Binary mix takes a leading role in the global theatre

July 11, 1997

Ron Cook and Steve Dixon want to see digital performance taught as an integral part of the arts curriculum

There is a rapidly growing interest in the application of digital technologies to the performing arts, and new technologies are impacting significantly upon current performance practice. The technology has created new forms of performance expression, as in Digital Dancing, where software creates dance specifically for multimedia, video and television. The possibility now exists for a non-dancer to dance.

Two years ago the University of Kansas staged a virtual reality theatrical production. Live actors performed Elmer Rice's play The Adding Machine against computer designed and stereoscopically projected backdrops with offstage actors linked by video into the action.

Publishers from the BBC to Penguin are producing CD-Roms which offer performance, commentary and analysis of classic plays, and there is an ever-growing number of performing arts web sites, from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Living Theatre to Forced Entertainment and Annie Sprinkle.

Underlying this expansion of interest and activity are three broad developments: the proliferation of personal digital media, the expansion of transmission and distribution systems (the Internet, digital TV, video conferencing) and the potential for converged, networked systems to enable interactivity.

Widespread access to digital technology empowers a large number of people outside the profession structures of performing arts to produce their own work. The interactive capabilities opened up by the networks allow for shared creativity, from script to finished product. Distance becomes no barrier to collaboration. There is a direct link between a performer's work and the audience, which can completely bypass conventional distribution and presentation forms. The nature of the relationship between performer and audience changes. Online distribution is little different from buying a CD, but realtime two-way video communication opens up the possibility of a performance to order for an audience of one - who can respond and intervene.

It is essential that this digital context informs the performance curriculum, not simply as a bolt-on unit of study, but as an integral element in the educational process. This has to go beyond mastering the skills required to manipulate and control individual pieces of technology, to encompass the conceptual thinking required to comprehend the potential linkages and the likely speed and intensity of changes to come. Our department at the University of Salford draws together the academic disciplines of media and performing arts in teaching and research contexts. Performance students are introduced to digital video editing. Many theatre performances incorporate video and digitally created imagery with the live action. Specific modules have been developed on such subjects as multimedia theatre.

Staff have developed innovative digital projects. Three new CD-Roms are in development, one analysing the semiotics of theatrical gesture, one on Antonin Artaud, and a second CD on the work of the Chameleons group. The first was shown at last year's European Art and CD-Rom exhibition in Barcelona, and incorporated rehearsal and performance footage, critical commentaries and video environments to explore a detailed theoretical analysis of the group's theatrical experiments. Its aim was not only to document and analyse an original piece of performance research, but to produce this as an artefact which was an artistic expression in its own right.

In archiving and analysing a performance research project, multimedia allows us to incorporate a whole range of data in addition to text - designs for costumes and set, original music, video and stills of rehearsals and performance, interviews and statements from the director, performers and audience members.

For the performing arts student, such digital examination of theory and practice has many advantages over traditional study sources such as books or videos. The written form can only ever provide a description of a live performance, and conventional linear video recordings of performances lack the awesome shuttling speeds of digital video on CD-Rom. Multimedia can present academic discourse more aesthetically, more memorably and, in our technological age, perhaps more credibly than a printed page.

The pace of development will not slow down and the impact upon the world of performance will continue to grow, posing new opportunities and challenges. However daunting or alien they may initially appear, new multimedia technologies offer students and educators unique opportunities and new pedagogical techniques for presenting and analysing the performing arts.

Ron Cook is head of department and Steve Dixon is a senior lecturer in the media and performance department, University of Salford.

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