We’re at a point in the pandemic where it is becoming increasingly clear that there won’t be a quick return to pre-pandemic normalcy – whether that is for vaccinated people or for creatives returning to their work spheres. When in December 2020 the news broke that scientists successfully developed various vaccines, creatives started to fantasise about a quick return to the now-romanticised world. Where, instead of quick zooms you had to fly half-way across the globe, when you where obliged to meet your friends outside of your own home’s trialed-and-tested comforts – and when theatre and live entertainment happened in a space physically shared with you. Along with the restrictions we have learned to live with, there is still this gruelling nostalgia for the pre-coronal condition. The hope for a return to normalcy is accompanied by this luminous radiance of the memories from a time to which a return seems more unlikely. Untamed mutants and exuberant hybridity are some of the causes.
While established theatrical institutions remained dark, some companies were fortunate enough to rethink large-scale dance and thespian spectacle for a post-pandemic comeback. Over at battleROYAL’s blog, I wrote about the challenges we faced and solutions we found to developing grand-scale ceremonies in a new hybrid reality for a hybrid audience. In Part 1, I specifically talk about digital Design Sprints as a method for remote show creation. Part 2 begins to unravel the notion of ritual as a driving metaphor to design for a world of dispersed audiences that works both live and online, where actions from both worlds co-create a hybrid reality. This metaphor, however, is closely linked to the production of new artistic encounters that we have come to term hybridity – and engenders even more productive and creative questions that may point us towards our post-coronal future.
I STREAM, THEREFORE I AM (NOT!)
During the vaccine rollout and various lockdown scenarios, theatres around the globe devised some amazing hygiene concepts. Yet, government bodies seem to stay reluctant to granting these institutions permission to reopen. This shows that, besides public policies, long-term creative strategies are needed that go beyond making the auditoriums and stages co-habitable again. But what are these, and what is the scope of these new worlds; how do they work? Looking through the corporate world of LinkedIn, you realise how dreadful a large share of the service industry renders hybrid events. On the cultural side, many theatres across the global North followed the same modus operandi. Their digital strategy mostly meant “to stream”.
Although many realities have since been investigated – from mixed, to augmented, to virtual (all with their distinct histories and rightful merits) – many of the makers showed a lack of understanding the impact of the digital on the design of dramatic events within the ontology of performance. What does it mean to lack the traditional immediacy of the ongoing? Why are we mourning this fact, instead of crafting ways to mediating a different form of immediacy yet again? What happens when acting and observing bodies don’t share the same room anymore? What are new questions we need to attend to in order to anticipate the post-coronal world of theatre and live entertainment production in the so-called mainstream and within cultural institutions?
While they’re usually referred to as hybrid events, I am convinced that simply thinking about “events” (as in, very practical events production and management) won’t get us very far. However, there is a philosophical tradition that uses the term “event” in a more useful way. According to deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, events create a space that provides the contexts for all actions within. These contexts also make the intend of all that happens within the events legible.
In this way, an event creates a liturgy, that is, a set of rules of the game, through which it legitimises itself. Performance artists and theatre directors have been known for testing the limits of this correlation – by creating premises, rules, and consequences, audiences get to experience in a different manner.
The pandemic forced us to rethink these rules, yet many paradigms remained. In order to cater to our changing realities, we have to realise that the encounters of tomorrow have to be meticulously dreamed up and created from scratch. Sticking to our old done-and-trusted event and show format just won’t do. These events have no forerunners yet. Dreaming the up is, in fact, hard work that forces us to leave behind known forms of presentation in order to engulf ourselves within new realities.
The pandemic forced us to put everything into perspective. Some few routines changed, many more routines remained. What will happen, if we add touch, kiss, and intimacy – palpable breath – back into the hybrid mix?
MULTIFURCATION / DISPLACEMENT
Throughout the theatre’s history, we have concerned ourselves with the effects of bifurcation: the spatial distance between the stage and audience. In Wagner’s operas, this gap in-between, that is the orchestra pit, was famously crafted into a proscenium to force a perspective onto the beholder in order to achieve phantasies: The successful illusion of floating mermaids in the Rhine River still haunts performances of The Ring Cycle to this day. What we are experiencing today may possibly be equated to a multifurcation, a division of an event space into many different shared spaces: on stage and at every viewer’s personal space from which they observe. This view, however, entails that the viewers at home are more than viewers, they are participants across many realities.
I don’t think a distinction between active and passive participants is useful here. It is more about the question of how do people within their realities interact and experience.
We may engage in experiences that happen on a screen, but through interactive ways of attending we may feel connected as part of this experience community. It’s our work to make it feel more like theatre and maybe less like a dance challenge on TikTok or a general meeting of a Fortune500 company. Where can we possibly arrive if we start to understand show production as this unique investment to craft a relationship with different modes of corporeality and spaciality? Should we not start to tell stories as registers of that displacement?
THE DEATH OF EPHEMERALITY
Like a theatre show, hybrid realms have to be pre-produced, before their worlds can, night after night, unfold before the spectator. It is argued that a performance only happens once. Every repetition is, in its own right, a new performance. There are no originals, only reconstructions, i.e. the showing doing of past encounters. There is a large body of work within the performance studies that investigates a performance’s relation to its own disappearing as a register of its becoming. Theatre and dance practice, in this school of thought, are framed through practices of reconstruction, recycling behaviours create styles. Our current state forces us to rethink this temporal relation to practice, as we are investigating new forms of media that may change the ephemeral aspects of theatrical encounters.
Dance scholar Marc Franco recently argued that we’re entering a phase after emphemerality, a time in which performance making, i.e. the reconstruction and appropriation of a doing done before, is framed by theatrical craft. There is no disappearing anymore.
We can access past experience to reconstruct aesthetic procedures. In our hybrid experiences, the notion of the work is destabilised because it relies on interaction through the digital medium, which in turn poses questions about the very nature of performance as an ephemeral experience. What are the new practice paradigms and problems emanating from this relation to and between realities?
As Michel Foucault has noted, “Historians take unusual pains to erase the elements in their work which reveal their grounding in a particular time and place …” The same seems to be true for show and theatre makers working in times of Covid, who have not yet acknowledged the phenomenology of the displacement induced by the pandemic’s health restrictions. Aren’t many of us still making theatre for yesterday’s audiences?
With all the technological advancements we made during the pandemic, will our desire to go back to normal let us forget the progress we made while the theatres remained dark? How can we create new encounters in the theatre using the newly established infrastructures and technological advancements? Theatrical magic endures. Liveness will be different. Hybridity awaits.
In our example in Esch, we’re trying to pull together some of these loose threads to arrive at a different form of show. We realised that feedback loops have to go both ways, attraction is always a two-way street. If we continue to simply show works from and make works like in the time before the pandemic hit, we are likely to engage in historical displacements that sees a show’s mis-en-scène speak to an audience that may have new/altered expectations. Simply because: the world has changed. We will have to learn to live with this state for a while. So what are the paradigms we have to alter and overcome? What is it that’s intrinsically different about making a show for people who do not share a space with us, but whose presence may be mediated through media technology? What else is there that we do not yet realise but that is a product of this relationship? Usually, theatre gets interesting if we start to see the invisible…