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FutureTheatre could now be more relevant than ever

·1570 words

With the ongoing pandemic and social seclusion, or the tremendous artistic constipation, artists around the world are producing their content for audiences around the world.

FutureTheatre has never felt so pressing. Just in the last week, there are hundreds of performers posting work online, including Stuck-in-the-House from the Citadel Theatre on YouTube and The Showstoppers live-streamed show from the West End in London.

Are you working on live streaming your art/theatre? Please let me know on Twitter @korymath.

Matt Schuurman, Artistic Director of Rapid Fire Theatre, recently opened a discussion of a theatre that would facilitate productions 5-10-20 years into the future. He asked, “What’s next? What is the theatre of the future? how is future theatre prepared, produced, and performed?” This led me through discovery and ideation, to formalizing FutureTheatre, all of which has been fast-tracked to relevance.

We continue to see technical progress enhancing, augmenting, and indelibly projecting digital experience on live theatre. FutureTheatre is an artistic movement, an era in theatre marked by rapid technological advancement toward these ends.

FutureTheatre is happening and is accelerated by our global alone togetherness.

Increasing environmental consciousness and better apps, tools, and tech. These two factors limit how much we travel to meet physically and increases how much care we dedicate to meaningful remote connection and collaboration.

The global pandemic isolates us and restricts the very notion of the live audience. Yet, creators want to create, and audiences urge to attend. (Here’s that rainy day. Remember this feeling.)

These changes affect how shows are conceptualized, designed, marketed, workshopped, presented, and performed and enjoyed by audiences. We are compassionate to our viewers, we are building experiences for them. And we should give consideration to how the art might be consumed by individuals who are not in the same place as the creators of the art. Increasing audience enjoyment is a potentially desirable outcome.

Creatives are provocateurs who predict the future and interpret the past. They exist in the now to tell us something we should know in the way only artistic minds can. But, the audience role is paramount. They complete the circle through interaction and feedback.

The theatre stimulates audiences, who see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the show. The conventional theatrical performance focuses primarily on audiences seeing and hearing the performance.

The chairs that the audience members sit in, the ground they walk on, and the surfaces they touch serve to delight the sense of touch. The concession serves smell and taste. The performance itself could stimulate feeling, smelling, and tasting. One such example is the 2015 screening of John Waters `Polyester` in Odorama.

Companies operating in the immersive realm (Punchdrunk, Third Rail, Dream Think Speak) are expanding notions of audience ’experience’ to make it more pan-sensory. Proprioception also comes into play in a quasi- ‘open-world’ experience like Sleep No More.

FutureTheatre will not only broadcast information to the audience; instead, the theatre will be full of interactional experiences. The interactions can take as input any means by which humans might affect their environment. Two standard modes of communication are physical interaction with our hands and bodies and speech-based interactions with our voice. The space the audience is in might be very different from the venue of the performance.

Audience members may be invited into the production, or provide information or context utilizing a sub-channel like chat, text messages, Twitter, or audio/video response. The interaction for the audience members indeed begins well before they enter into the performance, and ends well after. By using information that members of the audience provide before the show, components of the show can be personally tailored ala Hip.Bang! ’s Surveil back-channel hacking and online information gathering.

Watching yourself watch a Google Home Alone. Rehearsal for Surveil.
Watching ourselves watch Google Home alone during rehearsal for Surveil.

Imagine customized shows and theatrical seasons. Theatres could produce shows based on their subscribers’ Netflix preferences (collected with permission, of course). The same show could be personalized to specific audience members. Each audience’ seeing the play’ through a distinctively tinted looking glass for an individual perspective.

If the performance itself is not a static entity prepared and composed for a rigid performance, it can adapt to the whim of the audience. The audience is, in essence, the composer. They direct the show since they are afforded capabilities to do so. And, through their interaction, the performance materializes for them. The FutureTheatre movement will include bio- and neuro-feedback from the audience, passive and active wearable sensors with data rendered in real-time affecting the performance. The tone of the show determined by the collective subconscious responding to the experience as it unfolds before them.

The preparation of the actors, and the show’s technology, is then in service of the audience. This adaptation blurs the lines between the scripted and the improvised. Between preparedness and being ready for anything.

