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This blog series offers a multi-disciplinary approach to achieve the best practices for collaboration in the creative and production process of incorporating digital media into live performance.

One of the first questions I ask when contacted about designing media for a production is, “Why does this production need media?” Surprisingly, I often do not receive answers that involve dramaturgy or meaning making. All too often, media is added to a performance because the producer and/or the director think it is cool, will add production value, make their production more relevant to a younger audience, or because everyone else is doing it. Looking for meaning, I often find myself asking this question repeatedly throughout the process. I sometimes suggest, even in the middle of a process, that the production does not need media, and perhaps we should cut it. Yes, oddly enough, I often find myself trying to talk myself out of a job.

Why? Because I am deeply passionate about what media can add, or subtract, from a live performance. Don’t get me wrong, I love the “wow” factor media can add, but I am more interested in how technology and digital media can help tell the story, create meaning, and become essential to the audience experience. Yet it seems that the basics of dramaturgy are often eschewed when it comes to the use of digital media in live performance. A key dramaturgical question that I find is often overlooked is, “What story are we trying to tell and how will the inclusion of media help us tell that story effectively?”

Believing this question to be at the root of my work, I researched, for a class in graduate school with renowned dramaturg Gitta Honegger, how live performers and designers have answered this very question. Inspired by Laurie Anderson’s melding of technology and live performance to craft narrative, I delved into researching her creative process. In her book Laurie Anderson, the art critic RoseLee Goldberg observes that Anderson’s approaches use digital media and technology from a holistic point of view. In other words, the purpose of everything onstage is to inform the story.

My recent experiences working in the theatre lead me to think that when it comes to digital media, we often forgot about the story. Curious if others agreed with this point of view, I conducted a 2013 “Better Media Practices” survey of leading professionals, theorists, and academics working in the field. Broadway Media Designer Wendall Harrington, who has been integrating media into live performance for decades, replied that her role as a designer is to “serve the performance, not the other way around.”

An actor in Wonder Dome's Leo the GEO-desic-Dome performs backstage using the facial recognition software Faceshift. Photo credit: Daniel Fine and Dana Keeton.

For media to fully serve the performance, it has to be central to the production’s concept. Media can be so much more than a well-crafted, well-integrated design element that creates a moving, scenic backdrop. Media can be interactive and react in real-time. Media can be a character, shaping a performance in a way that is analogous to what a live performer does onstage. In his article “Live Media: Interactive Technology and Theatre,” director David Saltz notes, “The holy grail for me as a director is to produce a dramatic relationship between performer and media, to grant media real agency, and casting them in a role on par with the live performers.” If media is to have agency and become an integral part of the performance, we need to define the performance as a real-time, synergistic relationship between the story, the media (content), the technology running the content (system), the performer, the technician, and the audience, all working together to create art that is greater than the sum of its parts. In order to achieve this, we must root our work in the dramaturgical world of storytelling. Our goal should be to create work that cannot exist without both components; if you were to take the media away, the live performance could not exist, and vice versa.

Because media design casts such a wide net of both analog and digital disciplines and technologies, it is drastically different than other design elements. Media designers become writers and directors when shooting videos, creating three-dimensional worlds, animating characters, or creating avatars. The videos add a mini-production that often requires the creation of costumes, props, locations, lights, etc. These mini-productions need to fit into the dramaturgical world of the live performance, which requires the media designer to understand how the content works in its native discipline as well as how it will change, add to, and shape the overall live performance.

The digital avatar projected in real-time during a performance in the dome. Photo credit: Daniel Fine and Dana Keeton.

The inclusion of media into a production radically changes the meaning and dynamics of performance. For instance, when media is displayed via projections, we must process and understand the rules and grammar of projection, as well as the physics and realities of the three-dimensional world of the performance into which the media is projected. A new language and significance is created when mixing the semiotics of media with live performance. While modern audiences are usually pretty adept at decoding various media messages, it is up to us to make the relationship between media and live performance clear. All too often, theatre practitioners do not really understand the codes of the included media and how digital media tells stories, let alone how narrative changes once media is added to a performance. And, vice-versa, digital media creators often do not understand the dynamics, language, and craft of live performance.

When creating anything new, we must first understand the properties of each of the components. Like a recipe, we must know what each element is in order to comprehend how all these ingredients will work together. In the opening of  A History of New Media in Theatre, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation, historian Steve Dixon states, “The conjunction of performance and new media has and does bring about genuinely new stylistic and aesthetic modes, and unique and unprecedented performance experiences, genres, and ontologies.” Not only do we need to better understand how media and live performance work by themselves, but also give ourselves the opportunity to discover the new implications and idioms that interweaving media and live performance create. In order to fully achieve the infinite possibilities of storytelling we need to take the time —grounded in dramaturgy—to develop our new language.

Up Next: Media Design in the Rehearsal Hall Part 1