Digital performance and the Loss of the Sense of Space
For the past century theatre has been confronted with a challenge it never faced in its entire history: the impact of electronic, and more recently, digital media. Yes, theatre has always welcomed new technologies, from the magic lantern to computerized lighting control. But it always occurred within the artistic and—significantly—physical confines of theatre. New media, however, has created new audiences whose interaction with media-based performance is entirely divorced from theatre.
There is an entire generation that has grown up interacting with electronic screens and for whom performances—whether plays, movies, sporting events, or stadium concerts—is experienced primarily through an electronic medium. From its ancient roots until the 20th century all forms of performance were spatial events that existed as an interaction between performers and spectators within a shared space. But the screen eliminates the experience of space and thus creates a spectator whose perceptual understanding of performance is radically different than that of a spectator who has known only spatial performance. In fact, I would suggest, it has altered the very definition of a spectator.
For more than a year, as a result of the pandemic, most theatres were shuttered and large public gatherings were largely banned. As a result, live theatre and performance was unavailable and almost everyone who wished to create or consume performance were forced to do so online. The weaning of audiences from the spatial to the digital went from a gradual process that spanned the 20th century, to a sudden and radical disruption in the process of spectatorship. Now, as theatres and performance venues slowly adapt and reopen, the question is: will this have a lasting effect, or will we return to “normal”?
At the heart of this question is not “liveness”—often cited as the defining characteristic of theatre—but space.
In 1909 the English novelist E.M. Forster published a science-fiction short story called The Machine Stops. It depicts a human society now living underground, each person isolated in a small room communicating and experiencing the world via computer-like devices. Everything is under the control of the omnipotent Machine which is worshipped as a religion or cult. One character who wants to escape to the surface of the Earth remarks, “You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say ‘space is annihilated,’ but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof.” And that is what I wish to focus on — the loss of the sense of space.
Throughout history, of course, theatres have been closed down for plagues or war or political suppression. But time and again, theatre bounced back. When it returned, the style and content of the drama may have changed, the physical shape of the theatre may have changed, the social and class makeup of the audience may have changed, but the underlying principles of the artform of theatre were essentially the same. So why should this current interruption be any different? To begin with, during these past interruptions there were no alternative forms of mass entertainment; nothing that might offer spectators a substitute for the theatrical experience they knew. But in the electronic and digital age, all that has changed.
Space and the Spectator
When you are planning to see a play or opera or ballet, how do you express it? You say, "I'm going to the theatre." Traditionally, in order to experience a performance, you must go from one place—your home or place of work—to another, the site of the performance. You make a journey, a pilgrimage of sorts, on foot, by car, by public transportation. Often the site to which you are going is a place or area of the city you do not go to on a regular basis. It is often a liminal site—an entertainment district or perhaps an abandoned factory or armory repurposed as a performance venue. It may be a temporary structure set up in a park or field. Historically, it often meant going outside the city, from the space of daily life to a specialized, extra-daily site of performance, whether the southwest slope of the Akropolis in ancient Athens or across the Thames in the 16th-century London to the theatres of the South Bank. In using terms like pilgrimage and liminality I am evoking the anthropologist Victor Turner. Although in the world of anthropology his theories have been challenged of late, they are still useful for examining the process of theatre-going. Simply put, going to the theatre involves a pilgrimage to a liminal space. Or we might borrow the observation by social scientist and geographer Doreen Massey that the European exploration of the world—the "voyage of discovery"—involves the crossing and conquering of space.
When we go to the theatre we move through space, and the significant fact for me is that this journey through space effects a transformation. Having transcended space, upon entering the theatre—or arena, or temple, or clearing in the forest—you become a spectator. Furthermore, not just anyone can enter this sanctified space. You must be invited, initiated, or at least have a ticket, which is a kind of passport. The dictionary defines a passport as an authorization to "travel to, from, or through a foreign country." What better definition of going to the theatre can we have than traveling to a foreign country? (Today, of course, the question of who is invited, who gets a passport, raises myriad issues of class, race, gender, ethnicity, etc. But for now I am interested primarily in questions of movement.)
