The Impossible Theatres project intends to gather together a range of opinions on how best to contextualize, theorize and ultimately construct contemporary performance spaces. Below is an opening statement intended to initiate this process and we invite you to respond to it. Responses can be in the form of an open forum for comments, and a private channel for longer and more considered responses. The intention is to collate responses and to invite respondents to a working group meeting to be held at the University of Greenwich on 5th and 6th June. Out of this meeting it is intended to put together a network of participants with a view to applying for external funding to take the project to the next phase. It is also intended to publish a selection of the responses in an edited volume.
We look forward to hearing from you…
The digitally inflected environment that we currently inhabit, with its endless potential for generating new experiences of space and time, raises serious questions and challenges in relation to the contemporary place of theatre, and about theatre’s existence as a place in the digital age. Does the ubiquity of digital communication networks and the growth in site-specific performance mean that permanent theatre spaces are becoming obsolescent, museums for an archaic form of spectacle? Or is the intense immediacy generated in the derealized space of the black box more relevant than ever? With this letter we aim to open a dialogue with theatre and performance practitioners and theorists, as well as those working with new media technologies, in order to imagine the form(s) that the theatre of the future might take. We invite people to share these imaginings with the aim of building creative networks in order to bring some of these future theatres into realization.
Our inquiry stems from the observation that, in spite of frequent creative uses of new media technologies made by many theatre and performance practitioners, the architecture of theatre buildings has remained largely unchanged for centuries. As such, it is timely to ask what limitations this architecture places on performance-makers, and how the space might be redesigned to open up new possibilities for digital theatre, dance and music, as well as interactive or participatory performance and installation works. This discussion aims both to develop ideas for new kinds of spaces that artists, performers and audiences would want to use, and also to conceive of new modes of audience engagement in and through these architecturally and technologically reconfigured spaces.
The need we are identifying in the contemporary context is not new. There is a long history of desires to utilise existing technologies and develop new ones within the performing arts. The idea of creating an entirely different performance space, a new kind of theatre building that could answer this need has a history, too. It is, however, a history of imagined, visionary, yet never-materialised architectural projects. These include: Giulio Camillo’s “Theatre of Memory”; Frederick Kiesler’s “Endless Theatre”; Bauhaus pioneer Walter Gropius’ “Synthetic Total Theatre”; and Josef Svoboda’s “Multimedia Theatre”; to name just a few. Many of these planned projects later proved influential in both theatre architecture, and performing practice and aesthetics—Gropius’s plans for his Synthetic Total Theatre, for example, were hugely influential among the theatre architects in the 1970s. However, whatever influence they had on their relative “theatres of the future”, we can speculate that if they had materialised in their original context they would have answered contemporary artists’ needs, whilst also encouraging further experimentation and invention. And so our incitement to imagine the new theatrical possibilities that are opened-up by contemporary technology is coupled with the aim of forging connections with architects and technology developers so that the visions for a new performance spaces that we generate are not consigned to the history of “impossible theatres”.
The emergence of technologically mediated performance practices and new forms of audience raise fundamental questions about what we understand theatre to be. The definition of “theatre” includes not only a structure for performances or dramatic literature—the word has also been used to denote a place of enactment of significant events, ranging from the sphere of public life to a zone of military operation. This suggests that there is a confusion contained within the concept of theatre, between the spectacle, understood in representational terms, and the enactment of “real” life. And when we consider how the Platonic critique of theatre sought to condemn simulation—by means of its own dramatization of Socrates’ dialogues—it would seem that this confusion has been contained within theatre’s philosophical concept from its inception. The emergent forms of mediation that are being incorporated into contemporary performance practices bring this problematic to the surface as they facilitate new forms of engagement that have the potential to complicate the active/passive dichotomy staged in Plato’s cave.
Furthermore, although the etymology of “theatre” implies a privileging of the visual sense, emerging technologies might allow us to call into question in new ways the ocularcentrism of theatrical discourse, and conceive of novel forms of integration between the visual, the sonic, the haptic and the aromatic etc.
If our visions of future theatres are to move beyond a simple fetishization of technology to constitute genuine artistic progress, they must be grounded in sound critical thinking about theatre. For this reason we welcome the input of theorists of theatre and performance, as well as practitioners, into the discussion. Our ultimate aim is use the responses to form a working group that will prepare and submit a significant funding bid to support a proposed European Electronic Theatre Network (EETN). It is also intended to gather together selected responses for publication as an edited volume.
- How have developments in digital technology impacted upon performance space? How might emergent technologies influence the future design of performance spaces?
- Who should be involved in any design process? What interdisciplinary connections will our future theatres generate?
- How far can a performance be telematically mediated and still be “theatre”? Do new hybrid performance practices alter the ontology of theatre?
- To what extent does the history of theatre allow us to negotiate digital performance practices? What critical paradigms beyond performance theory can help us to theorize the contemporary scene?
- Can our future theatre designs act as models for conceptualizing the multiple and discontinuous spatialities and temporalities of the digital environment?
- How does the multi-layered spatiality of the digital stage affect our understanding of presence?
- What forms of subjectivity are required or produced in the digital theatre environment? Do future theatres have a role in constituting new communities in our highly mediated world?
Responses to these questions, and any other thoughts and ideas can be added to a public discussion using the form below.
Any enquiries regarding the working group for the research network, and longer responses to be considered for inclusion in the edited volume can be emailed to Impossibletheatres@gre.ac.uk. We will not publish these responses without authors’ consent.