Are You Still Watching

The necessity of audience presence in digital theatre

by Kristina Friedgen

Abstract

What role does the audience occupy when theatre moves online? With theatres shuttered due to the pandemic, artists have turned to online platforms for expression. While filmed productions make traditional theatre more accessible to audiences around the world, they erase the relationship between a live, responsive audience and the performance. An audience’s presence undeniably impacts live performance and has presented challenges for pandemic theatre makers looking to replicate a theatrical experience through streaming performances. Faced with these challenges, many theatremakers have sacrificed “liveness” in order to better control the conditions of performance delivery. 

Approaches to digital theatre which distance themselves from their audience overlook the specific conditions in which spectators currently view digital theatre – on a TV or a laptop at home, sometimes alone. To counter this, some practitioners have turned to devising intermedial participatory performances to generate a connection with their audiences. In doing so, these works employ crucial means of audience acknowledgment which brings the spectators and performers into direct, demonstrable contact. Interactive digital productions which cast their audience into the show’s aesthetic emphasize performer/spectator proximity and evincible audience presence as essential characteristics of theatrical liveness in digital performance. 

Introduction

What role does the audience occupy when theatre moves online? With theatres shuttered due to the pandemic, artists have turned to online platforms for expression. While filmed productions from the National Theatre in London or Hamilton on Disney+ make traditional theatre more accessible to audiences around the world, they lack the energetic connection between audience and performance that develops an energetic feedback loop. That feedback undeniably impacts live performance and has been a challenge for pandemic theatre makers to replicate through streaming performances. 

Indeed, digital theatre’s classification as “theatre” or “film” has been the subject of my discussions with many theatremakers during this unique, historical moment. Pre-recorded, streaming theatre productions call to mind Ranciére’s paradox: “there is no theatre without a spectator” (2009: 2). The spectator’s presence and its relationship to the performance has shifted in the pandemic. Because most audiences are unable to sit in a theatre as a collective, theatremakers have attempted to adapt by creating filmed versions of theatre for later streaming to a public. Just as cinema “lured, then awed and silenced the audience” in the early part of the 20th century, a solely pre-recorded mode of performance bears more resemblance to film than theatre (Butsch 2000: 162). Therefore, if pre-recorded, streaming theatre can more accurately be categorized as film, how can digital theatre reframe its relationship to the audience in order retain the essential essence of theatre?

Digital platforms present a challenge to theatremakers who have taken for granted the audience’s presence in the auditorium. The aura of an audience is constructed from various factors – temporality, audience reception, cultural context, and communicative levels – all factors which are difficult to control digitally (Power 2008; Sauter 2000). Sound suppression technologies used in platforms like Zoom make it difficult to have the audience unmuted or visible without disrupting the performance. Streaming services, like YouTube or FacebookLive only enable audiences to feedback to the performance through a chat function. Although filmed plays, which sometimes offer glimpses of the audience to establish the theatrical milieu, capture a performance in which the actors respond to the audience’s presence, the archival nature does not engage with a streaming audience’s reaction. Faced with these challenges, many theatremakers have sacrificed “liveness” in order to better control the conditions of performance delivery, opting for a pre-recorded mode of performance. 

Approaches to digital theatre which distance themselves from their audience overlook the specific conditions in which spectators currently view digital theatre – on a TV or a laptop at home, sometimes alone. To counter this, some practitioners have turned to devising intermedial participatory performances to generate a connection with their audiences. In doing so, these works employ crucial means of audience acknowledgment which brings the spectators and performers into direct, demonstrable contact. Interactive digital productions which cast their audience into the show’s aesthetic emphasize performer/spectator proximity and evincible audience presence as essential characteristics of theatrical liveness in digital performance. 

Proximity and Visibility      

Theatre’s origins have been much debated, but performance scholars acknowledge theatre’s cultural connection to ritual and ceremony. Richard Schechner’s work has documented the force between theatre’s ephemerality and ritual’s transformative nature as contingent upon “the very specific relationship between performers and those-for-whom-the-performance-exists”  (Schechner & Turner 1985: 6). Authentic connection between performers and audiences has an auratic quality of presence. While difficult to define, Cormac Power suggests that we look to the “inter-relationships between actor, director, text, audience, and context” and the balance between these elements to better understand how this aura around performance is achieved (Power 2008: 54). This suggests the material elements surrounding the performance may not directly impact the aura of performance. However, I argue that the material constraints in any era of performance – from the structure of the stage and auditorium to the technological advancements which have moved performance from communal campfires to personal computing devices – impact auratic presence as well. The ability of theatre artists to manipulate these material elements often creates an impression on the audience that directly impacts their understanding of the playtext in light of the performance’s context. Thus the interrelationship and balance between artists (actors, directors, designers), text, audience, context, and material conditions of the performance contribute to the aura presence that distinguishes theatre as an artform.

