Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Theater and Interactivity Pt. 1

I'm trying to lower my word-count for posts here, so as not to kill anyone foolish enough to try and read my ideas.

I was talking with a friend of mine here in Prague (I'm here studying temporarily) about theater, and he told me that the kind of theater he wants to create isn't so much him creating theater as it is him creating a pretext for theater to be created in the community.

What with my whole "culture is conversation" and "art should be responsive to the community" stances, I was very pleased, and enjoyed the idea. It has inspired me to look at that aspect more. I don't know if that's all I want to do, and I don't know how to do it entirely, but it's a lead that I'm really interesting, and that's that.

But it got me thinking about responsiveness in theater, which has come up for me at various times. Responsiveness in this case means responsiveness in the moment, not a general sort of metaphorical responsiveness.

We've always had this kind of responsiveness. After all, improv is an art form built around audience response. Whose Line Is It Anyway could be seen as the biggest success of theater on television. It takes what we love about theater: watching the actor think and feel in real time, and simply puts them in front of a camera. Whose Line Is It Anyway is for improv what SNL was for sketch comedy.

In the brick-and-mortar theater world, improv also continues to be a successful and lively part of action. Most comedians on television have come from a strong background in this--and the brick-and-mortar pedigree is still a mark of talent. The fact that Stephen Colbert comes from Second City Improv counts for a long way with people, in the way that other people's brick-and-mortar theater experience doesn't in the film/TV world.

And I am starting to think that this success is only going to get bigger.

We talk about theater's losing share in public culture often in terms of its competition. People have ruminated on the ease, comfort, and privacy of watching television. When I talked to my dad about theater, he (a software engineer) looked at theater and came to one conclusion: theater is struggling because it doesn't scale.

But what was he comparing it to? He didn't look to the world of television or film. And he was right not to. After all, statistics seem to show that movie-watching is stagnating. Television, on the other hand, is a little harder to assess. Why? Because television is moving to the internet. Internet is the growing source of entertainment and culture (I say culture as well) so Internet is the biggest competition to theater.

Talk about the 'competition' is not new: George Bernard Shaw was talking about what a theater needs to do to compete for the attention of viewers (one solution: comfy seats). Bertold Brecht argued along similar lines (one solution: let them smoke cigars).

At any rate, if there's one clear defining change between the Internet and what has gone before, it is the internet is interactive. This parallels the growing love of video games. We enjoy engaging our mind into what we're doing, and interaction lets us influence what we're doing. But theater is interactive too. So the theater has an opportunity: to stand as an interactive, communal entertainment.

Now, the internet will always win points over us in convenience. But then again, don't DVDs and films win over movie theaters in convenience as well? What we win over the internet is a sense of life and community.

But at the moment, our habits of theater aren't interactive. A playwright creates a play (usually alone), he takes it to a theater company, which decides everything in advance, and this is presented to a silent audience in the dark part of the theater. So the challenge of theater is how to combine the ingenuity of the artist with the contributions of the audience.

I'll leave it there for now, and think about where I've seen it applied and such, and discuss more tomorrow.