published in: Theatre in Cyberspace: Issues of Teaching, Acting and Directing. Stephen A. Schrum, Editor
Theatre does not exist without its audience. Rarely is the role of the audience included in the script of a play, but this role is necessary to the performance. There are various ways of directing this role de-pending on the concept and the intention of the theatrical group, its director and stage designer.
In theatre terminology, the separation between the stage and auditorium is called the "fourth wall." This is an invisible wall that divides the stage and the audience into distinct parts, found, for ex-ample, in the architecture of proscenium stages. So the term "fourth wall" also describes the feeling of distance that the audience gets in relation to the action on the stage. The advantage of this wall is that both the actor and the spectator know exactly what their assigned places and roles are; they either watch or act. Particularly in the nat-uralistic theatre at the beginning of the 20th century, this separation of spectator and the object of observation behind the invisible fourth wall was thought to be essential. Richard Wagner, with his idea of the "mystic union" of a performance’s components, stressed the im-portance of increasing the gulf between spectator and the object.
More recent experimental and alternative theatre presentations have shown a variety of ways of taking the audience into considera-tion. This theatre movement, mostly independent from existing mainstream theatre houses, is characterized by its breaking with tra-ditional conventions, such as the notion of the fourth wall. Such non-traditional work found its peak in the 1960s, where the "Fringe" was established in Great Britain. The Fringe movement is described by John Allen in his book A History of the Theatre in Europe as "Alter-native to the mainstream theatre in venue, in management, in con-tent, and in styles of performance" (294). The Fringe movement cov-ered a wide range of works that explored new theatrical forms, and included political groups that used the stage to articulate their ideas. Allen further suggests that, "Perhaps the most common element in the whole movement is the determination to create a new audience for the theatre" (294).
These alternative groups often followed the path of the French author and actor Antonin Artaud, who is known for his manifesto, "The Theatre of Cruelty," first published in 1932, and his book, Thea-tre and Its Double, published in 1938. Artaud theorized that theatre loses its popularity and its communicative ability when it attempts to be literary. He criticized theatre productions that concentrate too much on well known, written texts and that have, as he said, neglec-ted new forms and the thoughts of a contemporary audience. He de-manded a search for new methods of expression, and called for a specific language for the stage. Furthermore, he promoted the de-construction of stage and auditorium; for Artaud, theatre should oc-cur in a common place without partitions and divisions. Artaud nev-er really had a chance to experiment with his ideas in a practical manner, but his texts clearly articulate his reasons for placing the audience in the middle of the action to establish a direct connection between actor and spectator.
Artaud’s ideas were
very important to the English director Peter Brook who, in his book, The
Empty Space, not only speaks about the absolute necessity of the presence
of the audience, but also about the "responsibility" of the audience. This
responsibility means that the actual performance is established only by
having both parts—specta-tors and actors—coming together.
The same idea was
expressed even more radically in the Soviet theatre of the early 20th century.
The Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who had already caused a stir
with his overt opposition to the naturalistic theatre, said that opening
night is the actual first rehearsal. Edward Braun, in Meyerhold on Theatre,
quotes Meyer-hold as saying:
Disregarding these architectural plans, Augusto Boal pointed out in the 1960s that redesigning traditional theatre places is not e-nough to eliminate the strict division between stage and auditorium. In his concept of an "invisible theatre" he states that there is no long-er the need to create realistic stages, because he can simply use real stages. He places his performances in public locations were the audi-ence does not even know that they are currently participating in a theatre performance. Boal says that by doing so he "frees the specta-tors" from their passivity (66). He explicitly allocates to the audience an active role in the performance, without letting them know. As in traditional theatre, his experimental performances originate with a written text, a conflict situation, that is rehearsed by the actors. In the play, Who Is Guilty, several players who have rehearsed togeth-er, board a public train and seat themselves apart from each other. After a few moments, they start talking to the other passengers. When they have established a certain atmosphere, one performer recognizes another as a colleague he has not seen for a long time. They talk amiably about their families and jobs but soon the conver-sation turns to politics, and they discuss the current price increases. One says that he was happy to receive a pay raise but still everything is getting more and more expensive. He wonders who is to blame for the continuing rise in the cost of living and wages. The other actors, who have not been involved yet, lead the other passengers into this discussion.