If they collectively would derive maximal delight observing an endless empty performance, then who are we to tell them that we can do better? Perhaps their perception of possibility is distorted? Surely it is not that their creativity is limited? Maybe they can only imagine what is possible within the limit of what we provide to them. We could reveal what is possible, and then incrementally surprise them by leaping just above their imagined possibility ceiling.

We should also consider how the audience is being asked to conceptualize and understand the show. Typically, this involves language, could the audience be encouraged to imagine/respond independently of language?

Hyper-personalization of a performance decouples us from the classic paradigm of an audience’s collective consciousness. Instead, each person’s interaction in the theatre is a different experience. This feels more similar to a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Or a book club where each member of the group explores their own way through a choose-your-adventure book.

In these situations, each of the audience is in the same universe experiencing a unique storyline from a different perspective, at their own pace. Each path through narrative space is then a unique and personal exploration. Is there a limited range of possible outcomes in these constructions? Or is it a possibly open-ended branching narrative that eventually returns to collective ‘spines’? Or is it completely unbounded?

Audiences may be guided through space with decisions that they can make personally, which affects the story they get to enjoy. They may have the ability to keep their choices private or to share them with other trusted audience members. The decisions we make, and what we share privately, likely changes depending on the receiver: audience or performer.

The future of theatre is dynamic, adaptive, and audience interaction focused. It aims to augment the theatre with a layer of machine technology that serves the performance.

These tools connect the audience with machines in engaging and approachable ways. These interactive machines collaborate with audience members to personalize and curate the performance. Different aspects of the interaction prompt or enter quiescence, inviting the audience to continue the interaction.

Principles of FutureTheatre #

  1. Human creativity is limitless, but reachable states are bounded by constraints. The entirety of what humans could creatively achieve may not be constrained; instead, there are constraints put in place because of the ‘rules’ that theatre or piece abides by.
  2. Creativity augmentation tools expand the space of possibility by increasing reachable states.
  3. Augmenting creativity reduces constraints.
  4. Diverse and unique augmentation tools provide infinite diversity and endless complexity.
  5. FutureTheatre thus greatly expands the space of possible theatre experiences.

FutureTheatre discussion questions to ponder #

  • What do completely remote FutureTheatre performances look like when no performer nor any audience member is colocated?
  • How can the pieces be different and the experience consistent for each viewer?
  • How does this shape the status relationships between audience and actors?
  • How do status dynamics shift when the performers and the audience are tightly coupled?
  • How does hyper-personalization alienate or disconnect an audience?
  • Beyond alienation–how does consent figure into this for both audience and performer?
  • How can we capture and store data?
  • Does consent change when an interaction is mediated and, therefore (re)broadcast-able or (re)streamable?
  • What are the ethical and social considerations of hyper-personalizing artistic reflections?
  • How do we maintain authenticity when interactions are augmented by machines?
  • How does FutureTheatre design for an audience as the creator, or the collaborator?

So, Matt, as a long winded answer to your questions the future came faster than we thought. And tech is ready to help us as artists and as audiences. And I have never been more inspired by FutureTheatre. I hope the next how-ever-long-it-takes brings many new ways to create and consume theatre.

Acknowledgements #

These thoughts stem from discussions with many collaborators: Julian Faid, Piotr Mirowski, Shannon Blanchet, Sarah Ormandy, Lana Cuthbertson, Marc G. Bellemare, Gunter Lösel, Thomas Winters and the many Improboticists from Sweden to Belgium to the USA and many others.

Further reading #

There are many interactive installations, theatrical productions, and related events which you might be interested in for further reading: The Cloud Machine, The Tempest, Alice, The Virtual Reality Play, Holojam in Wonderland, Broken Bone Bathtub, Right Passage, The Ark, New Dimensions in Testimony, Dismantle the Room, Future of StoryTelling, City of Glass, Once Upon a Christmas (London, 2013), In C, Primary Assembly, Will Future Storytelling Include Live Theatre?, What is the Future of Theatre in the Digital Age?, How does the (digital) theatre of the future look like?, Theatre of the Future, Raising the curtain on the future of theatre and finally Digital Theatre and Cyberperformance on Wikipedia.