It live’ and how it is depicted within

It is
undoubtable that there have been numerous technical advances within theatre
including improvements in lighting, sound, costume, makeup and so forth in
order to keep up to date with a changing society. For this reason, how can we
hold back theatre from progressing further and using such technological
advances for possible beneficial developments for both experimentation and
keeping theatre current and alive? I believe it is such experimentations
involving the technological advances available at present that has stirred the
liveness debate within the world of theatre.

This
essay will focus on the technological advance within video recording and
projections, used within performances, as examples to illustrate either side of
the liveness debate drawing to a conclusion that confirms why the points shared
cause such provocation to the concept of ‘the live’. Yet, in order to explore
this debate, we must first consider the definition of the ‘the live’; what does
‘the live’ actually mean and is there a difference between ‘the live’ and a
‘sense of presence’- whether this be physical or in time? The debate of
‘now-ness’.

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Theorists
involved within the liveness debate include Benjamin Walter, Peggy Phelan,
Roland Barthes and Philip Auslander who all have contrasting definitions of
‘the live’ and how it is depicted within a performance when new technologies,
such as camera and voice recordings, are used. Peggy Phelan (1993, p.148)
followed the belief that “performance implicates the real through the presence
of living bodies”. This suggests that liveness is only possible when there is
no mediation and it must represent a situation in the “here and now”; it must
be a physical presence- the performer ‘in the flesh’. This, overall, is a
direct and arguably the most literal definition of a live performance; holding
a sense of tradition to the origins of dramatic performance. In agreement with
Phelan, Walters (1969) explores the concept of aura when comparing an onstage
performance against a film. It is described that when performing on stage there
is no divide between the spectators and actor, yet the distinct shot in a
recording studio introduces this separation via the camera, which becomes the
spectator. According the Walters (1969 p. 10) this causes “the aura that
envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays” and
therefore a sense of liveness and presence is lost due to the technology. Opposing
this, Barthes (1980, p.76) identifies that the use of a camera does not lose
aura stating that “painting can feign reality without having seen it… in
Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there”. This may not
conclude a sense of liveness, yet it assuredly highlights a sense of presence
and realness. Nonetheless, other theorists agree with Phelan and Walters here
with the argument that theatre will lose its origins and traditions. This
underlying worry of the risk that digital media may take over the stage and the
physical elements of drama and performance may be lost which may. Consequently,
theorists begin to oppose the use of experimentation with advanced technologies
and the live; following this notion against intermedial performance.

Despite
this, there are many further conflicting thoughts against Phelan’s definition
as it allows very little room for experimentation and takes away the
unpredictability that is now available for onstage performance. Many
practitioners and theorists, including Causey (2007), want these boundaries against
remediation to dissolve and allow a collaboration to begin in order to achieve
the highest post-modern potential out of a current, and relevant, world of
theatre. This keeps it ‘up-to-date’ as many exclaim to be vital for live
theatre to remain popular in a society that is surrounded by incredible
technological advances.

To
contrast Phelan, Philip Auslander (2008, pp. 60-61), produced a historical
development of the concept of liveness allowing further opportunity for the use
of advances in society. He identifies that terms used within todays’ mundane
world, such as “live broadcast” and “live recording”, suggest that the
definition of liveness has indeed developed overtime with the freedom to
develop further. In order to represent this information Auslander produced 6
progressive definitions (see appendix for table). It is acknowledged that even though someone or
something may not be physically present, there is now the opportunity for a
virtual presence. The development in technologies, such as internet and social
media, in conjunction with an increasing popularity has consequently resulted
in the definitions and concepts of liveness to expand and evolve in order to
consider the new aspects of communication in a modern society. This taken into
consideration provides a whole new prospect to previous definitions explored by
theorists.

An
example of these technologies available presently include Skype calls which are
considered ‘live’ as the audio and visual is being received ‘in the now’. This
has been used in many performances and has been identified as live theatre, an
example including Gob Squad’s ‘Room
Service (Help Me Make It Through the Night)’ (2003). In this performance,
the audience are sat in a conference room of a hotel where they are situated in
front of four performers who are displayed on 4 TV screens. Each performer is
in a different hotel room and are able to communicate with the audience through
the live stream and a telephone. This piece confronts the debate of liveness
questioning whether a screen presence can be considered ‘live’ as there a four
virtual live links to each actor/actress as the performance is watched by the
audience in another room collectively. This is clearly happening in the now and
is live. However, the physical presence is lacking and it is this that
furtherly provoked the debate. This contributes to the factor of the audience
and what part they play within this debate of what is considered live. In this
performance, the audience’s participation is key to making it appear live; with
telephone calls to the individuals within the audience to play truth or dare
and having them physically experience the performance, whilst the rest of the
audience watch, highlights the sense of newness and liveness created.

