In October 2009 I began a PhD with practice at Loughborough University. I blogged my ongoing thoughts and experiences here. If you are actually interested and want to know more, you can read all of the detailed chapter overviews on this page. Otherwise, I’d move on if I were you.
Theatre and Digital Technology (PhD with practice)
First person theatre, how performative tactics and frameworks emerging in the digital age are forming a new personal-as-political
- Theatre of the inbetween; the digital age, removal of the interface and the personal-as-political.
- A select history of interaction in performance.
- First person theatre, sound and the city
- First person theatre and games; the playful-as-political
- First person theatre and the body; transcendence vs. transposition.
- The Umbrella Project - in search of the voice of a city.
Practice: The Umbrella Project. A city-wide pervasive storytelling experiment.
Detailed thesis overview:
Chapter 1: Theatre of the inbetween; the digital age, removal of the interface and the personal-as-political.
Following the introduction to the intentions and structure of the thesis, this first chapter intends to stand as a theoretical context for the more detailed considerations of first person theatre set out in chapters 3, 4 and 5. Although greater and more detailed analysis and exploration of the themes touched upon here will occur in those chapters, this first chapter will set out overarching definitions and threads of theoretical engagement, as well as setting out the idea of the contemporary context of what ‘the digital age’ signifies against which first person theatre can be seen to be emerging. The thesis intends to propose first person theatre as a manner and site for resistance against the infiltration of contemporary or late capitalism. As such it is important to set out definitions for these key terms and ideas (capitalism, the political) alongside what this study considers to be ‘theatre’ and ‘digital technoculture’, as well as a little more on manners of resistance before, in the rest of the thesis, going into specific detail of resistances to be found in 3 key aspects of contemporary being set out herein. These are:
1) The urban environment,
2) Play and community,
3) Interactivity and the subjective other.
This chapter is set out into 3 main areas, an initial definitions section, a more detailed theoretical section dealing in ‘digital culture’, and then a ‘resistances’ section, looking at the possibility in performance for a new politics-of-the-personal through first person theatre, and the active inhabitation of the inbetween, using the theoretical lenses of the Situationist International and phenomenology. Other theorists and theoretical ideas will be important throughout, for example de Certeau in chapter 3, and play theories and Boal in chapter 4. However their very specific relevance means that they will be woven into the relevant chapters, rather than being set out as overarching theories, here.
Chapter 2: A select history of interaction in performance.
This chapter is a brief and select summary of shifts in the audience and performance relationship throughout the 20th century. The intention is not to present a whole or time-line version of a history of interaction and the audience throughout that time, indeed, that study would be a full length thesis in itself. Rather this chapter intends to trace pertinent examples of the shifts in theories about and of the audience throughout the 20th century, and how this has shaped on-going attitudes to interaction and the audience. It will also consider the significant shifts in politics, technology and/or society that these emerging techniques are reacting to, set against, or determined to address. This chapter, then, will serve as a context for the wider part of this thesis, which tends to focus on work that has occurred (for the most part) in the 21st century. It is a manner of acknowledging the heritage of current techniques of audience interaction, as well as tracing a strong lineage of politics and technology’s effect on how performers and theatre-makers think about their relationship to their audiences.
This chapter, then, will start with the Futurists and Dadaists at the very beginnings of the 20th century, then consider Artaud and the ever-present (and some suggest Surrealist) Theatre of Cruelty, before moving on to the community-based notions of audience of the British radical theatre. This chapter will also consider the different approaches of the American Avant-Garde (particularly the Happenings and the dissolution of the art/life divide by John Cage) of the same time (60s and 70s), before moving through the increasing presence and influence of the media age – and eventually digital technology – that brings us through MUDs MOOs, CDROM, Telepresence art, to virtual reality and immersion. The chapter will finish up at the mixed reality transmedia experience of work like Blast Theory’s 1999 Desert Rain; here considered a watershed moment in terms of the maturity of work using digital platforms and syntaxes; and its use of the form and manner of games in particular to explore the politics of the contemporary experience of Gulf War I.
