Category Archives: readings

Martin Barker and ‘the remarkable rise of livecasting’

The summer reading continues on, and next on the list is Martin Barker’s Live to Your Local Cinema: The Remarkable Rise of Livecasting (Palgrave Pivot, 2013). This is the first – and as far as I know still the only – book-length work on the growing phenomenon of live theatre broadcasting, and although it is a short one it still manages to cover considerable ground in its 93 pages. Barker is a media studies specialist, with particular expertise in the study of film audiences, and one of the biggest contributions of his book makes is to orient the many questions surrounding theatre broadcasting towards those audiences and their experiences in the cinema. He does so through the collection and analysis of nearly 650 audience questionnaires, completed by attendees at theatre broadcasts at the Picturehouse cinema chain in 2009. In the process he also surveys some of the most relevant research on liveness and mediation in the performing arts, and he raises a series of pertinent (though as yet unanswered) questions about where theatre broadcasting is headed and what this might mean for audience experience.

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For a reader like myself, one of the most interesting things about Barker’s perspective is its orientation towards film rather than theatre studies. Much of the conversation I’ve been a part of so far focuses almost entirely on how live broadcasting is changing theatre and theatre-going, but Barker’s work shows us how it is significantly affecting cinema culture as well. His first chapter offers a brief history of the rise of digital cinema in the early 2000s and then ‘alternative content’ – aka ‘event cinema’ – shortly thereafter, leading to assertions by the end of the decade that ‘Cinema is fast becoming a multi-arts venue’ (8). In Chapter 2 he continues with a look at the emerging aesthetics of theatre and opera broadcasting, one genre in the growing range of event cinema offerings, and he illustrates, with a faint whiff of disappointment, how approaches to filming and editing tend to be ‘cautious’ (21) and geared towards showing cinema audiences that ‘we are watching a stage’ (16). Although what he calls ‘cinematic flourishes’ or ‘bravura moments’ do appear in most broadcasts, they are used sparingly to punctuate what is on the whole a ‘transparent, unobtrusive, and invisible’ style (15-17). For me, some of Barker’s observations came as a useful surprise; I typically find myself longing for the (very) wide-shot and getting frustrated with what I consider constraining close ups, while he notes that the very idea of ‘close ups’ in theatre broadcasting should remain in quote marks since such shots ‘will almost always include torso and arms. Extreme close-ups are unknown here’ (18). Not all close ups are made equally, I’ve learned.

How close is close?

From Chapter 3 onwards Barker gets down to the nitty gritty of analysing audience data and thinking through which aspects of live broadcasts cinema audiences respond to most strongly. While some work has already been done on the demographics and perceptions of broadcast audiences, most notably by NESTA, Barker rightly points out that such research has been more focused on the economic viability of live broadcasting and has tended to overlook the question of audience ‘experiences per se’ (25). Barker’s own research attempts to remedy this lack: after attending briefly to demographics (above all, theatre broadcast audiences tend to be older than typical cinema audiences, he tells us), he goes on to consider what he calls ‘audience pleasures and meanings’, namely ‘the value of localness’ and the ‘powerful sense of participating in the occasion’ (30-2). This emphasis on locality, eventness, and immediacy prompts him to survey, in Chapter 4, the ways in which academics from theatre, television, music, film, comedy, and sports studies conceive of liveness  and live experience (to put it briefly: as with the close up, we are not united). While pretty much everyone puts a premium on ‘simultaneity’ (aside from music studies, to a certain extent), Barker suggests that the value of other factors such as ‘bodily co-presence’, ‘experienced risk’, ‘immediacy/spectatorial control’, and ‘sense of place’ vary across the disciplines. His quick summary doesn’t always convince or satisfy me (I don’t agree, for instance, that ‘a sense of place and locality … is largely ignored in theatre thinking’) (57-8), but still the survey is very helpful in challenging readers to look at these thorny issues across different artistic and entertainment forms, rather than always sticking to home territory. And his concluding remarks about what he calls ‘virtual performance studies’, i.e. varieties of digital art and performance, really struck me as important. Here he identifies how ‘liveness’ functions ‘not [as] a descriptive or normative concept, but [as] a tool and a goal. Its question appears to be not whether liveness is present, but how can we make people feel that it is?’ (58).

