I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage
~ Peter Brook, The Empty Space
This was written in 1968 by one of the most brilliant minds of the modern theater. I read this over 20 years ago and it is still as relevant today as it was then, if not more so. A performance space need not be contained within a proscenium, nor does it have to have a grid or a flat playing area. It doesn't have to have wings, dressing rooms or even seats, for that matter.
At times throughout history, and particularly since the 1960s, artists have conceived of very dynamic works of performance outside of these traditional confines. But in the last 15-20 years, work of this nature has dramatically expanded. In this study of the evolving notion of the performance space, I will briefly look at the origins of space and the roots of the traditional space. I will then discuss the impact technology has had, and is having, upon the concept of the performance space and then look at some of the exciting ways contemporary artists are forging new ground outside of the traditional structure.
Throughout these essays, I refer to the "traditional space" often. By “traditional space”, I mean a performance venue which has a stage and a section for a seated audience. This includes the classic proscenium stage (which we’re all used to), the thrust stage and theater in the round. The commonality between all of these stages, and which is important for this article, is that the audience is in a passive/receiving mode, and the action - typically comprised of some combination of actors, singers, dancers, a stage, lights and costumes - is played out upon the stage in full view of the audience. This is what I mean by “traditional space”.
If you ever took theater history in college, then you are very familiar with how things began. Greek theaters were called theatrons (“seeing place”). These theatrons consisted of a skene, orchestra and audience. The orchestra or “dancing place” was the focal point where the action took place (ritual, rite, song, play etc). Fast forward to the Renaissance, and this structure moved indoors. In the 1600s, scenery became a vital component to the event, typically painted in perspective and seen most perfectly from the “duke’s chair”. In those days, the higher your status, the closer you sat to the Duke.
(Note: I once sat in the Duke’s Chair at the Paris Opera - it’s no joke! I felt like I was floating in the theater - it was, indeed, the perfect vantage point, an incredible experience.)
There is a separate stage or playing space, a location for seating and components of scenery. However you arrange, or rearrange, these parts, they are mostly always present, usually inside a building. People rearrange them, reverse them and invert them. But, when we say “I’m going to the theater”, I’m usually heading to a place like this. Also, as important as the arrangement, is the audience’s position: seated, watching, observing, receiving.
Traditionally, the process of creation started with the writer. He/she would pen a play, which reveals characters in action, conveying a story which exposes certain themes to an audience. This live action would be organized by a director who is charged with the job of breathing life into the playwright’s vision on the stage. This action would then be executed by actors, illuminated, decorated and clothed by designers and watched by an audience.
Interestingly, this convention has held for hundreds of years. Around this has formed definitive styles of acting, dance, voice, direction, design and administrative structures all designed to support it. However, in the last 20 years, the concept of “space" has changed dramatically causing a tectonic shift in these other supportive aspects of performance.
What Changed (or, rather, What is Changing)?
As usual, technology. It started with the internet, and now mobile technology is rushing us forward at breathtaking speed. Before, in order to communicate with another, you had to be “there" in person. Then came the telephone, television and the moving image, and communication dramatically changed. Suddenly, someone in one space could communicate with someone in an entirely different space. Some daring artists designed theatrical experiences which moved away from the traditional space and into the ubiquitous “not-traditional space”. But, what comprised “live” performance remained basically the same. We went to the theater, observed, learned, enjoyed, went home and maybe, sometime later, thought about it again.
But, the advent of mobile technology, supported by the viral nature of online communication, has thrown open the doors on the potential for live performance-based experience revealing a massive scale of possibility that, perhaps, we’ve not seen in modern history. We are seeing this not only in the USE of tech in performance, but also in the mirroring of tech-inspired constructs within new, emerging performance art forms. People like to be connected and engaged, while on the move. These exciting constructs are now visible within new works of performance, and the untapped potential here is vast.
Odyssey Works creates immersive, sprawling theater pieces for an audience of one. Photo: Ayden L.M. Grout (Carl, Joan of Arc)
Also, our lifestyles are changing. People no longer want to be passive receivers of information or experiences. People now want to work “virtually”, shifting away from the traditional space of the office. Some daring individuals now invite nomadism, seeing the world as their home, refuting the old concept of the “home space”. In art, we see the rise of Banksy, Improv Everywhere and even non-performance captured on mobile devices and shared virally AS live performance. Everything is changing, right under our feet, and the old model is fracturing daily. Marketing is undergoing a revolution, as is design, organizational structure and - most definitely - the artist/audience relationship. Millennials are revolutionizing virtually every notion we’ve come to rely upon as “traditional”, particularly within the area of communication, and the art of performance is poised for its most vital period of innovation ever.
