Theatre Topics 11.2 (2001) 107-130
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Interactive Technology and Theatre
David Z. Saltz
In the past century, film, radio, and video technologies gave rise to new forms of dramatic expression and a global entertainment industry. In the past decade, interactive media technologies have been producing an artistic and cultural revolution of similar, if not greater, proportions. Interactive media are giving birth to new art forms, and the practice and history of theatre has a great deal to contribute to these new forms. 1 As I have argued elsewhere, the way that current digital artists valorize the concept of "interactivity" relates closely to the way theatre and performance artists have long valorized the concept of "liveness." Digital artists strive to define interactive experiences in much the same way, and perhaps for many of the same reasons, as did creators of Happenings and environmental theatre in the 1960s (Saltz, "Interaction").
The primary focus of this paper, however, is not the role of theatre in interactive media but the role of interactive media in theatre--"theatre" here referring to the old-fashioned, nonparticipatory Western performance genre in which a group of live performers gathers before a group of live spectators to enact a scripted play. My central concern is not with the interaction between spectators (the "end users") and media but rather the interaction between performers and media. Theatrical productions can define this interaction in a wide range of radically different ways. To illustrate the range of options, I will draw on examples from productions that I have directed over the past three years under the auspices of the University of Georgia's Interactive Performance Laboratory. In the end, I hope to show not only that incorporating interactive technology into theatre opens dynamic new possibilities for theatre artists, but more deeply that it compels us to reexamine some of our most basic assumptions about the nature of theatre and the meaning of liveness.
Defining Interactive Media
First I wish to establish just what interactive media technology means in this context. By interactive media, I refer to sounds and images stored, and in many cases created, on a computer, which the computer produces in response to a live performer's actions. The tricky part is specifying exactly how such media are different, functionally, from older, purportedly noninteractive media, [End Page 107] which I call linear media. After all, on some level, even analog devices such as tape recorders, VCRs, and film projectors are interactive: an operator interacts with controls to call forth specific sounds and images.
Three crucial features distinguish interactive media from linear media:
1) Random access. Digital technologies (even simple ones such as audio CDs and DVDs) allow almost instantaneous movement between noncontiguous media segments. To this extent, virtually all musical instruments are interactive media devices. A pianist or guitarist, for example, can move very rapidly between arbitrary notes. By contrast, the operator of an audio or video tape deck must advance through information sequentially to get from one segment to another.
2) An arbitrary link between trigger and output. Since computers store and manipulate sounds, images, and everything else in the same form--as binary information--there is no innate, mechanical connection between the media content and the input that triggers it as there is in the case of both acoustic musical instruments and analog media devices such as tape decks. Fingers plucking strings directly produce a guitar's sounds, much as light shining through translucent film directly produces cinematic images. By contrast, a computer can use any kind of input (keyboard, mouse, tactile sensor, motion detector, or anything else that feeds data into it) to trigger any kind of output (sounds, images, lights, motor control). Furthermore, a single input can trigger any number of outputs, allowing for highly coordinated control of multiple media elements.
3) Media manipulation. The most powerful feature of interactive media stems from our ability to write programs that manipulate digital information based on input. Consequently, a trigger need not have an invariable, one-to-one relation to the media it produces. I can program a...