Tag Archives: liveness

Brilliant Birmingham

A new academic year’s around the corner, which in addition to chilly weather and a pleasing number of beer and cider festivals means more trips for me up to the Shakespeare Institute’s home base, the University of Birmingham. Most of the daytime is spent in meetings, making plans for the semester to come, but around the edges of those days comes time to explore the city, to eat amazing food, to talk to people, and to head off to the theatre when night falls. In the past week I’ve been able to see three very different and very brilliant new plays, each fronted by the wonderful Birmingham Rep. They’re not all digital, and they’re certainly not all Shakespeare, but each seems relevant, in one way or another, to some of the ideas I’ve been thinking about on this blog.

Charles III by Mike Bartlett, on national tour. An imagined history play that opens with Prince Charles taking the throne after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth… it’s not so much a Shakespeare adaptation as it is inspired by Shakespeare’s craft and style. Written mostly in verse, and with three interweaving plotlines, Bartlett’s play echoes questions about power and kingship that surface across Shakespeare’s history cycles while still feeling very much like a new and separate creation. The verse itself is, perhaps inevitably, strikingly different from Shakespeare’s own — lyrical passages or poetic phrasings are rare, with Bartlett instead favouring a more functional, prosaic, and often very funny brand of iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean inflections build as the play progresses, most notably in the characterization of the three male royals: Charles emerges as a Richard II-eque anointed king, William as a seemingly inscrutable and ultimately rather crafty Bolingbroke, and Harry as, well, Prince Harry/Hal. The result is smart, provocative, and surprisingly profound. Like Shakespeare’s plays, Charles III is packed with philosophical and political debate, but it’s never straightforwardly ideological. It voices royalist and republican views, but it resists taking sides in its examination of what monarchy represents in the twenty-first century. How do we reconcile the glitz, the celebrity, and vapidity with the history, the ceremony, and tremendous energy that goes into keeping the idea of monarchical power, in such reduced shape and form, alive? Is this a ‘golden age of monarchy’, as Charles ironically calls it, which ‘bothers no one, does no good, and is / A pretty plastic picture with no meaning’? If so, what’s the point?

Photo Credits: Tristram Kenton

Black Tonic, The Other Way Works, touring next to Bristol and Bradford. ‘Interactive theatre meets mini-break’, according to the production publicity, and that’s as good a one-line description as any I can think of. Staged in a real hotel (the Radisson Blu in Birmingham’s case), the show guides an audience of just four people through a detective story crossed with a meditation on the experience of space, time, and identity in a 24-hour, networked world. We begin in the lobby before taking the elevator up to ‘our room’, where scenes start occurring in the corridor, in our bedroom, in the room next door, in a conference room nearby, and eventually on the street outside of our window. The production makes the most of the strange no-space that corporate hotels can be: ‘we want you to think that you’re the only one who has slept in this bed’, a film on one of the room televisions tells us, that we’re in an intimate, safe, private space that exists only for us. And yet we know that this is in fact a strangely public space, that hundreds if not thousands of people have been here before us, that the labyrinthine corridors connecting our rooms lead us through alien, artificially lit spaces maintained at night by people we rarely see… in other words, The Shining was set in a hotel for a reason. I won’t give away too much about the plot, which centres around two different couples that a sinister relationship manager is trying to break up, but I will say that I found the production’s mix of narrative storytelling and ambient immersion brilliantly judged, and the acting and technical coordination truly impressive. Hiding in a bathroom with a fellow audience member and an actor, watching another scene unfold in the reflection of the mirror in front of us, was a voyeuristic and visceral highlight, as was setting my mind adrift in the soundscapes and visual beauty of the production’s two inset films. On a more techy/digital note, I left thinking about how digital modes of performance might integrate with very human, embodied, and experiential kinds of theatre, and furthermore how they can be as much about intimacy and isolation as about collectivity and the global.

Black Tonic 2015 Trailer from The Other Way Works on Vimeo.

