Feature: On The Intersection Between Theatre and Technology
The fine print on ZU-UK's latest project, Binaural Dinner Date, says "Warning: do not come if you are fundamentally opposed to falling in love". That's how the acclaimed theatre company works: they put intimacy and feelings on the front line, involving audiences in their work to give them one-of-a-kind emotional experiences.
On the back of their latest show, they hosted a symposium this Sunday that sat right on the intersection between theatre and technology, inviting guests to speak about how i's possible for new and cutting-edge electronics to belong in an art that's kept rather conservative by many. Scaling Intimacy in Theatre and Games was an insightful event that provided plenty of observations on how to achieve closeness in the digital era.
ZU-UK are no strangers to the implementation of technological tricks in participatory and site-specific productions. Their first show was Hotel Medea, which ran from 2009 to 2012 and was in development for two whole years before that.
Since then, they've run an interactive artwork called Pick Me Up (& Hold Me Tight) in awareness of the ever-rising figures of suicide where they had all public pay phones in the UK ring at the same time; RioFoneHack at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (if people picked up a payphone that was ringing when they were strolling by, they were taken through an audio journey); and now Binaural Dinner Date, an interactive quest to find love.
Over the course of the day, they launched their new venture too: Goodnight, Sleep Tight, a curious adventure involving VR and touch that's being developed at the moment.
"It's fairly stable but not finished yet," director Jorge Lopez Ramon explained as he introduced the collaboration between the company and technologist Emily Donovan at the start of the event.
Celebrating their partnership with Technoculture, Art and Games (T.A.G.), "an interdisciplinary centre for research/creation in game studies and design, digital culture and interactive art", Scaling Intimacy saw the intervention of creatives from the UK and Canada. They presented their own work and gave the chance to audience members to have a taste of apps and games, letting them see for themselves how easy it is to bond and create intimacy with technology.
After what Lopez Ramos announced as "5-Minute Talks", Bart Simon, Holly Gramazio, Lynn Hughes, Henry Smith and Rita Wu (streaming from Brazil) pitched their ideas and invited the participants to join their tables to discuss and build stronger conversations around them. These points were later going to be tackled by a panel composed of Artistic Director of ZU-UK Persis-Jadé Maravala, Founder of VR exhibition company Limina Immersive Catherine Allen, and youth worker Iisa Sallinen.
The concept of games being adopted to facilitate ways to be together in an era where isolation is the norm was suggested, with Simon's advancing that participatory theatre could be used as scaffolding to initiate social change and get people to collaborate and exchange ideas in safe and controlled situations.
Boundaries were also discussed, as well as the peculiar relationship between digital and tangible worlds; as Hughes said, the physical body of a person doesn't suddenly disappear when the user goes online.
The role of actors was also explored by Wu, who pointed out that we don't get any education related to emotions in school while performers are taught to get in touch with their inward world. She explained how the expanded and shared intimacy that exists between actors and audiences is crucial for the outcome of any show, and it's only heightened when it comes to participatory theatre and the cooperation among the two entities.
The second panel, chaired by Lopez Ramon, focused more on the inner workings of creating intimacy with performances, with Sallinen expanding on what it means to build closeness and a safe space where this is possible. Notions of simulation and the different types of consent in the digital era automatically rose, as the concern for audience comfort was brought up by Maravala.
"Safeguarding the audience is of top importance," she told of her work with ZU-UK, mentioning that it's crucial for the public to feel at ease first and foremost. "It has to go right for them." She went on to say how the use of technology helps but it's necessary for it to be implemented by people, for it's they who are able to establish a zone where intimacy can instinctively occur.
Finally, the need for scaling was addressed. It's important to able to understand how to recreate the same standards of closeness that happen among 12 people when they increase the numbers to, say, 72. There's a necessity to figure out how to keep a stable dynamic when it's has the natural inclination to change.
One needs to come to terms with the ethics of the scaling too. It might be out of survival (companies need to be able to sustain their artistry) or to reach more public, but it needs to be born out of the right reasons.
An enlightening afternoon of discussions on openness and progress, it also gave the chance to the audience to recognise how both theatre and games can learn from one another and grow from a shared experience. From the implementation of binaural audio and VR to ample research on audience participation, ZU-UK are definitely leading the pack in the field of immersive theatre.
Photo credit for the production shots: Ludovic Des Cognets