Such a proposition – that liveness may in fact be as much a kind of feeling as a particular geographical or temporal relationship – took me back to Philip Auslander’s categories of ‘liveness’ in his landmark book, and my own musings whether or not the power of liveness is down to its ability to make us feel ‘a-live’, and vividly part of something. One very effective way of doing this is through temporal and/or geographical co-presence with the event itself, but can the feeling be just as strong through temporal and/or geographical co-presence with other things, namely an audience or community? In his discussion of TV studies, Barker suggests that liveness can be created (or, more cynically, constructed) through the insertion of human reaction into editing sequences (47). Similarly, in his discussion of music studies, he notes how ‘The thing that makes the difference’ is ‘a sense of occasion, of audience collectivity, of ritual’ (53), and in comedy studies how ‘“liveness” can be as much about belonging to a locality and community as about physical presence per se’ (55). His final discussion of sports studies goes furthest of all; reflecting on the common practice of gathering in pubs to watch televised broadcasts of games, Barker observes how audiences may ‘generate a cultural context which they can then own and treat as “live”’ (57). Liveness, in this way, becomes much more about engagement, eventness, and feeling: ‘being there’ might be one powerful way of producing such experience, but what Barker’s survey begins to suggest is that there is more than one ‘there’.

Being there.

Chapter 5 continues in this vein, exploring how cinema audiences at theatre broadcasts characterize liveness themselves, and the conclusion is largely the same: ‘audiences communally produce new ways of “doing liveness”’ (71). Different kinds of audience members might want different things (Barker divides his respondents into what he calls ‘immersives’ and ‘experts’ (67)), but he suggests that for everyone part of the value and enjoyment of the broadcasts is the opportunity to celebrate not only the art on display but also the audience experiencing it together. They are ‘living’ such experiences, he suggests, and he further posits that ‘Thinking about the liveness of such events in this way would entail a wholesale re-theorisation of what we mean and intend by the concept’ (72).

Ultimately, that re-theorisation is not part of the scope of Barker’s study, which he characterizes at the outset as ‘a “come-on” to other researchers’ in the field rather than an exhaustive and definitive response (viii). In his final chapter he outlines a series of possible questions that those researchers might take up, but his invitation always remains an open and exploratory one. In this spirited and lively book he casts his net wide and brings together initial data, possibilities, and questions that should interest anyone working in this field, be they cultural theorists, sociologists, geographers, media specialists, or indeed performance scholars. As this review and response no doubt shows, for me his most exciting points are about the experiential and affective dimensions of liveness. But for others – who knows?

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Shakespeare and the live broadcast – part 1

At long last, the monograph is finally done, the edited collections are out, the marking is completed, the exam boards are past, the summer is here, and digital Shakespeare returns! (For me, at least) It’s been a long, good, but hard year, with almost all of my research time focused on finishing up work on Shakespeare and the cultural history of the emotions. Here is a link to The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, which came out at the start of the month and is one of the fruits of this labor.

But now that this work has moved out of my inbox and into the publishers’, I find myself thinking about Shakespeare and digital performance once again, and more specifically of Shakespeare and the livecast. Perhaps this is because of the Live Theatre Broadcast Symposium that will be taking place at the University of York tomorrow, and that will feature plenaries from Illuminations’ John Wyver, Pilot Theatre’s Marcus Romer, the ROH’s Ross MacGibbon, plus talks from many other amazing scholars. I’m very sad to be missing it (I said summer was here, but I’m back up on Birmingham campus tomorrow for one final round of administrative meetings and boards), but I’m excited that the organizers are planning to live-stream this conference on live-streaming, which is both very generous and pleasingly fitting of course! Here’s hoping that the campus wi-fi holds up as I attempt to tune in throughout the day.

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In the meantime I’ve been getting back to thinking about live relays myself, and also doing more research into what has been published already. In many ways this is a very young field, with much of the writing on it taking the form of newspaper journalism, blogs (like this one), Twitter exchanges, and short-ish special features (see in particular the great series of live broadcast reviews in one of last year’s Shakespeare Bulletin issues). But in other ways this is an area with considerable history, as both Phillip Auslander’s and John Wyver’s work on the early history of television has shown. And publications have been coming out in the last year that focus specifically on the phenomenon that is live broadcasting from the theatre (be in the NT, the RSC, the Met) and to the cinema.

One of the first ones that I decided to look at was a special issue of the journal Adaptation focused on the way live broadcasting is reshaping performance and audience experience. It emerged out of a conference last year at De Montfort called From Theatre to Screen–And Back Again, and the special issue features articles from a wide range of scholars interested in the two-way traffic between the stage and the screen. The opening three papers by John Wyver, Bernadette Cochrane and Frances Bonner, and Janice Wardle focus specifically on live broadcasts, which are variously referred to as ‘doubled adaptations’, ‘live relays’, ‘outside broadcasts’, ‘event cinema’, and, within the cinema industry at least, ‘alternative content’. Like any academic discipline worth its salt, terminology proves an issue, and a vexed one at that, and while each set of authors ultimately settles on a different term, one factor linking all three is the sense that live broadcasts and recordings (my preferred terms) are always ‘new texts’.

