Theatre of the Future 3

Essay Talk/Lecture  
Theatre of the Future Image

Presented at Selfridges’ Festival of Imagination in association with The BIAD Center for Fine Art Research (CFAR)

Imagine this structure isn’t in a shop but is outside in the dark and that the rains haven’t stopped and that the water level has continued to rise and we’re all huddled together on this little island, Birmingham, we haven’t seen the sun for months and there’s no electricity, how do we pass the time? Yes we can sing and we can dance. We can tell each other stories and we can make a show right here, like the Kids from Fame. We don’t need anything but ourselves. This is one of the reasons I love theatre. It is an art form for the apocalypse.

This talk is carefully worded. These are stressful times in the arts and I’ve sat through too many discussions about The Future of Theatre, it is a relief to put existential questions aside, assume theatre has a future and be able to speculate about what this Theatre of the Future may be like.

First let’s briefly think about Futurology. It seemed to me reading I.F.Clarke’s The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871-1914 that these fictions about future warfare failed as acts of prophesy but were wonderfully illuminating about the obsessions and fears of the time in which they were written. I therefore suspect any predictions I make today will tell you less about Theatre of the Future than theatre of the now.

In some respects we are already living in the future. Stan’s Cafe started making theatre more than twenty years ago. So from that perspective we are well into the future and the developments in this time range from the predictable to the truly startling:
-there seems to have been a flip from film plundering theatre for narrative no theatre is plundering film.
-Film starts revel in the joy of the live stage.
-Tricycle Theatre has invented the genre of staged legal arguments.
-Lights swivel, change colour and focus controlled by computers and video projections along with stage mechanics have grown more sophisiticated.
-At another end of the scale theatre has responded to the challenges of other forms by growing ever more intimate, participatory and ‘event like’.

In another very important way we are already living in the future. As experimental practice continues to be absorbed by the mainstream the theatre of the future is a diluted version of the experimental theatre of today.

Of course the future is digital, ‘digital’ is inevitable and unstoppable, all pervasive, simultaneously a poison and panacea, so we are told. It would be impossible to talk about the future of theatre without addressing the digital realm. It is possible to see the digital revolution as killing off theatre as competition for people’s leisure time and money mushroom, but surely cinema threatened theatre and TV threatened cinema and now gaming and streaming threatens TV and they all survive, but as I’ve noted this isn’t an existential talk. In practical terms ‘digital’ impacts on the future of theatre in two areas, production and distribution (not much then!).

Digital impact on production has already been mentioned in the spectacular advances in stage technology, more centrally, Station House Opera have played with performers split between live and on-line spread across continents. There are active experiments with performances in virtual realms such as Second Life and mixing live performances with 3D projections. There are experiments mixing participatory, multiplayer game playing technologies with performance. In our own small way even Stan’s Cafe have dabbled in this area with Tuning Out With Radio Z mixing a live theatre show with its webcast twin and soliciting its audience to help shape the improvisation with material submitted via smart phone, or laptop.

As for distribution the current hot idea is the streaming of live performances to remote audiences. Though I first heard of this in connection with The Met in New York I recently discovered, watching The Wooster Group’s Hamlet, that Richard Burton’s Hamlet was filmed for simultaneous screenings across North America in 1964. Though on the one hand this streaming is seen as a triumph for large companies that can spread their audience reach there the parallel fear that it is the next step on a road to the ‘Tescoification’ of theatre, once The National and the RSC and the Royal Opera Company were vast ‘out of town’ experiences that smaller companies would struggle to compete with but can beat on convenience, now the ‘big boys’ are setting up screens in your neighbourhood in direct competition with your local small scale operators.

Of course we can be entrepreneurial about this. Pentabus is a small theatre company and they have streamed their shows. Maybe those of us with interests in the ‘non-mainstream’ can benefit from the possibility of a vastly extended potential audience. If 0.00001% of Birmingham’s population are interested in our show we get an audience of 10. If the same proportion of the world’s only community (1.9 billion people using the web every day) then our audience would be 19,000 – obviously it’s a stupid extrapolation but you get the idea. The challenge would then be how to convert those people into cash, especially in a world where content is increasingly expected to be free, are we really expecting Theatre of the Future to be paid for by advertising revenues?