Historically, theatre has encapsulated two realms of experience: “the world of contingent existence as ordinary objects and persons and the world of transcendent existence as magical implements, gods, demons, character (Schencher & Turner 1986: 6). Thus audiences have viewed the fictional world of a performance within the physical context of reality. By juxtaposing reality with fiction, theatre weaves both the “not real” and the “not-not real” into a moment witnessed by an audience (Schenchner 1985). The nature of this “witnessing” has changed over time as theatre morphed from ritual to political spectacle to religious tool to privileged entertainment. In every era, the audience’s role as witness has connected it to the performance through clear intentions. The Greek’s could not divorce their spectatorship from their citizenship just as modern day attendees of commercial theatre cannot wholly leave behind the consumerist nature of watching a play. While a number of factors have contributed to the shifts in the audience’s expected decorum and engagement, the elements which theatremakers can manipulate are relatively few, but vitally important. The physical placement of the audience and their visibility in performance have defined the audience’s role within performance for millenia.

The physical distance between the audience and the performance has shifted over time depending on the culture. As an artform, theatre’s scale can be manipulated from grandiose to nearly invisible rather easily. This flexibility allows for theatre to target its audience in various ways. Whether speaking to an audience as a collective or appealing to their individuality, theatre exercises its nature as a hypermedium to communicate meaning and impact the audience. As a hypermedium, theatre “can incorporate all other media without damaging the specificity of these media and its own specificity (Kattenbelt 2017: 22, referencing Kandinsky 1912/1923). By claiming digital platforms and technology as sites of theatricality, digital theatre can enter into an intimate relationship with individual members of its audience through incorporation of interactions via personal technology. Through digital connection, theatre can straddle the world of pretense and reality in order to “hold the mirror up to nature,” and as such cannot shed the context of the moment of its creation (Sauter 2000: 103). Audiences not only share in the communal event of the performance, but experience it in their own environments. Thus, the performance is subject to the uniquely individualized conditions of each spectator’s experience. Therefore theatre’s ephemeral power lies in its of-the-momentness as it is tied to the physical place of performance. 

Technology of the 20th and 21st centuries has transformed contemporary cultures into performative societies. Cultural processes and the speed of communication have radically changed power dynamics between individuals and social systems. Add to this recipe liberal democracy, late-stage capitalism, and global mediatization and the resulting concoction creates “performative societies that give the human access to agency…but it is an agency that is always in danger of being totally cancelled out” (Kershaw 2003: 608). Although humans possess the technology and network connection to broadcast themselves to a vast audience, the presence of humanity seems to be diminishing as we further mediatize our lives. Perhaps it is the nature of the technology, which has to separate out information taken in (sound, video, and so on) into separate data streams which must then be reconstituted at their destination somewhere across the internet, causing the deconstruction of humanity. Or perhaps compartmentalizing our experience through mediatization has accelerated a move toward post-humanity, as it segments human perception into discrete interactions with technology; “the eye of the camera, the ear of the microphone, the body of the keyboard, the extra finger of the mouse tend to reposition everything as performance for someone else and, crucially for ourselves” (Kershaw 2003: 605). Whatever the cause, our experience of life as a spectacle casts humans into a dual role within our lives as spectators and participants. 

In our modern world, all the world has become a stage and the internet has become the site of performance. The ubiquity of the internet and its interactive nature has conditioned people to understand that “participation creates presence” (Bay-Cheng 2010: 130). The proximity of technology puts the site of performance into the audience’s hands. Therefore, theatre as a hypermedium stands poised to answer Ranciére’s call for a “theatre without spectators, where those in attendance…become active participants as opposed to voyeurs” (2009: 4). Such proximity empowers the audience to engage with the content streamed through their devices. However, the liveness of that content remains a factor in creating auratic presence between digital theatre and its audience. If pre-recorded, the only agency an audience has to engage with a performance exists in the act of turning it on or off. Such action still cannot impact the performance and therefore does not constitute a connection between the audience and the performance. Proximity to digital performance must include interactivity, which requires a certain visibility of the audience.

