Examinations in Digital Rehearsal and Performance

Statement of Purpose

In this research project, I explore my role as a theatre maker and an audience member.  Interactive digital theatre has presented opportunities for a new site of interaction, as my thesis work begins to move toward further developing audience engagement opportunities surrounding live performance.  The focus of this course’s work centered on my role as an audience participant in digital performances.  I developed ethnographic skills that have shaped the qualitative nature of my artistic inquiry and challenged my approach as a writer and researcher.  

The work contained in this portfolio asks important questions about the role of an audience in performance.  As intermedial theatre transitions into digital platforms, theatremakers gain new tools with which makers develop sites of theatre.  The implications of respecting digital performance as an emerging practice acknowledge the distinctions between this art form and its sister, live theatre.  The digital realm opens up possibilities for greater access and connectivity with audiences outside the traditional realms of professional and community-based theatre.  I sincerely hope that the advances made by exploring a new frontier of theatre may open opportunities for more diverse voices to be promoted, understood, and respected whether they are creators, viewers, or participants.  

As I continue this work into an applied project, I plan to focus on how digital theatre and digital audience engagement might be utilized for justice work.  Our country is at a pivotal moment in our understanding of communitas.  We, as artists, should be among those leading the way towards a greater understanding of our neighbors.  We should design pleasurable experiences for audiences to engage more actively in community building and foster safe places for growth and empathy.  Digital platforms may provide a useful site of interaction for these ends.

Sites of Inquiry

In this research investigation, I explored lines of inquiry around digital technologies and applications and their facility to create more accessible engagement and participation in educational and theatrical settings.  In order to provide a more holistic examination of integrating or adapting live-performance to digital media, I investigated several sites: a performance organization, various digital apps, and immersive or interactive digital performances.

Research Proposal

Since March of this year, theatres all over the world have been shut down due to the spread of COVID-19.  With no signs of imminent re-opening, theatre-makers have begun to explore theatre creation in digital spaces.  As a theatre practitioner focused on expanding audience engagement outside of the traditional time-space constraints of theatrical productions, I believe that virtual theatre engagement presents interesting opportunities for engaging audiences in participation, dialogue, co-creation, and (potentially) social action.  Through my investigation into Digital Rehearsal Spaces and experiences as an audience member participating in immersive or interactive digital performances, I seek to better understand how to design compelling, interactive engagement between artists, audiences, and their communities.  My research into collaborative digital theatre spaces hopes to gain insight into the following questions:

  • Question 1: How might theatre-makers co-opt the virtual space of Zoom to create a synchronous immersive and participatory theatrical experience that allows the audience to remain at home?
  • Question 2: How can the private interaction spaces on Zoom (such as chat and breakout rooms) be utilized to subvert and augment the viewing experience of a theatrical Zoom performance?
  • Question 3: What possibilities for audience engagement or participation occur when participants (such as housemates or family) are able to share physical space while still engaging with the larger audience in virtual space?
  • Question 4: How might an encounter at the intersection of virtual and physical space create a perspective shift or disorientation for an audience participant?
  • Question 5: What possibilities for community building in an audience through a virtual immersive performance exist in a live, synchronous space versus an asynchronous form of performance?

Quarantine has created experiences of disorientation, disconnection, and disembodiment for many people, especially when on digital platforms like Zoom.  Participants from pilot Play Lab protocol, “overwhelmingly responded positively to sharing or being included in a moment of sharing a personal item [during the play lab]. One participant noted, ‘Any inclusion of objects in my personal surroundings felt very engaging and was a great way to bridge the gap to our online world…’ In all of the play labs participants commented on a shared enjoyment of bringing their own spaces or belongings into the experience and sharing them” (“Exploring Immersivity at Home and Virtually”).  These results coupled with my own experiences of performance such as work.txt and Phase One: The Underbrush offer opportunities for individuals to ground in their own physical realities while exploring places they often take for granted.  For instance, a participant in another digital project of mine, Within These Walls, reflected on her experience of that engagement:

“It was interesting to take a step back and look at my space differently than I’ve been looking at it for the past 100 days of quarantine. …One of the questions that really stood out was ‘Disrupt the room.’ That to me, disrupting the normal routine of my day was really interesting.  Disrupting the space that I normally do things in, I literally tore things apart.  I made a mess” (Brady and Delle). 