For me though the flaw came way back with the phrase “setting up screens”. For me this isn’t theatre. It may be that I am not a ‘digital native’ but though I’ve never touched an audience member in my life I value the opportunity of this, that we breath the same air, that they can smell our sweat and we can smell their aftershave. I believe that the playfulness of theatre where a banana can be a gun and a banana and a gun is something that requires us to be together and complicit in our playfulness. Theatre will always be about the here and now and I hold as evidence that bad theatre is the worst thing in the world and anything that can be that powerful when bad surely has an equal potential to blow your socks off when it’s good – and it has, I’ve experienced this – more than once!

Right I know what you’re thinking: “is he ever going to start talking about the future and predicting stuff?”, we the answer is NOW. First near future stuff, not particularly mind-blowing extrapolations of what’s already going on:

Amateur theatre will continue because putting on a play is a great fun social activity.

Despite political pressures drama will continue in schools because it’s so educational, confidence building and life affirming.

There will be Theatre Soap Operas, staged at breakfast time, lunch time and immediately after work – Theatre Absolute modelled Breakfast Theatre last year in their shopfront theatre.

Theatre will increasingly be watched in the same grazing fashion that marks our TV consumption – Stan’s Cafe experimented with this approach in Twilightofthefreakingods.

There will be theatre cruises with ships fitted out with multiple venues and rotating play lists (in a previous version of this talk I spoke speculatively of a theatre theme park but last summer discoved that this already exists in the form of Puy du Fou in France).

The aesthetic sophistication of outdoor spectacle theatre will increase as artists are increasingly drawn to the ‘democracy and reach’ of free productions accessible to all.

Corporate Theatre will increase with theatre as a place to go and be seen. This talk is taking place in Selfridges – exit through the gift shop. This ‘go and be seen’ doesn’t have to be a the ‘high end’ there is a certain kudos to be had in introducing your friends to something sub-cultural, alternative and off the map.

There will be an increasing call for theatre of Resistance, social media recruiting otherwise secret performances of subversion in venues above pubs.

Enough of this shilly shallying, onto the pure stuff, the visionary communing with the distant future with no recourse to poking around in the entrails of the present. Here’s what you would have paid for if you had had to pay. . .

Dialogue will improve in professional wrestling and it will be staged in collaboration with the RSC.

Shady betting syndicates will choreograph sport to aesthetic ends and art will randomise itself so audiences cheer on their cast but ultimately leave dejected as a last minute plot twist leaves them hoping for a better result away from home next week.

Corporate leaders pay for their grandchildren to receive the best roles in major productions and the supporting cast try their damnedest not to act them off the stage.

The future King George will play Hamlet in a controversial production at Birmingham City University and in so doing spark a constitutional crisis.

In Town Centres across the country seating banks will erected so people can watch other people passing about their daily lives.

In the countryside farmers will charge for immersive productions featuring real muck and grass.

Plays will be created around artisans and crafts people making stuff, the lure of seeing someone making something skillfully with their hands will pull the crowds.

Restaurants and theatres will fully merge,

A theatre troupe remains camped out on the foothills of Mount Etna waiting to stage the world’s most dramatic production of Götterdammerüng.

The country’s five main education providers will each directly contract teams of theatre companies to develop teaching projects to be spun out to every school in their control.

A movie star, inspired by research for a role sets up an endowment for theatre in prisons and within five years the home secretary is being petitioned to release these prisoners to take part in a West End hit.

In ‘off shore’ locations, outside territorial waters pornographic shows will mix ‘audience participation’ with ‘live’ and ‘online’ in ways I won’t allow myself to think about.

Men and Women will fight especially bred lions in cages in front of vast crowds (animal rights protestors will fight spectacle lovers in the streets outside).

In the cramped capsule on the way to Jupiter’s planet Ganymede the astronauts stage a production of The Tempest to entertain each other.

Playwrights will write plays without consonants.

Scientists will use next generation brain scanning technology to help playwrights write theatre of the subconscious.

The Cameron Mackintosh estate will commission Andrew Lloyd Webber stem cells to write a musical in collaboration with opinion polsters MORI.

The Producers (the play of the film of the play of the film of the play of the film of the play of the film) will become a hit on Broadway.

A group retired people will break into lockups on the seedy side of town to stage punk theatre events without a license – they will be called Stan’s Cafe.

James Yarker 21.2.14