A Translation of Shadows, Stan’s Cafe, touring around the UK. In a week of unusually difficult to describe shows, this one is perhaps the most summary-defying. But let’s try anyway… inspired by the early twentieth-century tradition of the Japanese benshi — that is, live performers who provided in-person narration for silent films (including dialogue and scenic description) — Stan’s Cafe’s new show explores the relationship between art and interpretation, showing and telling, mimesis and diegesis. In the process it also considers the relationship between art and reality, but let’s set that to the side for now… The show opens with an imaginary, modern-day benshi taking the stage, welcoming his audience, and introducing the film — Shadows — that we are about to see. The lights dim, the film begins, and so does the narration, which is energetic and amusing if fairly mundane (‘here’s a train’). The benshi‘s running commentary is rather like having the director’s track turned on while watching a DVD, with bits of trivia and anecdotes peppering the narration. He directs us in the art of reading a film (‘everything is included for a reason’), and he draws our attention to changes in camera perspective as well as the back stories of the actors. His approach is the antithesis of Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’, which argues that critical ‘interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone’. And yet, as the play continues, he also becomes the illustration of her essay, with his increasingly controlling commentary revealing ‘a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it with something else’. That something else is the story and the actors as he chooses to imagine and experience them, and so Prospero-like he begins interacting with and manipulating the ‘shadows’ that we’re watching on the screen. In a tweet after the show, I described it as Lost in Translation meets Synecdoche, New York meets Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I still think that’s as good a summary as I can manage; sometimes it’s easier and more accurate to say what something’s like than what it actually is. There’s one more show tonight in Birmingham, before the production sets off for Blackpool.

Photo Credit: Graeme Braidwood

So that’s it for a brilliant week in the theatre, which clearly left me with abundant food for thought. One final note is that at the start of the week I had the chance to visit Birmingham’s new Impact Hub in Digbeth, which is a creative co-working space dedicated to building ‘a better Birmingham, one that is fairer, more democratic and more inclusive’. They have some beautiful working spaces, and some really inspiring plans, and I hope to find myself back there, as well as the Birmingham REP, in the weeks and months to come.

The Impact Hub

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.

live to

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?

Going live with Philip Auslander


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.

Watching along: #MuchAdoOnScreen

Last night I spent a good part of my Valentine’s Day evening watching Digital Theatre‘s filmed version of Josie Rourke’s 2011 Much Ado about Nothing, better known as the David Tennant and Catherine Tate Much Ado. The film has been available to me for several months now through my university’s Digital Theatre Plus subscription, which means that all students and staff have access to a large selection of the DT catalogue — kind of like a theatre version of Netflix.

But I was prompted to watch last night because of a ‘watchalong’ organized by DT for viewers around the world. At 7pm GMT, we were invited to press play on the Much Ado recording and to watch the production in sync with one another, tweeting our thoughts as we went. What really interests me about this, and the growing phenomenon of watchalongs, is the sense of ‘eventness’ and shared experience that they offer to viewers. Most of us are sitting at home on our own in front of a computer, but we are doing so with a wider community of viewers spread around the country and to some extent world.

Looking through the tweets from the evening, I spotted Twitter profiles from various parts of the UK, France, Germany, the United States, the Philipines, Australia, and I’m sure several other places that I haven’t yet caught. More than a few profiles noted a love of Doctor Who and David Tennant himself, suggesting that although this is a geographically disparate community, it is also one with a distinct and unifying set of interests.

I also noticed a few moments in the evening in which new people joined in and asked where we were in the production, so that they could log in and fast-forward to the appropriate section — I love the fact that people specifically wanted to watch together, that this experience of ‘theatre going’ was of course about seeing the production, but also very much about doing so with others and experiencing a sense of liveness and synchronicity. In a weird way I’ve had that sense when I’ve unexpectedly caught a favorite movie on TV, and have decided to drop everything else to sit down and watch it then, even in some cases when I also own the movie on DVD. There’s just something more compelling about watching it in that moment, when I know others are doing so at the same time. Is that completely strange, or have others ever had that feeling too?

Below are some of the tweets from the evening, chosen by me rather quickly for a variety of reasons — to show the kinds of things people like to share, to show the technical issues they may or may not experience during a watchalong, to show where in the world they are watching from, to show the details in the production they’re noticing. If you were part of the watchalong too, I would really love to hear from you in the comments below.

Why did you decide to join in? Did you tweet as well as watch? Why or why not? Would you participate in a watchalong again? What do you like most about them?

Any and all thoughts very welcome!

(PS–At the moment I’m still trying to figure out how to properly embed the Storify feed! I think I need a plug-in… For now the link below will take you to it.)