#14 - The Aura
How an essay from 1936 made me think new thoughts about Digital Theatre.
As you probably know, I’ve been thinking a lot about digital theatre this past two years. At this point there is almost nothing I do in theatre that doesn’t involve thoughts about also bringing it to audiences who aren’t present at the event in person.
There are thoughts of digital first work that is entirely concerned with digital dramaturgy and the gaze of the camera, there are thoughts of liveness and livestreaming, there is filming and asynchronous streaming and broadcast, and there is capturing work so that it can be seen and shared with those in the industry even long after the work itself has been packed away and the work isn’t performed every night.
For a long time I have been an outspoken advocate of livestreamed work because it is where I have had the most experiences that resemble theatre. The shared risk of a group of performers and creative team working in one unity of time to deliver a piece that is experienced in that same unity of time. A sense of community and togetherness fostered by those making and those watching the piece being literally together in time and space as the work of art is made, shared, digested and considered.
As such my main concerns and beliefs in the future of digital theatre are forged around ideas of liveness. It is this that literally feels directly related to theatre. Even non theatre events when they are live feel ‘theatrical’ to me whether they are things like Eurovision or Election night or watching the streaming of video games being played or authors reading from and talking about their books.
I always say that in theatre, the work is all done in advance the event itself is the end of the timeline. Live digital experiences follow this timeline.
Film is quite different; a large stretch of the work is done after the performance itself with editing, sound mixing, collating and drawing together of distinct threads and chronologies into one artefact that is unchanged by time or event.
Film is a time capsule, it is an artefact of a time created in order to be viewed in the future. Theatre at its best is something that exists in the present tense and benefits from a sense of dialogue with the present and the sense of its own event-ness.
Now I am aware that during the pandemic, there have been important conversations around access and how it is useful to create digital experiences that are viewable on demand at times that are convenient for the viewer. I think this is absolutely something that should be offered. But I’m not sure whether it should be the core or primary offer because doing only that entirely removes the remote audience from the experience of making the show. The two become entirely asynchronous.
For me, the future of digital theatre is based around two things:
1) Meaningful hybridity where an in person experience is mapped onto a remote digital experience which has been considered and planned to ensure it is beneficial to both types of audience. This is in the first instance presented live with on demand options to follow up.
2) Digital first live work which is mainly focused on a remote audience. This work interrogates digital dramaturgy, the collective experiential possibilities of the internet, the gaze of the camera and the screen as a window into the work.
These are likely to be my main focuses going forward. All of these involve doing the work in advance and on the idea of the performance being an ending of the work. Film making takes the performances as often a mid point in the making of the work and to me feels distinct.
Theatre for me has always been about community, shared moments and shared experiences. It has been about the trading of energy between a performance and the audience. It is about creating a flow between making and observing that is malleable and bidirectional.
This week I was pointed towards the work of Walter Benjamin. In his 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ He writes that:
‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.'
He referrers this unique cultural context and its presence in time and space as a work’s ‘Aura’
This explains why a photograph of a sunset is never the same as watching a sunset in person. Because it lacks the aura of that experience. I have found myself discussing regularly what is lost when work is digitised and I think this essay from 1936 has given me the most awareness of exactly how to describe the change that occurs when we mechanically reproduce art.
Technology and mechanical reproduction has to be aware that it often obscures the aura of a piece of art and distances us as viewers from it in time and space.
But for me, live digital theatre and hybridised theatre maintains a lot more of the experiential aura of a piece of theatre than filming it does. I know this probably feels subjective but there is something tangible about knowing that I am experiencing theatre as it is being made. There is something moving about knowing that in the same way that theatre is based around one continuous sharing of narrative and logistic chronology that digital theatre can also offer that too.
In addition it can offer live chat, live discourse, live feedback, and can draw together people across boundaries that have divided us more than ever these past few years.
I will always admit that the aura of theatre is important. I am grateful to have found a language that allows me to describe the artistic heart of a piece. The quality of a piece and to be able to constructively discuss how digitising it will affect and change that aura. But I think it is wrong to assume that all digital theatre fully erases the aura of the original work in exactly the same way. It is a continuum.
I am optimistic of a way of using technology to share theatre that gives as much as it takes from the aura of the work and I think that is what we should be trying to do.
Many things have been elevated and given a greater sense of width and reach because of the internet and because of technology. Sports, video games, puzzles, discourse, debate, literature, visual art. All of them have benefitted from the technology of the internet. But all of them have changed as their intrinsic auras meld with the technology.
I am willing to admit that technology and mechanical reproduction does change the aura of a piece of art. But it doesn’t necessarily destroy it. It is capable of transmuting it, refashioning it, recontextualising it.
If you come to digital theatre with the presumption that it can only destroy the Aura of theatre and thus everything you love about it, then I would wonder if perhaps you might benefit from a less rigid opinion and that we can all work on a framework that provides more of a sliding scale and more of a continuum to discuss the possible pros and cons.
There’s no doubt that digital theatre offers a lot of benefits, so maybe let’s stop bemoaning its drawbacks.
Along with Christian Czornyj I now run a creative technology company called Theatrical Solutions that works on a lot of projects interested in creating innovative digital integration and hybrid experiences. You can find us at theatrical.solutions
I recently wrote a book about musical theatre called Breaking Into Song. It is 200 pages of manifestos, theories and hopes for musical theatre and is written to get anyone and everyone thinking about musical theatre in a new way no matter their preconceptions.
Lyn Gardner called it 'A passionate and cogently argued call to arms and a very enjoyable read.' and Alan Cumming said ‘This book is a fascinating cri de coeur and made me question everything I think about musicals.'
If you fancy picking up a copy then the best place to do so is from my amazing Publisher Salamander Street.
Thank you for reading
If you have thoughts on what I wrote this week then please do use the below button to comment.
If you enjoy COUNTERPOINT then please do share or subscribe below
Thanks so much for reading and I will see you next Thursday.