using technology to create an entirely new form of storytelling
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Lothar Meggendorfer – sort of. For those unfamiliar with Herr Meggendorfer, he’s a 19th century German illustrator generally credited with inventing the pop-up book. Or, looked at another way, with using technology to create an entirely new form of storytelling. This point was brought up in a whimsical presentation by Joe Sabia over at TED.com, the website for the international conference of new ideas in technology, entertainment and design.
Storytelling is, of course, the essence of theatre and my brief encounter with Herr Meggendorfer got me thinking: what is the theatrical equivalent of the pop-up book? What revolutionary advancement changed the theatre forever?
Shakespeare was almost definitely a revolutionary: his plays are epic and did away completely with the Aristotelian unities.
The purists will cite the moment the arrogant Thespis stepped out of the chorus back in Ancient Greece and stole the spotlight for himself; others may mark the era when the people took theatre back from the church, who were using it purely to promote doctrine. Shakespeare was almost definitely a revolutionary: his plays are epic and did away completely with the Aristotelian unities.
Back in 1998, scholar Harold Bloom went so far as to credit Shakespeare with nothing short of the invention of the human. “Shakespeare’s uncanny power in the rendering of personality is perhaps beyond explanation,” wrote Bloom. To this I’d add that his power to change the structure of theatrical storytelling is equally bewildering: he anticipated the cinema almost three hundred years before it happened.
Thanks to microphones, weak singers can now rise above the music and film actors can get away with doing “film acting” on stage (ie. more internal performances).
Musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim, meanwhile, has often implied that it is the microphone which truly changed the theatre. “It has a softening effect on the audience’s concentration,” he writes in Look, I Made a Hat, his second book on lyrics and the theatre. He goes on to remark that in the days before amplification, there was “none of the luxury of sitting back and letting the show come to us – we had to lean into it.” Thanks to microphones, weak singers can now rise above the music and film actors can get away with doing “film acting” on stage (ie. more internal performances).
During a recent workshop at PWM, I encountered Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson, two-thirds of the creative team behind MacHomer, Rick Miller’s Simpsons-meets-Shakespeare multimedia show that is part of Stratford’s upcoming season. Here we can witness another Meggendorferesque leap. MacHomer not only relies on the audience’s inbred knowledge of pop culture (ie. The Simpsons) but also exists entirely on a multimedia platform. Projections become an integral part of the story.
Technological shows are also wildly expensive...
MacHomer is hardly the only instance of this; technological wonders have been creeping into theatre for years, from the spectacles of Robert Lepage to those of Cirque de Soleil. Many shows are becoming so reliant on technology that as the world’s energy crisis continues, these shows may find themselves unable to exist. Technological shows are also wildly expensive, all of which will probably force theatre creators to turn towards other, less technologically-dependent means of exploring the theatre.
A sharp example of this can be seen at Espace Libre in Montreal’s east end where, until January 21, Toronto’s Théâtre La Tangente is presenting Claude Guilmain’s Requiem pour un trompettiste. Here, the theatre is split into two completely individual sets and the audience chooses which one they want to watch first. On both sets, two entirely separate one-act plays play out and only windows allow us to glimpse the play occurring on the other side. What makes this so startling is that the plays are actually intimately connected: the actors tend to leave one play and immediately enter the other. The plays work alone, but they also exist on a larger canvas.
Although microphones are used (with the audience on headsets), the show works just as well without them; it’s really more a low-tech ballet of acting and direction. Timing becomes essential as blackouts happen at precisely the same time and there are moments when both plays collide – in one moment, for instance, a woman’s lover opens a window, allowing her other lover to see him in an indelicate position. Here we see a unique way of combining theatrical magic with clever storytelling. Like the work of Lothar Meggendorger, Requiem can hardly help popping up out of the stage.