Chapter 3: First person theatre, sound and the city
This chapter sets out to address the ‘soundwalk’ form of first person theatre as a site for resistance for the individual-in-the-urban-environment of contemporary digital technoculture. ‘Soundwalk’ is term used herein to describe a particular sub-genre of audio-based first person work that is typically delivered via headphones (sometimes live broadcast and mixed, sometimes just live broadcast, or sometimes wholly pre-recorded) to an individual, which places the individual at the centre of the story-experience. The soundwalk might involve instructions, be triggered by GPS or other position data, be delivered to an individual, a pair, or a group, but the ‘walk’ element denotes some form of navigational interactivity (see chapter 5 for a full definition of levels of interactivity). Soundwalks are used to augment the visual reality of the individual participant, they are not solely set in the urban environment, but are particularly considered here in an urban context for their power to re-present the city space, and allow the participant a route to community in-and-with-the-city, to a bracketed encounter with the spaces and situations structured by private interest, and as a route to the personal-as-political in the polis itself. The chapter will begin by engaging more generally with the context of the contemporary digital city, moving on to discuss use of sound, and the act of walking in particular, before finally studying the specific detail of two case studies. The first case study looks at the Subtlemobs made by the international arts collective Circumstance, and the other the group-based ‘headphone shows’ of Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low. Furthermore, as the practice-as-research for this thesis is formed of three soundwalks, the theories explored herein will also be of great relevance to chapter 6’s discussion of The Umbrella Project.
Chapter 4: First person theatre and games; the playful-as-political
This chapter aims to consider the influence of gaming and play on first person theatre as a route to the political-as-personal in the digital age. In the terms of the definition set out in chapter 1, political empowerment consists of the ability to reflect on the socio-political systems in which one is implicated, to be able to conceive of an alternative, and to act in a manner that might bring that alternative about. In this context pervasive games are considered in four personal-as-political aspects; the practice of pervasive games as a manner of accessing the inbetween of space and digital technology, games as a route to community through the encounter with the subjective other, games systems as a manner of reflecting on systems outside the magic circle, and the game player in embodying agency. In addition to touching on notions of community, the phenomenological body/world interface, and the theories of the SI set out in chapters 1 and 3, this chapter will bring in the thought of Boal and a little Brecht as additional theoretical lenses through which to consider pervasive games as a form of first person theatre that offers reflection and action on the possibility of political change. The second half of this chapter will then look at the use and influence of games on the work of Hide and Seek and Invisible Flock to form case studies applying of the theories of the first half of the chapter. The game design company Hide and Seek represent the more ‘mechanics’ approach to games in an arts context, and are particularly interesting regarding hacking urban space, whereas Invisible Flock are presented as much more recognisably ‘games influenced theatre’. Invisible Flock’s interest in abstraction and ‘big picture’ reflections on societies and communities, matched with their scepticism about the ‘power’ of games and concerns about a manner of cultural imperialism implicit in the form, serves as a useful counterpoint to some of the more unchecked enthusiasm surrounding (what is generally perceived as) the brave new form of pervasive games.
Chapter 5: First person theatre and the body; transcendence vs. transposition.
After setting out the political implications of being in a digital age – where the spectacle of late capitalism is able to further extend into and corrupt our data of the real – chapter 1 set out 3 fundamental sites of contemporary being where one might seek to resist these disruptive influences. In suggesting that as a medium of the inbetween first person theatre is able to re-reveal embeddedness, the finitude of the subject, and reconcile the subject with their body, place, and the subjective other, chapter 1 presents first person theatre as a form par excellence of the personal-as-political. Personal because it examines the infiltration of the site of the embodied material subject, and political in that it offers a practice that is able to recover agency for the participant, as well as speaking to how – in conjunction with the other – they inscribe the political with their daily actions and together with the other build and maintain the systemic; re-presentation, reflection, (re)action. The 3 sites of potential resistance chapter 1 suggested were the self as agent, the self in the environment, and the self and the subjective other. Chapter 3 looked at the self in the urban environment through the soundwalk, chapter 4 the playful tactics in pervasive gaming as a route to agency, and this penultimate chapter will therefore consider interactivity and the subjective other. Particularly using the lens of phenomenology set out in detail in chapter 1, we will consider most directly the implications emerging and re-emerging tactics of immersion and interaction in first person theatre, and how interactive theatre in particular is able to reconcile the subject with their primary ‘vehicle for being in the world’ (Merleau-Ponty, 2002, p. 94). This is a fundamental step for the personal-as-political, as the subjectivity reconciled with the body is then able to begin to recognise the subjective that other bodies might also possess – and at this point we discover the beginnings of socio-political inscription.