The intentionality of spatial play in these examples leads me to wonder if interactive digital experiences have the potential to spark a reimagining of participants’ individual realities and experiences and perhaps even incite them to make changes in their behaviors.  

Definitions

  • Activity: a structured form of participation 
  • Engagement: an activity that invites the audience past passive viewing, but does not necessarily require the audience’s completion of the activity to continue the performance.  
  • Participatory Engagement: activities that are responsive to the audience’s actions 
  • Parallel Engagement: activities that invite the audience to play alongside the performance
  • Play Lab: a facilitated experimental session in which 2-6 participants work with a facilitator to try out different devised activities virtually.
  • Synchronous experience: a live interaction between people (performers, audience-participants, or performers/audience-participants) that takes place virtually
  • Asynchronous experience: a virtual interaction between people that occurs at each person’s convenience
  • Physical Space: the environment and objects a person can encounter in real life (IRL) and through at least three of their five senses.
  • Virtual Space: the digital landscape of collective presence, whether in a Zoom call or Marco Polo chat (for the purposes of this project) that is shared through a screen.

Digital Rehearsal Spaces Research Investigation

This study seeks to observe and document current practices and methods of facilitating theatrical rehearsals through digital media. Participants were recruited through partnerships with current producing companies, some educational, some community-based, and some professional. While I was not specifically targeting minors, I observed organizations who collaborate with youth performers between 10-18 years of age and therefore some of the participants included in the study were young adults. However, the bulk of the research participants were over the age of 18.

Methodology

Participants (aged 18 and older) in the initial survey protocol will consent to participate within the survey (on SurveyMonkey). Should they opt not to participate they will immediately be released from the survey. Should they agree to participate, they will immediately move into the survey itself. The survey is designed to take between 10-15 minutes to complete. The survey will remain live for two months and follow up is at the election of the participant if they choose to participate in a more in-depth interview. Following the survey, participants may consent to a phone or Zoom interview. Interviews will be video and/or audio recorded by the interviewer at the consent of the participant. The interview length is expected to be 20-30 minutes. Response from the interview will not be linked to the interviewee’s survey responses. Following the interview, if the participant is a rehearsal leader, they will be asked if their group/organization would consent to the researcher observing a digital rehearsal in real-time. 

In Process Reflection: Digital Rehearsal Spaces

Research Completed

The survey “Digital Rehearsal Spaces: an investigation into utilization of technology and digital applications in rehearsing performance” received 135 total responses between October 2, 2020 and January 17, 2021. Two versions of this survey collected responses – one for performance practitioners over the age of 18 (120 responses) and one for a youth performance group which included 15 responders between the ages of 14-17. Of the 135 responders, 42 completed a follow up interview over Zoom. All interviews were conducted between October 19, 2020 and December 16, 2020. 

Findings Thus Far

Dispelling Preconceptions

Before I began coding the second open-ended response question, I anticipated that I would get a variety of responses – some more positive and open to digital rehearsal spaces as well as plenty of negative experience in digital spaces.  However, I was struck by the 16% of respondents who said that their online rehearsals were much the same as their in-person rehearsals.  In my experience, even table-working a script has not been exactly the same as my in-person rehearsals.  The concept of arrival was also carried through some respondents’ narratives, even though they were referring to “signing on” to Zoom or Skype.  While I anticipated discussion around communication, this question illuminated several key facets of communication: feedback, chat vs. discussion, and unclear communication.  These facets of communication may reflect the functionality and purpose of IRL vs. digital rehearsal spaces.  I expected more discussion around personal place, particularly considering the theme of contained performance strategies that arose in a large number of responses.  While some respondents referred to their personal place (location where they sign-in virtually to rehearsal), it was sometimes linked to concerns such as feeling “under a microscope”.  This brings to mind the positionality of the rehearsal space – who is in the role of “observer” and who is being “observed,” as well as who is centered in the digital rehearsal space.  Additionally, frustrations about the physical space and disorientation brought on by decor or relationship to the room in question were also noted about the personal place of rehearsing digitally.  As I move into this second question, initial drafts of coding categories begin to emerge: Procedure, Expectations, Preparation, Place, Connection, Embodiment, Communication, Energy, Positionality, Challenges and Adaptation.

From the Survey

For question 16, 61% of respondents answered (54 total), while 62% of respondents answered question 17 (56 total).  This is a significant drop off in responses from question 15, which 92% of total respondents answered.  Building knowledge from questions 15 and 16, some phenomenology around rehearsal begins to be introduced.  Out of those who responded to these questions, 20% of Question 16 respondents made reference to arriving at the digital rehearsal room as compared with 25% of respondents to the previous question.  This might suggest a mindset of separation from the “unspectacular flow of everyday life” into the rehearsal space.  Respondents described or noted changes to procedure often (77% of responses).  While some indicated that little had changed in their procedures when shifting to digital, others highlighted either a struggle or adjusted purpose in certain aspects of procedure: 

“Less warm-up time … is about the work and more about making sure the internet is working.”

“As a director/designer you have to pre-tech before the actors arrive so you can give them as much information as necessary.”  

“Nonverbals and whispers between creative team members are almost impossible.  Text messages are used as substitutes.”

In comparing the responses to question 15 and question 16, the closely connected themes of connection and disconnection begin to take shape.  When describing rehearsals “in real life” 40% of respondents who answered that question discussed elements of connection: chat, energy, food, community, etc.  Only 20% of those responding to question 16 (describing digital rehearsal spaces) discussed connection, whereas 30% of respondents discussed a sense of disconnection, including experiences that affected morale (17%).  From the data collected, two types of connection and disconnection are referenced – that which connects participants in the rehearsal to each other and that which connects an individual respondent to his role in the rehearsal.  One respondent illuminates the disconnection that can be felt in digital rehearsal spaces: whispering, integrating puppetry, 

“I can see myself in my Zoom square acting and that certainly makes it tempting to jump right out of the moment and right into “why does my hair look like that?” and “that thing I did with my arm looked so horrible” and that is no fun. At the same time, having self-view on does allow me to manipulate how I enter and exit and tells me where I am in the space so that I do not end up having the top of my head get cut off. That is not so fun either. Another limitation is if I want to look off to the side then I am frequently missing the reaction of the person I am talking to, whereas with real life, I would likely be able to catch them out of the corner of my eye.”

Cameras are a key element to digital rehearsal spaces and most digital performance formats and theatre artists with little experience in film seem to experience frustration with the limitations or challenges that cameras pose in these theatrically-intended spaces.  One respondent (pseudyonym: Mingyung) commented on her experience, “I need to be ‘on’ all the time – there is no small mental break between tasks.”  While several respondents described in-person rehearsals as energy generative, digital rehearsal spaces can often feel draining. Reading in between the lines of surveys and interviews the disruption to “flowthat can naturally occur in IRL rehearsal spaces may have some correlation to falling morale and increased frustration.  Although the morale issue may also be linked to some other data that have been reported, namely the positionality of participants in digital rehearsal spaces.

A handful of respondents referred to the dominant position of the director in digital rehearsal spaces.  This is sometimes compounded by the fact that the director may also be the meeting host in digital space.  Perhaps “Zoom etiquette” carries over from business settings into the digital rehearsal space, but there seems to be a tendency for participants to remain on mute unless instructed to do otherwise.  Whatever the reason, several respondents described a similar agenda to their digital rehearsals:

  • Arrive
  • Check In
  • Warm Up
  • Director led review of past work and/or agenda discussion for the work that day
  • Rehearse
  • Break 
  • Rehearse
  • Dismiss

In speaking with several directors working in this medium, there is an inner-tension between feeling the pressure to take on leadership in the digital rehearsal space, particularly as, “most [actors] don’t unmute even if given the opportunity to just keep mic open,” and missing the cross-communication and collaboration that more naturally occurs in an in-person rehearsal.  As one director explained, “I like things to be efficient and collaborative. Online makes things slower and impairs communication, thus also collaboration.”  The technical challenges that many digital rehearsal spaces experience (internet connectivity issues, lag, background noise, etc.) often create obstacles to the flow of communication that likely contribute to participants remaining muted online.  

Since the majority of digital theatre in the early COVID era has relied on text-heavy performances such as staged readings or Zoom-stagings of existing play texts, much digital theatre has fallen into a state of contained performance in which the actors mostly appear from the sternum up.  Contained performance often relies on actors’ voices, facial expressions, and moderate gestures as the Zoom square limits the audience’s view as a window into each actor’s space.  Relegating the embodied nature of performance in this way can not only be frustrating and demoralizing for performers but also can feel disenfranchising. 

Translating theatrical performance into digital space requires theatre makers to embrace the experimental nature of forging a new medium for performance.  While cameras are used as the primary means of sharing visual performances, performances will need to adapt into a more contained space.  Playing in such tight quarters yields some opportunities that wouldn’t be afforded in an auditorium.  For example, whispering on stage in a large theatre venue is nearly impossible if the performer wants to be heard by the audience, however, the use of camera and microphone enable this action.  One respondent identified “micro-movements,” slight behavioral physicalities, as a new area of focus in directing for digital performance, “every movement and action has to be specific and in character”.  The adjustment to contained performance skills presents opportunities as well as challenges for performers and directors more accustomed to stage acting.  

For the next segment of results, I will have analyzed combined data from questions 16 and 17 which includes 62% of respondents total.

In addition to performers, designers and stage managers who responded to the survey also expressed a feeling a disconnection in digital theatre creation:

“Viewing the actors and my designs from multiple angles was a big part of my pre-COVID rehearsal practice, [now it is] difficult to concentrate when watching a screen for a long time, especially without the ability to get up and move around the rehearsal space.” –Costume Designer respondent

“I have a more difficult time focusing on the events ‘in the room’ in a digital rehearsal space, and am generally more emotionally disengaged.  I feel a general lack of ownership over what I am doing since I’m not really involved in the process as much as I am used to.”  –Stage Manager respondent

In analyzing both the description of digital rehearsal spaces and the identified challenges to previous rehearsal practices, a significant effect on morale can be clearly seen in the survey response.  Whether specifically referring to morale (43%) or reporting other feelings, such as  disconnection (29%), negative effects on energy (27%), or trouble focusing (21%), respondents have identified a major factor impacting those who are adapting theatre to digital spaces.  While it’s difficult to know for certain all the factors contributing to a drop in morale, the survey results often identify tech challenges (36%), including varying internet connection speeds, lag time, and limited understanding of the technology, as a key factor.  A majority of respondents (61%) experienced some form of limitation in adapting their previous rehearsal methods to digital spaces, while only 21% of respondents referred to their ability to adapt to the medium and embrace the challenges presented by platforms like Zoom for rehearsal.

While challenges adapting to digital theatre spaces account for some of the impact on participant morale, factors outside of the theatrical should also be considered such as the effects of the pandemic, upcoming US American election, economic instability, rising unemployment, and social anxiety.  While these factors are outside the scope of this particular inquiry, the loss of in-person theatre making may just be one more frustration in an increasingly frustrating world.  However, I’m as excited by those respondents who have found ways to adapt and adjust to making theatre in digital spaces as I am by those who have specified significant areas of limitations or challenges to performing and rehearsing online.  As I look forward to analyzing the next question of the survey, I must keep in mind how digital theatre makers might design into these limitations and maximize the opportunities for creativity, play and joy in online platforms.

Upcoming Plans

While responses have been collected and interviews completed, the data analysis process still continues. Almost all responses have been de-identified, although some still remain. The final phase of the research process, coding and analyzing results – particularly from the interviews – still remains. The following timeline summarizes the final steps of this research process:

December 2021: All responses will have been de-identified

June 2022: Coding of interview and survey responses will be completed

September 2022: Final study analysis will be completed

Interpreting the Research

Review published in Theatre Journal

Work.Txt by Nathan Ellis and Emily Davis, and; Phase One: The Underbrush by New Phases Collective (review)

Are You Still Watching?

The Necessity of Audience Presence in Digital Theatre

UCLA Conference Paper

Philotic Connections

How digital performance can foster energetic connection with an audience

Sites of Inquiry Research Paper

Research Presentation: Philotic Connections