Wednesday, August 26, 2009

get your laptop off my lawn!

I tend to look at the entertainment section of the BBC News website for two things: to see if there's any news about the Mighty Boosh, or any news about Amy Winehouse. I'm sad when there's nothing of the former, and happy about none on the latter -- if she's not in the news, then she's still alive, and maybe we'll get another album someday.

So it was only accidentally that I found Ewan Spence, technology writer for BBC News online, noting the use of technology (specifically, the internet), in shows premiering at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival:
It would seem from this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival that the internet is as attractive as Burns' flower or Shakespeare's dark lady. For many modern artists the muse lurks online, in the web of social networks, instant messages and distant friends.
Incorporating plays or the internet into theater is, of course, nothing new. But it's always hilarious to try an describe a paradigm shift from the inside, and Spence tries gamely:
Far from turning us into a nation of reclusive typists, the internet is proving to be a rich catalyst of emotive experiences and settings for playwrights to explore the age old worries of life, love, tragedy and humanity.
He trots out as an exhibit one this year's Fringe shows, "Chat! The Internet Musical," the use of exclamation points in the title alone smack of a-tad-too-desperate attempt to clutch at the essence of the zeitgeist:
Chat! looks at characters creating alter-egos of themselves and hiding their online activities from each other...
Without "online," that's a rough approximation of plots that pre-date the internet (or electricity, even), such as Troilus and Cressida and Cyrano de Bergerac, to grasp at ready examples.
There is the familiar bugaboo of staging online events:
The staging of the online action, with the actors looking out at the audience during the chat scenes means they never make eye contact with others on stage.
"It made me much more self conscious" said lead actor Nic McQuillan. "More aware of your personal space, your hands and how it is seen by the audience.
"And for the audience it changes how you perceive the characters," he said. "It makes you more aware when eye contact is made, when characters interact in the physical world."
I've performed in a few productions that attempted to stage online "chats"; I've yet to see anyone nail it. (Although some have come close.) I'm not going to hold my breath for the breakthrough: very few writers have nailed convincing phone dialog (the type where you only hear one end of the conversation) and we've had that technology for a century or so.

Even though phone conversations have always looked hokey onstage, that hasn't prevented thousands upon thousands of playwrights from using them; that's because the phone call as a plot devise is too useful. And that's all phones are: plot devices, tools. So is the internet. It's new, and revolutionary, and will radically change how we do things, but it doesn't fundamentally change who we are. Every technical breakthrough is mistaken by an artist as the dawn of a new man (just look at what the steam locomotive did to JMW Turner); but after the uproar has died down, we're still the same hateful, horny, hilarious creatures we were before -- albeit with longer life expectancy and new ways of killing and disfiguring ourselves.

Spence's closing words -- intended, no doubt, as climactic revelation -- instead read as boilerplate, dusted off every century or so:
What does seem to be common to these and other pieces at the Fringe is the internet bringing out the worst in people, as if it was a malevolent force.
Substitute "internet" with "money," "love," "power" ... you've got almost every good play ever written. The context keeps changing, but the essence stays the same.

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