- Theatre in a Media Culture: Production, Performance, and Perception Since 1970
Technology determines how we understand reality. Amy Peterson Jenson’s Theatre in a Media Culture is predicated on the idea that “the contemporary theatre audience’s acceptance of staged reality is governed by the constructs that are learned by the general populace through the assimilation of media’s forms into their collective unconscious” (188). In other words, theatre that doesn’t address contemporary people in the communication modes that shape all other facets of their world is doomed to failure. Theatre has always embraced the latest technology (obvious examples include vaulted, freestanding Roman theatres relieved of the necessity of resting in hillsides because of engineering; neoclassical perspective scenery in action; gas lighting; photorealism). But today, technology is not subservient to but rather constitutive of everyday perception: no one can escape television, iPods, ATM machines, surveillance cameras in stores, the web, video games, YouTube—you name it. So, the point for theatre is not (and probably never has been) to represent mere physical realities with virtuosity, but “to accurately communicate cultural realities” (50). “Theatrical performance,” writes Jensen, “must reflect and even cite other forms to remain culturally viable—that is, to have power” (132). Her fascinating case studies include works by Robert Wilson, Ping Chong, and Laurie Anderson; audience performances at screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and The Sound of Music sing along; haute couture runways as sites of theatre; Leonard Foglia’s production of the opera Dead Man Walking with projection designs by Elaine McCarthy; and the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas.
For readers concerned that Jensen has fast-forwarded past drama qua drama, the book also addresses plays by David Mamet, Adrienne Kennedy, and Anna Deavere Smith that interrogate and deploy mediatization as psychic invader and as cultural concept. Mamet’s Speed the Plow and Kennedy’s A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White address the presence of film in American life and ask audiences to reflect on both the poison and the promise of Hollywood’s products. Mamet’s play demonizes mass entertainment and, perhaps not so ironically, does so in a medium (drama for the stage) where platitudes about commodification still ring true rather than ironic. Kennedy’s misunderstood heroine can only construct and tell her own story by means of the shared iconography of Hollywood stars. In each case, of course, the success of the play depends on audiences recognizing the industry and its icons in order to enter the playwrights’ discourse. Anna Deavere Smith, known for taping, editing, and performing ordinary as well as famous Americans present at and around historic flashpoints, claims that her work is language-based. But Jensen points out that Smith’s own techniques of gathering, editing, collaging, and presentation mimic in every way the work of cinematographers, documentary filmmakers, and newscasters. Smith’s work is, in other words, stage art for the age of mechanical reproduction. Indeed, notes Jensen, House Arrest, Smith’s piece about the US presidency and modern presidents’ ubiquitous surveillance and performance for the camera, came under fire for failing to keep up with news. Smith sought to insert new material as it was breaking, but she could never work as fast as the eleven o’clock news (not to mention the Internet), creating a conundrum within the very problem she sought to expose.
The book is most provocative—in all senses—in its treatment of theatre as cultural product. The chapter “Nostalgia as Theatrical Presence and Commodity” examines the Broadway productions of Sunset Boulevard and The Producers with an eye to how the “new mediated theatre business caters to a tourist-consumer industry that has usurped the elite, literary-conscious theatre audiences of the [End Page 647] mid-twentieth century” (91). There is no question that “interpreted nostalgia”—the sort that seeks not merely to reproduce surface details of a past era, but to frame a response based on a certain distancing of that past that enables it...