On October 10, 1881, the Savoy Theatre in London opened its doors for the first time with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. Though the popularity of their comedic operas cannot be denied, the attraction that particular night was not entirely for the performance.
That evening, the Savoy was the first theatre, and in fact the first public building in the world, to be lit entirely by electricity. This made the experience of going to the theatre much more enjoyable as the atmosphere, due to the absence of gaslights, was significantly cooler, and smelled a whole hell of a lot better. By the end of the 19th century, most theatres had made the switch over from gas to electric lights.
We need only think about Adolph Appia and his visionary theories of lighting (many of which weren’t even possible during his lifetime) to mark the significance of this event at the Savoy. Also, there’s a good reason Broadway is referred to as ‘The Great White Way’, and it’s not because of its predominate audience demographic.
Over the course of history, the theatre has embraced, and very often, led the charge when it came to new innovations. Theatre artists have always been at the forefront of cultural tides, and more often than not, were the ones who forged the paths into the future.
We currently find ourselves in challenging times. Systems everywhere are breaking down: politically, economically, and culturally. Both the not-for-profits in the US and the subsidized theatres in the EU have been facing harsh realities ever since the 2008 crisis. Nothing is ‘business as usual’ anymore, and all of this impacts those who create and cultivate art from the top down.
The good news is that theatre makers now have a new set of toys to play with in order to better communicate and collaborate. Due in part to the advances in technology, many borders and barriers that existed only ten years ago are gone, and artists all over the world are reaching out to connect.
Back in 2003, there was no Skype, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or iPhone (or pods or pads). People would have looked at you funny if you said things like ‘crowd sourcing’ or ‘blogging’ or ‘googling’.
Jump to 2013, and emailing and texting have become the primary forms of communication. No one goes anywhere without their smart phone (often checking it first thing in the morning and last thing at night). There is even a mandatory announcement in the theatre to tell people to turn all electronic devices off.
Regardless of your ‘for or against’ position on the subject, the fact is that these technological innovations are here to stay, and as theatre artists we have a great opportunity, and maybe even responsibility, to embrace them.
Over the last decade, I’ve had the great opportunity to explore some of these new technologies, and I believe these new tools can help us, both as an artists and administrators, to make better theater. Having been the artistic director of two international companies, having access to the easiest, fastest and cheapest new technology was critical in our ability to work together.
Artists want to make their work, and they also want to share it with an audience, so naturally, my first experience was with live streaming. I admit it was a boring, old, stationary camera at the back of the house. Nothing anyone would want to watch. Next go-round involved a three-camera setup and live editing, in order to make the online viewing experience more compelling. The playwright in Russia was thrilled.
From there I directed actors on Skype in Sydney, Helsinki and Moscow for one-on-one performances, and last March, I helped develop and direct a script on Google Drive with 16 playwrights from around the world to celebrate World Theatre Day.
It is because of these types of projects that I was fortunate enough to met my now business partner, Beatriz Cabur. Because of our shared passion, we founded New International Theatre Experience. NITE is a global service organization that supports and empowers theatre makers by revolutionizing the way artists and administrators create, connect and cooperate in the 21st century.
Our adventure began in Milan with a project entitled InterTeatro, which used advanced telepresence technology combined with traditional methods of performance. With 46 theatre makers, InterTeatro involved a live, online broadcast of playwrights and actors in Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza and New York, as well as live performances in Milan and prerecorded video. Over the course of 3 weeks, we presented 8 new Spanish plays by 4 playwrights to live audiences in Milan and to people online around the world.
For our latest project, The Plane, we are using a more powerful and customizable telepresence tool in order to conduct simultaneous performances across multiple locations around the globe. It will be in theatres with live actors in London and Madrid, while concurrently being performed online with actors in New York.
These projects are only a small part of what we plan to offer in the coming years. In July, we will launch NITEnews, which will provide both original and aggregated, multi-lingual theatre content. We hope it will be your one-stop shop for global theatre news. We are also developing a social media application called NITEnetwork that will help connect theatre makers from every corner of the globe.
Much of our work is a question: Is this theatre? It doesn’t rightly matter if the answer is yes or no (or if there is an answer at all). We understand and respect that nothing replaces the live experience, but is there something else, something more? Our ideal is to bring people together in a shared space, but if there is absolutely no way that can happen, what’s the next best thing? And who defines what ‘shared space’ is anymore? Now that we have easy access to these communication tools, that are multiplying daily, what are we going to say to each other? In this increasingly globalized world, how do we as artists and individuals connect and create together? I may not have the answers, but I sure do love exploring the questions.
Doug Howe is the co-founder and executive director of New International Theatre Experience (NITE). He has directed over thirty productions in five countries. He graduated from the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, where he wrote and directed his first original piece, The Helpless Spectator. In 2009, Doug was awarded a three-year French ‘Competence et Talents’ residency visa in order to create cross-cultural theatrical collaborations in Paris, and in 2011, Doug worked in Sydney as the International Liaison Officer at Playwriting Australia. He is a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, The Fence Playwriting Network, LMDA, SAG/AFTRA and AEA. www.doug-howe.com