Building a Better Response: On the Tenuous Relationship Between Theater and Technology

By Matt GrayApril 14, 2014

Building a Better Response: On the Tenuous Relationship Between Theater and Technology

The development of cinematic staging and editing in the 1910s were not attempts to lay the basis for a specifically cinematic approach to narration, but the pursuit of goals well-established in the nineteenth-century theatre with new means.

— Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs


TECHNOLOGY AND THEATER are currently negotiating an ideologically uncomfortable relationship with one another. To begin with, they can’t even find a comfortable expression for describing their relationship. Theater is quite sure about what it is and what it means, but technology struggles a little. And by “technology,” I do not mean simply projectors and cameras. There is plenty of that in the relationship.

“New media” is the first problematic phrase, because there is very little about “media” (i.e. technology) that is actually “new.” As R. Luke Dubois recently pointed out:

We’re pretty sure people starting building interfaces for musical expression (i.e. instruments) around 40,000 years ago; we started notating music around 3,500 years ago, if not earlier; the acoustic properties of performing arts spaces were on the mind of literate individuals at least 2,000 years ago; recording and amplification are 19th century technologies that were perfected in the past 100 years. Every civilization uses the maximum level of technology available to it to make art, so please don’t tell me “technology” in the arts is a recent phenomenon.

“Multimedia” is an equally unhelpful term, because, semantically speaking, if any performance has electric illumination and audio in addition to the performance itself, it constitutes a multimedia production. “Interactive” is suffering a similar indignity in the computational and digital art realm, so I want to stick with “technology.” Used like this, I’m not limiting technology to what Dubois describes as “electricity and computation.” Technology has always been used in the theater in some form or another. The expression “deus ex machina” comes from the classical Greek theater’s penchant for hoisting their gods onstage near the end of a play (Ex Machina also aptly titles theater visionary Robert Lepage’s company, which has never shied away from using technology in performance).

When I use the word technology, I’m really trying to encompass the two systems within the phrase. The first system is a “prescribed system.” This is a simple master/servant relationship between the operator and the technology. An example would be a crew member pushing a button on a lighting board. This system of technology makes lights turn on whenever the operator commands it to. The prescribed system is particularly well-suited to theater, as most theater performances rely on a prescribed script and prescribed staging, both of which require the same technological support each time the performance is enacted. This system is what the overwhelming majority of theater practitioners will describe as “interactive.” However, the only real interaction is between an operator and a button. There is a sociological and political tinge to this model, as well. It casts technology’s role as that of a servant to its operator, and not a collaborator.

The second system within technology, known as a “responsive system” actually fulfills the linguistic promise of “interaction.” Responsive systems may monitor human biology, speech, and behavior, then react in response.  Responsive systems better balance the authorship of a performance between human and technology, enabling a partnership (albeit an uneasy one) rather than the master/servant relationship of a prescribed system. A responsive system might monitor a performer’s heart rate and, when it lowers to a certain point, respond by shifting the level of the lights. A responsive system removes the human button-pusher, who, realistically speaking, had as much agency in the piece of theater as the inert lighting board with the button did.

Over the past 40 years, the rapid development of digital technologies (which, when coupled with computation, are predominantly responsive systems) has outpaced much of the training available for young artists interested in becoming professionals in theater. I have spent the last 15 years working in and around post-secondary educational iterations of “drama training,” both conservatory models and liberal arts models in the US, UK, and Canada. These programs are more similar than their exclusive reputations might suggest, as they all are built on the same fundamental value: live performance (and all that surrounds it — design, writing, management, funding) has greater intrinsic artistic and social worth than any project that involves a camera, or to reuse my earlier term, technology.