After an introduction from Elinor Parsons, one of the conference organizers, Wyver opens the special issue with a critical survey of the history of broadcasting Shakespeare live to screen in Britain, first to television and eventually to cinema. He makes some important and very useful points about the relations between what he calls ‘theatrical’, ‘televisual’, and ‘cinematic’ modes, and then considers how each have been employed in the history of Shakespearean broadcast filming. We must resist the inclination to see such broadcasting as a transparent process, he argues, emphasizing that a broadcast’s ‘image sequences, which are considered and scripted and rehearsed responses to a host of factors’, do not just ‘appear on screen courtesy of some kind of outside broadcast fairy’. He also observes how those who have attended to this process gravitate at times towards a ‘discourse … centred on loss’ (of liveness, of co-presence, of reciprocal experience). Turning to the great André Bazin, he suggests that we need to come up with new ways to conceptualize the creative work that these ‘doubled adaptations’ do, with one possiblity being a greater consideration of the way space (theatre space, TV/film space) works across stage and screen. ‘Critical discussion of live cinema, much like the form itself, is just at the start of a journey’, he writes, and he invites others to join him in thinking critically about this ‘popular and powerful theatre form for the future’.

The next two articles in the issue take up Wyver’s call, each offering a reflective analysis of productions included withing the Met, NT, RSC, and ROH live-broadcasting programmes. Cochrane and Bonner begin with a critique of ‘the rhetoric of minimal difference’ that they think ‘persists’ in discussions of live broadcasts, emphasizing the distinctiveness of these new forms and particular kinds of audience experience they facilitate. They are at times very sceptical of the marketing and discussion surrounding the transmissions, suggesting that ‘the cachet attached to the idea of liveness is a major exploitable commodity on sale’ within these broadcasts, and they also query the extent to which the audience members’ ‘rights of reception’ — that is, the right to look where they please — are being denied. Very interestingly, they suggest that in live broadcasts ‘we are being told a story’, whereas in the live, co-present theatre we are ‘watching an enactment’. The implication seems to be that theatrical enactment is something that emerges, even gives birth to itself, in real-time — or at least that it seems to do so. I’m not sure that I agree with this distinction, but I definitely find it very interesting and suggestive; my own comments elsewhere about camera shots that contain and even predict the movements of the actor have something in common with these sentiments, I think, even if my broader take on the work and experience of live broadcasts differs somewhat from Cochrane and Bonner’s.

Wardle’s article follows, and offers a complementary if slightly different take. Like Wyver, she emphasizes ‘the role of place’ in what she chooses to call ‘outside broadcasts’, and her discussion focuses on the way place is experienced and ‘performed’ both by the production broadcast and the receiving audience. In her consideration of ‘theatre’s rootedness in time and place’, she cites Mark Thornton Burnett’s assertion that theatre’s temporal and spatial rootedness positions it in contrast to the priorities and demands of globalization, which ‘den[y …] time, space and place’. Such an argument touches on Peggy Phelan’s view that theatre cannot be reproduced for mass circulation — a point that live broadcasts either overturn or reiterate, depending on what you make of them. If they are indeed ‘different texts’ entirely, then perhaps Phelan’s argument about the essential ephemerality and ‘unmarked’ nature of theatre stands. But if they are seen as on a continuum with live, co-present theatre, then perhaps we see a different model taking shape. Though this is not Wardle’s focus, it’s one that emerged for me as a reader as I engaged with her sensitive and observant analysis of filming sequences in the NT Live’s 2014 King Lear and the RSC Live’s 2013 Richard II (both of which I had the opportunity to see on stage as well as screen, and both of which were also directed for screen by Robin Lough). Here Wardle maps the creation of stage space by the sequencing of shots chosen for these broadcasts, which range from dramatic placing shots to frequent mid-shots to occasional reaction shots. She also notes how the RSC broadcast incorporated ‘views and sounds of the audience in the theatre’ with considerable success, a move that she suggests ‘strengthened the cinema audience’s conviction that the event was a shared, live event’.

I’m inclined to agree. In my own experience, incorporating the audience, whether visually or aurally, helps orient the experience in the theatrical, even when I’m seated in the cinema, or indeed at home alone on my couch. While some might find the appeal to the theatrical, or to the live, rather disengenuous or even ‘exploitable’, I find it helpfully orienting and even absorbing. Maybe this is because I do go to the physical theatre quite a bit, and I’m projecting that experience onto the screen. But I also remember very distinctly my first world-altering, thoroughly magical ‘theatre’ experience, and it happened courtesy of my best friend’s television screen in Cary, North Carolina when I was about nine. Before me was a live recording of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, performed by its original Broadway cast, and I was hooked. I knew I wasn’t in New York, but I didn’t care — I was there, and it was here.

