Third Theatrical Reform?

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Anna Luňáková, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský

Author of the text: Anna Luňáková (CZ) / philosopher, writer and journalist
Moderator: Ondřej Škrabal (CZ) / writer and theatre director
Marcus Lobbes (DE) / theatre director and set designer
Matěj Nytra (CZ) / theatre dramaturgist, HaDivadlo Brno
Krzystof Garbaczewski (PL) / theatre director and set desginer, with focus on VR Technology

The introductory episode, titled “A Third Theatrical Reform?” addresses the integration of theatre and digitality, particularly in relation to the concept of presence. The discussion begins with the fact that digital tools are gradually becoming a part of theatrical language. This reality has been accelerated by the ongoing pandemic and the related government restrictions. What positive role can technology play in the development of theatre? How to blur the boundary between the virtual world and reality? The philosopher, writer and journalist Anna Luňáková  reflects on the emerging future of theatre in relation to a changing society.

#01_A Third Theatrical Reform?

Anna Luňáková

This was the title of the second debate from the series The Show Must Go ON/OFF-line, organised by the Arts and Theatre Institute. This time, digital culture was the subject of the debate, or, more precisely, the relationship between theatre and digitality. 

It goes without saying that there are and have been changes in the perception of presence, an essential ingredient in every theatrical performance. “Being together” can also mean sharing an online space. 

How do European theatre makers and theoreticians work with digitality? Three participants responded to this question and advanced the debate: Marcus Lobbes, a theatre director and scenographer from Germany; Matěj Nytra, dramaturg at Brno’s HaDivadlo and Krzystof Garbaczewski from Poland, a director and scenographer who focuses on virtual reality technology.

At the beginning of the debate, moderator Ondřej Škrabal noted that the theatre has generally been understood as a conservative environment that interfaces with the digital space primarily through the streaming of previously recorded performances. This tendency was even more strongly evident in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic broke out.  As the participants noted, one of the first reactions to the transition from the classical theatre environment to the digital space was disappointment on the part of the actors that it was no longer possible to work “physically.” Still, as Marcus Lobbes pointed out, it’s good for projects to grapple with challenges. A positive outcome of the impossibility of performing before full auditoriums is the fact that theatre artists are forced to look for original solutions. 

If digital tools are not only used to stream pre-recorded performances, but become an integral part of theatrical language, then this language itself must also expand its vocabulary. New departments devoted to digitality in theatrical contexts are already being established across Europe. In Dortmund, for example, as Marcus Lobbes mentioned, the Academy for Theatre and Digitality, which researches innovative technologies in the performing arts, was established in 2019. 

The specific possibilities that technology offers to theatrical language should also be considered in the context of its original themes, which may or may not directly relate to a particular technology. The broadening of theatrical language to include new qualities and experiences, such as those offered by virtual reality, also necessarily extends theatre’s own perception of itself.  

The presence of the human being and world in which they live is – and always has been – theatre’s first priority. If, however, this presence is radically redefined, if the society that the theatre aims to mirror finds itself online, if the everyday life of people and the world they live in – still the main protagonist of any performance – largely plays out in the presence of technology, with the online space as the main sphere of communication, then it is necessary to bring this reality into play. Virtual reality and other technologies radically expand the concept of presence: there is talk of a psychedelic or metaphysical level of reality. It is necessary to determine what in the digital sphere is also material, to re-interrogate aspects of human perception, to consider how we actually define reality and ask whether the creation of profiles on social media isn’t actually a type of acting, as Krzystof Garbaczewski speculated.

Considering that conceptual writing emerged with the advent of the internet, let us ask if there should not now be a comparable change in the theatre. If we are speaking of a new theatrical reform, it would first be necessary to precisely identify the changes and features that characterise it and distinguish it from the first and second theatrical reforms as they are generally understood and described in histories of theatre. It may be that a whole new sector is emerging, which now needs to be named.  

Above all, the debate clearly showed that technology and the digital world are not necessarily perceived pejoratively or negatively, as is often the case in society-wide debates on this topic. Technology, says Krzystof Garbaczewski, not only separates us from the world, but also brings us closer to it. Some – for example, those who identify as cyborgs – may only be able to find their true selves through technology. The contrast between the real world and the parallel reality of the internet is not as immediate for Garbaczewski as it sometimes seems. We are in obvious need of radical, new concepts for thinking about technology, especially technology in relation to theatre, in order to better describe the process in which we currently find ourselves. 

The debate thus also considered the fact that it is necessary to expand the term “environment” and to recognise that the online environment and the environment of the so-called “real world” are not separated by a clear line of demarcation. Emphasising physical presence at the expense of the online experience is not a sufficient argument for rejecting it completely. This is particularly the case since online experiences like playing games or watching videos can evoke a very strong physical response. 

Let’s briefly think about the terms “analogue” and “digital.” If we take sound as an example, we know that analogue signals carry raw information.  If I send an analogue sound over a longer distance, for example, it picks up more noise en route. We hear the surrounding atmosphere, which makes the sound richer but also lowers its quality in some respects. In contrast, digital sound works by encoding the values of a given sound wave in concrete time. It is actually numerical information that can be reconstructed at any time and in any place.  We get higher, more accurate, definition, but we lose the sense of atmosphere.  

Can the advent of digitality in the theatre be understood as the linking of these two modes we’ve just described? Of something so naturally analogue with something digital? Might theatre emerge as a third entity that arises from the connection of the analogue with the digital, a third space that connects seemingly unconnected worlds? Can digitality in the theatre at least serve to reveal that our reality is not schizophrenic, but that one world passes into another, just as we experience this phenomenon in everyday life?  And finally, in this respect, isn’t digitality in theatre another example of what theatre has always been about – namely, the reflection of its time and the society in which it is made?

Theatre must be thought of as a living, constantly changing organism. In the present moment, it is impossible – either temporarily or permanently – to carry on making theatre in the way we are accustomed to: played out live for a physically present audience. Currently, the live streaming and filming of staged production is a well-established solution. Streaming thus becomes an impulse for the development or adaptation of new forms and their inclusion in the concept of theatre as a whole. The pandemic situation invites us to reflect on the theatre in general. Shared presence – a basic condition of the relationship between stage and auditorium – is no longer experienced solely by people in the same room at the same time. Maybe they’re in the same virtual room, but in different time zones. Re-defining the concept of presence is thus one of the tasks that lies ahead for theatre. 

The future of the performing arts is always in a state of becoming, it is in process, even in relation to those who are yet to be born, whether they will go on to be makers or spectators. New approaches, including those which are new in the sense of not yet being seen as part of theatre practice, must emerge not only as reactions, but as honest attempts at research and development, almost akin to scientific processes. The theatre’s survival depends on its adaptability in the face of the new adventure it has inadvertently embarked on. One also has to ask what sorts of resistance could even manifest in theatre, a form which relies upon the ephemeral magic of a single evening, and yet persists.