The Case for Live Movies: The Training of New-Media Projection Designers Will Mean New Aesthetics, New Audiences

By Malone, Kirby; White, Gail Scott | American Theatre, January 2009 | Go to article overview

The Case for Live Movies: The Training of New-Media Projection Designers Will Mean New Aesthetics, New Audiences


Malone, Kirby, White, Gail Scott, American Theatre


  In the simultaneous use of the living actor and the talking picture
  in the theatre lies a wholly new theatrical art an art whose
  possibilities are as infinite as those of speech itself.

--Robert Edmond Jones (1929)

  Knowledge of the technical makes creativity possible.

--Josef Svoboda (1968)

What is the greatest challenge facing theatre as we know it today--and, more important, as we dream it? Daunting ticket prices in a wobbling economy? Perhaps. Divides across class, and among cultures? Maybe.

Or is it the aging of the audience for live, serious-minded performance? Let's say that is it, for the sake of argument. How are we to transform the theatre to attract young audiences, in this time when live performance could not be more important as a platform for much-needed social discourse?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

One answer to the question is to embrace the technosphere in which the youth of today are immersed (along with, of course, the rest of us not-so-young, yet nevertheless immersed), and to engage it passionately, while attempting to maintain a critical distance. This means opening the theatre's stage door to projection designers, new media artists and systems engineers--to animators, filmmakers and laptop wizards--and to the panoply of technologies they practice.

In 1999, we founded the Multimedia Performance Studio at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Our goals were to explore new directions in the deployment of new technologies in the performing arts; to form cooperative connections with other like-minded artists, scholars and theorists; and to experiment with learning and teaching methods that would encourage students (and all collaborating artists) to discover how to make a new kind of theatre--theatre that explores and expands the rich possibilities of new-media scenography.

Old "New Media": A Paradoxical (Pre-)History

The teaching of new-media projection is, in some ways, a matter of paradoxes and ironies. What we call "new media" are in fact old media--one might even say, the oldest media. (The wryly titled anthology New Media 1740-1915, edited by Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree, is enlightening as to how new media become old media, and then become new again.) When we project images onto actors' bodies and their environments, we have ancestors, even a history--in cave paintings (an early instance of, and mirror to our own, visual culture); in all-night outdoor Balinese and Indian shadow-puppet theatre; in the multimedia awe machine that was the medieval cathedral (with its backlit stained glass, looming vaults, ritual props and costuming, ghostly voices, breathtaking acoustics and drifting incense); in Mystery Plays, Jonsonian masques and Swiss automata; and in the 19th century's dioramas and panoramas, stage magic, tableaux vivants and arcades.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As we approach the 20th century, we find Vsevolod Meyerhold (and his student Sergei Eisenstein) creating kinetic, cinematic, montage theatre with Cubo-Futurists and Constructivists in Moscow; in France, Jean Cocteau and Antonin Artaud exiting Surrealism to lay cinematic and theoretical foundations for future new media; and, perhaps most important, Erwin Piscator (while training Brecht) more or less inventing Epic projection theatre in Berlin. In the U.S., Piscator's methods were adopted fruitfully by the Federal Theatre Project's Living Newspaper, but this old version of "new media" evaporated, as did the German, French and Russian work, in the face of World War II.

In the 1950s (as he had earlier and more quietly in the '20s), designer Robert Edmond Jones prophesied a theatre form that would interweave live performers and film--he called it "The Theatre of the Future." In post-WWII Prague, Josef Svoboda embarked on a career that would come to epitomize the notion of "scenography"--creating, as he did, a unified approach to synthesizing scenic, lighting and projection design into a coherent (or at least manageable) whole, for theatre, opera and his Laterna Magika. …

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