Uncompressability of theatre

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Author of the text/moderator: Jiří Šimek (CZ) / Actor, Theatre Artist and co-founder of Ufftenživot Theatre Group
Martynas Petrikas (LT) / Associate professor at the Faculty of Communication at Vilnius University
Savas Patsalidis (GR) / Professor of Theatre at Aristotle University and the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece
Nela H. Kornetová (CZ) / Independent performer and performance maker

The starting point for this episode of the ShowOff podcast was a discussion of the same name with Nela H. Kornetová, a Czech theatre artist based in Norway, Greek researcher and critic Savas Patsalides and Martynas Petrikas, a Lithuanian expert on contemporary Central European theatre. The main topic of discussion was to search for and formulate the fundamental meaning of theatre and the reasons for its existence in the digital twenty-first century. The resulting podcast is a summary of the most fundamental moments of the conversation. Why go to the theatre when we carry a gateway to an infinite number of entertainments in our pockets? Can theatre exist in a compressed format, or is it fundamentally resistant to compression? How do younger generations, online from birth, relate to offline meetings that occur at one time and in one place. What is the meaning of “live” today. Are there reasons to fear for the future of live encounters, or is it us who should be afraid of them? This episode offers few answers and raises many questions. Join us for a this episode on the future of theatre through the eyes of theorists and practitioners, brought to you by Jiří Šimek, actor, theatre maker and founder of Ufftenživot company (www.ufftenzivot.cz).

#03_Uncompressability of Theatre

Jiří Šimek

I began to associate the concept of uncompressibility with theatre around 2016, after reading the book The Revenge of Analog by journalist David Sax. Sax notes the boom in vinyl record presses, the growing demand for paper notebooks and the advent of small, independent bookstores. In the book, he asks why people still crave the old, slow, impractical, analogue ways when digital devices – like a smartphone that is also simultaneously a music player, diary and notebook –  offer greater comfort, speed and compactness. Anna Luňáková offered a good explanation of a possible reason for this in the first episode of this Showoff podcast series. The “dirtiness,” or imperfection of analogue recordings, as opposed to their digital imitations, is something that still has value. I think that this is one of the reasons why analogue technology is still here, and, if you ask me, I think we still have theatre for the same reason.

When the pandemic first began, I found it uncomfortable to observe how easily and willingly theatres began to “shift” into the digital space. Now, in early 2021, the situation is of course different. Theatre makers who had not been involved with digital forms before the pandemic are learning to work with the digital space, and that willing “shift” is being followed by a period of disillusionment and reflection. More than ever before, this experience confirms that theatre, unlike music, paintings or photographs, cannot have a compressed format. It’s not possible to turn theatre into a jpeg, an mp3 or some other digital format. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to create new, equivalent and previously unimagined online experiences, but theatre as an encounter, as a live event, as a shared experience here and now, cannot be digitised or compressed. New art forms derived directly from theatre will likely emerge as a result of the pressure the pandemic has exerted on theatre makers. Still, for the purposes of this conversation, by ‘theatre’, I always mean a live encounter between spectators and artists in a single place. 

As part of  the debate series “The Show Must Go On/Offline,” my goal here was to search for and formulate the fundamental meaning of theatre in the twenty-first century, along with reasons for its existence, together with my guests, Nela H. Kornetová (a Czech theatre artist based in Norway), Savas Patsalidis (a Greek researcher and critic) and Martynas Petrikas (a Lithuanian specialist on contemporary Central European theatre).  Why should it make sense in the future to buy a ticket for a particular time, to travel to a particular place, to risk unwanted social or theatrical interactions, to sit with dozens of other people in one place, to ignore the threat of contagion and quietly breathe the same air (an activity that is considered deadly in the current situation) —in short, why do something so extremely uncomfortable? Why should it make sense for us to engage in an activity that requires us to overcome “obstacles” and surrender to an environment we can’t control when we carry an alternative in our pockets that can be turned on anywhere and at any time, is instantaneous, and, in the language of tech giants “as frictionless as possible,” in the sense that it does not put up any resistance and presents no obstacles. Why leave the comfort zone of compressed online entertainment, full of endless music, movies, texts, and images from around the world, all ready to be consumed risk-free, where, if we don’t like something, can we skip it or turn it off? As audiences and as artists, can we find new value and meaning in uncompressed, analogue, uncontrollable, risky theatre? 

It would be too ambitious a goal to try to answer all of these questions in a single discussion. This episode is only one part of the series, after all. What I’ll do now is offer a few fundamental ideas that my guests and I discussed. 

Obstacles and the pleasure of overcoming them. Hijacking the body and soul. The increased difficulty of concentration.

