Grad Project Proposal

Posted: December 8, 2010 in Uncategorized
So this is a first draft of what I want to present.
Concise Statement of the Question

Wagner started this.

Over 120 years ago German composer Richard Wagner demanded that the theatre be darkened during his operas. Theatre was one of the earliest social networks: people came to talk, flirt, do business and perhaps, watch the performance.  When Wagner turned off the lights, his message was clear, “What I am doing is more important than what you are doing.  Listen, please.”  Fortunately for him, he was a genius; so any dissent for this choice was silenced by his magnificent music.  With a precedent  now established, theatres around the world soon followed suit, focusing audiences solely on the work on stage, and diminishing the role of the viewer.  Now a person watching a stage play was limited to only a few approved responses: laughter, applause and quiet sobbing when appropriate.  Combine that with the imaginary fourth wall and you have performers that pretend to ignore an audience, and an audience that can barely respond.

But now the 21st century is upon us, and with that the wonders of the future.  The internet, ipads, iphones, video games and social networks dominate our free time.  TV and film can now be viewed at home with the ability to stop, review or fast forward any portion of it. The audience is in full control of what, when, where and how they watch their entertainment.  They can share their feelings instantly with others without the fear of disapproval.  New media has courted this behavior and the people have responded.

But theatre has resisted this change.   Rather than embrace the future, theatre only grudgingly allows limited access to these new eyes.  Videos to promote, or twitter for impersonal news blasts have slowly made their way to the periphery of the medium, but within the hallowed halls, it is business as usual.  The spectre of Wagner himself seems to hover over the audience, asking for complicity.  Most telling is the stern admonishment at the beginning of every play that patrons need to “Turn off all cellphones and pagers.”  Theatre needs your attention, sit in the dark, silently, patiently and enjoy.

But what if instead of turning off the cell phones, we turned them on?  What if instead of running from technology, Bacchus embraced it?  Theatre had good reason to be afraid of the invention of TV and film as both mediums co-opted theatre’s message with flashier technology. But with the internet it has found something at once new and familiar: a social network.  What if the lights are at last turned back on and people are allowed to tweet, update, post or just talk about the production as it unfolds?

This graduate project will explore the idea that theatre  can and ultimately must coexist with new technology to remain relevant.  By integrating various aspects of social networks, text messaging, Internet video chat and game theory into theatre, in a non-traditional setting we can see what new technology accessorizes conventional theatre the best.

“Last decade was the decade of social, this decade will be the decade of games.”  – Seth Priebatsch, “Cheif Ninja” of the online scavenger service SCVNGR, 2010 TEDTalks conference.

The central event of this project will be one to three nights where several performance modules are presented.  Each module will explore an aspect of theatre combined with an emerging social technology.  Despite the fact that this event will have an invited audience, I will shy away from terming it a “show’, “play” or “performance”.  Rather, it is a series of experiments in the middle of a project.  Research will be conducted before and after this central occurrence, with the basic timeline below:

Start a blog online detailing the progress of this project.  Guests online to the site will be invited to comment and suggest changes.

Review present and recent shows such as Tilted Frame improv, the work of Joseph Delappe, and Improv Everywhere, among others.

Investigate various current uses of social technology.  Twitter, facebook, Four-square, Ustream, Youtube, ichat and skype.

Research game theory.

Hold one week of workshops with actors.  Between two and five actors/improvisers will be selected to participate in the workshop and perhaps the event.  This process will be online as well, with comments again encouraged.  Some of the modules workshopped may include but not be limited to:

1. The event will initially mimic an Apple product unveiling event.  A Steve Jobs-like character will address the audience and explain the evening’s events.

2. Achievement games –  Utilization of “Check-in” applications such as Four-square, GoWalla or SCVNGR to enhance the meta experience of the event.  Arriving at the location, taking pictures of certain actors, texting answers to questions will award audience members points and badges of completion.  Rewards will be given for audience members with the most points.  Additionally, the entire audience will be working toward a combined total to achieve a special ending to the evening.

3. Virtual acting: a performance with actors using masks.  The masks are actually computers or ipads with video chat enabled.  On the screens are actors from various parts of the country/world that perform a scene.  At any time, a character can change actors on their screen, but the role remains the same.

4. Subtext text theatre: A 2-5 minute scene is performed three times. After the first time, character backstory, photos and subtext is sent to the audience via text messages, altering the context of the scene.

5. Mr. Theatre: A satirical look at theatre etiquette.  In a darkened room, a lone person sits in a chair.  With a flashlight, pointed at his massive book, he/she reads the entire works of Shakespeare, line by line in a soft tone.  Whenever anyone enters, exits, talks or fidgets, Mr. Theatre shines the light on them and admonishes them for rude behavior.
Following the central event, the audience will be invited to continue to comment and evaluate the event via online forums.  Various social and game theory aspects of the project will remain in effect.

All the research will be compiled into the graduate project paper.


Given technological developments in virtual reality and communications, it is not clear what, if any, purpose will be served by live theatre in the not-too-distant future. Postmodern theory sees theatre as a quaint and marginalized activity in a wired world, and … whether live theatre even really exists anymore. Some of you may dream of seeing your name up in lights on a theatre marquee, but if you are really looking for fame and fortune shouldn’t you be studying film at least, or television arts, or computers? What is it about theatre that remains compelling for you? Is it just because it’s there?

MARK FORTIER, Theory Theatre and Introduction

While I ultimately disagree with Mark Fortier’s statement, I do believe that theatre at times runs the risk of being a collective prude.  Consider the March 10, 2010 San Antonio Coalition’s website article on theatre etiquette.  The main points, no cellphones, no noise, no fidgeting, no leaving and photography feel less like etiquette and more akin to a mandate for not having fun.   If we treat the experience of performance as a church-like experience, then we will only attract the most ardent believers.    While it is a fine line between being a prude and allowing the rude, this is a line that we must examine.  Additionally, by not acknowledging the latest technology and societal trends, we run the risk of becoming a museum of performance.

Currently, there are several performance groups that utilize various aspects of technology and social/game theory.  Tilted Frame is an improv troupe that connects two improv groups via video chat.  Improv Everywhere uses Internet forums and twitter to organize spontaneous large performances.  Microsoft’s Xbox gaming platform has several examples of employing large groups of gamers to work together to unlock new features.  Each of these groups have taken key steps that can be studied and applied to this production.

From a personal standpoint,  this project would represent a culmination of my studies at CSUN and an application of my 20 years of personal performance experience.  Over those years I have engaged in almost every form of performance, and as such, have had the opportunity to observe what has worked and what has not.  I’ve also been a avid adapter of new technology.  We live in an age where science-fiction becomes fact on an almost daily basis. I believe that there is a way to combine theatre and the brave new world we live in so that both elements can survive and grow.



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