- Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre
These days, even audiences at traditional theatre tend to encounter “new media”—a term encompassing cell phones, CDs, virtual communities, and other digital technologies. Recent scholarship catalogs the diversity of new media practices and examines their evolving relationship to performance. Yet, argues Greg Giesekam in his introduction to Staging the Screen, theatre’s more established use of electronic media has garnered less rigorous attention: “[t[here has been little systematic exploration of the variety of ways in which the introduction of film or video into theatre may radically alter approaches to mise-en-scène, dramaturgy, performance, modes of production and spectatorship; neither has there been much discussion of the similarities and differences between work with film and work with video” (7).
Giesekam defines “multimedia” productions as ones that utilize film, video, or other media alongside live performance in much the same ways as costume, lighting, or sets are used, “to locate the action and suggest particular interpretive approaches to it” (8). By contrast, “intermedia” productions feature “extensive interaction” between performers and media, often to the extent that neither the live nor recorded material “would make much sense without the other” (8). The author contends that this basic interdependence challenges efforts to isolate theatre from film and video. This gives rise to the central question explored in his book: “Is it possible to create work that acknowledges and even exploits . . . electronic media, but does not leave its audience either seduced or overwhelmed, deprived of capacity for critical thought?” (19).
“European Pioneers” is the first of Giesekam’s nine, historically organized chapters. Germanborn Erwin Piscator is known for his vanguard integration of film into theatre beginning in the 1920s, but Giesekam’s research points to an earlier innovator. In 1904, the French filmmaker Georges Méliès was commissioned by the Folies-Bergère to create a film for one of its revues. Unlike Piscator, whose “Total Theatre” was fueled by sociopolitical concerns, Méliès engendered a distinct tradition of spectacle. Several of his best-known pieces, such as A Trip to the Moon (1902), were “fantastic journey films” (29), precursors of both science fiction and the road-movie genre. For decades, cinema scholars portrayed Méliès as “some sort of primitive” [End Page 648] whose work relied upon “the thrill of display” (31). Giesekam observes that cinema history’s anti-theatrical bias “finds a perverse echo” (32) in some of today’s critical claims that intermedia theatre lacks narrative depth.
In chapter 2, Giesekam discusses scenographer Josef Svoboda’s interest in technological innovations as a means of expanding spectators’ perceptions of reality. While Piscator used film’s emerging documentary tradition to historicize the action in his productions, Svoboda went further with his notion of polyscenicness: “a many-sided time-space operation, in which one and the same action is observed from several optical and ideational angles” (53). Perception remains central in chapter 3, which opens with an anecdote about Nam June Paik buying a Sony PortaPak video camera in 1965, on its first day of sales, and reportedly videotaping the pope, who was visiting New York, and then showing the results that night at Café au Go Go, “thus begetting the video art movement” (72). However, before exploring the revolutionary impact of portable video-recording systems, Giesekam outlines two major artistic developments of the preceding decade: happenings and fluxus events. Just eight pages long, this chapter feels perfunctory; many famous practitioners of intermedia art are named though not discussed in detail.
The last six chapters are detailed case studies of current intermedia theatre practitioners. To preface his chapter on the Wooster Group, Giesekam cites Elizabeth LeCompte’s 1987 remark that “television just wasn’t being used in the theatre” (79) when she began putting television monitors on stage in Route 1 & 9 (1981). Although the author duly notes “the wealth of intermedial performance and video art” that paved the way...