The world of theatre is currently being challenged, with Broadway staying dark several more months and performers taking to Zoom, but theatre has always been an artform in transformation. W. B. Worthen — chair of the Department of Theatre, who wears many hats at Barnard and Columbia as an expert in theatre performance — sees theatre as a technology. At Barnard, Worthen is the Alice Brady Pels Professor in the Arts. At Columbia, he is co-chair of the Ph.D. program in Theatre and Performance, as well as a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and the Theatre Division at the School of the Arts.
In May, Cambridge University Press published Worthen’s latest book, Shakespeare, Technicity, Theatre, in which he explores theatre as technology through the lens of contemporary Shakespeare performance. Worthen has written and edited 12 books on drama, theatre, and performance studies, including the critical collections The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama and Modern Drama: Plays, Criticism, Theory. He is also the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the J.L. Styan Collegiate Professorship from the University of Michigan, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship.
At Barnard, Worthen teaches courses in drama and performance theory, modern theatre, and Shakespeare and performance. This semester, he is looking forward to two of the Department of Theatre’s live remote performances: Euripides’ Electra, translated by Anne Carson and directed by Javier González, and Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, directed by Colette Robert.
In this “Break This Down” interview, Worthen explains the themes examined in his new book, how theatre has changed over time, and more.
What are the themes explored in your book Shakespeare, Technicity, Theatre, and what do you hope that readers take away?
This book offers both a theoretical and pragmatic look at theatre as technology. Taking a lead from theoretical and philosophical work interrogating the relationship between ideas of technology and of the human, I suggest that theatre consistently both uses and represents technology. That is, while the importation of digital technologies to the stage and to the theatre house is sometimes understood as a paradigm shift in theatre as we know it, to a new intermediality, it’s important to recognize that intermediality has long been constitutive of theatre.
In this book, I use modern Shakespeare performances to bring into focus the situation of theatre as technology: the relationship between the actor’s face and the screen image in productions that project livestream video of the performance on the stage (Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies, the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet at the Berlin Schaubühne); digital apps that actors use and their implication in conceptions of writing and performing; the “Original Practices” movement as a modern technology for theatrical performance; immersive theatre as a distinctively late-capitalist form of theatre (Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, Ant Hampton’s The Extra People, Third Rail Projects’ Ghost Light and Then She Fell); and algorithmic theatre, as illustrated by Annie Dorsen’s A Piece of Work, an algorithmically generative production of the text of Hamlet.
Shakespeare, Technicity, Theatre, then, offers readers a different way of thinking about theatre and technology — not that theatre merely uses the technologies it brings to the stage, but that theatre is constantly redefined and remade by the technologies that become essential to it at any given time and place.
How has technology in theatre changed over time, from the days of Shakespeare to now?
To address theatre today as technology does indeed depend on a sense of theatre changing over time. The technological structure of theatre tends to mark it as a site of discontinuous change, rather than of differently inflected identity. One good example of this is how the notion of remediation — the representation of one medium in another — works in relation to theatre. We are all using remediated performance all the time now. A stage play like Hamilton, that’s filmed and then streamed out to viewers, is a good example. What we are watching is not theatre. It’s the representation of a theatrical performance in another medium, film, that can only reproduce theatre according to its unique constraints, such as the camera, and opportunities, like the close-up. Indeed, the film of Hamilton, in being streamed, is itself remediated to the constraints of the internet and of the computer screen.
But there’s a long history of theatre remediating itself: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London is one example of a contemporary theatre claiming to reproduce the theatrical structure, costuming, behaviors and acting practices, or the “original practices,” of an earlier theatre. This restoration, though, is also constrained by the mediality of contemporary theatre. Even in the most “original practice” productions, the “original” is framed by the ways the contemporary medium understands and represents the “original” it restages — there are lights, a concrete floor to the pit, restrooms, and actors on contract. And, of course, in most productions there are other fixtures of modern theatre: women onstage, recorded music, and theatrical lighting. In this sense, I would argue that insofar as the practice of theatre is defined by its technologies, theatre is capable of remediating itself. This notion of “theatre” points less to a kind of essential continuity of theatre as a medium than to its constant change, the ongoing reinvention of what theatre is by how the medium of theatre as a technology is remade.
Do we engage differently with performance when viewing them on small-screen apps compared to, for example, live and on stage?
How an audience engages with theatre is influenced by a variety of factors: the interplay of technology and aesthetics provides a structure of interpretation that is, like any structure of interpretation, ideological. Courtiers watching one of Ben Jonson’s masques at King James’s court in the early 17th century would have been very aware of their location in relation to the king, a location that was also signaled technologically. The series of receding flats onstage meant that the king was seated at the ideal point for viewing the fictional perspective; the farther to the side or rear that you might be seated meant not only that you were shown to everyone to be less important but also that your own view of the spectacle was incomplete, imperfect, as you would see between the flats. The perfect illusion was maintained the closer you were seated to the position of power; Inigo Jones’s status as the designer of the spectacle was perfectly embodied by his seat, in the rear corner. That is, the technologies of the newfangled scenery were articulated with the disposition of the audience in space as a means of reinforcing a conception of politics through aesthetics.
For me, watching theatre on a screen has both aesthetic and social implications. First, I’m interested in why we call “Zoom theatre” theatre. What are the values of theatre — presumably liveness, though most “Zoom theatre” is recorded for subsequent showings — that this form of performance encodes and reinforces? One aspect of this theatre that hasn’t been much noted is its dependence on the social relations of modern theatricality, the practice of going to a theatre, purchasing a seat, and sitting in the notional dark, as though attending a theatrical performance were in some essential way a private, mostly individual, psychological experience of consuming the artwork. Historically, Western theatre has been more public than that, from attending the City Dionysia in Athens as part of a visible display of civic value and imperial power, to the banter with the stage common among Shakespeare’s (again, daylight, illuminated) audiences at the Globe, to the well-known, contestatory social interactions between the “box, pit, and gallery” audiences of indoor theatres through the 18th and 19th centuries, in which the auditorium was illuminated as well as the stage.