Passive No More
People crave engagement, experience, immersion and involvement. They don’t want to merely sit and observe art played out before them, they want to participate WITHOUT being dragged unsuspectingly onstage by an actor (unless you are Bill Irwin, one of the best). Audiences now want to be reached in a way that protects their anonymity, that allows them to connect with someone/something, that invites THEIR creation and THEIR thought, that gives them some measure of autonomy over their experience. The freedom that emerging technologies provide is filtering into performance with no end in sight.
Humans crave story, and the better the teller, the better the story. More and more, film has now assumed the dominant role of telling stories to seated, watching audiences much moreso than live theater. (For the purposes of this article, film includes television and online media) Like it or not, the masses have spoken: film is a far better medium at connecting people with concepts, stories and characters (and it costs less to watch it too). Why represent a “space" onstage if you can just show the real location on film? The advancement of film as our primary means of sharing stories is a strong component of how technology has driven this radical change in live performance. People still crave live experiences of performance - just less and less in the passive position. Film does that better.
What prevents us from accepting this is an unyielding romanticism of the traditional form, and an entrenched habit of appealing to “the audience”. The problem is, this audience is going to be replaced with a new one, which has been raised on different modes of communication and cultural values. This new audience has been formed in a more mobile and open world. Roles are less rigid, rules less defined and they have exhibited a clear interest in dynamic creation and less centralized holds of power. Instead of hunkering down in a job, these millennials create one. This giant cultural leap leads me to believe that this audience will command and create work which follows suit. Art which engages, invites participation, utilizes mobility, sharing and inclusivity - this is the horizon.
Quick question: what was the last play you saw?
2nd quick question: what was the last film you saw?
If you are like most people, you have been to the cinema more than the theater in the last year. In fact, many people go to the cinema once or twice per month. How many people watch The Tony Awards vs. The Oscars? Answer - Oscars: 40 million, Tonys: 6 million, and ratings for The Tonys are dropping. The interest in film is far, far greater than the interest in the conventional live performance.
The following data comes from the NEAs expansive 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPAA):
- Nearly half of the nation's adults (49 percent or 115 million) attended at least one type of visual or performing arts activity. Fifty-nine percent of adults attended at least one movie, an activity that increased substantially among most demographic subgroups.(emphasis mine)
- Musical play attendance saw the first significant drop since the 1985 SPPA: a 9 percent rate of decline from 2008 to 2012. Non-musical play attendance fell at a 12 percent rate over the same period. Museum-going also saw a decline: 21 percent of adults (or 47 million) visited an art museum or gallery in 2012, down from 23 percent in 2008.
Also, we see 71% of all adult Americans engaging with art via electronic media. Interestingly, mobile devices have narrowed the racial gap of consumption:
- Whether listening to music, looking at a photo, or watching a dance or theater performance, all racial/ethnic groups show roughly the same rates of engagement via mobile devices. (source: NEA)
In other words, more people went to see film than did to see both live performance AND visual art combined. And, film viewing is on the rise while live performance is not Even attendance at musicals is dropping. The data doesn’t lie - our art form is on the decline. The solution here is not new and better content. The answer lies in our ability to nimbly shift into new, more contemporary, FORMS which correspond to our times. This exploration is now more important than ever.
With the emergence of online video presentation websites such as YouTube, Vimeo, Blip.tv and more, the threshold for entry into telling stories via moving images is now lower than ever. Anyone can now setup their own YouTube channel and share their unique content with the world. They can syndicate this via social media, directly reaching their audience who will - if they like it - SHARE it with their friends and networks. Storytelling via moving image has never been simpler or more accessible. The gatekeepers are still out there (television networks, etc), but an artist isn’t forced to go that route anymore.
