June for me means a series of mini-anniversaries. First, and smallest, is the six-month anniversary of this blog. I started it in December to set down some of my thoughts on digital broadcasts and I’m happy to say that my first post on the RSC’s Richard II has just come out as a print review in the journal Shakespeare Bulletin. An interesting inversion of the traditional print model, at least in academia where we tend to hold onto our work for a long time and to make sure the ‘original’ version is in a suitably authoritative and often very expensive publication. So I’m delighted to be able to share my work freely on sites like this one and www.ReviewingShakespeare.com while also having it included in excellent journals like Bulletin, which are collected around the world by Shakespeare libraries and research centers.
More significantly in terms of birthdays, this month also marks the five-year anniversary of the National Theatre Live. It was June 25th 2009 when the NT launched its first live broadcast to cinemas with its production of Phedre starring Helen Mirren (garnering no less than a five-star review from the Guardian‘s Michael Billington). Since then the broadcast programme has included around five NT productions a year, with additional offerings from the Donmar Theatre, the Manchester International Festival, and occasionally the West End. I think it’s fair to say that NTLive has fundamentally changed the theatrical landscape, with other initiatives such as the Globe on Screen, Digital Theatre, and RSC Live further adding to what we might call this new theatre ecology. It’s interesting to note how present Shakespeare has been in all of these broadcasting programmes, and also how dominant British theatre has been across the board. So what next?
Since 2009 I think we’ve also seen a major expansion of new forms of digital performance — while broadcasting (live or otherwise) remains at present the gold standard in terms of wider audience appeal, there have been new experiments in kinds of digital theatre making that might give us some insight into where the performing arts could be headed in the years to come. In a thought-provoking blog post at the end of 2013, Rachel Coldicutt questioned the idea that arts broadcasting should even be filed in that ever-growing dossier labelled new digital culture:
It is also surprising that cinema broadcast is repeatedly referred to as “new technology” when, according to Wikipedia, the first “live television” event was in 1929 and Regent Street cinema showed its first films in 1896 … the notion that a live stream of a performance is “born digital” is sophistry; like saying Strictly Come Dancing is “born digital” because analogue television no longer exists.
Coldicutt’s analysis exposes our confusion about how we define ‘the digital’ — Is it the content? Is it the platform? Is it both? And while I think she’s right to point out the fact that live broadcasts are an old and to some extent old-fashioned way of understanding the potential of technology to transform the arts, I still think they still deserve space within the discussion since they are one of the primary ways in which many arts patrons will begin to experience digital change (and in this sense I think I would say that digital vs analogue tv, radio, satellite relay is significant, if to a large extent functionally invisible — I couldn’t listen to Radio 6 otherwise). While this might just be a change of venue rather than of show, it is a change nonetheless and one that I think may mark a wider shift in creative processes, audience relationships, and artistic forms. If we think about the digital music revolution of the late 90s and early 00s, it’s significant that most people weren’t necessarily looking for radically new forms of music, but rather new ways of accessing it (though forms have of course changed too, thank you Autotune).
But new forms are important too, and if we are discussing them then we should also mark the one-year anniversary of the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, the most ambitious digital performance of Shakespeare I’ve yet to see. The project took place over midsummer weekend in 2013, mixing together an audience-generated collage of Midsummer materials on Google+, a more formalized digital stage in which new social media content commissioned by the RSC appeared alongside selected audience contributions, a series of site-specific and time-specific live performances of the play (including the performance of acts 2-4 at the RSC from 2.30-4am, culminating in the midsummer sunrise), and finally a Sunday wedding fete along the River Avon that included family games and an open performance of act 5.
Taken as a whole (and to be fair, few audience members probably did experience this multi-day, multi-platform performance as a whole), this festive production pushed all sorts of boundaries. It invited audiences to explore the play itself through bits of live performance uploaded to YouTube (see one of my clips below), to riff on its themes of love, nature, and madness through audience sharing on Google+, and to think about the extended world of the play through new, playful content created from the point of view of Bottom’s mum or the snails, fairies, and beagles in Athens and the surrounding forests.
It was at once resolutely in-time and immersive, as anyone who went to the small 2.30am performance will tell you, while also being committed to being open and out of time through the online audience platforms that you could dip in and out of over three days. I loved its scale and vision, even if ultimately it might have been too much for one person to navigate. Most pilots start small and then scale up — if anything this project went big and future versions might want to scale down. But it did start to show us the many different possibilities for where digital performance might choose to go, a topic to which I’ll return in the next few days.