Theatre and Technology – An Out of Body Experience? Reflections from the Watford Palace Theatre Event

In early 2013 CRASSH launched the Digital Bridges Project, a collaborative project between theatre and academia. The project involved academics from CRASSH and theatre experts from the Watford Palace Theatre. The Watford Palace theatre held all three plays on Friday 4 October 2013. The plays, Perfect Match (Gary Owen), Override (Stacey Gregg) and Virgin (EV Crowe) explored how new technologies were reshaping private and public life. As part of that event I curated a talk called ‘Are we having a collective out of body experience?’ I asked this question to our panel of distinguished experts, Bill Thompson (broadcaster and journalist) Mick Walters (robot engineer), Michael Shaw (online director of TES) and E V Crowe (playwright). Brigid Lamour (Arts Director of the Watford Palace Theatre) and Simon Goldhill (CRASSH) also participated in the discussion.

It was clear from the speakers’ presentations that online life is becoming increasingly important for educationalists, broadcasters and artists, but we explored what happens when a machine is continually mediating the experience between one person and another. What about those situations where machines are increasingly becoming the ‘direct object’ of interaction? The purpose of companion and social robots is to relate directly to us. It is our assumption that the person on the other end of the machine is who they say they are. The reality is we are really relating to a machine in the first instance before we reach them. This is done increasingly the more we interact socially online.

What we were trying to explore in the public engagement initiative was to think about the role of the full sensory engaged body, committed and present in an exchange with another. Ironically, theatre has always had an ‘out of body’ feel about it. The first theatres were developed out of ritualistic and religious practices. The ancient Greek theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus was used for festivals in honour of the god Dionysus. The first theatres were built next to temples because of the respect for the transcendental nature of theatrical experience. In some theatre styles the actor leaves herself to be temporarily Other in a performance for an audience. The audience must also participate in this Otherness by buying into the performance, suspending reality. The performance is liminal, but the action and experience of that action by actors and audience is located in time, space and place.

So arguably an out-of-body experience is one that helps the collective touch the divine (as in religious practice or theatrical performance) but can the out-of-body aspect relate to a darker aspect of experience – a desire to escape an unpleasant moment or present?

The analogy with theatre performance and acting online is apt. What makes the performances of actors in online spaces different? Perhaps because they are expressing their lived lives in a continually disembodied way with a devaluation of a sense of time, space and place. The freedom from the moment is what many theorists celebrated with the arrival of the web, the emancipation of the local. Increasingly, the embodied and arguably Real life of sensuous relational exchange becomes the performance to be shared with the disembodied world. Once disembodied events start to shape the ongoing performance, the sensuous being is further disembodied, fragmented and partial. Film theorists note that viewers find it more challenging to watch a live (theatrical) performance than it is to watch a film. This is become real events require more presence and experiential processing for the viewer. Images become ever-more pressing in this disembodied world, as the ‘self’ is broken into discontinuous pieces. The mass preoccupation with photography shows this desire to create a double in the representational world. These trends were noted by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s in his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The self becomes reflected, not from a grounded, embodied place, but an external set of reflections. Events lose their sense of place, depth and importance perhaps. The fullness of life cannot be embraced because it is happening too fast. These are some of the themes behind the Out-of-Body-Experience Theatre and Technology talks.

Please come along to the final talk scheduled 5-7pm University of Cambridge Saturday 26th October 2013.

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