In the second scene, one actor states that he thinks the greengro-cers are responsible for the steady increase in prices. It is so hard to get meat in Argentina that one is dependent on buying vegetables, so that the greengrocers have the power to charge any price they want. An actress contradicts him and more and more people, actors and non-actors, become involved in the debate. Finally the main actor leaves the train. Some of the actors remain on the train to follow the further development of discussion.
Boal stated that the function of his invisible theatre, a primarily political theatre, is to provoke discussions and urge people to start thinking about certain topics. For this purpose Boal uses these trans-formed theatrical means to get the spectator truly involved in the play.
It is not only the physical inclusion of people watching a show that is responsible for such an active participation or for catharsis. Placement of the spectator is important, but during the performance the actor has great responsibility concerning not just the physical but his overall relationship to the audience. As stated above, the actors and the spectator together realize the ideas of author and director. They bring the theatre performance to life. If they are not together in the same room at the same time and do not care for each other, the theatre performance does not exist at all. Furthermore, the actor must make certain continuously that the tension between himself and the spectator does not get out of control. With his acting skill he must attract and hold the attention of the audience.
At the same time, the audience has the power to kill the rhythm of the play whenever it stops being attentive. Imagine a single actor playing for only one spectator. They are bound together for the dura-tion of the performance in one room. The performance begins, the actor is playing and speaking his monologue. The spectator watches him as long as the actor succeeds in keeping him interested in the performance. At the moment when the spectator becomes bored or stops concentrating for even a second, the performance stops exist-ing. With an actor playing for no one, the basic requirement for a the-atre performance—interaction between actor and spectator—is not fulfilled. However, if both actor and spectator remain in their roles, the performance occurs as it would have in front of thousands of people.
An actor knows more than a member of the audience about his role and his power in this role. In most cases he has rehearsed his role before. So it is up to the actor to make certain that the audience feels comfortable and knows how to behave in its given role during the performance. An individual in the audience is not conscious of his or her power in most of the cases. Usually the role of the audience is regulated by their feelings on the scale between joy and boredom. If they are bored they will stop being active in their role as audience. On the contrary, if they are fascinated by the show they will be even more actively involved in the process of theatre, providing positive responses such as applause or laughter. At the same time, an actor will notice when the spectators start to shift in their chairs because they are not engaged by the performance.
Meyerhold once created a list of possible reactions of the audi-ence. He wanted to measure audience response to find the moments when two-way communication is happening. His list, quoted in Rob-ert Leach’s book on Meyerhold, included types of reaction such as: Silence; Noise; Loud noise; Reading in concord (i.e., following the text as the actor spoke it); Singing; Coughing; Stamping; Fidgeting; Exclamations; Weeping; Laughter; Sighing; Hubbub; Applause; Whistling; Hissing; Walking out of the auditorium; Standing up; Throwing things onto the stage (44). These actions describe the pure presence of the audience. All of these noises and movements show the actor that someone is sitting in the auditorium. Even without in-tentionally making noises, no presence of a human being remains un-noticed by another human being.
The director and actor, while preparing the play, must consider how to encourage the activity of the audience, so that the perfor-mance results in an actual co-production between audience and the-atre professionals. Contrary to film or TV, theatre is an interactive medium that demands synchronous actions. Certainly it is not e-nough to concentrate only on the spectators’ convenience or dis-pleasure that results from the performance. As we move into the 21st century, we are forced to work out the actual behavior of the audi-ence even more carefully, especially when a performance is combined with the communication tool Internet.
A play can be performed with the use of the Internet in various ways. One could either build the stage in a virtual room at a site on the Internet, or use the lines of the Internet for the communication between the actors and/or between the actors and the audience. The participants of a performance no longer necessarily have to be at the same physical place.
In fact, the Internet is a perfect place for theatre, as it is becom-ing more and more an appropriate place for communications art. Communications art began with projects in mail art and fax art,2 pursued mainly by visual artists. They began to intensify collabora-tion via communications media by exchanging visual products until this dialog became more important than the product itself and the works of this art became the events.