Chris Salter articulated this suspicion of technology being coupled with theater in his excellent book Entangled: “Are we holding the mirror up to nature, as requested, or up to culture?” The “as requested” qualifier refers to Hamlet’s advice to the players. Salter’s question distills the challenge a theater artist waves before technology, which is perceived to have a far shorter history than theater does, hence making theater the more “natural.” What is interesting about invoking that particular passage is that in it, Hamlet is imploring a company of stage actors not to over-act, something which the vast contemporary public at large will cite as a reason why they no longer go to the theater today. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature.” As technology-based performances frequently require a far greater attention to “the modesty of nature” due to the involvement of lenses and High Definition camera formats, the argument theater makes against technology weakens. Traditional theater apologists label the theatrical “nature,” and yet the technical demands of technology-based pieces actually deliver more “natural” performances.

And yet, in higher and further education theater programs, theater will stick its head in the sand and dogmatically insist that it is the more natural and essential. In fact, technology is cited by most within the theatrical establishment as the antithesis of “art” both on and off the stage. Students and audiences are reminded frequently by the theatrical establishment that technology is:

a) vacuous
b) commercial
c) seeking to pacify their humanity

This last point is worth lingering on a little. “De-humanization” is a common refrain used to critique technology’s role in the theater, and it lingers from an explosion of interest in mechanization and rudimentary computation that began in the early 20th century. The theater was simply responding to a social and scientific movement and responded accordingly. This culminated in the 1960s when there was a wide-scale rejection of technology in live environments, as it made for “dead theater,” a term coined by theater director Peter Brook (a director who wanted desperately to be a director of films) in his seminal theatrical manifesto The Empty Space. His argument is basically that theater’s essence is the live interaction of ideas and passions, which binds humans together more richly. Hence words like “communal,” “authentic,” and “arresting” were, and continue to be, used to describe the theatrical experience. Expressions like “cold,” “technical,” and “slick,” however, are used to describe a piece of theater that has the audacity to utilize a projector or camera onstage.

Despite Brook’s mammoth impact on the trajectory of live performance since The Empty Space, there have been notable exceptions to his vision of the live theatrical landscape. Two particular examples spring to mind: large scale commercial theater (Broadway musicals, touring franchises, etc.) and the theatrical work being created specifically with technology in mind. This second example encompasses the work of individuals and companies such as The Wooster Group, Richard Foreman, Reid Farrington, Jay Scheib, and The Builders Association, among others. While intellectually invigorating, and a much needed counterpoint to commercial theater (semantically ironic that “commercial” theater rarely utilizes the supposedly culturally commercial influence of technology), the aforementioned theater artists are relegated to an intellectual ghetto within the theater world called something like “devised work,” “downtown theater” (alluding to the Manhattan postcode of many of these groups), or even the now-tired “avant-garde.” To work with these groups is to all but divorce oneself from the rest of the theatrical world, let alone the world of commercial digital media. There are exceptions – notably Frances McDormand and Willem Defoe (The Wooster Group), and recently Sarita Choudhury (Jay Scheib). But this branch of the theater is often (negatively) associated with the art world, and therefore becomes lost in the rhetoric of “performance art” (also sadly ironic, as performance artists roundly reject “theater” as what they do).

The final level of estrangement between technology and theater occurs at the commercial level of contemporary digital media. Television (either network or cable), movies (either independent or studio), internet series, and even commercials are all estranged from the theater. Forty years ago, very few in the television and film world would have ended up where they were without some kind of training, frequently from a theater program. Today, however, there is no inherent correlation between attending a theater training program and working in the digital media industry. Writers, designers, directors, and actors can come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Some come from training that directly addresses the form of commercial digital media, like communication studies, cinema studies, and film school, while others enter via seemingly disassociated disciplines. And yet, despite this, theater programs are still producing many industry leaders across the digital media field. But what is all too apparent is the absence of a definite link between theater training and practice in digital media. Architects, for example, are accredited by their training programs, which grants them the ability to practice.  But a degree from a theater program doesn’t mean a graduate is qualified to assume a working role in the digital media industry.

