Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Incorporating Digital Media

It is not a new problem. Live performance; from dance to opera to theatre, struggles to grow and engage audiences. The question arises "how can live theatre attract an audience driven by on-demand, multi-channel, media?"

"Electronic and digital technologies have spawned an array of media, from 3-D movies to crowd-sourced video like YouTube to smartphones, that compete with the stage (and with other traditional media like books, and each other) for the audience’s finite attention."
                                                            ~ Craig Lambert, Harvard Magazine

Off-Off-Broadway was on the forefront of actively using social media as a promotional tool.
Building a social network online is now a major part of marketing plans for all internet savvy businesses. Digital media offers an easy and cost effective way to grow an audience.

 "Social media and other marketing tools should also be used more imaginatively (but no “tweet seats,’’ please) to communicate the unique excitement of live performance."
                                                            ~ Don Aucoin, Boston Globe

While we all agree that the arts can utilize digital media for promotional and even educational campaigns, incorporating these platforms into the artistic presentation itself is still a foreign concept to most theatre artists. Dexter Upshaw, Digital Media Manager for Harlem's Apollo Theater recently spoke at the 2014 TEDxBroadway. He argued that instead of chastising audience members for using digital devices, we should embrace what is now a social norm and look for ways to make virtual interaction a part of the performance.

The New York Neo-Furturists for example, often challenge their audience to tweet plays that can only be 140 characters. The best of these plays are then included in their weekly performance of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.

Many innovative productions are now inviting the audience to participate in the creative process by encouraging them to use their smartphones, digital cameras, social media, etc. during the performance. Engaging audiences through a medium that they already use enthusiastically changes the relationship between the performer and the audience and creates a unique and personal experience for each audience member.

"Digital Theatre" is a trend which is characterized by the coexistence of live performance and digital media that interact within the same presentation. Gyda Arber has been pioneering this interactive brand of theatre. Productions such as Suspicious Package and Red Cloud Rising utilize mp3 players preloaded with video and sound files to guide audience members through a production. Similarly Melanie Jones used synchronized mp3 players to allow her audience access to the inner thoughts of her character in Endure: A Run Woman Show.

We already see Digital Media Design credited in OOB playbills. Will these designers soon have a seat at regular production meetings to build social interaction into the creative process from the start?

Imagine going to see a production where selfies taken in the lobby while waiting for the house to open are reveled as family photos on the set. Or character asides - their inner thoughts - are texted to you during intense scenes. The possibilities are endless and exciting.

Granted there are productions where "tweet seats" are inappropriate and might disrupt the rest of the audience. However, "
on-demand, multi-channel, media" is really about creating personal, immediate experiences and ultimately that is what theatre artists do best. Using digital media as a tool to heighten that experience is a natural progression and it is not surprising that OOB is among the leaders of this trend.

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