(Dis)Connection: Teaching Theatre and Technology

by Jacqueline Goldfinger

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Theatre | Technology} blog salon, curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton.) 

I shouldn’t be teaching this class. And I mean, I really, really shouldn’t be teaching it. I don’t have a smart phone. I never enjoyed playing video games or watching MTV (well, except for re-runs of My So-Called Life). I’m not a first adapter of new technology. I’m a last adapter. I’d live in a cabin in the woods far from civilization except that I’m addicted to GrubHub food delivery and Aveda hair care products.

For me, technology means disconnection. It means Skype instead of actual visits to Grandma’s house. It means emoticons rather than embraces. It means the cold uniform font of email rather than the quirky individuality of a handwritten letter.

For me, theatre is about connection. I want to be completely immersed in what’s happening around me. It’s about turning technology off and the world as interpreted through a striking artistic vision on.

However, most experiences today are shaped by some kind of electronic technology. From buying theatre tickets online to arranging meet-ups with friends to collaborating internationally via Skype, we communicate through coiled cables, the invisible made visible by computer chip. Technology infects (inspires? reflects? deepens?) our lives and, therefore, our art.

From these clashing feelings and the recognition of my students techno-reality, my special topics course Tweet This: The Intersection of Theatre and Technology was born at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA.

I split the course into four sections:

(1) Traditional plays and performance pieces embracing technology and technological themes; for example, The Nether, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, and All Wear Bowlers. We also looked at the way companies and artists connected with audiences online in a more traditional manner (blogs, videos, interactive Q&As) and how artists presented themselves online as individuals and members of a project, company, or collective.

(2) Traditional theater goes online. Topics included Virtual Vaudeville, New Paradise Laboratories’ online interactivity project, the history of virtual theatrical endeavors thanks to David Saltz, The Twitter Plays, and video games that bill themselves as theatrical experiences like Dear Esther.

(3) Combining live performance and virtual media. For example, the creation and performance of pieces like Froggy, Marlene and the Machine, and various projects at 3 Legged Dog.

(4) Using online, primarily social media, technologies to create new work. We’ve written plays on Twitter and curated performance through Facebook. For our final project, we created an elaborate part live performance-part virtual performance whose live performance components spanned the entire campus.

This class was wildly popular among students and inspired an almost cult-like devotion.

What I learned is that, for my students, technology means connection. Technology is the language that they speak and, therefore, the language in which they create. Whether or not there is an actual screen on-stage, the way that they tell and understand stories is strongly influenced by the ways that current technology layers information and emotion into our lives, every relationship is filtered through a technological lens. They also go to the theatre to connect with the world around them, however, contemporary stories told in ways that feel devoid of technology’s touch ring false to them.

I think there’s a greater conversation to be had about how theatre is being influenced by technology but right now I’m curious to hear how students and teachers around the country are tackling this topic. Are others out there teaching technology and how? What are your observations and how has it affected your practice? What topics/areas/practices engage your students?

As my students say, “It’s not about the screen but the person behind it.” On that, we agree.

Jacqueline Goldfinger’s comedy, Skin and Bone, is currently a finalist for the Leah Ryan FEWW playwriting prize and will be published in New Playwrights: Best Plays of 2014. Her new, currently untitled, play will world premiere at the 2015 Women’s Voices Festival in Washington DC. Her recent play, Slip/Shot, won the Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play and the Brown Martin Award. Slip/Shot was also nominated for Weissberger Award, developed at PlayPenn and the Lark’s Playwrights’ Week, and featured in American Theatre Magazine. She’s represented by Amy Wagner at Abrams Artists Agency. Read more about her work at: http://www.jacquelinegoldfinger.com

  • Philip Powell

    Very thoughtful article. I enjoyed it very much.