Opinion: how does contemporary theatre function when it no longer entirely "human"?

As audiences of western theatre we are conditioned primarily to process plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle, that are bound by unity of action, place, and time. In the era of artificial intelligence, big data, social media, bit-coin, and the dark web, we are essentially "born-digital". In the words of author John Cheney-Lippold and his study, we ARE data

The categories of digital theatre and performance now include augmented reality, virtual reality, gamification, and immersive theatre, to name a few. But if theatre is an exploration of humanity and human experience, how then does contemporary theatre function when it no longer entirely "human"?

Can we as theatre audiences be reflected within this digital maelstrom? The answer is we already have been. Web-based platforms create a space where theatre is created, edited, distributed, stored and retrieved. Performance art is mediated through technology as much as it is created through digital means. Live broadcasts from major international venues such as the Met Opera in New York or the UK National Theatre’s NT Live are now established and allow audiences in participating cities around the world to sit and view the live performance through the vicarious window of their local cinema screen.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Fergus Sheil discusses the live screening of The Magic Flute by the Metropolitan New York and Royal Opera House Covent Garden in Irish cinemas

The intermediality of digital theatre has been experimented with in various forms within contemporary Irish theatre. An early example of this was Who was Fergus Kilpatrick? Devised by The Company and commissioned by Project Arts Centre, the piece utilised, theatre, video "and stories filled with white lies and conspiracies [that] clash with old footage, old documents, old heroes to uncover new answers, a new company and a new truth". The premise of the play was to question the philosophy of reality and its construct through history: can we trust where we came from or what we think we know of the past? And how is our contemporary understanding of the past altered or deleted for corrupt gains or political advantage?

It is noticeable that the platform for theatre that constitutes large-scale digital components have been mostly such major international arts festivals as the Dublin Theatre Festival and Galway International Arts Festival. The reasons for this include the global audience that can now view such productions through social media, post-show talks, live streaming and the international touring platform that international festivals provide.

Incantata by Paul Muldoon had its world première at the Galway International Arts Festival in July 2018. In the play, a grieving figure of Muldoon himself, played by Stanley Townsend, engages in a relationship of memory with his recently deceased lover, the artist and print-maker, Mary Farl Powers. A video camera is affixed to the back of a plastic chair, which is then affectionately dressed with a coat and scarf, humanising the inanimate body of the camera creating a cyborg/human duality of presence that ironically (and tragically) is absent through death. Much of the action of the play is not present at all, but rather imagined and remembered and made present through digital means, displayed live to the audience projected onto the back-wall of the stage. This also serves to portray grief in its simplest and most raw of states – the desire to make a loved one present again from what is lost and gone.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Sunday with Miriam, Paul Muldoon discusses Incantata

Enda Walsh's Arlington premiered at the 2016 Galway International Arts Festival and included mixed-media and an extended piece of choreography. The work was as much an art installation as strictly theatre.  The Second Violinist premiered at the Galway festival in 2017 and starred Aaron Monaghan as a lone and isolated figure, often playing video games on his phone as he commutes on the bus. This was projected live before the audience on an expansive screen that stretched the length of the stage, serving to situate the online characters we all inhabit within versions of ourselves embodied through the web.

Theatre company Dead Centre have created new ways in recent years of considering how we witness and contemplate contemporary life and also how we encounter the archive and production histories of major plays and canonical figures through digital production and performance. Chekhov's First Play and Hamnet both had Irish premières during the Dublin International Theatre Festival in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Chekhov's First Play opens with the 'real' director, Bush Markouzal playing a character of a director, speaking to his audience and instructing them on how they can hear his running commentary on the play, through the headphones that all audiences members were given.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Sophie Gorman reviews Chekhov’s First Play by Dead Centre

‘The Director’ explains that he's the kind of guy who goes to an art gallery and spends his time reading the captions on the wall, rather than looking at the paintings: ostensibly he reads the metadata rather than views the object - the streams of code upon which systems operate and which users find an interface. In the theatre, as much as in a gallery, the interface exists as a space between actor and audience. The digital interface introduces a further facet or performance space, a virtual and intangible space that is both present and live. 

"I'll be offstage so I won't distract you, I'll just be a voice in your head. Hope it's not too strange. It can feel a little intimate. Like even though everyone can hear this, it feels like I'm just talking . . . to you."

As the play opens audience can hear 'the play' live on stage but also the voice of the offstage Director. The Director comments in real-time upon the live action, revealing that "[he] had ambitions once, to create new forms of theatre . . . connect to audiences in a new way . . . remind us we're alive." When the character of Anna questions "Do we matter? . . . I have a feeling that we don't anymore", she directs it to the audience as much as to her on-stage cast members. In Chekhov’s First Play, the cast are, like Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for someone, Platonov, who becomes a form of human avatar for an audience member in reality, in search of hope in a time where empathy and human connection are all but obsolete.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drama On One, writer and director Bush Moukarzel, dramaturg Michael West and actor Ollie West discuss Hamnet

Hamnet utilised "live video and dead video" to present a contemporary retelling of Hamnet. Ollie West played Hamnet, the son of William Shakespeare who died aged 11, and who remains "one letter away from being "a great man", Hamlet". The videography within the play, designed by Jose Miguel Jiminez and with sound design from Kevin Gleeson, presents a live co-existence of viewpoint that relays onto a large video wall the audience looking at themselves looking at the play. Andrew Clancy's design includes a large video wall that simultaneously projects the dead child and past with the contemporary living Hamnet.

The inverse to this process applies to the digital archive of performance. Work which was produced in traditional media but through digitisation allows us to reanimate performance, gesture, sound, music, even audience laughter and silence, in order to create a digital and virtual reality of performance. For example, a recording of Donal McCann as Frank Hardy in Brian Friel's Faith Healer at the Abbey Theatre in 1980 in the digital theatre archives of the Hardiman Library at NUI Galway reveals a performance masterful in its simplicity and control within a monologue form. The intimate gesture of McCann's posturing and the constant movement of his hands bring an intimacy to his performance.

This is in stark contrast to Ralph Fiennes' portrayal of the same role at the Gate Theatre in 2006. Fiennes cuts a cocky, brash and unrepentant Frank Hardy, a huckster selling false promises and security. In a sense, this was Faith Healer for the Celtic Tiger-era - baseless bravado beneath a polished exterior.

It is noticeable that the platform for theatre that constitutes large-scale digital components have been mostly such major international arts festivals

Augmented reality superimposes a computer-generated image upon a user’s view of the present real world to create a composite dual reality. Theatre in such form will also leave you questioning the reality of performance, the reality of theatre, and even the validity of our contemporary society as well as of our documented history. This work tightly embraces the aid of digital technology and painstaking video and sound editing and blatantly flaunts the presence of pre-recorded scenes amid live feed. As the framework of truth and believed conceptions of what we know to be reality are dismantled on stage before us, it becomes apparent that the import of this work will be to keep challenging what exactly is live in theatre and how we as audiences assemble to listen and to witness it.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