Impossible Theatres

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.

Some questions:

    • 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 We will not publish these responses without authors’ consent.


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3 thoughts on “Impossible Theatres

  1. First, thank you all for inviting me to the gathering at the University of Greenwich. I hope that my contribution was useful, and that my voice at the table was not too strident. For me it is always important to champion the artistic idea first, and what I had to say was always an attempt to service that belief.

    That being said, I have a few things to offer after reflecting on the events of the last two days.

    First, I would like to share the overview of the Creative Campus project spearheaded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in the Unites States. I have no idea if this approach could work for any of the funding schemes available to you, but I think this document is a very useful read. Certainly many arts groups and many universities benefited from this program.

    Second, some points that seem crucial as this process continues:

    1) My number one impulse is to ensure that the central artistic topic that is being investigated is sound. From this central idea should emerge the research topics and funding structure used to support it. As someone who is thinking constantly about the impact of technology on the way in which we live, I feel I can make a strong offering about what those artistic impulses should be.

    2) As you learned from my short presentation about the ten-day Schmiede ( gathering that happens in Austria each year, I am extremely interested in non-hierarchical systems of organization. For me to be involved, I would very much want to see an attempt to diffuse the system of curators, gatekeepers, and experts that — in my humble opinion — can so often impede the natural instinct of artists to freely experiment, play and create.

    Here I am reminded of a section in the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kahneman. One experiment he did was simple: he identified 100 of the most important business “pundits” — people who regularly appeared on the TV news channels and offered their opinion as experts. He asked them all to predict which company would be the big winner in the next 12 months, and which would be the big loser.

    A year later he analyzed those predictions. They were right about 49.8% of the time. In other words, their predictions were slightly less reliable than flipping a coin.

    I would offer that the pundits of the art world — those that decide to whom the resources will go — offer us similar reliability. This power structure needs, at the very least, to be questioned and, better yet, powerfully perturbed.

    I believe that self-assembling communities of artists — communities that are in touch with their local communities — provide a powerful potential to create a larger number of compelling artworks. These groups are “self-policing” if you will; in the best of situations, these artists will respond to, reflect upon, and offer highly informed and honest critique to each other. I believe that championing artistic situations like this would be an extremely innovative and forward thinking approach. It would — most importantly of all — produce more an better work.

    The gatekeepers of the art world will not like this approach, because it divests them of power. But, given that one key feature of Internet technology provides an opportunity for de-centralized hubs of creative action, should we not be at the forefront of championing this approach?

    3) While it is certainly necessary to show that whatever project is taken on is “state of the art,” I would urge everyone to consider this from an artistic and/or societal point of view instead of a technological one. New technologies come and go. They are rarely timeless in their impact. What _is_ timeless is the human need to connect, and the manner in which we relate within our local and global community. Emerging technology impacts that greatly, and often with very negative ramifications. Thus, my observation regarding the death of empathy due to social media and online communication platforms.

    On this topic, I would suggest the following reading/viewing:

    An article called “5 Things I Learned as the Internet’s Most Hated Person” woman at the center of the “GamerGate Scandal” —

    — Monika Lewinsky’s TED talk about Internet bullying, “The Price of Shaming” —

    A cursory search of “internet” and “empathy” led to a plethora of articles. So I’m obviously not the only one thinking about this. Try this link to see some of the schlaraly papers on the topic.

    Personally, I find this topic incredibly rich and very, very timely. I would really push the group to consider this as a central research topic.


    I hope that, regardless of my personal involvement, some of the above points will prove useful, or at least, inspirational.

    Thank you again for including me.

    Mark Coniglio

  2. Can technologies be used to challenge performers and audiences rather than simply be used to produce spectacle and illusion?

    Rather than being used as a backdrop, how might technology be used to enhance live intermedial performance and improvisation? Here technology performs with or against the human, a symbiotic relationship producing a new type of cybernetic, improvised or conversational theatre.

    Jo Scott represents a practitioner in this field where using technology her work interrogates “the construction of liveness in live intermedial performance”.

    An embryonic example of how technology might be applied in intermedial theatre is the toolkit “Pop Up Play” which encourages children to creatively play using Virtual or Augmented theatre.

    How might a form of Total Theatre incorporating live improvisation and technology be realised?

    Might such a genre be informed by video gaming research?

    What HCI issues need to be addressed to enable performers to actively create and improvise with each other and technology enhanced theatre?

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