The first section of this chapter will deal with some additional definitions – particular defining the difference between ‘immersive’ and ‘interactive’ theatre, the originating influence behind the phraseology of ‘what is’ and ‘what if’ – and then move on to look at how first person interactive theatre is able to re-place the body in time, place, and in the context of others (and the implications of these reconciliations in the context of the digital age), before considering 3 main case studies of ‘interactive theatre’ which use different ‘levels’ of interaction as a manner of responding to and interrogating contemporary being. These case studies will be the work of Coney, Non Zero One, and Ant Hampton.
Chapter 6: The Umbrella Project – in search of the voice of a city.
This final chapter presents a consideration of the Umbrella Project as a means of enquiry into first person theatre as a personal-as-political theatre for the digital age. It was felt absolutely necessary that this study co-evolve from both theory and practice, indeed, after so thoroughly describing both politics and community (as a route to the other, embodiment, and a functional context in the digital age) as practices, it would hardly be possible to express these theories independent of their practical application. It is for this reason that case studies have played such a substantial role in the wider thesis, and for this reason, too, that the Umbrella Project is part of the thesis; as a manner of approaching a personal-as-political practice through first person theatre. Theory and practice are inextricably intervolved, and one with out the other leaves the each incomplete – if unable to test through action, or unable to act on reflection. As Jane Rendall intimates in a piece about travelling and encountering the other for Here, There, Elsewhere:
Practice intends to answer a set of aims. Critical thinking questions the values of the aims themselves. Thinking is also a practice. It is something we do. We make ideas. Unless we understand thinking as a form of practice, and practice as a thoughtful process, it is impossible to transform the relationship between the two. (Rendall, 2002, pp. 43-54)
As Rendall sets out, in terms of theory and practice, for one to affect the other, they must be understood together, any mode of enquiry into the practice of politics must engage with both practice and theories of the political. Action must inform reflection, and reflection should be followed by the opportunity for action. Practice is included in this thesis, therefore, as a manner of completing the thought and beginning the action, and as manner of truly investigating the political effectiveness of first person theatre, which is set out in chapter 1 (in the context of an age of embeddedness) as a route to re-seeing, reflecting, and reacting.
A full account of The Umbrella Project, from the conception of the idea, through development, and the process of collecting material for, reflecting on, and writing and producing the soundwalks, can be found in a dedicated appendix. Full scripts for the walks are also provided. To briefly set out the project, however, it was conceived of as a manner of attempting to discover the (multi-faceted) ‘voice of a city’. Over a period of 5 weeks 200 umbrellas were put out in key venues (shops, cafes, libraries, tourist information, cinemas, etc.) across the city of York. Once opened, the umbrella would reveal a small tag, inviting the user to call the number on the tag and umbrella, and leave a story in answer to a question. There were 3 questions, the first on the city at night, the second about an encounter with a stranger, and the third about a journey the respondent had taken. These responses (along with stories collected on outings at times of day intended to correspond with one of the questions, and to raise awareness of the project) were then used to provoke, and directly feature in three roughly 30 minute long soundwalks made for specific areas of the city, at certain times of day; soundwalk 1 – Nighttime (after dark), soundwalk 2 – Daytime (lunchtime), and soundwalk 3 – Commute (8am-9am or 5pm-6.30pm)
Dixon, S. (2007). Digital Performance. Massachusetts: MIT.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of Perception. (C. Smith, Trans.) London: Routledge.
Rendall, J. (2002). Travelling the Distances/Encountering the Other . In D. Blamey (Ed.), Here, There, Elsewhere. Dialogues on Location and Mobility . London: Open Editions.
 A busy Saturday lunch time, for the ‘stranger’ question, night-time for the ‘city at night’ question, and 6am-10am and 4pm-7pm for the ‘journey’ question.