The technology changing theatre
From video projection and live camerawork to binaural microphones and computer-generated music, critic Matt Trueman examines the technologies transforming theatre – and meets the people behind them
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed & edited by Richard Topping. Credits: 'The Encounter' footage by Stuart Armitt and Mauro Silva for Edinburgh International Festival
MATT TRUEMAN: New technologies are changing theatre, expanding traditional ideas of what a play can be and do. At the National Theatre in London, the musical wonder.land re-imagines Lewis Carroll's classic tale for the internet age. Striking digital projections suggest the blurring of real and online identities.
The company 1927 uses animation to create unique theatrical worlds and to challenge the conventions of live performance. 1927's production of The Magic Flute is currently playing in five cities worldwide. Used badly, such technologies can be pointless, confused, or, worse still, distracting.
To work, the technology itself has to enrich the story being told on stage. One piece of theatre that couldn't exist without cutting-edge technology is The Encounter, a thrilling one-man show by Simon McBurney, artistic director of Complicite Theatre. He's performing it here at the Barbican Centre in London.
- And if I were to breathe in your ear, your brain would tell you that I was really breathing in your ear.
MATT TRUEMAN: The audience wear headphones. And McBurney uses a binaural microphone, which records and transmits sound separately into each ear, to tell the story of a real-life journey into the depths of the Amazon rain forest. There's no set, but the sound world he creates envelops and transports the audience.
I think it's a once-in-a-decade show and one that has plenty to say about the way we use technology in our everyday lives. Over the past decade, the director Katie Mitchell and video designer Leo Warner have pioneered a form of theatre they call "live cinema." It's a technique they first used on a stage adaptation of Virginia Wolfe's experimental novel The Waves at the National Theatre in 2006.
Their ninth live cinema show, The Forbidden Zone, comes to the Barbican in May. But what exactly is live cinema?
- Are you all right, ma'am?
LEO WARNER: The most obvious thing that is different about it from what you might call traditional theatre is the use of a lot of live camera work. Offset against that is a projection surface, normally something which is similar proportions and similar resemblance to a cinema screen. That material is then graded and output by projector to the cinema screen in pretty much as close to real time as you can get. And what we're presenting to the audience is, on the one hand, a sort of fragmentary making of process which runs simultaneously with a completely linearised cinematic quality projected output.
The Forbidden Zone tells the story, if you like, of the genesis of biological warfare. Well, it actually happens over several periods of time and tells of the effect of that invention on multiple generations of the same family. The ability to make an audience believe that you have actors on a train delivering a scene gives a kind of new level of suspension of disbelief, or maybe a slightly different type of suspension of disbelief than you would get if you simply staged it as a cinematic exercise, i.e. without the live element. And there's something about the incredibly low-fi ways of, for example, convincing an audience that you're on a moving train, that you have to do if you're not, which kind of demands a certain amount of intellectual theatrical rigour.
I don't think people go to see these shows particularly for the technology anymore. I think there may have been a point 10, 15 years ago when the use of new technology in the theatre was a reason for seeing in itself. I kind of feel like everyone's seen that now. And what we need to do is deliver really great art. The imperative is narrative and emotion. So long as everything is in service of that, then you're on the right path.
The nature of the medium is one which sort of heightens the sense of process and begs questions about linearity and fragmentation of experience, while actually delivering an extremely linearised and unfragmented final output. So we're kind of offering two things to people. And to an extent, they can edit their own experience between those two and choose the extent to which they want their experience to be mediated by us and by the cameras and by the editing, or experience something which is very, I suppose, chaotic, which, in a way, I think is much more about how we experience everyday life.
MATT TRUEMAN: Both The Encounter and The Forbidden Zone opening show the technologies with which they weave their magic, inviting us, the audience, to consider the processes involved in the performance. But the role of technology isn't always so obvious. Beyond the Fence is a new musical that's just opened here at the Arts Theatre. It looks like an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser.
But in actual fact, it's the world's first-ever computer-generated musical. Both the music and the plot has been devised by a computer programme rather than by humans. And the whole process has been documented by Sky Arts for a new series called Computer Says Show.
CAT GALE: The project behind Beyond the Fence started probably about a year ago. And it began as a discussion just about creativity and whether it might be possible to automate it. We knew that we were interested in musicals as an art form to look at. They're notoriously hard to do well or succeed in. And also, they have lots of different elements.
We worked with a team from Cambridge University who are specialists in machine learning and statistics. So they wanted to do a kind of analysis of all of the musicals that have gone before that have been more or less successful to try and work out what might be predictive of success. And that kind of analysis and that process helped us create a set of guidelines for what the new show should be, so everything from the gender of the lead to what the ending should be like, whether someone should die, the overall structure of the show, where the peaks of love and tension would need to be.
We then worked with another team from Goldsmiths University who are interested in generating ideas, developing computer systems for ideation. And they generated a whole load of premises. And then our humans in the mix, Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor, had to then choose one of those premises.
With the music, I think, considering how it's been generated, so based on a kind of machine listening and then generating model, it's not the ideal way to get a computer to compose music. And the first time Ben and Nathan heard it I think they had this kind of combination of surprise and excitement that there was something there but, simultaneously, a fair dose of terror at the fact that the music and the way that it's generated is relatively formless, and it comes in enormous quantities. They just played through every lead sheet until a melody or a chord sequence or an ostinato just popped out to them, and that would go on the yes pile.
It'll be interesting to see how people react to the experience of it, and whether they can, in a way, put the experiment, the strange origins of this show, to one side and just enjoy it as a piece. And then maybe they want to talk about the story, or maybe they want to talk about artificial intelligence and all of those sorts of things afterwards. Most people, when they set out to create something, to create a new work of art, they do it because they're investing something of themselves in the process. So I don't think that the desire for humans to do that is going to go away any time soon.
What I do think is that as these systems become more sophisticated, whether it's generating music or lyrics or story, what will happen is that they will become more available as tools for people to interact with as part of their own creative process. People will then be able to, I guess, go beyond themselves.
MATT TRUEMAN: What's interesting is that all these pieces are using technology in a really human way. So Beyond the Fence, the computer becomes a kind of compositional aide. And Simon McBurney's using his headphones more as a communication tool than anything else. Katie Mitchell, she's using the camera to get us up close and personal with the story she's telling, because ultimately there's nothing intrinsically interesting about technology in and of itself. Instead, when it comes to art, it's what we do with it that counts.