The Performer and Technology
I recently saw two high-tech theatre works, Phil Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” and Robert Lepage’s “Spades.” Both were remarkable for their complex staging technology, especially “Spades,” which blended the live performer seamlessly with ever-changing wizardry.
This got me thinking about a shift in new theatre and opera. Just like movies, they are using technology as the featured performer. Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message — but what is the message from technology in the arts? Has our taste been so changed by a the rich possibilities of pulling every visual trick out of the hat, that performers aren’t interesting enough on their own any longer? Has the live performer been upstaged, or is technology just an enhancement to human performance?
In “Einstein,” director-designer Robert Wilson didn’t need to elicit much emotion from the performers. They were more like symbols than fleshed-out characters. A 12-voice chorus represented them with coolly repeated phrases that seemed removed from any real emotional turmoil or intensity. The actors in “Spades,” though, did convey emotions and were fully expressive even without any outside help from sets and special effects. So, you ask, why did director-writer Lepage feel the need to expand his human dramas with fluidly changing scenery — from expensive Jacuzzi to bedroom to bar room and casino gambling tables? I felt that the words and song blended with the visual effects into a condensed art form that was more like poetry. I wonder if it was so powerful because it all came from the mind of one person.
With such great new technology a danger always lurks: Will it overwhelm the performance and upstage the performer? That question was brought up several times in Lepage’s complex set for the MET’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, where the singers sometimes appeared frightened of the moving part of the giant set.
While I love innovation and make an effort to see the most experimental performances, I also relish the productions that are pared down to a bare stage with the performer alone. That’s the ultimate test for an artist. I will never forget actor John Gielgud on an empty stage in New York, reciting Shakespeare so clearly and persuasively that I stayed in a trance for the longest time.
It is a privilege to live in an era that makes technology a major part of art. But like all powerful elements, it can burn down the house or it can warm your heart, like Lepage warmed mine with “Spades.”