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Features Guest Column Published 1 February 2013

Dramaturgy and the Digital

Our series on dramaturgy continues with a look at new dramaturgical strategies prompted by digital practice.
Barbara Bridger

Any attempt to give a comprehensive description of current performance practice is likely to cite a long list of influences.  These may include architecture, science, ecology and philosophy.  Such a description is also likely to refer to a range of existing art practices, for instance movement, site specific work, walking practices, sculpture, installation, live art and sonic and digital practices.  Contemporary performance’s cross disciplinary experiments can produce work that features the illustrated lecture, sound environments, gifting ceremonies, processions, mapping strategies, walks and guided tours, cyber networking and community based projects.

As an independent dramaturg, my range of collaborations reflects this expanded brief.   I have recently worked with a movement practitioner making performance installations out of community arts practice intensives, a collective of artists developing large scale immersive performance, a physical theatre ensemble devising from classic text, a brokerage creating networked performances, and a digital writer using computer-generated dialogue to develop scripts for poli-vocal performances.

Engaging with these diverse practices has been part of a long term attempt to find dramaturgical strategies that can respond adequately to multi-layered texts, often made up of non-linguistic elements.   During my search, I have been drawn to work that challenges traditional notions of script and scripting.  I have studied and tried to collaborate with practitioners who move away from or modify the literary model of the transferrable pre-script and instead attempt to apply a whole range of writing practices to the performance process.  When these include inter- or post-performance documentation and strategies for generating new text, the performance maker may look for alternative ways to notate process, may turn to graphic music scores, dance notation and a wide range of visual imagery.  And when the results of these and other “writing” experiments remains materially present in the working/devising space, then this search for the most appropriate form of “writing” may feed directly into the developing choreography or composition of a piece and  become an integral part of the dramaturgical process.

So far, so good. But having arrived at this point, I found I was still looking for some link – for a set of practices that spoke differently to the elements of performance and challenged the parameters of dramaturgy.  I found it during a conversation with JR Carpenter, an artist, writer, researcher, and performer, who was working on a web-based computer-generated dialogue responding to transatlantic migration. TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] is in call and response form and is written in a programming language called JavaScriptThe source code is based on a narrative generator called The Twocreated by Nick Montfort in 2008.

JR Carpenter describes the way the piece operates as follows: “One JavaScript file sits in one directory on one server attached to a vast network of hubs, routers, switches, and submarine cables through which this one file may be accessed many times from many places by many devices. The mission of this JavaScript is to generate another sort of script. The call ‘function produce_stories()’ produces a response in the browser, a dialogue to be read aloud in three voices: Call, Response, and Interference; or: Strophe, Antistrophe, and Chorus; or Here, There, and Somewhere in Between. Yet a reader can never quite reach the end of this TRANS.MISSION. Mid-way through a new iteration is generated. The sentence structures stay the same, but all their variables change.”

I was immediately at sea, dumped somewhere mid Atlantic.  My attempts to understand how this work operated refreshed all my “pre-scripted” notions about voice, dialogue and narrative.  Here was a piece where multiple and diverse texts communicated with each other.  The JavaScript file had to be understood by other communication systems.  It contained functions that called upon variables and maintained a dialogue with a web browser that composed the results of this “calling” into a narrative that could be viewed on screen, on many screens – an infinite number of potential interfaces.

It was also clear that the way TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] operated was part of its subject.  Any failures in comprehension that occurred as messages were passed, modified or generated, echoing the characteristics of any communication attempting to cross time, distance and culture.  In this way, the piece reflected the experience of transatlantic migration.  But whilst I thought I was gaining some basic understanding of these operations, I still found it difficult to know how to respond to the “poetic” results produced by this complex and largely invisible web of communications.   Who was the author?  What exactly did JR write? If you “write” variables, can you call the results random? How did this system or systems manage to create such haunting dialogue?  JR used the term “haunted media” in her writing about the work. Were the systems haunted?  Or the author?  Or the readers whose scripts were constantly in flux?

At the beginning of our collaboration, JR expressed her desire to find a discursive framework appropriate to her multi-modal texts.   My attempt to understand how TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] was made facilitated a discussion that I hope was useful to us both.  My dramaturgical intervention was in three stages.  It began with an informal conversation.   I then attempted a dramaturgical response to TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE], which influenced the creation of JR’s next work, There he was, gone. I performed that work with JR, David Prater and Christine Wilks at the Performance Writing Weekend in Bristol May 2012 and finally JR and I co-authored a commentary on our collaboration for an issue of The Journal of Writing and Creative Practice dedicated to Performance Writing.

The whole process prompted some rethinking of my dramaturgical engagement with process.  I began with a set of methodologies that had been largely tested against live, devised, improvised, collaborative performance practice.  One of the central characteristics of this work is its interrogation of its own modes of operation: an approach that is less concerned with deciphering the meaning of a piece of work, and more interested in the structures that allow this meaning to be transmitted.   In TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] fundamental aspects of the modes of operation were hidden behind the browser window and even if they were exposed by viewing the source code, they were unlikely to be understood by anyone unfamiliar with JavaScript.

Working with devised performance, I had some experience of multiple authorship, but TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] adopted a different approach.  JR wrote all the words that appeared on screen at any given moment, however, precisely which words appeared and when was entirely random.  I understood this, but the delegation of responsibility for coherence to a programme code was troubling.  I wanted to accuse someone of cheating, but it was hard to decide who was responsible.

I was also used to work where chance was built into the performance strategy and where scripts were present, read, or written by the performers during the performance.  In There he was, gone. the programmed variables operated in the moment of performance.  We read our text from computer screens.  It passed between the performers in a loosely pre-ordained pattern, but the variables also caused the text to shift as we read.  This fused reading and speaking into an almost simultaneous operation.

In my work with live performance, I usually preferred to respond dramaturgically (to read across all elements) during in-process showings in the workshop, studio or site.  In most cases the performers were working towards a singular event that had the possibility of a limited number of repetitions.  I was also familiar with the vagaries of audience participation, but both There he was, gone. and TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] were available to be viewed on screen by an unknown number of online readers .  Each experience of the screened piece was unique and the number of participants and their demographic was not predictable.  As a result of these differences, my dramaturgical response to both There he was, gone. and TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE]   became less homogeneous and more discrete. There were times when JR and I discussed the responsibilities of the “authors”, or rather she explained it to me.  There were times when we looked at her design modifications to the screen interface and the ways she invited viewer participation and there were times when we discussed the live performance possibilities.  It was largely a one to one set of conversations where we both grappled with the difficulties of finding common language.

Many questions emerged from this process and answering them furthered a reflexive process that contributed to the generation of new work.  The questions also furthered my search for a set of dramaturgical strategies capable of responding to all materials (texts) that are used or produced in performance practice.  In the light of these and other developments in digital practice, it is necessary to find approaches that are flexible enough to adapt to work where the processes are less transparent; where the definition of text and scripting and chance can extend to programmed material; where authorship is concerned with the modification of systems, or work produced by complex communication networks and the results are available to an infinite number of participators.  Quite a challenge.

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Barbara Bridger is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine