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The Digitalisation of Theatre

14 June 2013 Charlie Kenber

With theatre and its related forms becoming increasingly digitalised, it is important to keep track of the impact on the industry. Charlie Kenber muses on this key development, and suggests that digital interaction with the dynamic of time can render theatre more, and not less, immediate.

Theatre is increasingly available on cinema screens, at home, and now over the internet. This trend begs the question: what is the effect on the industry and the way theatre is perceived? With the ability to easily transfer such digital products around the world, is this a positive boost for one of Britain’s proudest exports in a time of economic difficulty? Increased accessibility is clearly a good thing, but if this comes at the cost of the work’s artistic credibility then we should be concerned.

Are we seeing a revolution in theatre? Sure, theatre by its nature is necessarily revolutionary, necessarily inquisitive, but never before have we seen such a transformation in the format of performance and live story telling since, well, theatre. Of course, theatre productions have been filmed in the past, but not with anything like the kind of direct engagement with digital media that has emerged over the last few years. Not only does this development herald good times for audience sizes, in quite simply making theatre available to a larger market, but in many ways it also helps theatre to reinforce its relevance in a world in which sadly, to many, it seems entirely outmoded.

So what exactly are these developments? National Theatre Live was launched in 2009 and brings real-time performances into cinemas across the UK and around the world, whilst Digital Theatre, launched the same year, sells recordings of popular work for download or online rental. Both schemes employ the highest production values in their films, and clearly grow audience sizes, allowing many to see productions they otherwise couldn’t afford or access. At least some of the immediacy of performance is retained thanks to the presence of a live audience at the time of recording: the experience is filmed, not just the play.

Digital media is also beginning to play an important role in the wider context of a show – a growing majority of large-scale productions have taken to producing promotional trailers for their work. These often go so far as to be pieces of art in their own right: you only have to look as far as Headlong’s season introduction last year, or Punchdrunk’s excellent trailer for their latest show. These short films are clearly for marketing purposes, but they go further than that, selling the ethos and approach of a company, as well as working as a self-contained short film.

Most exciting is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest project. The company are going further than anyone at the moment to innovatively digitise the theatrical experience. Last year they launched myShakespeare as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, which aimed to chart Shakespeare’s “digital heartbeat” through a tool called “Banquo”. It tracked references to Shakespeare and his work from across the web, whether on Twitter, Flickr or even eBay, and visualised this in an interactive infographic.

And if that isn’t revolutionary enough for you, their latest project takes digitisation a giant leap further forward. Next weekend will see their 40th interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this will be the most novel yet. Entitled Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, it is a digital experience in which the story is played out over the internet as well as in reality. Through a partnership with Google+, streams of content will replace the stage, with no real wall between audience and performance.

Confused yet? There’s more. Although real actors will speak Shakespeare’s actual lines over the course of three days (directed by Artistic Director Gregory Doran), it is the surrounding digital commentary through which the story is really told. This will range from fictional news stories and posts from the play’s characters, to real-world responses in the forms of blogs, videos and even memes. Finally we the audience are encouraged to engage with and contribute to this digital content, with Puck ever-present to guide us through the maelstrom.

The multiple layers of the play will collide on Sunday 23rd June, when everyone is invited to attend and participate in the wedding in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This, of course, will include the Mechanicals' always-hilarious performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. It will truly be a play within a play within a (digital) play, and promises to round the production off with aplomb. Not to worry if you miss it though – a fully annotated audio recording of the show will be released the following day.

So what do all of these developments mean? Does the digitisation of theatre take away from the intimacy, immediacy and effectiveness of theatre? Certainly nothing can ever fully capture the benefits of a real performance, a real experience. Just look at the European style of theatre, where you never “hear” a play, but experience a happening, a one-off event. Theatre’s necessary connection with the reality of the moment then should be embraced.

It is such an engagement with the realities of past and present that the RSC’s project promises to do so well. Shakespeare’s famous words will not be touched; they will be spoken, as written, by real actors. It is the external engagement with the play that will be modern and original – a pursuit of the very fabric of theatre through digital media. This dynamic, this interaction can potentially illuminate so much about the contrasting historical worlds, and by extension deeper human truths.

By connecting so concurrently with our existence, and by bringing it into our increasingly internet-based lives, the digitisation of theatre then has the potential to make it more, and not less, immediate.

A Midsummer Night's Dreaming runs 21st-23rd June online. Find out more and get involved here.

Inspired? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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