As of 2010, 23% of the world was online. By 2020, it is anticipated that 66% of all people will have access to the internet. This means that RIGHT NOW 3 billion people are accessing the world conversation for the first time. Many new voices are about to be heard leveraging the most exciting, transparent and open form of communication ever. Do we expect these new voices to fall into the well-worn paths of creation? Or, is it more accurate to assume that these people might, instead, tell their story using the most simple and accessible form of communication and sharing ever?
Is the “play” still a necessary form of live performance? This is obviously a touchy subject, as most of our institutions are built around supporting this form. Through the written word, character and story, broader awareness can be brought to people bearing witness to others (actors) offering themselves to temporarily endure the circumstances for everyone’s benefit. This has been a wildly effective mechanism for revealing hidden sides of humanity. But, is it a better means than film? The numbers say no. The advent of film and its dynamic, seamless storytelling mechanism, has overwhelmingly proven it is a far better medium with which to tell stories.
Why Tell A Story If No One Is Listening?
Sure, SOME still enjoy a great play, but do the masses? Sure, one individual might prefer theater to film, but the majority don’t, and this gap is growing. One must ask the question - is the form of “the play” still relevant if most people don’t even go? Funding for the arts has eroded, and it’s sure easy to blame politicians for not caring. But, what are we doing to make the art form truly necessary in this time? What do theater artists offer that film doesn’t? And, are we nimble and responsive enough to the changing times to keep the art form relevant?
Oh, and if we drink the Kool-Aid of “the theater is not for the masses” we are cloaking ourselves in a suicidal, out-of-touch, snobbery which will only further our irrelevance. No form of performance is for everybody, but the world of performance should be. The fact that it currently isn’t points to a massive crack in our philosophical wall, one that will inevitably come crumbling down unless addressed. These times are very different. Artists and organizations that don’t stay relevant will be pushed out by those that do. The internet has created transparency and has eliminated the need for the traditional, institutional gatekeepers. History teaches that those which serve and reflect the times will survive and those that don’t will not.
The good news is that we are now seeing radically new forms of live performance riveting audiences like we have not seen in recent history. As more and more artists explore and create new forms, we are seeing increased engagement in those works. Improv Everywhere gets nearly 5000 people for its annual mp3 experiment here in New York. When did you last hear of an acting workshop which generated that much interest? “Sleep No More”, Punchdrunk’s immersive exploration of Macbeth which takes place on the west side of Manhattan, has lines of people circling the block all dying to pay $85+ for the experience of what lies beyond the door. Here in Brooklyn, Third Rail Projects utterly sensational “Then She Fell”, has been extended numerous times due to overwhelming interest again from people willing to pay top dollar for the experience.
Sophie Bortolussi as Lady Macbeth & Nicholas Bruder as Macbeth in Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More", Photo: The New York Times
Technology has led the way in opening a vast new landscape of "spaces" and we are seeing visionary artists facing this challenge with spectacular results. “Space" is becoming a "character" in the new landscape of play emerging. The future of performance, and more specifically, the future of innovation lies outside of traditional spaces.
All the world, it seems, is literally a stage AND, the audience is there waiting for us.
But, The Actors Are ALIVE!
Yes they are - often brilliantly. The "acting" element of live performance is easily what thrills me about the theater more than anything else. Seeing someone courageously reveal their inner lives, to give themselves to the cause of the moment, so that we all might benefit, learn, open, become more aware - this is performance’s highest rewards. It IS it’s fundamentally human relevance. But, is the “play” the best form - in these times - wherein this brave act should take place?
People want to be engaged. Our lives are filled with sitting and watching. Whether it's a screen (computers, TVs, movies, phones, tablets) or a window (bus, subway, train, plane, car) most of us spend a lot of time in that position. Why would someone want to pay $85 to volunteer for it? Well, many won’t and it is up to the contemporary artist now to find new forms of engagement, of communication, of connecting.
Where live performance truly stands out, is in engaging us to…engage. Years ago, “audience participation” rose to the fore and quickly died (thankfully) because audiences expect us to be smarter than to freak them out by putting them onstage. The advent of mobile technology can become a mechanism, in its highest form of use, to engage more, to connect with the “new” and “unknown”, to experience adventure, to be surprised, to be thrilled. Many people feel trapped by their “devices”, but art can tap into the healthiest standards for these implements and use them to enlarge our experience of the world.