If that all sounds a bit sentimental, well, I suppose it is. Theatre, and all art really, is I think a matter of feeling (among other things). And I suppose what interests me most of all is how skillful live broadcasting guides and creates feeling for its audiences. All this needs more working through, of course, and I’m hoping that some of the talks at tomorrow’s conference, and some of the readings that are next up on my desk, will help me keep moving towards a language and an approach that breaks these experiences down into some kind of model of spectatorship. Part 2 of this post should appear within the week, complete with thoughts from the bits of the conference I am able to ‘attend’ arround my meetings, and also reflections on another recent and important publication on live broadcast’s — Martin Barker’s Live to Your Local Cinema: The Remarkable Rise of Livecasting (Palgrave Pivot, 2013). Stay tuned!

Shakespeare Pedagogy in the Digital Age

A question I was left pondering after part 1 of Shakespeare in the Digital World was whether or not digital research was inherently more or less social than its non-digital counterpart. Bruce Smith argued strongly that it was less social, less experiential, less time-bound–in a word, less human. But David McInnis also showed how fundamentally collaborative some digital projects are, and how this enables a form of international social and professional exchange that simply wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago.

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I bring up the social here because in part 2 of this book, which focuses on TEACHING, similar questions relating to digital interaction, sharing, and sociability make up a central theme. In his introduction to the section, Peter Kirwan points out how active, up on your feet, interactive approaches to Shakespeare have dominated many pedagogical discussions in recent years. ‘The focus on physical bodies, proximity and movement tends to gloss over the integration of new technologies’, he writes, ‘except when that technology reinforces the live classroom’ (p. 59). This recent emphasis in Shakespeare studies on pedagogy as a kind of theatre is interesting and provocative in and of itself (is your classroom ensemble-led, or more the director’s theatre variety?), but in this post I will restrict myself to saying a few words on these issues specifically in terms of the digital. I will keep it to a few words though, since one of the essays in the section is in fact by me and so to a large extent I’ve already said my piece on the subject, both in the essay itself and in a previous blog post here.

Sarah Grandage and Julie Sanders, Sheila Cavanagh and Kevin Quarmby, and Peter Kirwan himself have written the other essays in the section, and together we cover experiences relating to distance learning, blended classrooms, joint teaching via video conferencing, collaborative class wikis and Twitter hashtags, and new resources for teaching performance online. As I read the essays together I found myself underlining phrases like ‘experiential creativity’, ‘digital connectors’, ‘socializing practices’, and jotting down notes such as ‘social facilitation’, ‘experience, experiment’, ‘interactivity, engagement’. I suppose this emphasis on digital pedagogy as collaborative and social shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given the fact that the Web 2.0 tools so frequently discussed in this section are essentially what we know as social media. But it is interesting, I think, to see how all of us have emphasized social liveness and communal exchange in our reflection, with the assertion very often being that not only can digital teaching be as social as its non-digital counterpart, it can sometimes be more so.

I think that’s right, but it’s an idea that is worth further consideration. In their discussion of joint teaching via Skype, Cavanagh and Quarmby explain how students recognized the authority and presence of the Skyped-in instructor as fully as they did the co-instructor that they knew in the flesh. ‘The virtual presence was, albeit unconsciously, fully integrated into the class psyche’ (p. 93). All of the essays, in one way or another, talk about habituation to the digital. That is–once we get used to using it and seeing it, it no longer becomes something that is different, or worryingly non-human. It is simply part of normal life. I am reminded, though, of Bruce Smith’s comment in part 1: ‘If I have learned anything since I started teaching in 1972, it is to distrust binaries … What is needed in every case is a third thing, a tertium quid, a synthesis that reconciles thesis and antithesis’ (p. 28). Leaving aside the question/joke of what Smith makes of binary code, I am left wondering what the third thing might be for digital sociability. It is certainly not inhuman or beyond the human–we are, after all, the agents (or subjects?) driving and making it–but neither is it a part of human experience and exchange as we’ve previously known it. What is the synthesis then that lies, unconsciously, in between?

Alongside the discussion of big questions like this one, the section offers a helpful range of practical ideas and tips that I’m sure I’ll be making use of in my own teaching. From performance resources available online, to how to create a sense of presence through the Skyped screen, to how to use a student-led wiki to fuel research, there’s lots to think about and work with here.

‘Digital Humanism’ by Oskari Niitamo

 

Shakespeare Research in the Digital Age

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In my last post I spent some time reflecting on the introduction to Shakespeare and the Digital World by way of the Year of Shakespeare project; in this post I want to dive right into part one of Carson and Kirwan’s edited collection, which focuses on RESEARCH.

