On technology and storytelling.

King Street, by flickr user Duchamp through Creative Commons

As a society, we have become so obsessed with technology that it now permeates every aspect of our lives.  Computers, smartphones, tablets, e-readers, even chip & pin technology and credit cards are now so much a part of our collective experience that frequently we view them as extensions of ourselves.  We forget that there was once a time when computers required desks and phones could only be used to call someone (never mind when your phone had to be connected to the wall).  We love technology.  It brings us closer, connects us, gives us immediate access, allows us to engage in global conversations and to look at the world in new ways.  And it’s a testament to our creativity and to our survival as a species that we continue to find ways to adapt existing technology and to use it all to make our lives easier.

But the more we become digital beings, consumers of technological goods, with endless identities and profiles, summing ourselves up in fill-in-the-blank profile categories or 140 characters, the less human we are.  We “friend” people and somehow believe that clicking a button solidifies a bond.  We “follow” people across the globe and we “like” what they’re doing, but we are not necessarily any closer to understanding their work, their motives, or their art than before the advent of the internet.  We connect with these people in our communities via the internet, and we use that as an excuse never to step outside our front doors.  The more we tweet, the less we talk to people.  And it is this superficiality that is the danger of the digital world.

It took a few trips to the theatre for me to realize this, the first being to a movie theatre.  Several sleepless nights followed my screening of The Social Network, as ideas about relationships and (dis)connectedness and transparency raced through my mind.  I was particularly affected as so much of my young-adulthood and my education have been defined by the era of Facebook; though it’s no longer listed in profiles on the site, I have been a member of Facebook since April 2004, which is to say, since the beginning.   We didn’t realize then the behemoth the site would become.  We joined a bit blindly, unaware of Facebook’s power and influence, drawn in more by the excitement of something new (as if there weren’t enough of that for 18 year olds in Manhattan).  But this is how all trends begin, isn’t it?

As it pertains to theatre, the current trend seems to be the incorporation of all things digital or multimedia in any and every way possible.  Sometimes this happens with great success.  More frequently it does not.  I have witnessed a bit of both and much more of the grey area in between.   But it was the combination of Boca del Lupo’s PHOTOG at Harbourfront Centre and Electric Company Theatre’s Studies in Motion at Canadian Stage that really made me reconsider the role of technology on the stage and its impact on the theatre.

For PHOTOG, a one-man show written largely verbatim from interviews with conflict photographers, Boca del Lupo used projections and live video to superimpose the actor on the photographs he was referencing throughout the show.  For fleeting moments, the effect worked–we understood what they were attempting to impart.  But it was a disjointed effect as the colors on the video and the photograph were at different saturation levels and  whenever the light changed or the actor moved, holes would appear in the video projection and pieces of his face or his head would suddenly disappear.   I suppose one could argue that this was a part of the production, a commentary on the state of mind of the character, but it didn’t seem to be a deliberate choice.  These segments made up the better part of the production and, while I applaud the attempt and the innovation, it would have benefited greatly from an editor or curator.  They used every technological toy and trick, all to the detriment of the story.  And there was an incredible story buried beneath all of the smoke and mirrors.  I grant that this was a new work, perhaps still in development, but in attempting to do everything, they accomplished next to nothing.

Studies in Motion, a bio-show of sorts about the 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge and the past that haunts him,  occupied the opposite end of the spectrum.  It offered a crisp, clean, effectively directed and bravely performed production with seamless, well-integrated projections.  The effect of projected images, whether as still photographs or as moving pictures, was a beautiful compliment to the complexity and intricate choreography of the production.  In essence, Electric Company Theatre could not have used technology more effectively in this production.  It was flawless.  And I very much enjoyed it.  But, as someone leaving the theatre behind us put it, “I don’t know.  I just wanted more…”  Because for all the beautiful images and the successful technological tricks, I’m not convinced it achieved its aims in storytelling anymore than PHOTOG did.

For different reasons, both productions were overcome with the superficiality of technology.  Weak technical aspects that made up the majority of PHOTOG distracted from what could have been an incredible story.  Strong use of technology in Studies in Motion (along with strong direction, choreography, and performances) disguised a weaker story.  I found the former disappointing and frustrating.  The latter has stuck with me in vivid images, the contents of the story having since dissipated.  This is the dangerous intersection of storytelling and technology, full both of pitfalls and potential.

There is a place in the theatre for technology, for technical wizardry and for multimedia effects.  I applaud companies that take the risk of trying something new, that push boundaries, innovate, and chart new territory, whether they are successful in their attempts or not.  There is always value in experimentation.  But not every experiment deserves to see the light of an opening night.  It is our job as artists to know the difference.

As David J. Loehr wrote recently in a great post on 2AMt, “Any story worth telling can be told by one person with a chair, and the chair is optional.  It’s amazing how easily we can forget that.”  I think technology allows us not only to forget that all we need is the person (and perhaps the chair) but to forget that not all stories are worth telling.  Or rather, that all stories are worth telling, but not always in the way we think.  Strict biography and recited verbatim do not necessarily make good theatre in and of themselves, but can serve as the basis for something more.  There is a reason we are not all playwrights.  While we might all have a story to tell (and I believe we do), we don’t always all know the best way to go about telling it.  Technology is the mask we use to hide our fears behind in that regard.  And to pretend that technology lends us the ability to do what only skilled playwriting can accomplish is similar to pretending that every name on our Facebook friends list represents a true friendship.  We are only deluding ourselves.

To create theatre, we must find the stories worth telling and remember that our job as theatre artists is just that: to tell the story.  Technology serves its purpose, but should be used sparingly and only, if ever, in service of the story.  Because if that story is interesting enough, if it is compelling enough, and if we are brave enough, theatre needs nothing more for performance than the power of a single human voice.

Edit: Jacob Coakley at Stage Directions wrote this post in “rebuttal” to mine.  While I think it misses the spirit of what I am saying, it is absolutely a worthwhile read.  He makes several good points and there is a very interesting dialogue happening in the comments section.  Take a moment and check it out!
Edit 2.0: Here is an awesome post from Michael Wheeler at Praxis Theatre that goes more in depth with regards to how Electric Company Theatre works.  I actually think that “Studies in Motion” is even more interesting within the context of their evolution as a company.  For the record,  I also think that the Electric Company is an incredibly important theatre company and that they are vital to our theatre ecology.

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2 responses to “On technology and storytelling.

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention On technology and storytelling. « bfg: keeping it real. -- Topsy.com·

  2. Pingback: Rich Dionne » Blog Archive » Technology Doesn’t Kill Theatre·

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