Theater and the Internet
We often consider technology an imposition on both our craft and our business: social media putting pressure on everything from marketing to performance, for example, or IT budgets draining resources from “more important” work. But the etymological root of technology is techne: the Greek word for art. To paraphrase cartoonist Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy, and it is us. Every month, this column will investigate the ways in which technology can inspire us, transform us, and help us chart a new course in the 21st century. Thanks for—to use a radio metaphor—tuning in.
Is it possible that we’ve actually underestimated the effect of the internet on the future of the American theater? I think it might be.
I’m not talking about the ways in which theater is marketed or tickets are sold. I’m talking about the art. I’m talking about the ways people want to interact with culture.
The internet is just shy of two decades old, give or take, but it only achieved greater than 50 percent adoption among adults in the United States about a dozen years ago. (Kids lagged behind for a while, but they passed their parents several years back.) That means there are young people currently applying to colleges right now who have never lived in a world without the internet, which entered the zeitgeist when they were just beginning to form long-term memories.
Most of them—and this may go without saying—do not yet buy theater tickets. This is in large part, of course, because of their age, but when they get older…will they?
Here’s my concern.
The internet is the dominant technology of the last decade…and it’s deeply interactive. We create narratives by making click choices as we surf: we discover “mini-narratives”—websites, YouTube and Vine videos, Tumblrs, tweets, emails…all the stuff the internet is made of—and assemble them, connect them, comment on them, argue about them, remix them, tell our own stories about them, and transform them into memes. Cultural experiences mediated by the internet are inherently collaborative.
Cultural experiences mediated by the internet are inherently collaborative.
The whole notion of audience? It almost doesn’t exist. Not on the internet, not in the way we often think of audiences in the theater: as passive recipients of a well-polished story being delivered by storytellers to whom we have ceded a great deal of control over the dynamics of the environment. Yes, lip service is paid to the fact that theater audiences aren’t actually passive—that we act in a great variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, from shifting in our seats to offering standing ovations—but come on: very little theater is actually made with the expectation of genuine interactivity.
And that’s fine, really… There’s nothing wrong with that kind of theater. In fact, let me be even more aggressively positive and say what everyone reading this column surely knows: profound experiences can and do come from sitting in large groups and paying undivided attention for a couple of hours to storytellers with our best interests in mind. That mode of storytelling is especially (though not only) appropriate for older audiences: those of us who were brought up in the era of appointment television. We fully expect to have to show up when the story starts and watch until it’s over. We even like it.
But have you noticed how much we also like, say, Sleep No More? Immersive theater experiences in which we create individual stories by dint of where we focus our attention are emerging and increasing in popularity, and they owe as much to the non-linear (or less linear) world of gaming as they do to theater. Importantly, they change the fundamental relationship of audience and artist; the “I” of each audience member is more deeply integrated into the narrative than ever before. Podcast plays belong to this same category, too, and performances for the unwitting in public spaces. I’m reminded, in a kind of inverted way, of Alexander Calder’s mobiles, which changed the physical and thus psychological relationship between viewer and no-longer-quite-stationary-object. An expansion of our vocabulary is surely underway.
I realize there are going to be several people reading this column who will suggest that asking theater to be more interactive is tantamount to asking, say, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to be more like spaghetti and meatballs. I think that’s mistaken; I think the framing of that concern is a distraction. I think our audiences are walking into our theaters (or, more specifically, NOT walking into them) with increasing desire for and expectation of a different kind of cuisine than we’re giving them…and we can either learn how to prepare new dishes or, like so many other restaurants before us, go out of business.
So here’s my question about those seventeen year-olds getting ready to matriculate to colleges across the country: when some of them inevitably enter theater programs, what kind of plays will they learn to devise? Do we know how to teach them to make interactive work? Maybe we do. I don’t know. And when they all graduate, no matter what they study, and start using their new-found disposable income to purchase access to cultural experiences, what are they going to be looking for? The by then perhaps less familiar experience of sitting still in neat rows of seats? Perhaps. Sure. But might they really be craving a more interactive mode of storytelling?
Technology both reflects and changes the ways in which we think. The interactivity of the internet is embedded inside of us. The internet is inside of us, even when we walk into a theater. It’s right there in our pockets, accessible through the miniature computers we call phones, and it’s right there in our heads. And I fear that if we don’t start telling more stories designed to accommodate that simple fact, we might be in trouble.
So let’s get started. Let’s position ourselves not in opposition to the audiences’ growing desire for interactivity but in partnership with it. Let’s move into the space between a writer-centric narrative and an open audience-centric exploratory experience like the internet and explore the tensions between those two paradigms. Let’s see what’s possible.