Each section in the book is fronted by a short introduction by one of the editors, and here Carson begins with a quotation from Katherine Rowe: ‘Older forms and values provide a vital intellectual framework for the way we use newer media, shaping the needs we bring to the new tools and the opportunities we find in them’ (qtd p. 10). It’s an apt start to a section that often focuses on the experience of the researcher, and especially on the experience of researchers for whom the world hasn’t always been digital. Essays from John Lavagnino, Bruce Smith, Farah Karim-Cooper, and David McInnis make up this thought-provoking opening section, and below are four big ideas I am left with after reading it.

(1) Digital research is more than what we think it is.

John Lavagnino starts us off with a snapshot of the long history of digital, electronic, and computer-assisted humanities research. Digital humanities may have come on the scene in or around 2008/9, he reminds us, but ‘”applied computing in the humanities” has been visible since the 1940s’ (p. 14). In addition to looking back, Lavagnino’s chapter also looks around and forward at digital research now, in particular its use of tools and resources created by industry rather than the academy (Google Books, YouTube, etc.), and the fact that even people who wouldn’t consider themselves digital humanities scholars are doing ‘invisibly digital research’ through their use of EEBO, Literature Online, and the like (p. 22). Bruce Smith’s subsequent chapter discusses what it feels like when that naturalized kind of digital research is made visible, primarily through its disruption. Here he reflects on the experience of locating a book in the library that eludes him online, which prompts him to consider how much and how quickly we have come to take for granted widespread access to research materials that were previously the focus of more limited, time-bound, and difficult scholarly pilgrimages.

(2) Digital research is more mediated than non-digital research– or is it?

Karim-Cooper’s chapter on iPad technology continues with a meditation on the experience of the researcher today, one who is ‘no longer able to sit for hours researching and writing in university libraries, but … [is] instead encouraged to run multiple projects simultaneously, create new partnerships and travel around speaking to the public, all while maintaining an impressive publishing profile’ (p. 37). Tools like the iPad help facilitate research in unlikely but necessary places — namely, on trains — but for Karim-Cooper they ultimately remain just that: tools. While research into haptic technologies is working on putting the sensation of touch back into the touchpad, Karim-Cooper observes how researchers ‘of the screen’ miss out on the full sensory experience of handling, and thus learning from, material books. Does this mediation of physical feeling, she wonders, also entail a parallel mediation of emotional and cognitive affect? When we use an iPad or any other screened device to read literature, ‘Will we be able to feel the effects of poetry in the same way?’ (p. 38). Smith likewise considers the embodied experience of the researcher, and the way in which digital research methods are reshaping what he calls ‘the phenomenology of knowledge’ (p. 29). For him, though, digital research is radically unmediated, in that pages from digital facsimiles appear to us online without context, without ‘sedimentation’, without history. They are simply there, and their dissociation from anything else leads Smith to suggest that digital research is a supremely ‘presentist’ way of working. What you see is what you get, but perhaps not much more.

(3) Digital research has often been about tools and resources, but maybe it needs to start being more about research questions.

Lavagnino’s opening essay suggests that the most influential digital scholarship has taken the shape of scholarly resources rather that critical or analytical innovations, and Smith and Karim-Cooper’s interest in the digital primarily as tool or approach adds to this line of thought. But David McInnis’s final chapter presents an example of how digital ways of working may also allow us to change the fundamental research questions we can ask. Although he explains that he and his colleagues did not initially think of the Lost Plays Database as an online project, they eventually realized they needed to go digital in order to allow for the international scholarly collaboration that was needed to meet the aims of their project: ‘Creating a record of this disparate and obscure information [i.e. that involved in tracing lost plays] relies on collective knowledge and the assemblage of information which has little significance on its own … encouraging new and easy ways of interacting with other scholars is essential if the sum is to be greater than its parts’ (pp. 45, 52). While we might often think of digital work as isolating, distancing, or even antisocial, McInnis shows that this certainly need not be the case. What’s more, his bibliography of the collaborative print publications that have emerged from the LPD project likewise illustrates that the divide between ‘traditional’ and digital ways of working may not always be as stark as we first think.

(4) Digital research is not necessarily easier, cheaper, more democratic, more manageable, more innovative, or faster than non-digital research.

Lavagnino starts the section with the warning that ‘a common problem has been unrealistic ambition or overestimation of what can be done in a purely computational way’ (p. 17), and McInnis finishes it with the observation that ‘the transition from print to web is often made with little planning or critical reflection’ (p. 43). That has certainly been my own experience in terms of digital projects. What’s the point of doing things digitally, if you don’t have a strong sense of how or why you’re doing them in the first place? Which is something I’ll no doubt come back to in my post on part 2 ofShakespeare and the Digital World, which focuses on teaching and pedagogy in the digital age.