For thousands of years the theatrical event depended upon—in fact, required—the transformation of an individual into a spectator, and until recently this could be accomplished only by movement through space. But during the confinement imposed by the pandemic this entailed, at best, the movement from one room in your home to another. But even pre-pandemic spectatorship had been changing and the process of transformation was essentially eliminated. A performance could be literally carried in your pocket. While on a train or bus you could simply pull out your smartphone, put in your earbuds, and watch something on the tiny screen. To become a spectator today is casual and fluid, something you can opt in and out of at will. We can become spectators simply by pushing a button or telling Siri or Alexa or whatever you call your digital servant, to turn on another digital device. Space is not a factor.
But one thing has not changed: When watching a performance, you know where you are. Whether you are sitting in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus or in your bedroom you are somewhere, and you know exactly where that is. But in the world of digital performance, where is the performance you are watching? To borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there.”
Space and the Stage
The stage, like a spectator, is created through an act of spatial transformation—in this case, a transformation achieved through a kind of consecration. Consecration has a religious connotation, but basically it means "to set apart." The way in which we set one space apart from another is to section it off from the surrounding space, to delineate it. In other words, to create a frame. In the theatre this may done explicitly—a proscenium arch, or a simple raised platform. And sometimes it is done implicitly, through movement or light. In the traditional English mumming play, for instance, the performers entered a home or inn, literally sweeping the occupants of the room into a circle with a broom, creating a stage by re-framing the space of the room.
Although I have been using the terms place and space interchangeably, the cultural theorist Michel de Certeau defined a significant difference with the succinct formula: “space is practiced place.” He was examining the life of cities, and described place as the material structure of a city: the buildings, roads, sidewalks, and so on. But it was the inhabitants, through their use of that place, their movements and patterns, the result of living within that place, that transformed it into a space. The same is true of a stage. The stage is merely a structure, or a place where a performance might occur. It is the performers and their use of the stage that transform it into a performance space. And in so doing, it simultaneously creates a spectator space and thus the total theatre environment.
In a related vein, Polish director Tadeusz Kantor remarked, "I am fascinated by a mystical or utopian idea and a supposition that in every work of art, there exists some kind of U R – M A T T E R that is independent of an artist, that shapes itself, and that grounds all possible, infinite variants of life. . . .
This U R – M A T T E R is s p a c e !"
He then notes that space functions by creating “the network of relations and tensions between objects. TENSION is the principal actor of space.”
In any performance environment there is an ongoing negotiation between audience and stage; what Kantor refers to as tension. Even in a proscenium-style theatre with the spectators planted firmly in their seats, the audience has a sense of space: the space in which they are sitting, the distance to the stage and an intuitive grasp of the space of the stage and, in cases of illusionistic scenography, a perceptual understanding of the fictional space represented. Actors engage in an even more complex negotiation—with the space of the stage, with the other performers, with all aspects of the scenography, and with the space of the audience, and the communication between stage and auditorium. When these tensions are in perfect balance we, the audience, can momentarily forget where we are and project ourselves onto the world of the stage—which was Richard Wagner’s goal at Bayreuth.
Where is the performance?
But in digital performance—a performance seen only through the mediation of a screen—there is no negotiation, there is no space. The actual location of the performers may not be known; they could be in multiple locales anywhere in the world. Environments can be manipulated—the “virtual backgrounds” that have become ubiquitous on Zoom. When we watch a performance on a screen we are seeing images, images that may indicate a place or a space, but we have no corporeal experience of that space. We are seeing a representation of space—a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space, analogous in some ways to 17th and 18th-century perspective stage settings. Viewing becomes an intellectual act of translation, one in which we see an image that refers to a place to which we then respond. Such an image may have an emotional or aesthetic impact on our perceptions, but it is not the same as a response to a physical space.
