it’s a love story for the new age: on the formal relationship between theatre and new media

I’m talking about my generation/Talking about that newer nation/And if you don’t like it/ You can beat it, beat it baby

—Lana Del Rey, “Brooklyn Baby”

People far and wide have been talking and arguing about it: What is the theatre’s relationship to the Internet? Should we allow tweeting in the theatre? What about performance and the Internet? Should we put new media to use in our shows? How can the Internet increase audience engagement? How can we incorporate new media in narrative? The list of questions goes on, of course. They’re all good and important questions, but I’d like to propose a slightly different approach to the issue of “Theatre and Internet.” Why does it seem like the Internet has to enter the theatre from the outside, through a seemingly rigid, holy membrane, to become a part of it? Why is this giant merger even a thing? For it seems that there are hardly two mediums in this world more closely formally related than the theatre and the internet: No other two forms share in common, and are so essentially rooted in immediacy—both the internet and the theatre are fundamentally based on momentariness and transience. Moreover, both forms rely on a single observing participant as well as a community in order to exist. In other words, both are mediums of individual, self-determined, and communal agency: they are (as of yet) inherently democratic forms. It seems surprising then, that the theatre and new media are still usually positioned in opposition to each other. But what seems even more confounding is that the theatre hasn’t formally embraced the Internet, as a quasi-revelation about itself, and put it to good use through formal, theatrical choices. Why aren’t we considering the formal appearance of the Internet as a type of distinct narrative structure? Especially in times when we question modes of aesthetic resistance and the societal relevance of theatre, why do we seem to be capable of engaging with “the Internet” only in explicit—indeed, in almost vulgar, didactic—ways, despite the fact that theatre and the Internet are so closely formally related? I’ve said it before: we are suffering from a severe lack of critical reflection about theatrical form and its relevance in current times. In Canadian theatre, our focus is primarily—almost exclusively—on content; thus, almost any type of engagement with the internet happens on the level of plot and story instead of on the basis of form—which is vastly limiting, especially in terms of affect (and effect), and ultimately causes our art form to atrophy. We must begin to understand that there’s a lot the theatre can learn about itself—about theatricality—from the Internet. A world of stark, flickering images, endless loops and repetitions, information overload, intangible personas, dislocation, violence, sex, surveillance, countless options and choices, voyeurism, and secrecy is a world that literally belongs in the theatre. There are many ideas and techniques—formally, structurally, narratively, democratically, etc.—that the theatre can appropriate from the Internet for its own purposes, no matter what the story. And even more importantly, we must begin to realize that the theatre is, because of its formal commonalities with the Internet, an ideal place to aesthetically reflect (on) the latter’s (and thus also the former’s) worldly, spiritual, societal, etc. effects. Contrary to popular belief, the theatre may indeed be one of the most important of mediums of today and tomorrow. Case in point: Frank Castorf’s Journey to the End of the Night (Reise ans Ende der Nacht) at the Berlin Theatertreffen, otherwise known as #ttreise. This production from the Residenztheater in Munich was the focus of a twitter-experiment, which entailed a “Twitter-Row” at the very back of the balcony, where tweeting spectators were invited to share their real-time thoughts during the show.

 #Fear and Loathing in Französisch-Kongo.

REISE ANS ENDE DER NACHT/Residenztheater

Photo Credit: Residenztheater Munchen

#Versteht eigentlich jemand, der das Buch nicht kennt, das Geschehen? Oder ist das egal? / #Does anybody who doesn’t know the book understand the events? Or do they not matter?

REISE ANS ENDE DER NACHT/Residenztheater

Photo Credit: Residenztheater Munchen

Perhaps it was a mere co-incidence that of all the productions at the Theatertreffen Journey to the End of the Night was chosen for this experiment. It was an incredibly apt choice regardless. Not because the show was about the Internet. It wasn’t—at least not on the level of story. It also wasn’t explicitly about new media—at least not on the level of story. In fact, I don’t know what Journey to the End of the Night was about. I have no idea what its story was. All I know is that it was a four-and-a-half-hour long romp, which had me enthralled from beginning to end.