For centuries, theatre was about a public interaction with performance, not a private one, and technology, I think, has played a critical part in this shift of aesthetic ideology. It’s the electrification of theatres in the late 19th century that makes it possible for the audience to be seated, if not in the dark (that’s against fire codes; fire technology improves at this time, too!), then in a space that is relatively much darker than the brightly illuminated stage. I do think there’s an extension of this notion of performance as a commodity to be privately consumed that’s possibly magnified by this form of performance, since the actors are often performing solo, in a virtual relation to one another and to the audience.
Theatre is constantly redefined and remade by the technologies that become essential to it at any given time and place.
Does technology alter the art of acting?
Acting is itself a technology, a system of tools and practices that affords a particular, socially defined range of work. Acting is learned behavior for the representation of social action in the theatre. It’s a technology that’s practiced distinctively in the theatre and is in a sense seen nowhere else; film acting is acting for the camera, a series of discontinuous pictures composed into a performance by the editor. Although there’s a common belief that the history of acting is guided by a desire for greater and greater realism or verisimilitude, I don’t think that what’s usually wanted in the theatre is merely the behavior that might be seen on the street. What we desire is a kind of virtuosity, the sense that something theatrically difficult is being done right here and right now.
In the Greek theatre, playwrights scripted roles for actors to win a prize; that was the goal of the writing and can’t be precipitated out of those plays. And, of course, masked actors — protagonists, “first contestants”— engaged those roles before judges. That’s a different thing from mastering the rhetorical gestures by which 18th-century English actors, like David Garrick, displayed surprise or astonishment to an audience. (The formality of Garrick’s performance, praised in its day for its realism, was described rather ironically by Henry Fielding in his novel Tom Jones.) It’s a different thing from Scott Shepherd of the Wooster Group playing Hamlet by interacting with an upstage film showing Richard Burton’s equally fine performance of Hamlet from the 1960s.
So, yes, acting with video technology alters acting, but acting is itself an always changing technology. New plays often require the invention of an entirely different understanding of acting. Ibsen’s A Doll House required an actress willing to play against the convention of the melodramatic heroine or villain. The great English actress Stella Campbell refused the part because she feared people would think she could leave her children as Nora does. Waiting for Godot requires not absurdist angst but the backchat of Beckett’s favorite film actors, Laurel and Hardy, as Bert Lahr, famous as The Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion, found out when he flopped in the opening U.S. performance in Miami but then succeeded when the play was restaged in New York. Suzan-Lori Parks’s brilliant America Play requires its leading actor to play not a character but a figure: an essentially displaced figure called the Foundling Father in the speech prefixes, referred to as the Lesser Known and as the faux-father, which are all versions of the Great Man, Abraham Lincoln, whose assassination the African American actor enacts repeatedly, and differently, sometimes in a yellow beard.
Acting is an art that’s defined in relation to the arts with which it engages in the intermediality of performance. The demands of writing, what function is assigned to writing in a given theatre (Shakespeare’s actors could not be expected to be word-perfect), how actors relate to audiences socially (Molière couldn’t be buried in a churchyard because the Church held actors to be unsanctifiable), how they relate to them physically in the architecture and design of the theatre, and the performance. The technologies of acting are always changing, and changing in relation to this technological infrastructure. I’m not an actor, but I’d say from what I’ve seen that actors doing remote performances have much more tech to deal with — they’re lighting themselves, sometimes operating their faux-scenery, sometimes hearing the stage manager in their earbuds, working the camera. So I think one thing about acting in the Zoom environment is that it dramatizes the actor’s implication in the technologies of performance, even while — as is true in realist theatre more generally — the signs of that technological infrastructure are unseen for the most part by the audience.
How will Barnard’s Theatre Department reimagine theatre this fall, using technology?
Theatre is a distinctive technology, one that absorbs and represents other technologies, as its way of engaging with and so defining the human. Theatre today, before and during the pandemic, is not only using digital technologies (all those scenic projections onstage), but is being represented by them, in broadcast theatre, recorded theatre, and now in Zoom theatre.
This condition is much on my mind as the Department of Theatre is undertaking two live remote performances this fall: Euripides’ Electra, translated by Anne Carson, and directed by Javier González, and Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, directed by Colette Robert. These are both terrific directors, and they’re working with professional designers, student stage-managers and casts, and the department’s superb technical staff to make these events do the work of this medium. It’s live like theatre, but mediated in different ways from theatre, and remote in ways that theatre typically is not. We have significant experience in this realm, as closing the campus in the spring meant that our senior thesis directors, casts, designers, and staff had to invent a mode of production. Anyone who saw their shows — Gao Xingjian’s The Other Shore, directed by Haoqi Xia CC’20, Maria Irene Fornes’s The Danube, directed by Margot Gage ’20, and Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs, directed by Maggie Vlietstra ’20 — will have seen how far that work went in defining this form of performance, rather than merely using it as a kind of window onto theatre per se. These performances were sustained by an extraordinary effort to use the medium to make a distinctive kind of performance, and I expect that the two productions this fall will do so as well.
To learn more about the Electra (October 15-17) and Stupid Fucking Bird (December 10-12) performances, visit the Department of Theatre.