I’ve taken part in dozens of performances as a performer. The nervousness usually starts in the morning. The whole day leading up to the performance is entirely focused on that single moment; the rest of the day’s activities are only tangential. If everything is as it should be, the theatre is full and I manage to overcome my nerves. I transform them into an unprecedented state of concentration that allows me to experience unique moments of sharing with the audience, and then, at the end, a reward awaits, in the form of applause and a sense of satisfaction that I have contributed to something special. During the pandemic, I produced a single live stream of my performance Words of Apology, due to a cancelled trip to Berlin. The stress I experienced because of the live stream was mostly related to whether or not the cables would work, if the internet connection would fail, etc. When I performed for the camera, I felt like I was drinking decaffeinated coffee or non-alcoholic beer…the taste is familiar, but it’s not the real thing. When the “performance” was over and the director of the live stream said “we’re offline,” emptiness reverberated throughout the space. Even during the broadcast, I felt frustrated. I lacked feedback from the audience, to say nothing of the missing applause at the end. It was as if nothing had happened. Later, I looked at the viewership statistics. The average time for a single viewer was about 25 minutes, while at least one second of the performance played on 500 screens. This looks good at first glance, but it also shows that hardly anyone watched the whole performance. Perhaps some people played it, but paid no attention to it. Even though we had rehearsed the piece and were excited about working on a new version of the production for the camera and even though the feedback was very positive, something fundamentally didn’t work. There is no theatre without the audience, without presence and concentration. As for me, I haven’t watched a single streamed performance while theatres have been closed. I couldn’t. 

Theatre offers an exceptionally concentrated situation, both for those performing on stage and for the spectators in the auditorium. Conventions help spectators to concentrate – to sit quietly and watch. Of course, they can leave at any time, but this will disturb other spectators, etc. We rarely achieve such concentration in everyday life. As Martynas Petrikas remarked – contemporary human identity is approaching the state of the cyborg. What we are is not enough, we must have various technological extensions that allow us to absorb more, to see more, to be in more places and to communicate faster, even though it is unnatural for us. It makes me think about how we – as humanity – are supposed to face challenges like the global environmental crisis or the current pandemic, when we are constantly distracted, unfocused and inattentive. We are divided, separated and we share our feelings through buttons in digital environments that are shaped by corporations in order to generate revenue. In our capitalist society, which views multitasking as desirable and valuable, we often do this without thinking, out of addiction, in a rush, as Nela H. Kornetová noted. 

Community. Untethered global citizens or citizens embedded in their community. Love and hate. Look before you leap./Better safe than sorry./Measure twice, cut once.

In the 6 years I have spent in a theatrical environment, I have understood that theatre cannot be done for money. The motivation has to be different. And so too, the prevailing relations among theatre makers must be based on trust, sympathy, mutual dynamics and the ability to collaborate. It’s not the size of the fee that will get us all to the premiere, but the fact that we want to communicate something and be together. We’re not motivated to reach our goal by our earnings, which we will then spend alone, but by relationships and a sense of meaningfulness. We are held together by a very fine and complex web that is structurally intertwined with belonging and interpersonal relationships. These relationships are analogue and contain imperfections that we cannot do without. Theatre-making processes emerge directly from the offline community, which is uncontrollable and risky. Online communities are temporary, purposeful and secure; they cannot replace these riskier processes. Savas Patsalidis thus rightly drew attention to the disintegration of community and belonging. In this sense, live theatre is a counter-movement against the general tendency, not intentionally, but because of its internal and external essence. Theatre is slow, it is human, it is exhausted, and, at the same time, it accepts and reflects new technologies.

The New Generation. Online from birth. Fear of communication? Fear of the encounter? What is liveness?

In response to a contribution from Nela H. Kornetová, Savas Patsalidis described a situation he had experienced in a theatre, where a boy had watched an entire performance through the display of his mobile phone. Savas perceives that today’s generation understands “liveness” as something different from his generation’s understanding. I believe that this intergenerational change is unprecedented. When someone today says “it was live,” they mean it was filmed by a camera, sent to a server in the Arizona desert, passed through software compression and someone saw it with a delay and modified by a visual filter. So how will it be when generations each understand “liveness” as something different? How will the next generation solve real problems when “live” is really not “alive” at all? What motivated that boy to watch the performance through his device? For the next generations, reality may be just a source of material for subsequent activities online. In other words, what if his hope all along was that something would happen on stage that was interesting enough to provide material that would arouse interest online? So is it that for today’s young people? Is online attention more important than reality itself? Is their attention focused somewhere in the future, rather than on the present? Or is Martynas Petrikas right when he suggests that the boy was perhaps afraid because he did not control the real theatrical situation, because he could not turn it off, move it, return to it or hit pause? As an artist, I consider this inflexibility of theatre to be its guiding principle. In the future, theatre will not compete with virtual reality and other digital forms, just as it does not compete with film and television, for example. Theatre will remain, but its meaning and purpose will change. It is a challenge. 

Uncompressible relationships. The journey there and back again. Theatre is not a cure for pain, but prevention.

The debate that inspired me to create this podcast took place just before the peak of the pandemic, at the end of 2020. Now, in March 2021, the Czech Republic is at the height of the pandemic. People can’t travel between districts. We can’t visit our families, let alone go to the theatre or to a concert. The only way to communicate or to meet is online. In the 21st century, theatre is a tool to prevent our society from turning into a society of loners, fragmented by an algorithmic dramaturgy that creates a personalised image of reality for each of us. Theatre must be experienced together. Theatre is about confronting one another. Theatre is about collective growth. Theatre is about collective reflection. Theatre is sharing. Without sharing (or without the illusion of sharing) there will be disintegration and collapse. Theatre isn’t just entertainment, it’s not just a cure for pain. It demands effort – and this is where its strength lies. It is prevention against indifference. 

In conclusion, I would like to thank my guests for an inspiring digital encounter.