I recently wrote about technology trends affecting nonprofit organizations in 2017. In that blog I highlighted one trend that would be particularly challenging for live theatre to accomplish. The ability to embrace the “Internet of Things” has given me something of a mental workout over the past week. How can you design theatre that is interactive and on demand? Yes, there have been great advances in technology for live theatre. The use of audio described performances was a breakthrough for patrons with visual impairment, for example. More recently, virtual reality performances are blending live performance and technology with varying effectiveness. Time will tell if this trend takes off. Does this add to, or detract from, the audience experience? Does is effectively allow the story to be communicated. Is the use of such technology required for such communication?
So where does that leave theatre and its ability to embrace the on demand user? When I hear “theatre on demand” I imagine something akin to a jukebox theatre. Audience members scrolling through a database of familiar scenes, ready to select whatever tickles their fancy at the time. Would you like comedy, thriller, mystery, drama? Fancy a chunk of the Bard, or Mamet? A dollop of Ionesco, or Pinter perchance? Actors scramble backstage as the requests come in to find a fitting prop and the tone, voice and body of a character plucked from page 72 of the script and paraded in front of the baying crowd. Quirky, yes. Exciting, maybe. Theatre, no.
Theatre makes demands of its audience. It asks you to listen, watch, and reflect. Unless our phones, tablets, and VR headsets positively impact of those outcomes, we should actively and unashamedly admonish tech in our theatres. As we adapt to changing audience hunger our clear goal should be (as always) telling stories. Detracting from the playwrights voice with a whizz and a band and a CGI virtual character is as tacky as it is irresponsible. So I implore you – if you ever find yourself in a strategic vision meeting and someone floats the idea of incorporating tech into a performance, throw the nearest script you have to hand at them and ask them to point out the stage direction, “and then the audience strap on a VR headset”. If they laugh at you, or ignore you, scream as loud as you can, and run out the door.
Keep live theatre, (a)live.