Live performance, therefore, needs to reflect the times in which it finds itself. The fact of the matter is, most people don’t want to be in theaters (otherwise they would be going more), they want to be engaging something in a way that gives them the choice as to just how far down Alice's rabbit hole they want to go.
New Directions: "Then She Fell" & "Sleep No More"
Right away, I knew I was in trouble. “Only 15 people? Oh dear, I wonder if they are going to make me feel…uncomfortable.” A sense of uneasy excitement filled The Kingsland Ward at St. Johns in Williamsburg, as 15 strangers (to each other) sat nervously awaiting the start of Third Rail Projects’ “Then She Fell”, the group's brilliant, immersive take on “Alice in Wonderland". I was there to learn more about them, as they are Brooklyn-based, and have an excellent reputation. But, more to the point, I wanted to see how a company handles the complex challenge of immersive theater. How to provide an elegant experience which takes people just far enough outside of their comfort zones so that they are engaged, but that doesn’t leave them feeling scared, threatened and uncomfortable (too much). Finding this elegant balance is a fascinating challenge that the immersive artist must face.
Tom Pearson (White Rabbit) & Rebekah Morin (Red Queen) in Third Rail Projects' "Then She Fell", Photo: Rick Ochoa
Next thing I new, I was in a room with a young lady whom I didn’t know (and still don’t), and was being stalked by the Mad Hatter (brilliantly played that night by Elisabeth Carena). She was talking to US, and seemed to want a response from ME. “Ugh", I thought, "I can’t bear being asked to speak." After an uncomfortable - and deliberate - pause, she continued talking, making clear that, in fact, I wasn’t being asked to speak at all, BUT that she was not pretending that I wasn’t in the room with her either. This was still a performance, and I was still protected as an audience member, but I wasn’t going to be treated as a passive observer either. I relaxed, and had one of the most memorable nights in the “theater” ever.
(Quick digression - has anyone said yet how perfect the tea party scene is? What a stunning and brilliant scene. I’m sure that’s one of the 5 best single moments of live performance I’ve ever seen.)
With “Sleep No More”, one of the first things you are given upon entry is a mask (see photo). And not just any mask, but the SAME mask that everyone else has. "Sleep No More" lacks the mild confrontational element that "Then She Fell" offers, but in exchange you are left feeling completely anonymous and…free. Within the playland setting, you are asked to choose your own adventure and explore the grounds as you wish. You can follow Lady Macbeth through the evening, or venture off to gorge on sweets in the confectioners (yup, I did that), you can watch the orgy scene, you can hang out in many of the small office rooms, reading the notebooks, smelling the tins, touching the objects. Its really up to you. Ultimate freedom.
Sounds great, right? Here’s another important point: people are lining up around the blocks for BOTH. “Then She Fell” has been extended multiple times now while “Sleep No More” might have legs that last forever. Audiences are not slowing down at all. How often do you hear of the same for a contemporary play (not sponsored by Disney, and not attended by tourists at Times Square)? It’s not rare for plays to be extended, no - but it is rare for them to be extended over and over and over again, with no end in sight. Interestingly, in both cases, there is no “show” that needs to load-in next. Because they are non-traditional spaces, an extended run is much more possible.
What’s exciting is that both Third Rail and Punchdrunk have showed me that the possibilities for immersive theater are endless. There are as many possibilities as there are environments. The theater is an old abandoned hotel, or a hospital, and within each are myriads of smaller environments which I’m IN - not OUT - but, IN.
Suddenly, there are no limits.
But What About DANCE?
In 1964, Merce Cunningham & Co. was on tour through Europe when the opportunity arose to perform in Vienna in….a museum? Ever seeking an opportunity to show his work, Merce conceived of a way to reveal his choreography within this non-traditional environment by extracting snippets of existing work and stitching them together in what he called “Events”. Each one was 90 minutes in length. When I worked for the Cunningham Foundation from 1994-1998, the company performed “events" all across the world - in gardens, museums, plazas, train stations, rooftops, galleries, courtyards, and, yes, even theaters. Merce was both willing to cut up his repertory into pieces and to perform in spaces that dance had never been seen in before. What’s on display here is a mind responding to contemporary reality - one of Merce’s many exemplary gifts - and a public desiring an experience outside of the norm.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company rehearses an Event, Photo: Tacita Dean
Dance is challenging in that there are often traditional requirements for its presentation - a sprung floor, boom lighting, marley etc. But, there are new forms emerging now which don’t require this at all. Interestingly, cultures which haven’t had access to these conventions have created extremely flexible ways of performing. Street dancer Storyboard P can perform in a moment’s notice in a parking lot. B-boy James “Cricket” Colter needs very little space to work. Modern dance has continued to evolve too. Noémie Lafrance creates choreography for very unique spaces such as the McCarren Pool in Williamsburg, underneath the Manhattan Bridge and even created participatory choreography for an audience, and without dancers. In the 2013 BEAT Festival, Yanira Castro (a canary torsi) created a new work which was placed on a small, mobile stage and performed in the front of the Brooklyn Museum, the West Plaza at Bed-Stuy Restoration and in the lobby of 1 MetroTech.