One
argument given towards the liveness debate is that the essence of liveness
created is down to the attention given from the audience where a sense of
presence is a result of the attention given; the more attention given to a
performance, the more present it will appear to be. On stage there is a
communal experience for the audience as a whole, similar to that in a cinema. Although
Phelan could compare these to being the same experience if pre-recorded media
was used within the performance, within a cinema it is more private and
isolated as there tends to be subtler reactions, yet this in comparison of the
applause at the end of a successful theatre performance is not the same
experience. Robert Lepage (1997) described theatre to be “a gathering, a
meeting point. A gathering in the sense that a group of artists get together to
tell a story, and also the collective audience. The audience in a theatre room
is very different from the audience to a film, because they actually change
everything on the stage by their energy”. Here, Lepage expresses how the
audience lively affect the actors/actresses on stage, thus, they can be
identified as part of the performance and therefore this self-feeling of
presence may be able to hold this side of the concept of ‘the live’.

This
point of audiences’ participation and experience as a defining factor of
liveness is explained by Steve Dixon (2007, p.132); “let us consider a
hypothetical live performer standing next to an exactly life-size, recorded,
two-dimensional projection of herself. If both figures are still and neutral,
one might agree that the live performer has more presence (by virtue of her
solidity, her liveness). But once either of the figures engages in activity
(including concentrated thought) it will pull focus to it, gain attention, and
assert its presence over the other.”. This identifies that it is not
necessarily the physical presence of the performer that creates a difference to
the essence of liveness, but that it is the attention given from the audience
to each element on stage. Here, Phelan would argue strongly against this as the
image projected is in fact a pre-recorded image and for this reason I can see
the debate move strongly to supporting Phelan as the recording itself is not in
fact ‘live’.

Accepting
Phelan’s concept leads Gob Squad’s ‘Room
Service (Help Me Make It Through the Night) to not be considered ‘live’.
However, this piece is an incredibly effective live performance and I believe
that it is impossible to view this performance as a non-live piece or a piece
of the past as it is not pre-recorded in anyway and there is no sense of past
tense throughout the performance. In addition to this, there is this doubtless notion
of ‘anything could happen’ which is apparent within a live on-stage performance.
If anything within a performance that relies so heavily on technology
(internet, projectors, live streams etc.) there is in fact a higher possibility
of ‘anything could happen’ with technical difficulties and so forth. I feel
that it is this sense of ‘anything could happen’ and the potential that
something could go wrong which provides an explanation for the heightened
atmosphere within a performance space and a heightened engagement from the
audience given in a theatre performance as there is a stronger feel of suspense
which puts the audience in a ‘live experience’.

In
conclusion, it is evident that the concept of ‘the live’ provokes an abundance
of controversy amongst both makers and theorists. Overall it appears that this
is a consequence of the various differences in what ‘the live’ actually is and
how a sense of liveness can be measured. From the debate defining that
something must be physically present to be considered live to the ‘updated’
definitions that accept the use of modern technology within the theatre space
to create a virtual presence the I would consider the overall ‘measurement of
liveness’ to be the responsibility of the audiences and their interaction with
the performance. With constant advances in technology it must be accepted that
a finalised definition of ‘the live’ appears unachievable. Thus, the debate
will continue amongst makers and theorists following a constant developing
society.

 

References

Auslander,
P. (2008). Liveness. London:
Routledge.

Barthes.
R. (1980). Camera Lucida: Reflections of
Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang

Causey,
M. (2007). Theatre and Performance in
Digital Culture. London: Routledge.

Dixon,
S. (2007). Digital Performance: A History
of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. Cambridge:
MIT Press.

Lepage,
R. (1997). Interviewed by Richard Eyre, 10 January.

Phelan,
P. (1993). Unmarked: The Politics of
Performance. London, New York: Routledge.

Walters,
B. (1969). The Work of Art in The Age of
Mechanical Reproduction. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken
Books.

 

Appendix