The Future from Where You Are Now

by Hank Willenbrink

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for The Future from Where You Are Now

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Every semester, I ask my Introduction to Theatre students a question about innovation.  Imagine what theatre will be like 20 years from now:  what will you be seeing?  What technological innovations will influence productions?  What are ticket prices?  And, every semester, I get one or two students who vehemently assert that the next generation of theatre will be revolutionized with the introduction of 3D technology.  After I’ve deducted points, lived through the pang of guilt that I’ve failed them as a teacher, and reminded them that their life is in 3D, I find myself sympathetic to the reasoning (however flawed it may be) behind their answer.  In those students’ minds, and I think in the minds of many, theatre is not nearly as technologically sophisticated as film.  It makes sense that in twenty years “lowly” theatre would be finally “catching up” with what’s hot in film.  And, think of what that merge will finally do!  I mean Warhorse was great, but can you imagine if the horse was CGI?  Mind = blown. 

Well, it’d be just like the movie.

And though I’ve gotten wiser and added a mini-lecture about the differences between 2D and 3D with a nod to Marshall McLuhan, almost all the answers to this question about innovation have to do with technology – new theatre designs which enable you to see everything on stage, LED walls with live-feed, comfortable seats that put you, literally, in the action.  In the future, theatre will be a live-action roller coaster rock concert.  Oh, and tickets will be ridiculously expensive.

At the core of what my students want is a new way of seeing, of experiencing, of being there.  What intrigues me is how personalized this vision is—how technology invites us to interact on a personal basis rather than as a communal function.  It makes sense for 18-21 year olds to think of theatre on this spectacular and individual level as so much of their interactions are tied up to similar experiences.  Why shouldn’t theatre interact with them the way a smart phone does?  Wouldn’t it be innovative if it did?  Technology is the elephant in the room when it comes to these sorts of questions.  And, it raises more questions, particularly with regards to the communal nature of theatre.

Historically, theatre has been less adaptive toward technology and more inclusive of it.  In The Dramatic Imagination, for example, Robert Edmund Jones proposes that a synthesis of theatre and film can draw an audience into the experience of the unconscious. Jones states, “Our present forms of drama and theatre are not adequate to express our newly enlarged consciousness of life.”  At this time the “enlarged consciousness of life” had to do with nascent psychological ideas, which Jones calls the “objective world of actuality and the subjective world of motive.”  His futuristic vision calls for both film and theatre to operate in tandem: “On the stage we shall see the actual characters of the drama; on the screen we shall see their hidden secret selves.”  Rather than proposing that theatre respond to the technological innovation of film, Jones argues instead for a new dramatic form utilizing technological tools.  Innovation needs a form to give it life just as the form must accept innovation to keep going:  “All art moves toward this new synthesis of actuality and dream.”

But (and this is a rather big “but”) innovation is not totalizing nor uniform.

Consider this:  In 1997, when ska had been dealt a serious blow stateside by the death of Brad Nowell, the lead singer of Sublime, it finally made its way into central Arkansas, where I grew up.  The introduction spawned a mini-renaissance where high school students started up ska bands, founded a DIY space, and homemade tapes were sold for allowances.

Had we taken those ska bands to California, doubtless they wouldn’t have been as innovative as they were to those of us sweating in the Sounds Stage every Saturday night until emo bands became the next big thing.  Were the bands derivative and imitative rather than innovative?  Probably, but we were convinced that they were something new.  The existence of the genre outside of our little music scene just served to affirm rather than discourage the ground breaking that we were doing.  Ska, at least a decade old in the states and older in England, innovated a particular community regardless of its standing elsewhere.

Or consider this: In April 2012, I attended the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro in Bogotá.  One production stood out:  Donka: A Letter to Chekov directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca—a whimsical romp of circus, acrobatics, and imagistic spectacle billed as a letter to Chekov. When the production wound up at BAM in November of the same year, Charles Isherwood’s NY Times review was cool, at best, as he wondered “where’s the Chekov?”  Isherwood praised the spectacle, but lodged the critique that the production doesn’t appeal to literary sensibilities.  In Bogotá, Donka had been the toast of the festival, whereas at BAM, the production was seen as flawed.

It would be easy to write off the disparity between Isherwood’s review and the audience’s response to Donka as cultural differences and critical preferences.  But this feels simplistic.  Many of us have said after a show:  “that would have better in a bigger/smaller/more intimate space.”  Could someone rightly critique that a show would be better in a different city, state, country?  If materialism is correct in asserting that we make meaning as soon as we come in contact with a play, then the geography of that play must, in part, determine its reception. 

Evolutionary scientists have an entire field, memetics, dedicated to figuring out how ideas move. The idea behind memetics, proposed by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, is that we can understand how life works by looking at the replication of ideas. Memes (think of them as complex ideas with legs) are analogous to genes as they spread by replicating, combining, infecting, and of course evolving.  Memes replicate through hosts like culture, spawn themselves in the brain, compete for attention, and propagate through imitation.  Not all memes catch on everywhere at the same time.  The “infosphere,” through which memes travel, runs parallel to the biosphere where genes move.  James Gleick’s Smithsonian article oozes with the mythic potentiality of this “infosphere” when he states:  “We humans, alone among the earth’s organic creatures, live in [the biosphere and infosphere] at once. It is as though, having long coexisted with the unseen, we have begun to develop the needed extrasensory perception. We are aware of the many species of information. We name their types sardonically, as though to reassure ourselves that we understand: urban myths and zombie lies. We keep them alive in air-conditioned server farms. But we cannot own them.”

Perhaps not, but we can try to generate them.  Memetic theory touches on questions that theatre makers ask themselves each time we sit in the rehearsal room, at the computer, or tread the boards:  how do I capture attention and, in so doing, communicate ideas?  Naomi Iizuka teaches that salient details enable the audience’s attention to be caught. Gaston Bachelard best describes a salient detail in The Poetics of Space when he states:  “The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche.”  The beauty of the salient detail can be found in its elegant, economic triggering of imagination capturing through a moment, a line, a gesture, an image that which draws an audience into a character, conflict, setting and defining and opening in the same well-wrought creation.  To be sure, artistic creation is not memetic creation; however, the analogous desire—to capture attention—is there.  Our carriers are the audience who we try to dazzle, intrigue, employ, cajole, console, affect, wake up, tear down barriers to, lodge questions in, stick in their craw, push, pull, elevate, evolve as the case may be. 

Could we create an experience which gives us access to the infosphere as Jones suggests synthesis of theatre and film could bring us to the horizon between dreams and actuality?  In watching a play, aren’t we already there?  Whether it’s the unconscious or the info realm, won’t there be always something beyond us that defies representation that we will try to represent? “I write these messages that come,” Maria Irene Fornes states.  To write them is the innovative act as it actualizes the ineffable into the affective.  Asking what the future of theatre will be is a Rorschach test for asking where you want yourself to be in the future.  What will the future of your experience be?  The answer is always based on where you are now.


Hank Willenbrink is a playwright with degrees from the University of Tulsa and the University of California, Santa Barbara. His play The Boat in the Tiger Suit will premiere at The Brick (NYC) this August. He co-edited the forthcoming anthology of Spanish & Portuguese language writers entitled Palabras: Dispatches from the Festival de la Palabra (NoPassport Press). Hank teaches at the University of Scranton and co-founded the music blog We Listen For You (welistenforyou.com).