The Canadian artist Robert Adrian X, who now lives in Austria, says that this progress was driven by a certain development of the galleries in the early 1980s. At that time galleries concentrated more and more on the marketing and distribution of the products so that soon the artists looked for a more direct way of distributing their works of art. This attempt to escape the market place of the galleries resulted in communications art, and visual art began to step out of the galleries and became less object-oriented.
One of Adrian’s most
famous projects was "The World in 24 Hours" in 1982, during the Ars Electronica
Festival in Linz, Austria. Artists in sixteen cities on three continents
were linked via SlowScan TV, Fax and voice transmission to exchange works,
improvisations and information. Such projects illustrate how a new space
for art gradually evolved. Adrian sees this exploration similar to those
of the conceptual art movement in the 1970s.
A unique character is also typical for any theatre-event. A play might be performed hundreds of times, but will be different every evening, depending on how the actors feel, on how many spectators participate and, finally, on who is watching. If a theatrical piece uses the Internet as a stage—when a new site on the Internet is created and the medium becomes a space itself—the stage design becomes the interface that the audience gets on its computer screen. Those who are acting and watching are human beings in real space. Thus, the relationship between actor and audience has to be guaranteed as well. So, for the justification of making theatre in this new place, somehow one has to include the audience in the concept of stage de-sign and directing.
It is not absolutely necessary to build a whole new place on the Internet to perform a play. A stage can be situated in some of the existing rooms, or online meeting places. Performances have already taken place in the two text-based environments, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and MOO (Multi User Dimension Object Oriented), in the more "colorful" surroundings of the two-dimensional chat place "Palace," and with the use of CU-SeeMe videoconferencing soft-ware, which includes real time video and audio. But any existing place used was still fairly new for most of the participants. Examina-tion of these examples shows that there are some possibilities for how a theatrical project that includes the Internet in its concept can deal with the role of the audience, and that it might not always be easy for the audience members to understand how to behave.
One solution for this
uncertainty was found by Stuart Harris, one of the pioneers of Internet
theatre. The English actor, who now lives in California, discovered the
theatrical potential of IRC in 1993. In December of that year he made use
of Internet Relay Chat to per-form his "Hamnet," an experimental performance
of a parody on Shakespeare’s "Hamlet." For the performance, Harris created
a chat channel named #hamnet, where actors and spectators met on-line.
He then shortened Shakespeare’s text to eighty lines, and re-duced the
number of roles in Shakespeare’s script from seventeen to nine. While Harris
reduced the number of the players, he also added roles that he found to
be useful for staging in IRC: Exit, Drums, Col-ors, Prompter and Audience.
Harris gained publicity for this event in many ways, such as an announcement on USENET newsgroups and through appearances on American National Public Radio, local television interviews and newspaper coverage, and he tried to make this event public and at-tractive for IRC Users. Still, one insecurity remained: the behavior of the audience. People attending the performance because they had heard or read about it in traditional media might not know how to act in this place. On the other hand, there was the danger that spec-tators, especially those who participated because of their frequent attendance in IRC chats, would behave in a destructive manner.
Usually people on chat channels of IRC are known for their row-dy nature, of "coming and going" constantly and fooling around. This environment is an online meeting place that is accessed anony-mously. To get connected one chooses a "nickname" and thus easily creates his or her own identity. It is obvious that this "costuming" en-courages some people to act more thoughtlessly than they would in their real lives. This phenomenon is mainly found in newbies, i.e., people who are participating for the first time, who might be aston-ished by the new possibilities that suddenly open for them. It might seem to those people as if, even if they behave in a rowdy manner, nobody can hold them responsible for anything they do online. In the-atre terms, there is no usher to moderate their behavior or to force them to pay attention. The medium of online communication gener-ally tends to bring out sides of people that are hidden in their "real" lives. It allows people to talk about things they would never talk about. Some people may find it easier to reveal inner thoughts but also to criticize people. In one respect, online communication encour-ages people to be more honest; the open aspect of the medium offers a place for people who would be too shy in real life to articulate their thoughts. At the same time, this environment is merely a playground for others who may be interested only in joking around and attacking (flaming) others online.
