Theatre Is Not Happy Any More In Crisis

It’s often stated that performing arts reflect changes in society. But how does this look when we face such major changes, changes the information society is facing with the digital transformation that is radically altering our style of communication. This is an interview about these changes with Ulf Otto, professor of Hildesheim University and author of the book Internetauftritte.

How did you start to research the relation between the internet and performing arts?

When I was a teenager I was more a computer person as I grew up in the first digital wave. There was at the time a new subject media studies and what we call ‘digital culture’ for the first time started to be a big discussion, especially because of the works of Friedrich Kittler, an early proponent at that time. For some years I didn’t touch that topic but then suddenly it reappeared in theatre – at a point when it was late for my feelings, because digitisation had already passed in a way.

So you consider that it was a bit late in the day to discuss this topic.

Yes when we recently shifted towards a digital culture, then people working in theatre studies realised there are video projectors. Exactly when the video projector was just becoming outdated. They talked about media if it wasn’t digital. That is how I got involved as I was thinking differently about media. What seems to me to be the big change, is not the audiovisual media, but the change of print culture, mass media culture, into information society, digital media cultures.

That is what you see in theatre? Can you tell me an example of how you see this switch?

The invention of cinema had a comparatively small effect on theatre and the same with broadcasting. Cinema was the first factor for theatre to start to reflect on itself as an art form, in opposition to cinema. Theatre wanted to be something else: live bodies. There was the big discourse that theatre wants to be live, wants to be about bodies, meeting, co-presence; before these had different functions. Then came TV and broadcasting so theatre becomes completely marginal. This was because mass media communication became you do at home, people no longer had to go to the cinema. Broadcasting, especially radio, is historically more important than cinema because cultural discourse, for example all the big political discussions, happened on radio. Theatre then becomes the meeting place itself. All these changes seem to be pretty small compared to what is happening right now – it is hard to see it because we are already living it. It completely reformulates how social communication works. Interactivity and social networks, they affect the public sphere more radically. TV audiences seemed so passive. In the cinema you are also a distant viewer, not a participant.

In digital media there is a deep change in ow society communicates and that has been discussed in terms such as ‘participatory’, ‘interactive’, ‘prosumers’ (producers+consumers). This is what we have in interactive networks. People get active, for example the fans of Star Wars not only like Star Wars but they are producing video games out of it, too. On a political level what we experienced with the election on the evening of the 2016 vote for the presidency of the USA was that the New York Times gave a 95 percent probability that Trump would lose. They were wrong, because the mass-media public sphere, where they dominate the discourse, doesn’t work anymore. Our idea of democracy, which is based on a certain kind of mass media and printed-culture communication like newspapers, is changing now. It is radical how communication communicates. It is all about the question of how society is communicating. Cinema didn’t change that so much but now digital media changed this radically and in the end this will affect theatre radically too. Theatre is always a meeting place about how part of society communicates with part of society. Since the 20th century it’s not the whole society but only a part of it that goes to theatres. I think that makes an interesting question how theatre locates itself within this new public, which is not the public of the public sphere anymore.

Ulf Otto with his colleague

What function can it take?

I don’t know the answer. What I find right now interesting is that some projects are experimenting with communication itself. Like in a way theatre, which is probably always a laboratory for communication. It can experiment with media structures, and can make the effect feelable. For example, there is one production that you might call participatory, interactive. Actually what happened in that performance was nothing else but the stage company organising us according to certain criteria in different ways. In one scene they asked on loudspeakers that everyone who had gone through psychotherapy should go to another group or whoever used this or that drug should go to another group. It was very interesting as they replicated online social networks. They sorted the audience according to some algorithm. One could experience the way society developed in certain groups, and how the computer sees our society as if we are just numbers. That was totally impersonal, just some stats that Google is producing about you. Afterwards we had a discussion and members of the audience reacted very differently according to their media expertise. That performance was very interesting as it showed us very well how it works and how society is reorganised, what image and power it has. This is how social media works: you are exploited but you enjoy it. That is one possibility of theatre to make something feelable, that you ignore in real life.

What do you think about the relation of video games to theatre?

