In this piece I will describe my research approach to identifying multiple kinds and strategies of liveness in digital performance. I have conducted this research both as part of my PhD at Bath Spa University and as an Expanded Performance research cohort member.
I frame liveness here as an embodied experience for the individual audience member. My research methods are informed by my practice as a theatre maker trained in embodied improvisation. For these purposes I will draw on my documentation of the multiple livenesses I discovered in my own embodied experience while attending and creating digital theatre since March 2020 and suggest the creative and technical strategies contributing to those livenesses in the absence of the ‘default liveness’ of physical co-presence.
My research is concerned with live digital performance delivered via a variety of mediums including Zoom, social VR, binaural audio, one to one telephone shows and video livestreams augmented by interactive interfaces. The affordances and accessibility of these technologies shape the livenesses available to audiences.
The next step in my PhD research is to continue to use the embodied interview technique I devised in order to capture the range of livenesses experienced in digital performance by the 8 members of my Embodied Research Group (ERG). The data gathering from this is incomplete but I will briefly summarise the method here to give a sense of my approach to embodied data.
The data is the expectations and experiences of ERG participants attending case study performances and the performers interpreting them. For my method I offer prompts dealing with participants’ ‘felt senses’ of space, embodied emotion and connection. Participants respond to prompts through nonverbal movement first, then speech reflecting on their movement and finally drawing images to visually represent their embodied response. The final part of my work with each ERG member and performer will be a verbal interview. My thinking behind this is to reverse traditional hierarchies of knowledge in starting with embodied memory and expression and moving by stages toward the more cognitive and rational modes of expression usually privileged in a verbal academic interview. The ERG consists of eight practitioners and researchers, largely in participatory and immersive performance, most using a variety of digital technologies to deliver their work. Three of the eight members were part of the Expanded Performance cohort, two are members of Bath Spa University’s Narrative and Emerging Technology (NET) Lab and three are creative collaborators of mine.
Why locate liveness in the bodies of audience members?
Watching people doing things in places and doing things with people in places is the default of theatre’s liveness and arguably the most enduring and fascinating kind of liveness there is. The embodied awareness of other human beings doing things near us and with us always brings unpredictability, a potential and a risk- however stifled in our everyday- of chaos, harm, transcendence, joy. Not to mention so much of the graphic design and user interface is already done for you, as hi res as you like.
We are, at least potentially, implicated in the action unfolding to the extent that we are embodied witnesses and might ourselves be witnessed. The ability to read the detail of a facial expression, posture or arrangement of bodies in space and what these imply is a survival skill. For the most part humans are good at it and are motivated to do it whether or not they ever enter a theatre. For the past year however, all that performance material has been rationed and hard to approach directly. Digital live performance can undeniably evoke
this feeling, but has to work harder to do so and demands close attention to the specific affordances and limitations of the chosen technologies.
As a practitioner since March 2020 I’ve performed in two improvised Zoom shows with Beyond The Ridiculous and joined two international teams to develop VR theatre projects. I have documented my audience experiences of a range of online shows using different technologies of access and delivery.
I’ve been searching for what I believe are the strategies at play that most strongly evoke an embodied feeling of liveness in the audience in the absence of sharing physical space. Refining the theoretical context of these investigations and continuing to gather data from ERG members attending the case studies and the performers bringing them to life is the next step for my research.
The following observations, categories and questions are based on my own embodied experience of the digital live shows listed below. I have organised these shows according to the platforms and technologies used to deliver them to audiences. In selecting these I have included performances that are not technically performed ‘live’ but, I believe, do have the potential to evoke an embodied ‘feeling of liveness’ in the audience member by engaging and addressing a heightened reflexive awareness of their own embodiment over the duration of the show.
Performances categorised by delivery platform:
The Telelibrary, Yannick Trapman O’Brien, March 2020-Ongoing https://www.yannickto.com/tele...;
Grimm Tales for Fragile Times and Broken People, Creation Theatre, January and February 2021 https://www.creationtheatre.co...;
Telephone, Coney, 4 August 2020 https://coneyhq.org/2020/04/29...;
Plymouth Point, Swamp Motel, 24 August 2020 https://swampmotel.co.uk/plymo...;
Eschaton, Chorus Productions, 16 August and 25 September 2020 https://www.chorusproductions....;
Voices of Lockdown: Live and Unleashed, Beyond The Ridiculous Jun 21 2020 (performing) https://www.hollystoppit.com/b... The New “Normal”, Beyond The Ridiculous 10 Oct 2020 (performing) https://www.hollystoppit.com/b... Social VR
The Under Presents Tempest, Tender Claws March 2020- January 2021 https://tenderclaws.com/tempes...;
PARA, Deirdre Lyons, Braden Roy, Brian Tull et al, October 2020
Lost Horizon Festival, Shangri La, Lost Horizon Ltd & Sansar, 3-4 July 2020 https://www.losthorizonfestiva...;
Dr Crumb’s School for Disobedient Pets, AdventureLab, 19 December 2020 https://www.adventurelab.fun/&...;
Onboard: An Evening of Short XR Performances, Jigsaw Ensemble, Active Replica & Agile Lens, 16 March 2021
Pre-recorded Binaural Audio
Play Inside: Other Mothers, WeRebel & Splash & Ripple, November 2020-Ongoing https://www.splashandripple.co...;
The Encounter, Complicite, available on YouTube April-May 2020
It Must Have Been Dark By Then, Duncan Speakman, July 2020 https://duncanspeakman.net/pro...;
Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, Javaad Alipoor Company, July 2020 http://javaadalipoor.co.uk/ric...;
Dream, RSC & Marshmallow Laser Feast, March 2021 https://www.rsc.org.uk/news/dr...;
Where can liveness arise?
