In the traditional view, what makes theatre compelling is that it's a fundamentally visceral experience: an art form that, by definition, is in the moment, temporal, and in three dimensions. Anything can happen on stage at any time, so there's an inherent suspense to live performance that two-dimensional crafts, like film and television, cannot match.
Yet theatre artists are increasingly toying with multimedia, often in commercial settings. The bank of TVs that flanked the stage in the original London production of the musical "Chess" and stood against the upstage wall in the Broadway revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" are just two examples. The film projected upon a scrim in the musical "Sunset Boulevard" is another.
Off- and Off-Off-Broadway, however, is a much more daring and natural breeding ground for multimedia experimentation. Axis Company, for example, revamped its Sheridan Square theatre—once home to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company—to accommodate the possibilities of multimedia on stage. Dance companies of every aesthetic use projections, just like live and recorded music, as part of their work. At P.S. 122 several seasons ago, PowerPoint slides came in handy when "Up Your Ass" by Valerie Solanas—the woman who shot Andy Warhol—was produced.
"When you say that a show is multimedia, it's such a weird catchphrase," says Caden Manson, who founded Big Art Group, a company that uses "the language of media," in 1999. "We already live a multimedia life. We communicate through email, video, through pictures. And the thing is, isn't performance about a group of people in a room together, performing and watching and usually speaking a common language? Our goal is this: to make a more contemporary language for performance using these different kinds of media. Ours is a visual language."
Manson's new work, "House of No More," running Jan. 3-Feb. 1 at P.S. 122, concerns a woman in search of the truth about her missing daughter. Touted as a "panoramic performance piece," the production employs a media mix, including live-video technology and "green-screen technology," that becomes vital to the storytelling process.
"They're like fake movies," Manson explains. "Everyone's on the screen all the time, so it's almost like you're watching a copy of a copy. We achieve this by using stationary cameras in front of the actors except for 'negative space' that the camera can't catch." How that "negative space" becomes defined, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a time-consuming process. Moreover, because Manson rehearses with cameras on hand, new works can require a lengthy gestation: "House of No More" was 18 months in the making.
"When artists first started experimenting with media, they used it to deconstruct," Manson continued. "Big Art Group tries to reconstruct, to build a new kind of narrative. And," he concluded, "it's about accessibility. When you think about Shakespeare, the language is very beautiful and the stories are timeless, but the language being spoken is not as accessible as it was to those who lived in Shakespeare's time. It's not our language. This is our language."
"The Karaoke Show," which opens Sat., Dec. 6 at the China Club, also has a take on Shakespeare—specifically "The Comedy of Errors." Set in a karaoke bar, various characters from the Bard's mistaken-identity play head to the stage and sing songs, karaoke-style, in order to delineate character, including Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," Britney Spears' "Oops!…I Did It Again," and Nelly's "Hot in Herre." Following the karaoke-cum-concert, the audience can also choose songs and sing along.
"What makes multimedia interesting," says director Diane Paulus, who has teamed up again with writer Randy Weiner and producer Jordan Roth, the brain trust behind the long-running "The Donkey Show," on the project, "is we already live in this digital age. 'The Karaoke Show' connects you deeper to the event because it guides you, literally, as karaoke does, with the heartbeat of the event—the character getting up to sing a song. We're not just dealing with a visual image—we're talking about words. You're looking at videos of lyrics of songs, and we're using these songs to make a Shakespearean adaptation."
Paulus says one reason why she held off on using multimedia before now is because she never found an organic use for it in her previous work. "It's really about how you integrate it into theatre. Sometimes it doesn't work because it's not tied integrally to the structure or the form of a show and that can hurt the piece. If it becomes either decorative or accessorizing, it takes away from the live performer and the live theatrical experience."
Forging Film into Theatre
Over the last decade, Charles Phoenix has collected vintage amateur family slides from flea markets and estate sales. With over 350,000 slides dating from the '40s through the '70s on hand, he has fashioned a multimedia work that is offbeat even by today's anything-goes, experimental standards. "God Bless Americana: The Retro Holiday Slide Show," running through Thurs., Dec. 25 at the Pyramid Club Theater, projects the slides while Phoenix, the author of numerous "retro" books, provides a narrative filled with humor, insight, and often the stories behind the slides.
"The piece is completely narrated by me, and it's basically a tour of the holidays, with an emphasis, of course, on Christmas," Phoenix says. "There is an arc to the show with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the images range from the amazing and the bizarre to the unusual and the shocking. There's fashion, furniture, architecture, smoking, drinking, parties, family dynamics, tons of decorating, and some extraordinary situations. What makes it interesting is that it's real people. And the piece makes historical and hysterical observations, putting the iconic and ironic together."
Truth to tell, Phoenix did not regard himself as a performer until he began giving slide presentations in his living room in Southern California. ("God Bless Americana" also plays on the weekends at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.) Still, he refuses to invent tall tales about the people shown on the screen. "I don't make up names for people. If I see someone in a yellow dress and I don't know her name, she's Miss Yellow Dress—I won't call her 'Edna.' I try and get as much information out of these collections as I can, trying to read them like a book. It's not my fantasy of who these people are or were."
What the audience gets, above and beyond the novelty of sitting in a theatre to watch slide shows and hear narratives, "is a collective sense of history—American history, our history—because these slides are us. It's our parents. It's our grandparents. It's not removed from our own realities."
For example, Phoenix explains, "there are many slides involving food. Christmas looks a little different now than it did years ago: It's interesting to see the Jell-O molds, the big sticks of butter, the turkey slaughterhouse. There's one image of a platter of sliced ham with a half-inch of fat around it—you don't see that anymore. It's theatrical when everyone is riveted by Swedish meatballs stuck with multicolored toothpicks in a silver-plated chafing dish—or lime Jell-O with shredded carrots and cabbage."
Yet if the "God Bless Americana" slides are snapshots of lives long lost or faded, "Instructions for Forgetting," running Jan. 8-25 at P.S. 122, is all about remembering ghosts of the past captured on video. Created by Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment, a group of U.K.-based artists who began creating projects in digital media, video, theatre, and installation in 1984, the piece represents the closest melding yet of theatre and multimedia.
"I began by writing to a bunch of friends around the world and asking them to send me five minutes of something on videotape," recalls Etchells. "I thought of this because I had a pile of videotapes of my own—stuff shot on tour, stuff shot at a party 10 years ago—little documents of a life. As the tapes began arriving, I began wondering what I'd do with it, so I asked my friends to send true stories—'short reports' on things that really happened to them or in the world."
By only using the materials he received—a kind of Jackson Pollock for the playhouse—Etchells has created a multimedia extravagance, part intimate essay and part fragmentary narrative with images rewinding, tales fast-forwarding, and "the past caught in freeze frame or drawn out in an agony of slow motion."
Yet is it theatre? Etchells says yes. "It's a solo work—me telling the story of the project and the stories of the people on the video. Sometimes what you see is unconnected to the story; sometimes it's an emotional tone I connect with, like atmospheric reinforcement. It's almost like a documentary: my live theatrical presence against fragmentary glimpses of people. I make direct audience contact; then there's contact on three monitors from all these other people, so there's a layer upon a layer. The theatre," he concludes, "is in the interplay between the layers."