We deal with it because gamification is the big thing, it is happening to the whole of society and the economy is going in the game direction too. On one hand this is bigger then the movie industry and other hand it is not only games but gamification we live by, so obviously the theatre takes it up. Maybe sometimes it is not even aware that it takes it up. This is the logic. There is always the danger that theatre jumps on the next hyped trend and must replicate something, and there are some game-like performances which I think show that characteristic, they are interesting experiments but they can get banal. For example some of machina eX’s work I found very playful, just not very deep. There is no critical engagement. And I find it very interesting they intentionally try to get more about content. In a game you can’t be critical about the story, you can’t have a discourse in certain ways. In games the political question has to do with rules, how do you deal with those. Since Huizinga the question is how do you deal with people who don’t play along, the cheaters. How is that possible to transcend the rules, or are the rules so powerful that you can only exist within the rules of the game, or else you’re out of it. This is a totalitarian aspect of the game. Either you are in or out. It’s the same with the Facebook-game, either you are in and you play by their rules, or you are out and you do not have any chance to participate. In a way that is the danger of digital games – they are so pervasive I’m always critical when theatre does exactly that: offers me a game where I cannot influence the rules, where there are no alternatives. The other way to deal with rules I find interesting – they started the games with rules but then they went into a really open social experience and the participants were able to change the rules of the game completely in the end. How does a collective change the rules? How do we want this game to be? With machina eX you just have to push the next button to find the next clue.

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the machina eX-team

Do you think when tech is used in a coherent way in theatre, is it altering participation and interactivity in theatre?

In general it’s changing. People are not used to watch a show for 2 hours or more. I think this idea of theatre has a difficult time. In Germany we have this institutional question – where does that theatre go? All the grey-haired audience members died, what do the newer ones want to see? In what way can theatre work? In Hildesheim we have discussions with students, and there are very few students who think of theatre as something you can go to and watch. Most of them think of it as something to do; they like playing etc. The idea of just watching, not having some interactivity becomes very rare. I think of Milo Rau, I found him very interesting as he can show what theatre will be: the audience members are more than watchers, he uses tribunes and judging, so you became more – you have to give a testimony. He also uses filter bubbles: the court hearing he does all the time introduces a discussion that is rare in digital communication: you have a conflict of different viewpoints: this is the anti-filter bubble.

Participation is also about games. Do you think it is also about gamification or are we used more and more to the internet that we want to do something, and it is boring for us, so it has to do with internet.

There is a way we relate to the world is changing. For some time we have to be distant and controlled, we need to control the machinery, workers, organisations. There are lots of media that work at this distance and they control things. That is also our problem, too much control over society. By now things have changed: we as the information society need to be more playful, we have to perform ourselves in many ways. We also need to give away data to be good consumers, we can’t be timid, shy or not enjoying ourselves in social media. You need different characters. Sennet wrote in the 19th century that middle-class society was afraid to show something of themselves. In Victorian times they had to be more introverted, but they had to be more extroverted too, so they went to the theatre to see passion. Sarah Bernhard was compensating them. They had this split personality wanting to see all these exotic bodies. That constellation changed because of this new media. We are getting more and more about surface, we don’t have this inferiority anymore, like this middle class. We are getting more of our existence more out there. We are our Facebook – it is very much how identity’s and subjectivity’s notion is changing. In the theatre of our days we need to be engaged and wanting to express ourselves. The question is how does that make it productive? How to deal with this what will come out?


How do you see theatre in 30 years?

I don’t even know next year. In a way as theorist we can only look back to really grasp the presence to see the change. When I wrote the book I realised I was outdated as I took a historical approach. There has always been this tendency to say that theatre is in crisis – but I think theatre was always in crisis but it was happy in the crisis. Now something has changed and this is some institutional break where theatre is not so happy any more. In the free theatre the scene is different. Interesting things are more in between – it doesn’t make sense to discuss the different art areas separately. In a way we have deprofile-isation, despecialisation. The traditional theatre’s question is how they reinvent themselves or will they be just cut out? That is related to the idea of politics and public sphere: how democratic communication can continue from now on. Will it all be propaganda and counter-propaganda? We live in parallel societies. Like in US – they don’t share the basic definition what reality is. In the 60’s we had big political conflicts where people agreed on reality but didn’t agree on what to do. We are losing that.


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