I thought that I was turning my back on the world of theater. A vision of building community and empathy with stories had guided me trough the Twin Cities’ comprehensive lineup of theater institutions. But, after a joyous path from children’s theaters to a University of MN/Guthrie Theater training and a career in acting, that guiding vision faded. Egos, bills, politics and adulthood left little room for ideals.
That’s when I stumbled upon a posting for “Museum Interpreter” with experience in theater and storytelling. Somehow, an employer that wanted my acting skills but admitted it wasn’t trying to create art sounded refreshing. Since 2008, I have been using theater as a tool to teach history at a museum. Much to my surprise, I seem to be using my experience to build community and empathy with stories!
What’s more, I have been introduced to an exciting form of media that allows me to break the rules of any movie or play. Not only is the world my stage, but the world is my audience as well. So, now I’m wondering: Where are all the theaters? Theater artists could create incredible experiences with Interactive Video Conferencing. It’s not particularly new technology, but it has come a long way.
I recently met with two of my dearest friends from theater school. One now has a solid career as an actor in New York city; the other manages a small local theater that has survived into its fourth decade. Eventually, the conversation came around to the increasingly questionable viability of professional theater amidst economic turmoil and the advancement of electronic media.
I believe American artists have an opportunity to bridge the gap between theater and film, creating a new kind of performance experience. I don’t know any “master artists” in live virtual interactive performance, but I’ve noticed a thing or to in the few years that I’ve been exploring the world of Interactive Video Conferencing. Here’s what I’ve learned:
The Space & The Audience
Interactive Video Conferencing (IVC) means live two-way television using the Internet. Two or more spaces are connected using video cameras, microphones and monitors or projectors, which allows people in multiple locations to interact as though they are all in the same space. Think Skype on steroids. It is, however, subject to the whims of the World Wide Web. I won’t go into detail on the technology, but it has reached the point that multiple devices can connect at once, and everything from fancy TV studio setups to smartphones to desktop computers can connect universally.
While the corporate world has adopted this medium to enhance communication and eliminate transportation costs, it is in the education community that IVC has been stretched and flourished. In the face of skyrocketing transportation costs and plummeting funding, educators have turned IVC into a “window to the world.” Teachers can now leverage virtual fieldtrips, guest speakers, pen pals and competitions to connect their pupils with the world outside the classroom.
Cultural organizations, such as museums and zoos, have jumped on board as “Content Providers,” offering on-demand programs for these audiences. Many institutions have raised the bar by incorporating more sophisticated presentation tools, such as “green screens,” HD cameras, live feeds from remote cameras, and even mobile technology. Students can now ask a scuba diver what fish just swam by as they explore the ocean, or chat with a doctor while watching her perform surgery. Presenters wander through the pages of digital storybooks as they help students learn to read. A 200-year-old explorer may appear on the screen, beckoning students to help reenact his adventures.
Senior centers, libraries, and community organizations are forming the next wave to adopt this medium. Natives of Hooper Bay, Alaska, ask what a car accident sounds like after describing to urbanites how they get food. Dementia-ward patients go on guided tours of art museums. Neighborhoods hit by similar natural disasters commiserate from across the globe… Are you seeing the potential? I’m layin it on pretty thick, but I haven’t made a single one of these examples up.
Interactive Video Conferencing is transforming the ways we interact and communicate as a society. It’s a virtual stage: Anyone with access to an Internet connection is a potential audience member and a potential performer. As more Content Providers enter the world of IVC, it becomes more apparent that there is no right way to use the medium. However, blending the expectations of broadcast and “in-person” performance confirms and magnifies an old golden rule: the performance is only as good as the performer.
Define your goal: Put on your “professional” hat, and get a little analytical. Do you have an employer? What is your product? Do you offer entertainment, education, or participation in an event? Pondering some of these questions will inform your objectives in the performance you craft. I play historic characters, for example, but my employer has hired me as an educator. My goal is to get very specific concepts into the audience’s head in a set amount of time. That’s very different from my goal as an actor.
Identify the artistic team: It is easy for the lines between roles to become blurred when experimenting with a different medium. Try to figure out who will fulfill the responsibilities of the playwright, director, dramaturge, stage manager, crew and performers. You may have to wear several of these hats, especially if you’re just getting started or working for a non-theater organization. It helps to have a clear idea of the separate functions you must fulfill.
Remember that you are on camera: It becomes easy to forget that your audience is not actually there. A film actor understands that the actual product, the experience of his performance, is on a flat screen in another location. Because IVC is a simulation of in-person presentation, I have found it effective to use my voice and body more as though I were on stage. While breaking some rules of the camera reminds your audience that you are live, they have little patience for people on television wandering out of the shot or screaming at the microphone. The physical and vocal intensity needed to break the “technology barrier” requires extreme energy and restraint. An hour of IVC performance often feels like two on the stage.
Interaction is fundamental: If it could be a DVD or a live broadcast then something is wrong. That said, I believe interaction is also fundamental to live theater. The stage actor responds directly to the reactions of the audience. Even in pausing for a laugh, she immediately caters the performance to the unique personalities of the people in the room. Keep an eye out for opportunities to reinforce this unique immediacy.
I challenge you to explore! Think evolution, not revolution. Start with something you already do well. The next time you’re between projects and pondering the future viability of professional theater, head over to the computer. Take that character you’ve always wanted to play, or that one-act you wrote five years ago. Download Skype or Face Time, call a friend and see what happens. Try with your scene partner on the screen. Try with your scene partner in the room and your director on the screen. Perform a monologue to a remote audience of family members, and then let them ask you questions about it. Have fun, keep an open mind, and the possibilities will explode.