Technology and the Book

In my last post I mentioned the fact that an essay of mine has recently been published in Shakespeare and the Digital World, a new book edited by Christie Carson and Peter Kirwan for Cambridge University Press. I received my contributor copies in the mail last week, and I’ve been enjoying flipping through the pages and seeing what kinds of issues come up in the other chapters. The book is divided into four sections – research, teaching, publication, performance – and rather than wait until I’ve finished the entire thing, which might take awhile given all the other stuff that is (quite literally) on my desk, I thought I’d blog about the book section-by-section as I work my way through it. I think it’s fair to say that it’s the first book to try to take stock of how digital knowledge, practice, and life is shaping the way in which academics of all varieties are working with Shakespeare today, and I think and hope it will be of interest to quite a lot of people in the field.

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But before jumping straight into the four sections, I wanted to reflect a bit on Carson and Kirwan’s introduction, which invites us to think about the nature of the book itself. I suppose some people might question whether or not a critical discussion about digital transformation should really take place in a physical book like the one photographed above, but I think Carson and Kirwan are right that ‘What a book can do well, and has always done well, is to provide an extended argument on a topic through a structured approach that leads the reader through it in manageable stages.’ (p. 2) The idea gave me pause; it is, on the face of it, an obvious statement, but it manages to articulate something clearly and succinctly that we very often take for granted – that a book is a discursive form, and that switching to other kinds of publication platforms isn’t just a change in delivery format, it is a change in discourse and argumentation themselves.

I hadn’t fully realized it, but the power of the book as a form hit me last year when we published A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival, much of which already existed online as a collaborative blog (www.yearofshakespeare.com). The aim of the website and book was to document and respond to each of the more than 70 productions of Shakespeare’s plays that were put on in 2012 as part of the UK’s Olympic celebrations. While the website finished around November 2012, the book came out in April 2013, and I was surprised by how publishing the essays as a book really did give them a new identity and life. Of course, somewhat predictably, it meant that certain people now recognized its contents as research – authorized by an academic press, materialized on a physical page, it gained new status for some as legitimate knowledge. But this wasn’t all the book did for the project. First, and very simply, the physical book reached readers that the website didn’t, and vice versa. I suppose it wasn’t unlike touring a theatre production to different audiences, or even recording it and sending people the DVD. By putting the contents onto different kinds of stages, a wider cross-section of audiences knew about it.

Year of Shakespeare: the website

Second, and even more significantly, the book influenced the fundamental nature of the project, even if most of the words themselves did not change. While the website contained about 130 essays, hundreds of user comments, dozens of audio interviews with audience members, and as much multimedia material as we could find, the book contained one essay for each of the 74 productions in the World Shakespeare Festival celebrations, topped and tailed with new material from me and my two co-editors. Most of the production essays had already appeared on the blog (in fact, they’re still there), but they had not appeared as a sequence that could be worked through step by step, and they certainly hadn’t appeared as a collection that you could hold, measure, and visualize as an object (i.e. object-ively?).

Year of Shakespeare: the book

As a book the size and scope of the project is more easily grasped – even if, ironically, the book is a more select version of the collaborative website. I don’t think some people realized that the project really did cover all of the festival until they could see it together in material form. There is also a sense of linear progression and narrative sequence in a book, even if that sequence is at times arbitrary (we ended up going with alphabetical order by Shakespeare play, meaning that people can read about three Romeo and Juliets at once, but also that that the reason things start with All’s Well and finish with The Winter’s Tale has nothing to do with the live, lived experience of the 2012 festival itself). What I suppose is most significant about all this is not what the book does to the essays themselves, but rather what it does for our apprehension of them. It creates a story out of them that we can follow, even if we know that story is largely imposed. The website on the other hand creates a landscape out of them that we are free to explore, but that we can also get easily lost in.

The final thing that’s worth mentioning is that, at least for our project, the physical book has proven more durable than the digital website. While the book took longer to generate, once it arrived it hasn’t changed. The website on the other hand was faster and more responsive in its publication, but has been quicker to deteriorate. Over the last two weeks I’ve been working with two PhD students to archive the site for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which holds the Royal Shakespeare Company’s archives and collections (the World Shakespeare Festival was produced by the RSC). Led by specialists at the SBT, our archiving process has, perhaps paradoxically, involved printing out all of the website’s contents into a hard copy, and saving as much non-textual material as possible to CDs. In the process of doing so we’ve been surprised by how many of the website’s links, plug-ins, and videos have been broken or died in the 18 months since I stopped maintaining it regularly. Call it naivety, but I didn’t fully appreciate how present a blog could be in the moment, but how ephemeral it might prove a few years into the future.

