Specifically, where does digital start? What constitutes online performance, or digital art? Is it digital if it uses a laptop? It may be, simply, that a live performance is filmed and broadcast online – like the shows available on Digital Theatre or the NT Live streams. But as soon as something is online, as soon as something is watched through a screen, the boundaries of medium begin to blur.
To the 369,131,388 who wasted 4 minutes and 2 seconds of their time watching Taylor Swift’s dishwater-dull new song, or to the thousands who watch this and this and this, to them there is no such thing as genre anymore. The big nobs who make Film and TV are only beginning to embrace the idea that an audience might expect a blurring of boundaries, they are starting to allow these two massively money- spinning mediums to collide. So HBO makes Game Of Thrones, essentially a (really) long-playing fantasy film with colossal production values and cinematic scope; Netflix adds up all the little 6 pounds a month we pay and it turns them into House Of Cards. But House Of Cards isn’t a TV programme – it’s not made for TV. So what is it? A web series? An experimental fictional vlog by some guy called Frank Underwood?
Theatre is just – only just – beginning to stake its claim in this new, border- eroding territory, with the Royal Court/Guardian microplays providing the highest profile example. There is some serious talent involved, and they’ve made great stuff, but there is – and there can be – only one practical difference between a microplay and a short film: its makers. The microplays are short and they are filmed, but as long as the makers call themselves theatre-makers then it’s still theatre. That self-definition is as important as anything.
Otherwise, where does film end and theatre begin? What would be the criteria for online performance? Does it have to be live? Does it have to be happening somewhere that’s not my bedroom? Is it only theatre if I’ve had to put on trousers and leave the house? Imposing criteria is useless, it suffocates imagination and it stifles one colossal strength of theatre: the potential for infinite variety.
Two of Forced Entertainment’s recent performances, Quizoola and Speak Bitterness were both streamed live online and I didn’t have to wear trousers for either of them. They provoked these huge online responses, mainly on Twitter, from people who were dipping in and out, letting the stream run in the background. But there is nothing particularly digital about this performance other than the fact it’s had a camera pointed at it.
Both of those Forced Ents performances had real, alive audiences present as well as the online viewers and, unless there was a party which I wasn’t invited to, it seemed like most people watched the streams on their own. They became (almost) one-on-one for each person in the online audience. Similarly, all three ideas that were pitched for the online scratch consisted of a one-on-one performance; this seems to be a boundary that is difficult to break when trying to put performance in a digital space. Online interactions do tend to be solitary, it’s not that easy to gather around a laptop in large numbers, and the attraction to one-on-one may simply be that it is the truest recreation of live performance.
When I am watching a piece of theatre it seems as if it is being performed just for me. If the show’s good, there emanates the same deeply personal connection that you get from a great novel. No matter how adept websites become at predicting our tastes, still that personalisation tends to be eroded online by the constant reminder of how many views or likes or upvotes something has received. Instantly the illusion of individuality is destroyed. A live performance, unlike cinema, is not a reel in a projector, not some automated system flickering on at 6pm, delivering 10 minutes of adverts for cars and perfume, 10 minutes of trailers for films I’ll never see. These actors had to get out of bed to be here and perform in front of me. For me. Paradoxically, theatregoing may be personal but it is rarely solitary. There are usually lots of other people in an audience, and the individual can feed off the atmosphere that all those other people create – so can the performers. With a camera pointed at their conks, performers can’t see their audience. All they see is a camera.
The boundaries of medium and genre are just the beginning. Unconsciously we – the digital natives, the millennials, Gen Y, WHATEVER – we have been programmed to live our lives through a multitude of rectangles.
These are boundaries in a physical, tangible sense: wherever you are reading this – your computer, your phone, tablet, even if you’ve printed it out onto paper (remember paper? It’s like trees that’ve been squashed really thin, like even thinner than an iPad Air) these words are still confined to a small rectangle.
The actual, real world – all that green and grey stuff outside your window (which is another rectangle, unless you live on a boat) – isn’t rectangular. It’s 3d, and you don’t even have to wear plastic glasses. So, in a theatre or any kind of performance space our eyes are free to wander and to take in a complete consideration of the surroundings. But on a screen we are used to having our gaze directed and our eyes drawn in by a series of moving focal points. Big panorama scenes, like the scene in Avatar when the blue man flies on the big flying thing or in Interstellar when the crew skirt the wormhole’s edge, are ‘ooooh’ moments, when the world within the film gives the illusion of breaking free from its rectangle.
Theatre has to work harder to make our eyes stay fixed on what’s happening, rather than drifting off to settle on a fellow audience member’s odd haircut.
Finally, let’s look at boundaries as limitations – specifically, the limitations of time and money. Most of the time theatre is a commercial venture. It is how people make a living. And, really, living means money. I’d like to think that there’s a higher percentage of job satisfaction among those who work in theatre (on stage/behind the scenes/writing about it/thinking about it/reading it/going to see it/whatever you do) than in many other sectors. But, still, how often do you go to the theatre and not pay? That clashes with the fundamental polyarchy of the internet. Almost everything is free. There are big exceptions (The Times paywall) but no one has come across a satisfactory, sustainable way of making money from the internet (I don’t think paid advertising is satisfactory).
Rhiannon Armstrong’s scratch proposal, partly a one-on-one performance and partly a growing, crowdsourced archive, is a perfect metonym for the internet’s greatest strength: accumulation. Take Wikipedia, in 2002 it had 19,700 articles. As of December 2014 it has 4,669,115 (there’s even a Wikipedia page to tell me all this information).
And everything there is permanent. The digital space is chronic, people are only beginning to adjust to its permanence. What’s online never dies. Part of the existence of theatre, of live performance, relies on its instantaneity and its taking place in one moment, never to be repeated again in the same way.
But time allows these gargantuan databases and archives and wikis to just keep growing ever larger, in perpetuity. Armstrong’s Archive Of Things Left Unsaid takes one minuscule aspect of our existence – l’esprit de l’escalier, mini moments of regret – and turns that into an online, unending, expanding archive.
The archive prods at all these boundaries, it encompasses an ethos of theatre and the power of the internet to become something that can mesh these two disparate forms. It is imagination, reflection, democracy, time, humanity.
The winning BAC Scratch Online commission is being developed over the next three months.
Can You Program a Metaphor? Tim Bano explores the issues surrounding intimacy, privacy and the internet