the Internet. It’s just another way of making and distributing new work, new stories, new drama, new plays. And there are many exciting possibilities of combining these approaches. In creative, narrative digital media—as well as theater—it is the message, the content, the conflict, the core idea, the dramatic action being conveyed, that is the thing.

Take for instance, the very wired playwright Adam Szymkowicz, whose new “Compulsive Love” web series, about “a man being punched in the face by love,” is scheduled to start in Winter 2012. Does this mean Adam is no longer a playwright and playwright advocate? For heavens sake, I hope not. He is merely living in the times that we are in, and writing and producing for it.

The Imperative to Produce
Those of us who are passionate about creating new artistic work, whether it is in the theater or in digital media (or both, simultaneously) have to keep going. We have to borrow, steal, and reinvent old and new models of story production to turn ideas into experiences shared with others. We have to be tireless about finding new resources and supportive communities that welcome new work. Because we all need new dramatic stories (as well as old) in all media—to better understand and enjoy the stories of our own lives—past, present, and future.

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I wish we could meet at Pizzerio Uno, Jimbo. Yes, nascent is the right word. I'm mainly trying to encourage even more experimentation within and between what feels like already codified practices. It's not so much about permission as it is about infrastructure of production. Which ultimately points to funding, but more importantly the will to experiment. So, it's not just playwrights. I'm really talking about the whole theatre industry. How do theatre artists keep producing? New media is just one way, for those who are drawn to it. I'm also just fishing for other examples and models that might be out there that I haven't heard of yet. Glad you clicked through some of mine, and flattered you came back twice!

Emily, I reread your posting this morning, and now I'm a little confused...

You seem to be advocating for something that - given the examples supplied in your essay - already exists, as nascent as it might be.

Then it sounds as though you're asking permission for playwrights (those who up to this point have devoted their efforts to the traditional form: at least one actor and one audience member in each other's presence with no intermediary between the two other than the space between them) to use these newer internet forms to express their work. BY THE POWER NOT INVESTED IN ME BY ANYONE, I EXTEND PERMISSION FOR ALL PLAYWRIGHTS TO FIND DIFFERENT WAYS TO EXPRESS THEMSELVES BY MEANS OTHER THAN TRADITIONAL THEATRE FORMS! Now, there's no need for you or others to feel guilty about exploring.

You ask why we have to have the "dichotomy" be tween tech and live. I don't call it a dichotomy, but the reality is that they are different, and I think you know that. If I go to a LIVE event there is no additional delivery system between me, the audience member, and the actor(s) on the stage. When I visit the sites mentioned in your article the content of the site comes at me thru the computer screen, an intermediary. I'm not arguing that one is better than the other, simply that they are different. As a matter of fact, I have had far more moving experiences from art forms NOT live than live! But...if I Skype you to have a conversation, that is different than if I meet you at Pizzeria Uno and we have an in-each-other's-presence conversation. And, I'd argue, it's a different kind of experience if someone (audience) would watch us have these two different ways of communicating with each other. Not better, but experientially different. It's like "gay" marriage. You can call it marriage, but the reality of history is that it is different. And I'm NOT arguing that live events are "better."

In sum, use what you got, to say what you want! No need to feel guilty!

Thanks, Ralph! I haven't seen a website yet that to me really rivals a play. But I do think I've seen films that rival plays. So maybe it's a matter of time. When I started writing movies, they said, but you're so theatrical. Write shorter. When I started writing multimedia, they said, but you're so cinematic. Write smaller. That's all just hugging onto the old forms. I do think new form is a problem, it's still emerging. I guess what I'm saying is we should be creating a culture in America where dramatic artists are encouraged to use all media interchangeably, instead of being either/or. For instance...here's an example I totally forgot to mention in my article: the fabulous Michael Arthur. He draws images of live performance at Joe's Pub, sometimes live digitally, and then turns them into movies. This has real art value, and is theatrical, and is multimedia: http://www.michaeldarthur.c...

Thanks for the insightful post. You sure do ask all the right questions. I got nauseous just reflecting on the tons of hard work it takes to address them. I’m embarrassed to say that this is something I’ve been touching on for over a decade now. And despite all the heartbreak, I still feel that there’s a jewel in this rough somewhere… a place where the live and the online become more than a sum of two parts. And we’re getting closer, but I worry that we still can’t get around deficiencies in bandwidth and the last mile pipes. Still can’t reach the audiences online with something that approaches a state of theatrical artfulness. Maybe we don’t talk about this much because there isn’t much we can do about it save for continue waiting for more technical advances. Even though buffering, crashes, and page loading time are not the soul-crushers and story-killers they once were, avatars, mash-ups, etc. just seem like tricks to get around the delivery system’s shortcomings. Form is not the problem and creative Content is limitless, but how it all comes out the other end is what I’m still raging at. Thanks for making me think.

Thanks Jan! I'm curious...have you tried out Second Life? There are a few theater venues built in there that seem to be hosting shows: http://secondlife.com/desti...http://secondlife.com/desti...http://secondlife.com/desti...I keep trying to find a video that conveys what it's like to be in Second Life, but it never does it justice...because when you're "in world," it does feel like anything might happen. But it is almost too intense for me...the only time I did it was when I was sick in bed for 10 days a few years ago. Learning curve is a little steep and the clientele can be creepy. Didn't hook me enough to want to go back. But, I tell you, when you can't otherwise move, it was great to be able to fly and put on a costume and meet people from all over. I never actually caught a show, though, other than some musicians playing. What things have you seen that make you curious or want to share?

Happy to see someone approach this subject on the HowlRound! There is so much to explore when you bring theatre and tech (new media) together. Of course, it is a very cool new delivery system. Creators/Makers can use the internet to connect to an audience (or participants) in places all over the world. And theatre can still be "live" and I don't mean simply "streaming". There needs to be some serious thought and experimentation in this area. I've been obsessed with the idea of "digital theatre". What is the user (audience) experience design for it? Not looking to recreate a live theatre experience. I'm more interested in how we reinvent it. There are also so many amazing theatre and performance artists bringing tech into traditional (and not so traditional) theatre spaces. What if we also turn that idea around? Let's find ways to bring/borrow what's so wonderful about theatre (a living world, deeper connection to characters and story or experience, a feeling that anything might happen, etc.) into the new media space and see what happens! Great piece! Thanks for posting, Emily!

Jim: That's just the thing, why do we have to have the dichotomy? Technology vs. live? Apples and oranges are both fruits, they both provide sustenance. Stories provide sustenance, in all media. The space-time-matter of the expression changes. Isn't theatre just another medium? And by keeping the "live is better/special" argument alive, not embracing theatre as (just) another media in a wide array of dramatic storytelling options, aren't we helping to render it irrelevant in a time when culture is exploding with mediated expression? The old improve slogan comes to mind: "Yes, and..."

An interesting and provocative article that explores a number of pertinent issues. Essentially, I believe the article is about the relationship of FORM and CONTENT, something which must be seriously considered in any sort of art work.

The ongoing debate about technology vs live will never be settled...apples and oranges, eh?