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Year of Shakespeare: the archive

The question for me, then, is the extent to which these differences are intrinsic and the extent to which they will fade with time. I have no doubt, for instance, that a website could be preserved just as well as a book by someone who was more diligent, and more technically skilled, than me. But what about the academic status of digital publishing, or the potentially divided audiences for digital and analogue publishing platforms? Will these distinctions become less visible with every year? Most significantly, what about the way digital and analogue forms and formats shape our ability to understand and interpret the contents they hold? If this changes too, then it may very well be us, as psychological and social entities, that are the main things being changed.

So — many thoughts, and all within reading of the first 7 pages of Carson and Kirwan’s introduction. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 250 hold, and so I move into part one of its sequenced, structured conversation, flipping its physical pages as I go.

Going live with Philip Auslander

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With the end of the academic term and a few long flights under my belt, I’ve managed to crack on with a bit more of my digital Shakespeare reading list. One of the books that almost always comes up in discussions of live theatre broadcasts is Philip Auslander’s Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, so I was especially excited for the opportunity to sit down and work my way through this text – and it certainly didn’t disappoint. First published in 1999, and then revised and reissued in 2008, Auslander’s book feels alarmingly prescient. He takes as his central premise the idea that ‘liveness’ is an ever-evolving concept, always existing in relation to the art forms and technologies of which it is a part. While theatre critics such as Peggy Phelan have argued that theatre’s unique value is in its live, ephemeral irreproducibility – that its ‘only life is in the present’, and that it ‘cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations’ (qtd p. 44) – Auslander sets out to make a case for how theatre has been shaped, marked, and circulated by media technology since the early twentieth century through to the present day.

This relatively short but forceful book divides into three chapters. The first and longest is a recapitulation of the book’s title and overall focus (‘Live performance in a mediatized culture’) and accordingly it offers the broadest and most theoretically encompassing examination of the study’s central concerns. It is also the chapter most focused on theatre itself, and accordingly the one of greatest interest to people like me thinking about the changing landscape of Shakespearean performance. Auslander begins with a rich history of the beginnings of television, which he evocatively, if questionably, suggests we might take as ‘an allegory’ for the wider relationship between the live and the mediatized (p. 10). In this account he documents how early TV broadcasts took theatre as a model for its own emerging art form, frequently featuring live theatrical performances in its programming. By the 1950s, however, a consensus began to emerge that TV was more akin to cinema than theatre, largely due to its adoption of filmic technologies and techniques, including multiple cameras and angles and denser visual editing.

The attention to editing and the kind of imaginative experience it produces for the audience of course interested me here. In one telling passage Auslander quotes at length from a 1953 TV production textbook, in which the author asks:

Why cannot the television medium transmit a stage play to the home audience, capturing the immediacy of the performance instead of attempting to simulate the motion picture? Perhaps if a play were televised into one continuous long shot with the proscenium arch of the stage constantly visible, the effect of a stage play would be retained. (p. 21)

Of course, theatre stages and technologies have changed alongside televisual and cinematic ones, with so many of the theatre broadcasts we see today coming from stages that are not proscenium arched. But the basic concept of the space needing to reveal itself through the relay as a stage, and perhaps also for the theatrical audience to maintain a visible role in this exchange, is one that I think still stands over 60 years later.

The chapter goes on to consider a series of examples from the late twentieth-century performing arts in which the ‘live’ and the ‘mediated’/‘mediatized’ have found themselves in close dialogue, including: the use of microphones as well as recorded music in many theatrical productions, experimentation with close-up video monitors in some symphony concerts, the inclusion of a laugh track in television sitcoms, the use of video and photo documentary in body and endurance performance art, and the use of ‘nonmatrixed, task-based’ performance styles by some avant-garde theatre companies interested in interpolating live human performance with media content (think the Wooster Group, below). Through each of these examples Auslander builds a case for the reflexive relationship between mediatization and the theatre, a relationship that helps him progressively call into question the ‘ontologically pristine’ nature of performance as beside or even beyond media representation and reproduction (p. 45).

All of this builds to a closing discussion of how our understanding of liveness has changed over the past century, evolving from a ‘classic’ conception encompassing both temporal and geographical co-presence, to more flexible varieties that may accommodate lack of geographical co-presence (such as live arts and sports broadcasts) or even lack of both (such as live recordings that can be viewed or listened to repeatedly at later dates). The rapid expansion of the internet has changed this even further, with Auslander discussing social ‘liveness’ online and the sense of co-presence and connection with others that it involves. Here he also considers what it means for a website to ‘go live’, a phrase and concept that he argues has principally to do with the generation of feedback between technology and user (pp. 59-62).

I found all of this discussion extremely productive and provocative, so much so that Auslander’s illuminating research and analysis ended up prompting me to call into question a few of his smaller points. His characterization of the liveness of websites made me think about the broader ways in which we use and understand the word ‘live’, most centrally in the sense of being a-live. While I can seeing how ‘going live’ with a site makes possible a kind of real-time interaction with site users that is akin to the temporal liveness and exchange involved in many forms of theatre, I also wonder if the phrase actually came about through a sense of the site becoming alive, of being birthed into the wider world of the world-wide web.