This sets a hopeful young professional on edge ethically, as the instructors in their training programs will usually emphasize the greater value of live performance, though the students are most likely consuming far greater quantities of digital media. At the very least, the instructors assert that theater training is the “foundation” of an industry like television and film. If we take Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours model of mastery as legitimate, young students of the theater (or in similar departments that use the more awkward title “drama”) will achieve 10,000 hours of exposure to digital media far faster than they will to live media. This, of course, is not 10,000 hours of making digital media. But it is exposure to the tools and craft of digital media, and particularly visual storytelling that exists well outside the Western theatrical canon. Couple this last detail with the additional fact that by the time a student is a freshman in college, they are well on their way to clocking many more hours engaging with technology around their daily lives than with live performance.

Having sat in over 400 hours of faculty meetings, the source of this shame becomes quite evident to me. Faculty who teach in theater departments across the Western world seem convinced students:

a) are too connected to their phones and computers
b) are ‘ignorant’ of the rich history of live performance
c) value “fame” far too much  (and by fame they mean jobs in the digital media industry)

…and therefore

d) are entitled

The last one is particularly baffling to me. Whom do we (the faculty) think the students learn their entitlement from? Surely it is we who are entitled — we who carved out departments that promised a career in the performing arts through rigorous attention to the art of theater, only to ignore the industry developing around us as we sat in our black boxes. How could a generation be capable of suddenly developing a problem with entitlement, unless it was passed onto them by the culturally entitled generation before them? We who made the syllabus that probably looks like our syllabus looked when we were students. We who attempted to assume the form left by those who trained us. We who watched theater lose its voice and influence over 40 years, yet kept insisting we were a primary cultural institution.

We have far more agency in this state of affairs than we care to permit ourselves. Can we really argue that early filmmakers were plotting the downfall of theater with their cameras? For the pioneers of film, Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs write, “[T]he cinema strove to be theatrical.” The same was true for television. Early television was live, in an attempt to recreate the live theater inside the living room of viewers at home. Lynn Spigel writes that: “Whereas film allowed spectators imaginatively to project themselves into a scene, television would give people the sense of being on the scene of presentation — it would simulate the entire experience of being at the theatre.”

As film and television both developed, however, they found the constraints of the Western theatrical canon inadequate for the unique opportunities of emerging media. Three hours broken up with a 15-minute intermission (The Theater Model) wasn’t optimal for a movie, let alone television. Both artistic and commercial demands altered the direction of film and television, allowing each to explore programming structures that better fit the medium. What is interesting is how resistant theater has been to alter its own structures in the face of its audience’s changing viewing habits. In film and television, when the viewer/audience began to change, so too did the medium. Not so much in the theater. New plays are written every year that are the same 3-hour-with-one-15-minute-intermission structure of the 19th century. Plays written by Aeschylus are shorter than most plays written in the 20th century. Theater is content to un-alter its structure and effectively transform into a wax museum instead of a vital, engaging, contemporary live event.

It is sadly little surprise that I’ve had many former colleagues and collaborators wistfully mourn the “lost days” of having a play on television, yet angrily decry the use of any kind of technology onstage. This argument seems contradictory — surely a televised play is decidedly not live performance and is instead “media-ted” (sic) by technology, namely the microphones and cameras? Placing those same microphones and cameras onstage, though, crosses an ethical line for many and therefore mutates a live performance into something inhuman. Recently I’ve watched the chatter on my twitter feed from theater professionals loudly praising the “return of live theater” to television with NBC’s recent Sound of Music broadcast. These same professionals dismiss recent productions both on and off-Broadway that used cameras and projectors onstage. The supposed “industry leader” in this dichotomy is the televised Sound of Music — certainly not “inhuman and intellectual” like a live show that used technology onstage.

If an aspiring designer, writer, director, manager or actor wants training to become an “industry leader” themselves, they likely will need to attend a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program. These programs exhaustively weed and cull their students from thousands of hopeful applicants. The selected students then spend the lion’s share of their training working in theater. Programs need to relentlessly roll out production after production to give their students experience. Usually in the final year of training, there will be only a single class that offers students an opportunity to use cameras. This inevitably means a faculty member explaining how a three-camera setup works for television, what shots are, maybe a little on lenses, but then moving swiftly into how a film set works, who holds which job, and so forth. Unfortunately, this model is as much of a history class as a “History of Theater” class is. The faculty is well-intentioned, as many of its members have worked in sitcom television, soap operas, and maybe even on a film set or two and have some valuable experience to pass on.