The stage, of course, presents referential images. In the kind of performance in which actors take on fictional identities and enact a fictional story, we are usually asked to believe that the stage is not a stage but a different locale altogether. Kantor, in the essay quoted above, noted that,
Space shrinks and e x p a n d s.
And these motions mold forms and objects.
It is space that GIVES BIRTH to forms!
Playwrights have always understood this. In the ancient Roman play The Menaechmi by Plautus, an actor explains to the audience, “This is the city of Epidamnus while this play is acting; when another shall be acted, it will become another town.” And of course the Prolog in Henry V famously asks: “can this cockpit hold/ The vasty fields of France? or may we cram/ Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air at Agincourt?” We are being asked to accept that the stage—a concrete place in front of us—is not a stage but something else. One space—the stage—by means of language, action, and added scenographic referents represents another space; a transformation that may occur multiple times throughout a performance. The space of the stage is malleable. But while we, the spectators, may willingly suspend our disbelief, we still recognize that we are in a theatre looking at a stage. A digital performance on a screen can manipulate and transform the image at will. But it is not a transformation of space, it is a substitution of images.
In digital performance, whether a recording of a stage production or something created specifically for digital transmission, there is no spatial interaction beyond that of the spectator and the screen. The creators of a digital performance have no control over where the work is seen or even the size of the screen. Moreover, unless it is live-streamed, there is no control over time. You can watch it at any time of day or night, and you can pause it for a few minutes to get a snack or go to the toilet, or you can pause it for a day or a week and finish it later under completely different circumstances.
In a world in which digital and screen-based media now dominate, one in which the percentage of the population that has first-hand experience of live—or I would say spatial—performance has been shrinking, theatre is finding it increasingly difficult to communicate. For decades already, spectators have increasingly found traditional theatrical spaces difficult to read or comprehend. More than 20 years ago Mike Pearson, one of the leading creators of site-specific performance, declared, “I can no longer sit passively in the dark watching a hole in the wall, pretending that the auditorium is a neutral vessel of representation. It is a spatial machine . . .”
Interestingly, the most popular forms of live performance in the past two decades or so have been immersive and site-specific performance. Both are predicated on the effects of space upon the spectator, and the often kinesthetic interaction with that space. It may represent a desire by creators and spectators alike to hold on to an experience of space in the face of digital media.
In this past year, the inevitable response of theatre institutions attempting to maintain relevance and a connection to their audience was to stream archival recordings of past performances or, in some cases, to create new performance for streaming media. But whatever the attractions of being able to view opera or theatre that may not have otherwise been accessible, it only served to create a further disconnect between the vocabularies of stage production and new technologies. The question now, I think, is how much of an effect all this will have on the future of theatre. As the experience of space is less and less relevant to more and more spectators, how will this manifest itself in the renewed production of live theatre?
Gertrude Stein’s famous phrase that I quoted earlier, “there is no there there,” is often understood as a dismissal of her birth city of Oakland, California. But it was actually more her way of observing, “you can’t go home again.” In her book, Everybody’s Autobiography, she says,
It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember. [Note: Stein purposely used minimal punctuation.]
After we have moved away from spatial theatre—the address at which we resided for so long—and now live at the new address of the digital and the virtual, what happens when we return to our old address? Do we recognize it? Will we remember it?
The above article is based on a lecture Arnold Aronson held at the ‘Staging the Future’ conference and edited for BTR. He would like to thank Wimbledon University for hosting and funding the symposium.
Prof. Arnold Aronson lectures in Theatre History and Scenography at Columbia University, New York, and is co-editor of the international journal Theatre Performance and Design. He has written several books on aspects of scenography and its history and has published various articles in BTR. He is known to an international public as a juror for the Prague Quadrennial and for his OISTAT activities.
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