- Editorial Comment: Digital Media and Performance
As Steve Dixon has observed in his influential book Digital Performance,1 which is cited frequently in this issue of Theatre Journal, the 1990s represented a high-water mark in digital performance. That decade saw an explosion of innovation and euphoria surrounding the use of digital technologies—video projections, MIDI-triggered images and audio, sensors, telematics—in live performance events and performative installation art.
All five essays in this special issue on digital media and performance focus on work created during the subsequent decade—that is, the first decade of the twenty-first century—though in most cases, this work was produced by groups who achieved their first successes in the 1990s or earlier. As Dixon suggests, from a technological standpoint, there have been few radically new developments during this period. With the collapse of the dot-com industry, followed by the sobering mood that followed 9/11, the euphoria abated. Nonetheless, the use of digital technology in performance, from Broadway and West End theatre to rock concerts, has persisted and indeed become increasingly commonplace as digital technology itself has become vastly more ubiquitous, affordable, and accessible to nonexperts in this era of iPods, iPhones, Second Life, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter.
The first three essays focus on extremely well-known groups that have integrated media with live performance in innovative and influential ways: the Builders Association, the Wooster Group, and the Blue Man Group. All created significant work in the 1990s (and, in the case of the Wooster Group, even earlier) and are still going strong today. All are icons of postmodernism, using media to interrogate modernist assumptions about unified identity and performative presence.
The Builders Association incorporates spectacular video projections, both real-time and pre-recorded. Leslie Atkins Durham’s essay focuses on one of their most famous and frequently discussed works, Alladeen (2002–05), about Bangalore call-center workers who adopt American personas in their telephonic interactions with customers calling from the United States. The production uses media to present documentary footage of actual Bangalore operators, and also to explore the dramatized workers’ construction of global identities, specifically the American identities the call-center workers appropriated from the popular sitcom Friends. The production’s combination of live performance and video vividly highlights the mutually dependent relationship between fiction and reality, and between presence and representation.
The next essay, by Johan Callens, focuses on the Wooster Group, one of the first theatre groups to combine live performance with video. (Indeed, as Theresa Smalec notes in a book review included in this issue, Elizabeth LeCompte, the Wooster Group’s director, began working with video as early as 1975, as an actor in the Performance Group’s production The Marilyn Project, directed by Richard Schechner.) Specifically, the essay focuses on the Wooster Group’s recent Hamlet, a production that has already attracted more critical attention than any of the company’s work since the 1980s. This production is not so much a version of Hamlet as it is an encounter with, and a living reproduction of, John Gielgud’s 1964 stage production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton, specifically as filmed by Bill Colleran. Callens’s essay, rich in insights and historical information, analyzes the production as a “performance of compulsive mourning” that works through a series of cultural and personal traumatic losses. The most distinctive and compelling aspect of the essay, however, is its form, which echoes the Wooster Group’s aesthetic by adopting a rigorously focused [End Page 1] but highly associative structure. The essay follows a thread of associations encompassing a multiplicity of visual artworks, films, and novels depicted or alluded to within the production and its various promotional materials, such as, among many others, Andy Warhol’s silkscreens of Liz Taylor, Kathe Burkart’s Liz Taylor Series of paintings, the film Nurse Betty, and Marguerite Nelson’s novel Hollywood Nurse.
The Blue Man Group, like the Builders Association and the Wooster Group, originated Off-Off Broadway in New York City and has attracted critical renown. However, while it continues to evince its avant-garde roots, it has acquired a broad mainstream appeal and commercial success, with regular appearances on...