interactive art

Cyber Plays Take Immersive Theater Online

You'll have to keep your phone on during these performances.

by Heidi Harrington-Johnson
Feb 6 2016, 2:30pm

There is something innately voyeuristic about going to the theater, sitting in a darkened room elbow to elbow with strangers, eyes all attuned to the staging of a story taking place in front of you. The conventions of watching film and television are similar, except the story and its characters are contained by the rectangular screen on which they are projected from a remote location, completely disjointed from the live production. Internet embedded theater, or cyber theater, is something of an amalgamation of these two mediums. There are no rules as such and the productions, while still ostensibly utilizing a script, actors and a director, traditionally operate across platforms in some hazy interactive nether-region between the formats of immersive theater, gaming and webisode.  

Tassos Stevens describes himself as “a theater-maker in the broadest sense of the word theater.” He started developing work for Coney, an interactive theater production company, between 2004 and 2006, and when we speak, he’s just returned from chasing a kingfisher up a local river—IRL. This element of play is essential to a Coney production, but the onus moves off the stage and into the audience, who become co-creators and in some cases, co-conspirators, in the making of the pieces. One of their ongoing productions, Adventure 1, is set in a secret location in London’s financial district, and continues across networks, via computer and mobile phone, through a series of interactions with someone called Josh. There is a human target, and it is the audience’s job to follow him or her using Josh’s audiovisual cues in the form of texts, songs or maps. Eventually, the target turns up, but Stevens can’t say what happens next. It’s a secret, but the risk of arrest is real, which is why its location is kept under wraps. Coney doesn’t have permission to be staging Adventure 1 in London’s business center, and its participants play covertly, blending in with civilians shopping or attending meetings nearby, all under the gaze of security guards. Tassos and his co-creator William Drew designed the experience to be transgressive, but safe and discreet, and reassure The Creators Project that no one has been arrested yet.

Image courtest of Coney 

Why not just put on a play in the traditional sense? Stevens says the distinction between theater in the round and theater using the web is a false dichotomy. “What interactive theater opens up is another kind of experience,” he tells The Creators Project. “Technology enables us to open up the possibilities, but it’s still about finding the right ones for what it is you want to explore.” Adventure 1 is about the financial crisis and our relationship to it, and the way players are interconnected with content, performers, and producers in some ways mirrors the ways in which global systems are intrinsically related. Every action creates a reaction, potentially ad infinitum, because everyone and everything is linked through an intricate system or web of networks.

Perhaps Marshal McLuhan was right when he said, “the medium is the message.” Like the Internet and its multifarious pulpits, Coney pieces don’t follow any particular formula. Each is its own distinct entity and spans from between five minutes to one hundred years. Ultimately, it’s the sense of reciprocal kinship happening in real time, an element fundamental to traditional theater, that lies at the essence of each production. “I think people feel very excited by the sense of being connected, particularly live, to something that is happening in another place,” says Stevens. “We’re still slightly blown over by the possibility, and I think that sense of presence, I’m there right now, is where the technology is at the moment. That’s the primal quality.”

The secret target Josh asks players in “Adventure 1” to follow him through London’s financial district. Image courtesy of Coney 

Whit MacLaughlin, Artistic Director of New Paradise Laboratories, was also responding to the the hyper-connected nature of modern life in creating “Extremely Public Displays of Privacy” in 2011. One of the first companies to embed theater in the Internet using multiple mediums in the United States, MacLaughlin’s productions live perpetually online. “It was sort of a remix-romance,” says MacLaughlin of his process for Extremely Public Displays of Privacy. The two female leads wrote and rehearsed the material by sending video footage back and forth to each other between Minneapolis and New York. Annie Enneking, who plays Fess Elliot, also used Facebook. “I made a Facebook page and uploaded daily artistic proposals the team could use or respond to,” she tells The Creators Project. “Facebook was both a medium for the creation of-and delivery system for-the character, which was an amplified version of me.” This collaboration across platforms generated a kind of “spiritual alchemy” for Enneking, whereby each act of creation conceived another part or aspect of Fess’ character.

For MacLaughlin, real space is much more intriguing than cyber space. “The digital realm has become pretty prosaic and I think all the poetry is in analogue space,” he says. “Matter is extremely mysterious.” His upcoming projects utilize the virtual realms created for New Paradise Laboratories early web performances but are reinserted into real space through a process he describes as intrusion. They are not constrained to the auditorium, stage or screen but merge with the street and the civilian, becoming part of the everyday. Similarly to Stevens’ project, Adventure 1, people are brought together to share an experience but their role manifests into something more dynamic. Rather than simply being the voyeur, audience members become performers integral in the story’s creation. The traditional boundaries between producer and consumer are broken down and something new is formed. What this new creation is exactly, is hard to tell. Is internet embedded theater a new genre or a new trend? For Stevens, there is something new that comes from technology’s pervasiveness in communications, but it’s important to remember the many different traditions and genres that feed into it. “Audiences can now be reached directly and taken anywhere,” he tells The Creators Project. “But give us another ten years and we’ll be able to say what the genres are.”

To learn more about Coney, click here. For more on New Paradise Laboratories, click here


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