Theatrical Reception and the Formation of Twenty-first-Century Perception: A Case Study for the iGeneration
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Theatrical Reception and the Formation of Twenty-first-Century Perception:
A Case Study for the iGeneration

“As we connect with each other, with objects, and with data across material and digital landscapes, these hybrid spaces are transforming the ways we conceive of embodied space. The stakes related to the ways we conceive of embodied space are significant, including the ways we imagine identity, community, and cultural objects we create, including art, games, performance and narrative.”

—Jason Farman (Mobile Interface Theory 15)

In 2012 Will Lewis attended a conference roundtable on new media and theatre promoted as “multidisciplinary.” Unexpectedly, the panelist’s discussion quickly devolved into palpable fear of theatre departments’ dissolution due to the “encroachment” of interdisciplinarity with film and media studies departments. The fear in the room was alarming. However, during the question-and-answer session, one attendee resisted the narrative of anxiety by reframing the conversation. He offered an anecdote illustrating a new way of approaching the future. The story encouraged a novel outlook on the inclusion of digital media in theatre, one where theatre practitioners, critics, and educators are willing to adapt to the pervasive nature of mobile and social technology. He asked the room to make a gesture for how they would make something bigger. Nearly every person in the room, a majority of whom appeared to be in their late 40s or older, raised their hands and widened their reach outward by roughly four feet. Continuing, he then explained how his 3-year-old niece responded when asked the same question: “She raised one hand slightly in a pinched gesture and moved her thumb and forefinger outward about two inches.”

This child represents the emergence of a future generation of performance spectators. Her generation perceives the world not from the same practical, tangible, “real” (actual/material) world of those born before the mid-1990s. Previous generations first experienced the world removed from the digital and the virtual; they were instead inscripted via a culture based in the live and actual that was perceived through the screens of their own eyes without constant digital remediation. The generation coming of age today was raised in digital cultures whose primary media source is the internet, delivered via multiple pervasive interfaces. For them, perception and thought process are forever altered by a chipping away at the “capacity for concentration and contemplation” (Carr 6).

As coauthors, we belong to two different generations: one resides at the end of Generation X, and the other is firmly in Generation Y.1 One’s proximity to the next generation forces him to live in a tenuous cultural temporality, looking forward though also anxiously holding back, and the other is deeply rooted in her cultural paradigm. The gap between our individual ways of perceiving the world has proven fruitful in our ongoing collaborative investigation into performance and its relationship with different cultural expectations. Working together forces us to contemplate how each generation approaches the world differently and allows us to look forward so that we can adapt to new worldviews. As scholar-artists interested in cultural divides, we are attempting through this essay to explain how current trends toward digital culture affect the potential future of theatre. Our [End Page 123] primary mode of inquiry is to consider how social networking has become a pervasive presence in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-aware, and hyper-real worldview. We hope that our writing will urge other artists and scholars to contemplate how the pervasiveness of social connections made digitally are affecting the ways in which all theatrical performance is received and produced.

This essay explores both the effect and affect of mobile digital technology on the understanding of the self (extrapolated out to the audience) in the age of digital social media. To do so, we begin from an understanding of media “both as technologies including infrastructures and as processes of sense-making” (Couldry and Hepp 5) that form the social reality of the current world.2 In the late 1990s Nicolas Bourriaud presciently foretold the current era of sociability through the digital as a coming fundamental shift in the ways of operating in the world, warning...