Harris did not try to prevent negative behavior found on IRC channels. He allowed this risk to be included in his idea of the theatre performance in this environment. He even wrote lines in his script similar to the language that is used in an IRC chat. But he also was concerned about telling a part of the audience how to behave and re-act in certain moments. This idea served as a clever guideline to guarantee audience interaction, including at least some of the re-sponse that is necessary for a theatre performance. However, he did receive a genuine, positive response to his work from an audience who had no pre-made script in front of them.
A further example
of a theatre performance that took place in a online meeting environment,
a MOO, was NetSeduction, An Inter-active Theatrical Production, written
and directed by Steve Schrum. It was performed in October 1996 in ATHEMOO.3
The performance showed how to eliminate the gulf between actor and spectator.
An indication that Schrum had managed this task so elegantly was that one
of the audience members who had come to watch his sister per-form did not
realize that the play had already begun.
2. Supers: Audience members who
participate in the chat room talk-ing to each other or to the Players.6
A more clear outline or more active guidance during the per-formance might have been helpful. Such instructions help the spectators to get "into" the performance, to fulfill the intention of the production. Particularly when the spectators participating are not familiar with the medium, an introduction into the environ-ment and the play is needed before the start of the actual perfor-mance. This could be an integral part of the show itself, and func-tion as an extended playbill or program. In a traditional theatre, many people read the program during the time between being seated and the rise of the curtain. The purpose of providing a gen-eral lead-in to the performance is similar to that of a program. Because not all people take the time to read the program before the performance, a presentation of the instructions to the event can be employed instead of reading the program. Particularly in the case of using new unknown media it is helpful to have a speech or a time reserved to present some background informa-tion on the play and the environment.
Theatrical events using multimedia tools and the Internet serve to show a way of staging that is different from text based performances. Recent inventive projects demonstrated how to present a theatre production to a world-wide audience with the transmission of video and audio data. For example, J. Matthew Saunders from Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, VA) and Francesco Ver-dinelli from Italy showed how to apply RealAudio and CU-SeeMe software to traditional theatre performance. The videoconferencing software was developed originally to commu-nicate over long distances by sending live video and audio data. Both theatre projects, The Renaissance Man (March 1996)7 and Internet e Frammenti (November 1996)8 demonstrated ways to use this software and the medium. The audience could watch and listen to the performances synchronously from anywhere via their computer screens. Furthermore, Saunders included not only the possibility of watching the moving picture of the stage via the Internet but also had a "virtual" actress on his stage. She was connected to the stage by a video line, and appeared on a screen upstage. In this case one could watch not only real, but also vir-tual, actors performing.
The audience at their computer screens no longer had to ima-gine the action as they had in text-based environments, but in-stead watched pictures on their screen. Contrary to the projects mentioned above, the audience connected via the lines of the Internet had no opportunities to react to the action on the stage. The complex concepts of performance did not take into account any communication from spectator to actor, which is, as we have seen, very important when talking about the audience that is nec-essary to a theatre performance. The Internet was created to pro-vide worldwide information and interaction. When a play is per-formed in an online meeting place, it is not really necessary to give the audience a more active role than one usually would give his RL (real-life) audience, though this is an exciting point of this new media. What matters in the end is just to give them any role, a role similar to the one they have in real life theatre. The spectators of an Internet-Play do not have to be more interactive, but there should be the possibility for them to react to what is going on on the stage. The performance has to provide the same quantity of possible reactions as there are in a RL theatre. When speaking of net performances, the word interactive should include not only the performer’s possible use of the audience for the content of the play but the performer’s consciousness of the audience’s presence and response.
The exclusion of the audience when using multimedia tools seemed to result from the fear that any response would disturb the flow of the performance. This is understandable because the feedback can soon get out of control when the audience uses vid-eo-cameras and microphones to broadcast their movements and noises. Such a quantity of information of sound and pictures is easy to process in a real life playhouse. But given the current stat-us of Internet bandwidth, this could overload the lines quickly and effect the exclusion of some of the audience members from watch-ing. In addition to this, the fact that many people might not have the equipment to produce a proper reaction, reduces the number of possible audience members, should this idea be included in the concept.
