What place can live theatre possibly hold in the 500-channel, multimedia-interactive, digital entertainment future? Prophecies of the high-tech millennium tend to divide theatre artists into several camps: those who want to get their hands on futuristic toys and play with them, on stage and off; those who dismiss silicon novelties in a high-toned huff and reassert the primal value of live performance; and those who see the proliferation of new technologies as the death-knell for their art if not through the disappearance of the theatre industry itself, then through the hobbling of their audience’s capacity for attention and empathy.Order now
Fortunately, these are not the only options. Only the most philistine technologists and the most pessimistic artists view theatre as an archaic backwater, a long-ago surpassed step in the evolution of ever-fancier media. Here and there, creative people working at the edges of new technology not only in obvious areas, like computer games and interactive movies, but also in system design and even business software are beginning to see our culture’s two-and-a-half millennia of theatre history, theory and practical know-how as vitally relevant to their experiments. And that, in turn, is news of import to the theatre world itself.
More than a tool
One visionary at this new crossroads is a sometime actor, game designer and virtual-reality theorist named Brenda Laurel. Her book Computers as Theatre has become a kind of underground classic in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley and anywhere else people sweat over hot Macintoshes; a paperback has just been issued. Though it’s a scholarly work primarily addressed to software designers, it also makes exhilarating reading for anyone who cares about the future of theatre.
In Computers as Theatre, Laurel argues that the computer isn’t a “tool” at all, but rather a new medium. When people and computers interact, the computer is essentially an intermediary between one set of people and another: “A piece of computer software is a collaborative exercise of the imaginations of the creator(s) of a program and people who use it.”
That kind of collaboration, of course, is old hat in the theatre. With that in mind, Laurel sets out to look at what we do with computers not through the microscope of logic or the window of psychology but through the magnifying glass of dramatic theory specifically, Aristotle’s Poetics. And while Computers as Theatre isn’t comprehensive enough to qualify as a Poetics for the digital age, it does take a provocative stab at redefining our dealings with computers as dramatic events.
The central parallel Laurel draws between theatre and computers begins with Aristotle’s definition of drama as “the representation of an action.” (That’s the translation she uses; others have translated mimesis as “imitation.”) Running a gamut of Aristotelian categories action, character, language, melody, spectacle–Computers as Theatre shows how they might be applied to things as mundane as a spreadsheet and as exotic as a virtual-reality adventure. The computer may initially have been put into harness as a super-calculator, but its ability to fascinate us from the earliest “Spacewar” and “Star Trek” games to the most advanced simulations and games of today lies in “its capacity to represent action in which humans could participate.”
We should stop talking about people as “users” of computers, Laurel insists, and turn our attention away from the machines toward what actions people are performing with them and what pleasures people can be afforded through them, in terms of pattern, suspense, reversal, resolution, even catharsis. The focus on the computer itself is a dead end, she says; no one goes to a movie theatre to stare at the projector.
Movies, of course, are more often invoked than theatre when people talk about new forms of electronic entertainment–no doubt because they’re more dependent on technology to begin with. Traditional cinema, however, is as strictly linear as the row of frames on a piece of film, whereas the live process of theatre has always allowed for that grail of the high-tech world, interactivity fundamentally, as in the subtle cues that always pass between crowds and performers, and radically, as in experiments like Tamara, Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding and their ilk. It’s where theatre is most like itself and least like film in the way each performance is a unique event the audience can influence–that the stage offers the computer world a model for creative work.
Goggles and gear
No computer could possibly substitute for the live presence of the performer, we naturally object. Laurel agrees. Theatre isn’t about to be replaced by anything else, she maintains, but aspects and elements of it are going to start turning up in other forms. Computers as Theatre closes with a discussion of theatre and virtual reality the much-hyped and now much-dismissed technology by which people enter three-dimensional, computer-generated worlds via special goggles and other gear. Virtual reality, Laurel says, offers the prospect of an immersive, Dionysian experience closer to some kinds of avant-garde theatre than to any other existing art form. The computer becomes a kind of interface between two or more people performing for one another; artists use the technology to build a synthetic stage, an imaginary space, and then many people can play around in it at once.
Such places can exist today only in the most rudimentary form, but it’s not too early to think about what they might mean and how they could be used. Computers as Theatre challenges theatre artists to give up thinking of their form as an endangered artifact of a bygone era and instead see it as a robust discipline whose traditions and methods hold value far outside the playhouse walls. In outlining a new way to think about computers, the book also offers a broader vision of the theatre’s place in the world.
“Designing human-computer experience isn’t about building a better desk-top,” Laurel writes. “It’s about creating imaginary worlds that have a special relationship to reality worlds in which we can extend, amplify and enrich our own capacities to think, feel and act.” Worlds, in other words, that share a lot with those we conjure inside Shakespeare’s “wooden O” or anywhere else writers and actors collaborate with the imaginations of their audiences.