Within the performer: If this is present but not communicated to the audience, is it redundant as a form of liveness?
Between audience member(s) and performer(s)
Between audience members
Between audience member and the work
Within the audience member
Suggested categories of liveness available in the experiences listed:
Individual embodied liveness - the audience member is prompted by the experience to attend closely to their own embodied state of being, whether through movement, feeling seen or self-reflection.
Embodied social liveness-inclusive of gaze, proximity, gesture and posture, verbal and non verbal communication between bodies and bodies, whether in a physical or digital space.
Emergent narrative liveness- The relationship between the audience and the work within its duration has reciprocal effects on the content and structure of the narrative. Immersive liveness- the work is everywhere you look and your experience is affected by where you locate your gaze and/or body.
Immersive interactive liveness - the work is everywhere you look and responds to your presence and actions
Immersive participatory liveness- the work is everywhere you look and cannot work without some audience participation
Factors for consideration to evoke and sustain liveness(es) in the audience:
Assembling as a group at a set time for a shared experience brings an expectation of liveness.
In the absence of the shared social responsibility of holding a physical space for a performance, audience members may need to be offered other responsibilities in order to feel the liveness and what their presence contributes to it.
To create a feeling of connection between audience members in a digital space, presence and observation may not be sufficient.
If the audience presence together and in relationship with the performer is integral to the show’s liveness, the work should provide space, time and structures during the experience that explicitly require this.
Adopting the habitual tone, conventions and interactive features of the technology used can free audience members to connect from their known modes of interaction rather than spending ‘onboarding’ time communicating the makers’ preferred idiosyncratic use of the platform.
If the technologies of delivery are likely to be unfamiliar to the audience or are vulnerable to failure, it is wise to provide someone to provide live technical support throughout in addition to any guides sent before the show.
Engineering social situations and collaborative tasks for the audience can summon a feeling of liveness.
Audience expectations are key. Different things feel ‘live enough’ to different audiences. Knowledge of your intended audience and their comfort level with participation, technology and being visible will help in choosing the appropriate strategies for liveness. Audience awareness of the technical affordances of a platform (eg. audience visibility, voice and text chat in Zoom) can lead to the expectation that these are used and a feeling of reduced liveness when they are not.
If content is improvised in the moment, it can help with the feeling of liveness if this is explicitly stated and framed.
If improvisation is a key element of your liveness strategy, make sure audiences ‘feel’ it and can safely identify with or share in the risk and vulnerability the performer experiences. Bringing the audience into the performers’ instinctive process of making can create enough of a feeling of liveness through vulnerability and risk to compensate for the lack of polish and narrative coherence this approach may bring.
Performers can step back from the role of delivering the narrative in order to perform the role of audience or witness to the audience’s liveness.
The offer of a time limited task or question to be answered by the end of the show doesn’t have to be completed to heighten a feeling of liveness in the audience and provide motivation to explore a digital space.
A wide range of simultaneous options confers responsibility onto the audience to curate their own journey through the show and make choices about what they will watch or miss out on and how much they choose to interact. The knowledge that their own journey through the show is unique to them can increase the feeling of liveness.
Can liveness be usefully defined as an embodied experience located in the audience? How much should your audience understand about how a digital show is made? What technologies are the most ‘transparent’ and lend themselves to a shared understanding of their making?
How do the production values- slickness, audiovisual fidelity, production design and rehearsal- affect the audience reception of a show’s content and perceived ‘quality’? How do the specifics of the platform affect the importance of higher or lower production values to the feeling of liveness?
To what extent are the strategies and technologies used in digital live performance accessible for different potential audiences?
Does liveness depend on the co-presence in physical or digital space and time of live performers and audience members?
If not, what strategies can evoke a feeling of liveness in the absence of co-presence?
Is togetherness an essential part of liveness or can liveness be experienced alone with no witnesses to the audience experience?
The Live Body
On April 22 2020 I attended a Zoom call arranged by my colleague Aste Amundsen about the future of live performance post-COVID. Most of the practitioners on the call worked in immersive and participatory theatre. Futuring consultants Rina Atienza and Lynette Nusbacher from Nusbacher Associates facilitated the session. We drew spider diagrams and talked about how trust, mistrust, fear and desire would shape the return of our practice- one that tends to funnel crowds though confined spaces and encourage talking, shouts, song, dancing, laughter, play and touch. I was enjoying the distant, sci-fi air of our speculations until Rina and Lynette revealed that epidemiologists they had spoken to in their futuring research predicted a minimum of a year and a half until a vaccine would be available or COVID-19 could begin to be anywhere near under control.
I remember vividly feeling physically poleaxed by this information. At that time it was the most pessimistic prediction I had yet heard and it struck me as absolutely true. I had to remind myself to breathe slowly as my field of vision telescoped around me. My body wanted to run into the field outside and also felt stuck to the chair. The implications of this statement expanded in a flash. The prospect of parenting and working without childcare or the ‘village’ we’ve built around our family. Losing physical touch with friends, encounters with strangers. Small and large adaptations to every routine. The sustained change, loss and pressure in my life, every life around me and far beyond, around the world, stretching into the future.
When next prompted for a response I could only say ‘That is heavy news for me’. It sat on me in a very embodied way, affecting my vision, breathing, sense of time and capacity to move. It was the end of the suspended animation of the past month in lockdown and the beginning of my grieving for the many losses caused by COVID-19.
This was life. At moments like these it is very ‘live’, full of drama and struggle even sitting still alone, looking at a laptop. As theatre makers it is our business to invite audiences into transformative moments like these that can alter embodied reality- the grief, awkwardness and joy. I hope my research will help understand better how emerging technologies of liveness can help us do this.
Image Credits: Alex Tabrizi