 “One submits to noise as one submits to war. One surrenders to the machines with the three thoughts that managed to remain somewhere above, quivering behind the forehead. Over. Everything which the eye now sees, and the hand touches, has congealed. And everything one can still remember has hardened too, like iron, and has in memory lost all taste.” —Louis Ferdinand Celine

Based on the program, I believe that Journey to the End of the Night was about war. I also think that it featured the best acting I have ever seen—even though I didn’t know who was who, and I can barely recall any characters, never mind their names. The one thing that I know for sure is that Journey to the End of the Night was remarkable because it performed the end of traditional modes of meaning, conceiving a state of absolute immediacy and acute disorientation, by consistently, purposely short-circuiting any attempt at pervasive, linear, long-term thinking. Listening closely to the text didn’t yield the usual reward of making out a narrative trail, discovering specific character traits, or finding a thematic; here, meaning lived only on the level of the sentence—on the level of the transient moment.

 #Die Sprache knallt wie Sau. Jeder Satz ein T-Shirt-Spruch, wenn T-Shirts größer wären. / #The language hits hard. Every sentence a t-shirt slogan, if t-shirts were bigger.

#Der Narzissto-Misanthrop Céline is’n wahrer Aphoristiker. Jeder Satz ein Knaller. Oder ne Stinkbombe vom schwärenden Stänkerer. / #The narcissist-misanthrope Celine is a real aphorist. Every sentence a hit. Or a stink bomb from the boiling troublemaker.

As soon as you’d grasped a sentence, it was gone. Theatrical Snapchat. In more than one way, Castorf’s text-choreography mirrored the assembly of tweets used to describe it. In experiencing Journey to the end of the Night, one had to brachiate from sentence to sentence, scene to scene, like monkeys in trees. Captivating and exhausting. There was no structure to rely on in this production, only that there wasn’t any—after you’d realized that. Any attempts at long-term thinking, thinking ahead, or anticipating the story, were immediately thwarted by Castorf’s short-circuits. There was no future, no past. There was only real-time, only the here-and-now, made of slogans. 

REISE ANS ENDE DER NACHT/Residenztheater

Photo Credit: Residenztheater Munchen

#Der Hauptmann hat im Gesicht sogar einen Schmiss! Castorf ist doch Realist! / #The captain even has a gash on his face! Castorf is a Realist after all!

#Finde ich das jetzt billig? „Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité“ in KZ-Portal-Manier über der Szene zu lessen? / #Do I find this cheap? Reading “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” in concentration-camp-fashion above the scenery?

#Ein bisschen wie #Jerseyshore. Schlecht angezogene, schreiende Menschen suchen das Klo und ihre Drogen, dazu latenter Rassismus. / #A bit like #Jerseyshore. Badly dressed, screaming humans searching for the toilet and their drugs, plus latent racism.

Though it may be difficult to imagine Castorf’s aesthetic by way of my description here, it’s important to note that it was rooted decisively in a type of realism. An elaborate war camp structure, the set was divided into sections and “rooms,” one of which consisted of an actual delivery van. It also comprised an incredibly intricate décor, including a functioning stovetop and washing machine, as well as a live chicken and bunny. Mounted on top of the camp-structure was a giant screen, used to project images shot live in parts of the set that were hidden from plain view. Everything here was aggressively, excessively life-like. And also completely fake. The production never tried to pretend it wasn’t completely contrived and taking place in a theatre. It explicitly veered between the corporeal and artificial, constantly questioning the boundaries of—and our hunger for—each. Castorf’s production formally reflected (on) new (narrative) structures that mirror our experience of new media—and its effects—with huge affective prowess. 

volle buehne

Photo Credit: Residenztheater Munchen

 #Frank Castorf scheint ein junger Theaterschaffender, der noch nach seiner Formsprache sucht?… es lebe Frank, verdammt noch mal! / #Frank Castorf seems like a young theatre maker who’s still looking for his formal language? … long live Frank, dammit!

The challenge of #TheatreAndNewMedia is not just a question of content. It’s a question of how the two forms, theatre and Internet resemble and interact with each other—which in turn comprises a way of reflecting the relationship between new media and the world today. What are the visceral, psychological effects of experiencing the formal, “narrative” structure of the Internet? How does the experience of this structure change us? What does it awaken in us? The theatre, as a form of democracy and immediacy, can produce, examine, and reflect—indeed rehearse—these structures and their effects. Let’s welcome them.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: in search of theatrical radicalism: Theatre Junction’s EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE | FANNINA WAUBERT DE PUISEAU

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