- Virtual Theatres: An Introduction
Virtual Theatres: An Introduction positions itself as the first full-length investigation of theatre and digital media, analyzing performances that not only incorporate the virtual but are becoming completely virtual in and of themselves. Performance in the twenty-first century, as analyzed in Gabriella Giannachi's book, has been rapidly ushered into the era of the simulacrum. Viewers are not so much "liberated from the canon and the dramaturgy of theatre arts or even life, but . . . continuously performing the simulation of that liberation, and thereby continuously re-enacting their own performance of the medium, creating an actual theatre, a theatre of virtual reality" (8). The virtual theatres studied in Giannachi's book place the viewer not only inside the work of art, but also in the position of "operating it, possibly even modifying it, in real time and being modified by it in return" (8). Giannachi, a senior lecturer in drama at Exeter University, has created a very compelling introduction to this emerging area of theatre, performance studies, and digital media.
The "virtual" in Giannachi's Virtual Theatres is understood as operating within the real, yet simultaneously "perceived as separate from it" (123). The virtual thus "consists of a dichotomous paradox, torn between its ontological status which locates it as part of the real and its aesthetic, through which it demonstrates its difference from the real" (123). Virtual theatres, Giannachi argues, "multiply and disperse the viewer's point of view, thus creating the simulation of a condition that the viewer also experiences in the real" (10). Giannachi's expansive definition of the virtual allows for a reading of a variety of performances, which are grouped into five well-focused and thoroughly engaging chapters: "Hypertextualities," "Cyborg theatre," "The (re-) creation of nature," "Performing through the hypersurface," and "Towards an aesthetic of virtual reality." She situates these chapters through a carefully laid out introduction, chronicling virtual performances and their accompanying theories. By linking Vsevolod Meyerhold's biomechanical actor and the forms employed by Bauhaus, Dada, and cubism to the theories of Marshall McLuhan, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Brenda Laurel, Jon McKenzie, and Sue-Ellen Case, Giannachi lays a foundation of virtual performance upon which to analyze an array of performances.
Giannachi's selection of performances is one of the strongest attributes of the book. For example, in her first chapter, Giannachi examines the interactive CD-ROM performance by Forced Entertainment, one of Britain's foremost experimental theatre groups. Her description of the performance piece, combined with her thoughtful theoretical analysis and the book's crisp images from the CD-ROM, allow access to the virtual performance for those who have not encountered such convergences of theatre and digital media. In this digital performance, images function as clues to a hidden narrative, requiring the viewer to search the digital stage for various narrative connections. Yet in Forced Entertainment's interactive drama, set on the mostly vacant streets of an urban landscape, the viewer is only engaging with "leftover traces" of an event that has already taken place; thus, "all the viewer can witness is its aftermath" (37). Since, quoting Peggy Phelan, "'History has already happened and the spectator-witness is left to decipher its elusive causes and meanings'" (37), the process of narrative construction can "neither be completed nor fully grasped . . . the viewer is obviously excluded from the seminal act" (38). Although these performances are labeled as interactive or hypertextual—thus implying a degree of audience agency in narrative construction—they exclude the audience from this seminal act of meaning making.
Interactivity, as analyzed in other moments of the book, seems to take on the opposite effect, allowing an unprecedented level of audience agency in the performance. In chapter two, Giannachi discusses the work of performance artist Selarc, who connected himself simultaneously to the Internet and a muscle-stimulation system, allowing users to remotely move parts of his body. In this performance, interactivity allows the body to be positioned at the crossroads of "inside and outside, where everything is outside and the inside is...