Anyone living in 2014 with even a parsing interest in our business, though, would be able to point to the problems with the model I have just outlined. Few television shows use a three-camera setup anymore, except game shows, talk shows or soap operas. Scripted television shows spread cameras around set ubiquitously, allowing editors and producers to develop a story and style as they go. Digital formatting means takes can go on and on, reducing the need for protocols like a director shouting “action” and “cut.” The entire architecture of a scripted piece written for television is evolving, in much the same way that independent film turned upside down 10 years ago. Large sets with lots of crewmembers are reserved for franchise films or high budget cable shows. These productions are increasingly over-populated by an older, established generation of performers who have engaged repeatedly in camera-based media. This effectively shuts out a younger generation, especially one with limited experience on set.

Let’s return, then, to that aspiring student. Let us assume they’ve been accepted into a BFA program of repute. They will shortly be subjected to their faculty belittling camera-based media (in the worse case scenario) or promised access to “industry standard practices” (in the best case scenario) only to be stuck in a classroom with a hulking great standard definition broadcast camera that is 15–20 years out of date. In addition to this, our aspiring student will be over-committed to their school’s season of plays. This frequently bars them from taking the multitude of classes outside of their program that offer introductions to cameras, editing and programming. The real kicker, though, is that our aspiring BFA student may now graduate with up to $250,000 in student and private loans. What should be most unsettling about this, at least to the educators, is that the one part of the industry best fit to financially alleviate that debt is the same part of the business that their graduate is least prepared for.

What has the BFA degree actually done to prepare the student for the breadth of the industry? A university can drain a student of hundreds of thousands of dollars, only to leave them without any of the basics needed to get work: a website, headshots (if they are a performer), experience on set, access to representation, and a starter network of working professionals to make contact with. But these are the simple building blocks, and not the wider range of knowledge and skills that could truly define them as leaders. What about programming languages? Or video and audio editing? What about social outreach? What about a second or third language? A BFA curriculum can be so crammed with theater-specific content, but what does a theater student actually know about the scope of their industry, the peers they will collaborate with and the tools each will use to create over the next 40 years?

I do not and cannot challenge the value of mounting works by traditional playwrights like William Congreve or Aphra Behn. I have done that myself. But these historical examinations must also be balanced with meaningful industry engagement. After all, that has been the history of theater training prior to its being accredited by university programs. Aspiring Victorian theater students were not forbidden from performing in gaslight and instead instructed only to perform in the sunlight because that is what Aeschylus did. Why then do we label the world of our contemporary responsive technology as “inappropriate” to explore with aspiring artists?

Former students will frequently call me apologizing for work they are being offered or taking. But those calls are only for jobs in digital media. Not a single former student has apologized for taking a job onstage, even though it rarely pays them what they need to pay their loans, let alone live. Graduates struggle with deep ethical turmoil for needing to take a commercial or a few lines in a crime procedural show on television. Why the shame? Technology is not the enemy of theater. Neither is the film and television business. Neither is the internet, nor social media. theater’s foundation is live, immediate interaction. But theater’s foundation is also the technology of the time. Technology is a creative tool, and it is shaping the world’s relationship to itself. In fact, technology was created by us to better understand us. How can that threaten an art form created for the self-same purpose? A deeply ingrained resistance to engage, on theater’s end, is what threatens theater most.


Matt Gray is an assistant professor of theater who also teaches classes in game design at Northeastern University, Boston.

LARB Contributor

Matt Gray is an assistant professor of theater who also teaches classes in game design at Northeastern University, Boston. He is a director, actor, and educator who has worked at LAMDA in the UK, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and NYU Tisch School of the Arts. His professional career includes directing plays in Scotland, London, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Canada, and the United States. He lives in Salem, Massachusetts.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!