Three's Company Blog

‘The Immediate Future’ (part 2)

The continuation of an essay on the future of theatre…

This is one of [intlink id=”41″ type=”category”]a series of blog posts[/intlink] about interactive theatre and theory behind our work in this field.

A large amount of theatre about today, though highly impressive, enjoyable and successful, does not embrace, does not exploit this unique element – the immediacy of theatre. A typical play – by Alan Ayckbourne, David Hare, Arthur Miller or David Mamet – for instance, is obviously different from a filming or radio recording of the same events but does not capitalise on the fact the audience are right there in front of the actors. Good performers will live the performance anew each night and should be alive to the psychology of the audience on that night but, even in the best circumstances it is hard to see how this will have much effect on the actual events. The audience posses a very small number of acceptable audible reactions they can have, in order to communicate their feelings to the actors, who then have a very tight framework within which they can react to these signals. Although the audience are but feet away, the actors are much more directly affected by the script, the set, the director’s notes from the night before and their fellow performers on stage.

Even more experimental theatre – such as site-specific work – does not usually embrace this immediacy. Walking amongst the audience, and allowing them to move amongst the actors, merely changes the physical position between them and does not use this immediacy to any effect. In some site-specific pieces, the audience is so free that they can choose which characters – and which stories – to follow. Although such ‘interactivity’ gives a lot of power to the individual audience member and is an exciting development it still does not embrace the immediacy of theatre. Indeed, television, although completely removed from the person watching it, has this form of interaction in spade-fulls: one can now choose from potentially hundreds of different ‘stories’ and, in some cases, even what camera angle they are seen from.

This is not to say that any of the above are bad theatre and should not happen. Clearly, a wide range of people get a lot of enjoyment and are profoundly affected by such theatre and it is a means for communicating important issues of today. However, without in some way embracing immediacy, and clearly marking its territory as distinct from film, television and radio, theatre could easily become just “another form” of entertainment or storytelling. It is therefore important for at least some branches of theatre to explore and embrace the nature of theatre as immediate performance, immediate art, or immediate entertainment.

There are, then, a number of branches that do do exactly this. Comedy theatre capitalises on the immediacy of the audience. By laughing – or not – the audience at a comedy can drastically change a performance, making it a unique event, which the audience are a part of. In some comedy scenes, the audience literally plays another ‘character’ who interjects lines at certain points – saying them louder or for longer and in different places each night. Such a ‘character’ must be listened to carefully, and can affect the performance, almost as much as an actor in the piece itself.

Plays which include moments of ‘audience interaction’ also make some – limited – use of the immediate audience. Pantomime dialogue with the audience follows formulas but will change depending on what people shout out, and in some plays entire conversations are held with audience members. Just like the reaction of actors to a laughing audience, these moments could not happen in an art from which was not immediate.

Such types of immediacy are by no means a modern phenomenon – indeed they seem to be more common in British theatre’s earlier stages. Soliloquies, it is thought, in Shakespeare’s day, were always spoken directly to members of the audience. Although there is no place in Shakespeare for them to respond – and tell Othello not to kill Desdemona – the effect on those individuals is important, noteworthy – and unique to theatre as an immediate art-form.

These features, although still present in many pieces of theatre, do seem to be comparatively rare in mainstream theatre today; they are often small aspects of plays and, more importantly, do not appear to be a part of the current movements of today’s theatre. Few modern practitioners appear to be concerned to create theatre which allows more opportunities for embracing the immediacy of theatre to its audience – and in more ways. Instead of merely talking to the audience at certain points or being receptive to their mood, theatre needs to include works that fully embrace the audience and all they can potentially do to an art-work. To embrace the unique feature that immediacy brings – that the work can affect the audience and the audience can affect the work.

As people increasingly turn to television and film for their dramatic stories and entertainment, it is precisely theatre which embraces its unique features that will remain relevant and necessary. Whist the full gamut of theatre genres is sure to remain, we should expect the newest developments to be in the area of developing and exploring immediacy. This might involve actors working to become more aware of their audience, it might involve a growth in live comedy – but it should also be expected to involve theatre performances (plays as well as less conventional performances) that make the most of the audiences presence, right there in the same place as the performance.