Also, many immersive works involve many genres of performance. Both “Then She Fell” and “Sleep No More” are driven by dance and choreography. This is wrapped in a powerful, atmospheric theatricality with the voice being used to punctuate precise and powerful moments. So, yes, even dance can be pulled out of its traditional setting. In fact, the innovations in dance are the most exciting because they are the most difficult thus requiring an even broader thought landscape and a more expansive creativity.
Where We Are Now
Site-specific, immersive, flash mob, improv, mashup…new forms are popping up it seems every year and within these forms are limitless possibilities. The notions of “what is an actor”, “what is a director”, “what is a choreographer” have all changed too. An actor now could be someone who lacks “formal” training but who is willing to be in an “Improv Everywhere” action. He/she might not be able to remember lines or perform them onstage, but he can execute a series of actions which help create one of IE’s brilliant public vignettes. The new “director” might not be able to discern the transaction within a Pinter play (though, he probably can), but would rather design a scenario wherein two skilled actors can improvise their way to a scene. The writer might post his scenes on his website and then invite random strangers to meet him at a coordinated time, act out the scene on film to then share with the world using the internet. There is no prior rehearsal, nor even a conversation - they both dive in together. The “choreographer” might not want to create work on a stage with dancers, they might want instead to create choreography which utilizes the basic movement of everyday, non-dancers and convert that into a piece using non-dancers.
As these roles evolve so must the institutions that train them. The old notion of the “conservatory” must follow suit. Take the Brooklyn College PIMA MFA program, for example, which explores the notion of training young artists to create new, cutting-edge works of performance. In 2013, I viewed three of the final four thesis projects, and none of these were in traditional spaces. In fact, one took over a large part of the DUMBO neighborhood. We then invited this young group, The IPA, to create an immersive tour of the Brooklyn Museum. These exciting experiences not only utilized performance, but technology, sculpture WHILE brilliantly including the local environment - which, in the case of the Brooklyn Museum - was rich with content.
For the individual artist or group, the old model of “build it and they will come” no longer works. To be ignorant in the areas of media, marketing and relationships (on and offline), is to be DOA in this new world. All artists are now marketers, and more broadly, entrepreneurs. This new economy is about connecting and, if an audience cannot connect with you, they won’t support you. There are too many artists who ARE doing this, getting their work out there using various types of media, making connections, building their base, their audience, and the future of the theater.
A longer discussion on marketing is due here as well. I have a few articles in mind to pepper in to this broader discussion, as I think marketing and communications in the arts is undergoing a drastic change. Also, I don’t think most artists are very good at this at all. The old model is changing, and this definitely means a review of how best to connect, share and distribute content which will engage people causing them to want to come see your work in person.
For now, I will leave you with a favorite quote from Jim Collins' essential business book "Good To Great":
There is nothing wrong with pursuing a vision of greatness. After all, the good-to-great companies also set out to create greatness. But, unlike the comparison companies, the good-to-great companies continually refined the path to greatness with the brutal facts of reality.
Do we not find ourselves in a similar position? A shifting landscape, and an urgent need to clearly view these "brutal facts"? I know of no artist who doesn't, in her deepest heart, feel her work has the moxie of greatness. First above everything else (including business), art should be great - it is the conscience of our time. But, in order for this to be so, the brutal facts of change must be digested. Those that do, I predict, will define the cultural greatness of a rapidly approaching tomorrow.
Up next, a discussion on what it means to be an actor in this day and age, why you shouldn’t go to a conservatory and how many actors are marketing themselves online and off with dynamic results.