A Cultural Democracy

For those of you who read Theatre Room regularly you will have noticed my preoccupation of late with the developments, and debate,  surrounding live streaming. Now of course this deals with how we consume theatre, not how we make it and this got me thinking about how this technology becomes part of the creative act itself. I know that there have been experiments in the field, and this piece by Jessica Holland, published in The National, an english language newspaper from Abu Dhabi, lays out some of the exciting possibilities:

Internet theatre – immersive, real-time shows with actors from all over the world

The answer is a brand-new art form that is being pioneered by performers in cities such as Tunis, Beirut and Dubai.

“It’s the future,” says the Lebanese writer, actor and director Lucien Bourjeily, who lives and works in Beirut. “At the moment it’s avant-garde, but it will become the norm.”

Lucien Bourjeily

Lucien Bourjeily

Last July, Bourjeily collaborated with Elastic Future, an experimental theatre company that started in San Francisco but is now based in London, on a play called Peek A Boo for the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). Five actors, playing spies, programmers and online peep-show entertainers, were divided between New York, London and Beirut, improvising dialogue as they interacted via streaming video. Audience members around the world watched in real-time by signing into Google Hangouts or watching the feed on Elastic Future’s web page. They also interacted with characters on Twitter and took part in a post-show Q&A.

Untitled“It was a breakthrough,” says Bourjeily of the performance, which followed just a week of online workshops and involved some quick thinking from the actors when there were glitches in the internet connection from New York. “It opened my eyes to so many possibilities for how to create a new type of immersive theatre.”

Erin Gilley, Elastic Future’s artistic director, says she learnt a lot from the experience and is eager to keep stretching the limits of the medium. She’s planning another work for this year’s Lift to be streamed online in July, with actors performing live via webcam from Ghana, Portugal and the United Kingdom.

“Theatre can’t exist without an audience and we’re trying to creatively explore what that means,” says Gilley of the work-in-progress. “The goal is for it to feel like you’re sitting in a theatre with other people, even though watching it will be a private experience.”

Gilley is avoiding screening the feed in an auditorium, in case the process prevents her from “discovering ways to create that feeling online”.

Much like Bourjeily, Gilley is evangelical about the benefits of this new, hybrid art form. For starters, it can bypass censors in countries such as Lebanon, where playwrights are required to submit their work to a bureau for approval. Performing online is cheaper than renting a space and flying in actors and it grants access to audiences from all over the world. It creates novel ways for artists scattered all over the globe to cooperate and to interact with viewers.

It can also turn practical constraints into aesthetic virtues….

As technology develops, the artistic possibilities multiply. “We have new ways of getting emotionally connected to our audience,” is how Bourjeily puts it. “The sky is the limit.”

Lucien Bourjeily is a fascinating man, as his website attests. So much so that Index On Censorship – a global NGO that fights for freedom of expression – has made him one of their four nominees for the Freedom of Expression awards for his play Would It Pass Or Not?, which is about censorship in Lebanon.The play was banned – by the censors, thus forcing them to justify their actions in public.

You can watch Peek-A -Boo here. It makes interesting viewing.

Elastic Future have been commissioned by LIFT to create a piece for this year’s festival, called Longitude, which will be streamed online on 9, 16, and 23 June. Indeed LIFT and it’s artistic director Mark Ball clearly see this kind of work as vital, linking the digital (stage) space with a wider cultural democracy – which is another blog post entirely.

David Cecil

David Cecil

As a post script, one of the other nominees for the Index Freedom Of Expression awards, which are in their 14th year and honour people around the world fighting for free expression, is David Cecil. Cecil is the British theatre producer who was jailed in Uganda for staging a play about homosexuality and whom I wrote about in the posts Stonewalled and A ruling for common sense over a year ago. Appallingly, a month ago the Ugandan parliament passed an anti-homosexuality law which, amongst other things, included punishments of up to life imprisonment. David Cecil is not gay. In fact when he was deported he was forced to leave behind his partner and their two young children. As I write, he has not been allowed to return.  The man deserves to be honoured.