Which, incidentally, is about where our show for this year’s summer tour comes in…

This is one of [intlink id=”41″ type=”category”]a series of blog posts[/intlink] about interactive theatre and theory behind our work in this field.

Posted in Essays, Interactive Thoughts, Theory | Tagged , | 1 Comment

One Response to ‘The Immediate Future’ (part 2)

  1. Kathleen says:

    I just read your blog about the future of theatre and felt compelled to express some of my ideas.
    Please, bear in mind that my views are from a filmmaker’s point of view, my knowledge of theatre is limited to an audience experience.

    Regarding the identity of theatre, I believe the place it holds in history and its impact are a pretty good point to start with. Therefore, some of its identity resides in being the first one as an art form, the origin of cinema, then TV. Maybe not really strong but still enough to make people curious, in my opinion.
    However, I disagree with you when you compare news and morning shows with performances of political, philosophical or moral ideas. The former are more a brainwash than an attempt to have their audience reflect on their world and think for themselves. And the immediacy you are talking about is somewhat an illusion since these broadcasts can be re-aired, therefore the audience attention is not as strong as during a performance. Because then, if you don’t listen carefully, you lose some understanding of the story, the plot and what characters go through; a loss you can never get back unless you go back and watch the same play over and over again. It goes the same way with films now we have DVDs. If you miss some part, you just have to wait few months and you have it again.
    Besides, there is engagement on the part of the audience: they have to be physically there for the time being, for one, a decision they consciously make. Second, there is a communion that TV could never replace. You will argue it is the same with cinema and you are right, but let’s not forget that the immediacy that theatre offers is more powerful and engaging with the actors being right there, few feet away; whereas in films, this feeling is diminished by the screen. You don’t exchange much, if not at all.
    There is also a peculiarity that film and TV will never have a chance to really explore in the fact that the audience has to stretch its imagination to believe that the scene is taking place where it is supposed to be. It is so typical of theatre. In films, every location is shot, every reaction or emotion is shown. And I have to say it is hard to deviate from these rules as it is expected. Following this thought, in theatre we expect to see what we want or are ready to see. In a way, there is no manipulation; a manipulation you will come to operate when giving too much freedom to an audience member in order to have the play end at the point it is supposed to end. Or is it all improvised, like a conversation, with no real point to close it?
    I understand this kind of immediacy is appealing and a lot of fun, and I would definitely like to experience it, but where does freedom start and where does it end? Because once again, the performers are the wardens of the play, directing it in a final direction, their direction.
    To me, it feels safer to watch, evaluate and appreciate an author’s take on his/her world, free to agree or disagree, like or dislike, and use the concepts in my own way, than knowing by then end that I have been led to say things that maybe are not completely mine or meant. It looks a little bit like politics at this point.
    However, I am ready for the challenge and would like to be proven wrong, and even fall in love with the way you envision the future of theatre. I am willing to learn and always eager to discuss new ventures, then experience before rejecting.
    Again, bear in mind that these are just thoughts based on my experience of regular theatre-going and a reflection about the whole process of immediacy as you see it.
    On the other hand, I am not sure you would like to go back to Shakespeare’s time when you could be hit on stage by a tomato or egg because the audience got bored or thought the play was not to its taste. It could prove quite dangerous these days. That is why they don’t let you inside the auditorium with anything other than plastic cups.
    Besides, you have to remember that an audience, either in theatre or film, is a voyeur. Indeed, what we enjoy from time to time is watch the action unfold from a safe place, a place in which we know we can’t get reached or asked for anything. It is an escape from real life into some sort of real life, but a real life that belongs to someone else, to the author, to the actors to a certain extent.
    We are looking at ourselves from far away, like behind a veil that protects us. It is the same for films, even more so since we put another screen between the story and us.
    I reckon there is space for mainstream theatre and more “avant-garde” theatre, as it is and will always be part of the arts. It is not dying, just as film will not lose to digital.
    Artists will not let it happen.

    Kathleen

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