Primed for Digital Interaction

We currently consume mass media and technology gluttonously. Many people have an addictive relationship with personal technology which enables individuals to live their lives performatively through a camera phone. No longer passive spectators consuming content through the screen, humans expect and crave interaction as mass media has turned “the everyday into an immersive spectacle…, in which people become spectators of themselves as participants in an emergent cultural (dis)order” (Kershaw 2003: 604). Audiences have an ingrained fluency with computers, tablets, and screens and are able to interact with this technology in a fully embodied way. Our practice of using these tools in everyday life has reinforced the claim that “in a digital context, people do not participate by being there; people are ‘there’ by participating” (Bay-Cheng 2010: 130). Therefore in order to achieve auratic presence in digital theatre, the audience must be incorporated into the performance through participation. But how to accomplish this incorporation when the platforms so often in use (Zoom, OBS, and streaming services) and other technical limitations, such as bandwidth and internet speed,  challenge the uniformity of performance for each individual viewer?

  Many of the digital theatre creators I have spoken with advocate for practitioners to stop fighting the digital medium. Too many artists have utilized transmedial movement of theatre from stage to film in order to present work during the pandemic. This move “wipes out [theatre’s] mediality for the sake of an optimal accessibility of the world that is represented in the film,” thereby robbing theatre of its auratic presence (Kattenbelt 2017: 23). Distance between the viewer must be eliminated in digital theatre. While many view the screen itself as the barrier creating this distance, I argue that is a false assumption, as “the screen is in the aetheric world nothing. …It is no different than a thought. The same parts of our brain activate when we see the human, versus when we imagine the human, versus when we see a picture of the human. [The screen] is just a picture of the human” (Beard 2020). If the brain perceives the digital presence of a human in the same way it recognizes the actual presence of a human, then sight alone does not ensure auratic presence. In order to eliminate distance digitally, theatremakers must employ participation. 

But what does participation look like in a digital format?  In order for digital theatre to provoke auratic presence, the audience-participants must follow Claire Bishop’s definition of participation, which “connotes the idea of several people … producing the work, and people being the medium of the work” (Riff and Degot 2019: 230). This implies that the performance incorporate its audience into the work hypermedially. Rather than attempting to make audiences forget that they are encountering a performance through a television, computer, or phone, artists should make participants aware of the medium through the materiality of performance (Kattenbelt 2017: 25). This may require relinquishing a sense of control over the product as it is  experienced by a viewer in favor of an authentic moment of exchange between performer, audience and performance medium. Embracing the liminality and the individualized experience inherent in digital performance may allow theatremakers to awaken the “beauty of ‘performance consciousness’” by activating the pretense of the dramatic action and embodied reality through material interaction with the performance medium simultaneously (Schechner & Turner 1985: 7). By accepting the desire for audiences to interact with their technology and incorporating audience presence through participation into the performance, digital theatre can reclaim the auratic essence of theatre.

Conclusion

Theatre which incorporates audience presence through proximity and visibility has historically generated auratic presence. This energetic vibe actively connects an audience to the performance and characterizes a traditional experience of theatre (as opposed to film). Digital theatre therefore must utilize the interactive nature of personal technology to engage proximity and audience visibility toward the construction of auratic presence. The commercialization of theatre and film over the course of the 20th century, which effectively silenced the audience, only empowered spectators through their wallets and limited audience presence to the choice of whether to turn a performance “on” or “off”. This peripheral agency of content engagement may be responsible for historically diminishing audiences in the commercial theatre, a fact made worse by a global pandemic. 

Theatre finds itself at a crossroads in the same moment in which western societies are confronting their own shortcomings in the light of global mediatization and late-stage capitalism. The internet has already become a site of performance as the miniaturization of spectacle becomes ingrained through the ubiquity of screens in a media-conscious society. As digital theatre becomes a more practiced and developed artform, will it become a place of human interaction that can begin to reclaim a sense of communitas through performance?  If a performance’s “presence can be constructed through [its] manipulation of space and materials… as well as the way in which the [performance] confronts [its] audience and engages their attention” (Power 2008: 49), then it will become necessary for theatremakers to utilize the capacities of digital platforms to close the distance and develop a reciprocal relationship with its audience. 

Transforming the audience from passive spectator to reciprocal participant through digital platforms presents unique opportunities to improve audience’s access to theatre and build critical connections between theatres, individuals, and communities. An intermedial approach to digital theatre could “transform live theatre’s limitations into opportunities,” by activating audiences beyond traditional show-connected engagements such as a talkback (Snyder-Young 2013). Intermedial digital theatre expands the parameters of what can be a site of theatre and could capitalize on society’s performative tendencies. This burgeoning art form may provide fertile ground for applying theatre theoretical approaches at various points of audience scale. Opportunities to foster connections between performers and audiences through digital interaction sets the stage for democratizing access to art, building local and global audience communities, and engaging people at various levels of interactivity. Greater accessibility for both artists and audiences could enable more access to performance, not solely for mass entertainment, but for social transformation and a reclamation of humanity. 

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