One reason for this
uncertainty is that theatre professionals themselves at this time are not
used to being members of a cyber-audience. Because it seems so unpredictable
how the virtual aud-ience will react, it is not easy to define the role
of the audience in theatrical scripts and concepts. This audience is new
and un-known, much like the new audience that evolved as a result of the
revolution in 1917 in Russia, about which Constantin Stanislavsky stated
in his book, My Life in Art:
Some basic rules for an audience participating via the lines of the Internet have to be clarified as well: a moral standard of how to behave on the Internet generally, and guidelines on how to move and act in the environment chosen for the performance. Additionally, special guidelines may be necessary for the audience, depending on the concept of a performance and the software application that is used.
The moral rules are called "Netiquette," the "Etiquette" on the Internet, that are some basic ideas similar to common behaviors. As mentioned above, it is easier to flame somebody, or to criticize a cre-ative work, speech or performance while being online, than it is in real life, so this aspect needs certain attention. Conversely, it is not always easy to prevent such destructive behavior. The request to tol-erate what others are doing and, even more so, to support the pio-neering work in this new medium does not sound fundamentally new for our society. These rules simply need to be adapted for the new media and must be included somehow into the concept and presenta-tion for a new audience.
In the case of people attending a theatrical performance in cy-berspace, some other rules than Netiquette must be used and appear to have even more importance. To exist, each theatre performance has to include at least one actor, a role, a spectator and the unity of time and space of playing and watching. So it is obvious that the con-nection between actor and spectator is absolutely necessary for a theatre performance to occur. Roles for the human beings portraying actor and spectator on the Internet need specific modifications for every production, depending on the software used and on the inten-tion of the performance concept.
The synchronous connection between actor and spectator en-sures the unity of space and the unity of time. In RL theatre this con-nection is usually established by the architecture of the playhouse that brings actor and spectator into the same room at the same time and offers the possibility for communication. This task could also be carried out by the lines of the Internet that bring actor and spectator into the same room—a virtual room—simultaneously. In both cases the spectator is able to watch the performance of the actor at the same time it is happening and the actor should also see and hear the spectator watching him or her.
People accessing online performances because of their interest in theatre may be less familiar with the environment that was chosen for the performance. Before being taught moral rules, they have to be told how to behave in the communication environment to find a way to express their feelings and reactions in an appropriate way and to prevent them from staying silent. If the software allows them to convey their reactions but they do not use this potentiality, it would be the same as if they simply were not there or were not given those possibilities.
Being present in cyberspace means telling the program you are using to access the performance that you are present so that this in-formation can be relayed to the actors or other audience members. Telling the program implies that the program passes that informa-tion along to the other participants. So the pure presence is not so easy to achieve as it seems, because we are not used to being present in virtual space yet. The way to deal with this in the new media still has to be determined by experience. Until these behaviors are more commonplace, a theatre production has to tell the spectator first how to behave in the chosen software environment to make himself or herself visible. Not until these basics are clear can the production concept call for further elaboration and improvisation by the audi-ence members.
Spending some time on the training of the audience results in a wider range of possibilities during the performance. With enough trust in the facilities of his audience one can include every effect that the environment and the software provide. Then, no reduction will result and one can go even further and encourage the audience to be interactive. Following the (active) presence of the audience, there are no further limitations for the performer’s possible use of that audience. We have seen attempts at this in the groundbreaking ex-amples mentioned above. These attempts succeeded best when the participants were familiar with the way to behave and could deal with what was asked of them.
Audience brings life
to the theatre space. In the present state of the development of Internet
theatre, what we really need from the audience is their presence. We want
to make sure that the event we constitute really reaches its intended recipients.
But then the audi-ence has to have the possibility to affect the performance
as it un-folds. Undoubtedly, the various possibilities of virtual theatre
are still to be explored. Fortunately, not only the development of the
technical potentiality but also the numbers of experiments with thea-tre
in the Internet are growing day by day. Due to limitations of space, I
have omitted many skillful examples of Internet theatre and ways to deal
with the cyber-audience that have occurred. I am sure many more will follow
and with each new theatre event the nature of a cyber-audience can be understood
1 "The early seeds of ‘interactivity’ are found in the work of Russian stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold. By exploding the artistic convention of the frame—for example, proscenium arches in the theatre—he made unpre-cedented dynamic connections to his audience. This link features a virtual re-ality walk-through of the theatre designed by Meyerhold. One of the earliest examples of architectural ‘interactivity,’ the theatre was never actually com-pleted." From Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre. "Meyerhold’s Visionary Theater," http://ibm.park.org/vrml.html (16 January 1997).
