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Digital theatre: live and mobile

Malcolm Whittaker: Australia Council, Digital Theatre Fund

Dan Koerner, Sam Haren, creative directors of Sandpit in rehearsal Dan Koerner, Sam Haren, creative directors of Sandpit in rehearsal
photo Jordan Mutton
In recognising the ever-increasing ubiquity of digital technologies in everyday life, the Australia Council for the Arts has offered support from the federal government’s Culture Fund towards two organisations for three-year initiatives to explore what this can mean for theatre practices and audiences.

The fund’s recipients, Melbourne’s Arts House and Country Arts SA have implemented programs spanning 2014-16 that invite artists to use digital technologies to enable new ways of working. Technology is not necessarily the subject, but rather provides the tools for artists to engage with in their creative processes.

The Creative Producers of Arts House, Angharad Wynne-Jones, and Country Arts SA, Steve Mayhew, recognise the rich history of contemporary practices utilising digital technologies and they are quick to distance themselves from any reckoning that this is a vanguard moment. Wynne-Jones notes that digital technologies are no longer a novelty in theatre or in the everyday, they are a central part of life and that this initiative is about putting them at the centre of artistic practice. The artists involved do not necessarily see themselves as having a ‘digital’ practice, but through their projects will problematise both their own methodologies and the societal relationship to technology. Mayhew concurs, seeing the initiative as “not about the discovery of the new but utilising what exists, utilising what you can do with what you can hold in your hand, because we hold it quite often.” For Mayhew it is also about a focused development of work “in a fascinating way that is full of exciting possibilities,” particularly for the regional audiences and communities he works with.

Arts House, In Your Hands

Although likeminded, the two organisations have structured their programs in different ways. The Arts House initiative, in collaboration with artist and researcher Robert Walton, is to shape the commissioning of a cluster of works under the title In Your Hands. The digital component is specifically aimed at making work with mobile technology. Wynne-Jones sees this as “not about the capacity of the digital in performance but how we experience the world through these devices that act as an extension of ourselves.” Artists have been paired to collaborate, exposing how a breadth of practices might approach the constraints of the brief in the making of new work. The artists are Tamara Saulwick working with Martyn Coutts and musician/composer Peter Knight; playwright Michelle Lee with director Tanya Dickson; writer, theatre-maker David Finnigan with media artist Keith Armstrong; and Walton himself with live artist Jason Mailing.

For Walton exploring the potential of theatre works on mobile devices is about understanding and encouraging work that can prosper outside existing institutional support structures, advocating for contemporary work that is for anyone, anywhere, anytime. So it’s slightly ironic that this exploration comes on the back of an Australia Council grant and through Arts House, but as Walton notes, we must always work within the known towards the unknown and new discoveries. He uses the term “itinerant art works” to describe the projects being made by the four teams in the program, where each work will “require audience members to physically move in order to performatively enliven or initiate the work.” In this endeavour artists will aim at viability for their practices outside of existing arts institutions and energise their engagement with sites and audiences. For Walton’s collaborator, Jason Mailing, the place of the digital technology in this making process is something they aim to make invisible in the end product, whereby the work “can’t happen without the device, but the device isn’t actually noticed. Like listening to a podcast on your mobile, it is simply the portal into a narrative.” In Your Hands is scheduled for presentation as part of the Festival of Live Art in 2016.

Country Arts SA

The Country Arts SA strategy has been to link artists with “technologists” to realise the use of digital technologies in their projects. The program has been conceived in partnership with the interdisciplinary creative studio Sandpit. Sandpit’s Sam Haren and Daniel Koerner are Artistic Directors of the program, with Country Arts SA acting as producer. The aim is to engage regional SA communities in the making of contemporary theatre that incorporates digital technologies in three different works. Creation Creation is the devising of a brand new world by artist Fleur Elise Noble (see p40) with designer Jonathan Oxlade and Windmill Theatre director Rosemary Myers. The Post Internet is a communal Internet to be made from face-to-face conversations conducted by performance collective post. Eyes is a musing on the end of days by Sandpit themselves. The works were not originally curated as a trilogy but nonetheless Steve Mayhew notes an uncanny similarity in terms of a beginning, middle and end of life. The concern right now is not presentation but development and community-engaged research. Mayhew stresses the importance of embedding the technologist in these processes from the beginning to ensure a holistic treatment of digital elements, to avoid the tacking on of technology as “screensaver wallpaper.” In this way the Country Arts SA program is about cross-pollination between artists and ‘geeks-in-residence’ towards making theatre work with an integrated digital element but always through the community-driven making processes for which Country Arts SA has established its reputation with a previous digital theatre project, If there was a colour darker than black I would wear it (RT 112 p.12), which utilised mobile phone technology. Mayhew is interested in how these new projects will take shape in regional settings and what can be gained for both artists and communities from a process of ‘beta testing’ in 2015, towards presentations next year.

Digital technologies are no substitute for the liveness of theatre, but concern that they might be regarded as such is necessary for Wynne-Jones because “our relationship to technology is so fraught, not in art but in life. To not engage is not a good survival strategy for the relevance of theatre.” In the dramaturgy of these programs the interest is in employing digital technologies but retaining liveness as a way of extending audience-performer relations. The conviviality of theatre is still inherent, it is just appropriated and re-framed. The live theatrical experience is being pushed to encompass the addictive relationships we have with technology, to question it, and Wynne-Jones hopes, “maybe even to change it.”

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 29

© Malcolm Whittaker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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