Such a sense of ‘live’ points us in the direction of liveness as vitality, of being alive with presence and some sort of emotional agency. Auslander begins to gesture towards this kind of aliveness, albeit somewhat indirectly, when he suggests that today our ‘emerging definition of liveness may be built primarily around the audience’s affective experience.’ (p. 62) Feeling live and alive is perhaps the most important criterion for what we understand by the experience of liveness, with Auslander suggesting that the sensation or even emotion of liveness may derive for the qualities of ‘spontaneity, community, presence, and feedback’ that we associate with many forms of theatrical performance. Though he goes on to systematically deconstruct and demystify these values, I would suggest that they remain core elements of live and alive experience, though that doesn’t mean that I think that they can only be achieved through traditional, face-to-face modes of interpersonal contact. We need to recognize the life that exists in so many forms of communal exchange, and we need to think about ways to cultivate that experience across a wide variety of arts and media. It is in that form of communion, I think, that we find culture.

So in about a thousand words I’ve just about managed to summarize and respond to Auslander’s powerful first chapter, which hopefully gives some sense of just how rich his book is. Though the second two chapters don’t address my particular research question quite so directly, they nonetheless offer compelling and very readable accounts of the constant reiteration of acoustic craft and recorded craft in pop music (‘Tryin’ to make it real: Live performance, simulation, and the discourse of authenticity in rock culture’), and the way in which economic and legal networks fashion seemingly abstract concepts like liveness in very technical, enforceable, and documentable ways (‘Legally live: Law, performance, memory’). They prompted me to ask myself whether I think it’s important if a band sings live or lip-syncs in a show, or if an actor has a right to control the data created when his or her body is digitally mapped for complex CGI effects in films. My immediate answers would be ‘yes’ and ‘yes’, but accounting for them in reasoned, logically consistent detail is more of a challenge. These kinds of questions and challenges are characteristic of Auslander’s book from start to finish, and I’ve no doubt that I will be returning to its pages many times again.

The revolution will not be virtualized.

reading

I did some reviewing work for Routledge in the autumn, and in return they very kindly sent me some new entries for my quickly growing digital Shakespeares reading list. Mostly these books have been decorating my desk over the holidays, but I have managed to get started with Steven E. Jones’s recently published The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. It’s a very helpful guide to the growth of digital humanities as an academic field over the last fifteen or so years, though Jones points out that ‘DH’ didn’t become ‘a thing’, as it were, until about 2009 — which apparently is 5 years ago now… (Side note: reading about digital technology and culture is involving a lot of moments in which I encounter dates that look very recent and then realize that, actually, they aren’t.)

Jones works his way through a number of interesting case studies that allow him to talk about the dimensions, people, places, things, publications, and practices that make up digital culture, with each word being the title of a different chapter in the book. His thesis is that digital life is material, located, and social, and most fundamentally that it can no longer be clearly separated from what we might be tempted to call ‘real life’. Virtuality, he suggests, is not a very useful way of thinking about what the digital is anymore, seeing as how digital tools are so enmeshed in so many very real aspects of modern daily life (think email, iPods, Google maps, smart phones, GPS, e-readers, swipe cards, and digitized records of all different varieties).

Rather than think of the digital as something that happens in a weird sort of cyberspace, Jones argues that we need to accept that it has ‘everted’, or exploded outward into the world at large. The result is an integrated, but nonetheless very mixed reality, in which we are constantly presented with ‘the paradox of living in two worlds at once.’ (Another side note: Jones tells us that the terms ‘cyberspace’ and ‘eversion’ both come from the sci-fi writer William Gibson, who coined them in 1982 and 2009, respectively. Which makes me wonder — what is Gibson writing about now??)

I find Jones’s central argument very helpful and persuasive, and I’m interested in how people like me approach the process of moving between the highly related but still distinctive worlds of analogue and digital (I’m tempted to use the word ‘toggle,’ but I feel like that must say something about my own digital coming of age). I think this process of oscillation is what I’m trying to understand better as I think about the experience of watching a performance live in-person versus live on-screen, or of trading Shakespeare quotes with a group of people through Twitter versus underlining passages in my own hard copy of the complete works.

These questions are put into sharper relief this week as my university resumes teaching, and I find myself giving the same lectures and leading the same seminars on-site for campus students and online for distance learning ones. My approach has always been to combine and blend the two groups as much as possible, extending the on-site into the online, and the online into the on-site. But it would be silly to say that differences don’t remain. Which makes me wonder, are there limits to eversion, or is it simply a matter of time?