2 Both art fields are characterized by communicating through the form of the medium they are using. Communicative content is often no longer mediated in a traditional way, but in a more artistic, more visual way. Mail, for example, does not have to use letters for writing, but sometimes the object sent transfers the message. How this object can look contains a high range of possibilities, from special drawn pictures to sunglasses, or even bigger objects. In fax art, some artists sent little Christmas trees, drawn with only the use of ASCII text, through fax machines at Christmas time.
3 ATHEMOO was designed by Dr. Juli Burk, and is supported by the Uni-versity of Hawaii at Manoa and ATHE (the Association of Theatre in Higher Education). It has existed since June 1995.
4 Recording of the Second performance of NetSeduction (edited), Start: Saturday, 12 October 1996 5:53:32 am ATHEMOO time (HST). 31 December 1996, http://www2.hn.psu.edu/Faculty/SSchrum/RMTCo/2ndPerf.html.
5 Schrum, Recording of Second performance (edited), http://www2.hn.psu.edu/Faculty/SSchrum/RMTCo/NetSeduction.html.
6 ___ , http://www2.hn.psu.edu/Faculty/SSchrum/RMTCo/NetSeduc-tion.html.
7 J. Matthew Saunders, The Renaissance Man, http://dogstar.bevd. blacksburg.va.us/Ren/RenMan1.html.
8 "Welcome Page," Rag-Doll Produzione. http://www.ragdoll.it/index. htm.
9 A good example for the provocation of a loud and clear reaction of the audience is the Volksb�hne Berlin, run by Frank Castorf. During plays staged in his theatre the audience might experience—besides provoking state-ments—milk spilled on them in the auditorium. Another example was the burning of a body of a dead pig during half of a play. The smelling of burnt flesh would have been hard to stand for any longer period of time. Any of this could easily motivate a spectator to leave the audience, and when he does the actors stop playing a second and wave good bye to the people leaving.
10 Some of
the ideas described in this article were inspired and strength-ened by
a discussion I had on the COLLAB-L listserv in spring of 1996 (COL-LAB-L@LISTS.PSU.EDU)
with Rick Sacks and Steve Schrum (the list-owner), and by MOO discussions
Boal, Augusto. Theater der Unterdr�ckten, �bungen und Spiele f�r Schauspieler und Nicht-Schauspieler. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1979 und 1989.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
Braun, Edward. Meyerhold on Theatre. London: Methuen & Co., 1969.
Cassese, Matteo. "Welcome Page." Rag-Doll Produzione. http://www.ragdoll.fnc.net/index.htm (15 June 1997).
Danet, Brenda, Tsameret Wachenhauser, Haya Bechar-Israeli, Amos Civi-dalli, and Yehudit Rosenbaum-Tamari. "Curtain Time 20:00 GMT: Experiments with Virtual Theater on Internet Relay Chat." Journal of Computer Mediated Communication. http://www.usc.edu/dept/ annenberg/vol1/issue2/perform.html#Audience (2 March 1997).
Gertrude Stein Repertory Theatre. "Meyerhold’s Visionary Theater." Digi-tal University. http://ibm.park.org/vrml.html (16 January 1997).
Leach, Robert Vsevolod Meyerhold. Cambridge University Press, 1989.
X, Robert Adrian. "Elektronischer Raum." Kunstforum 103, 1989. Transla-tion from the Catalogue Online, Kunst im Netz, Graz: Steirische Kulturinitiative, 1993, p. 36.
Saunders, J. Matthew. The Renaissance Man. Virginia Tech Theater Arts-University Theatre. http://dogstar.bevd.blacksburg.va.us/Ren/Ren-Man1.html (22 June 1997).
Schrum, Steve. Recording of Second performance (edited). NetSeduction. Rational Mind Theatre Company. http://www2.hn.psu.edu/Faculty/SSchrum/RMTCo/2ndPerf.html (31 December 1996).
Stanislavsky, Constantin. My Life in Art. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, no date.