There's nothing new about theatre making use of technology. It's been going on forever: from the earliest trap door to the pulleys that made Peter Pan fly; from the marvel of indoor lighting to the train tracks that carried chariots in the 1902 staging of Ben Hur; from the crane that lowered the gods onto the stage in early Greek theatre to the multimedia trickery that allowed Robert Lepage to do a one-man Hamlet (apart from the time in the Edinburgh International Festival when his gizmos broke down).
So it is not altogether surprising when you cast your eye across this year's Fringe to see the large number of companies putting 21st-century technology into action. In many cases, it is simply a matter of traditional theatre embracing the latest gadgets. The USA's Fundamental Theater Project, for example, has pre-recorded the performances of Hollywood actors Michael Emerson and Alec Baldwin to up the star content of 3D Hamlet: A Lost Generation. Meanwhile, Japan's Siro-A has a character called Twinkleman, whose body movements sync with LED lights and electronic sounds, as one of the routines in A Technodelic Comedy Show.
In other instances, however, the technology is going further than this and affecting the form of the theatrical experience itself. Audiences who see the excellent Blood and Roses by Scotland's Poorboy have to put on headphones and follow a map through the streets to hear each new scene; it's like a site-specific radio play. Likewise, in Blast Theory's A Machine To See With, you become a star in a heist movie as you receive instructions by mobile phone that guide you through the city towards a bank robbery.
Such examples are so far from what you conventionally associate with theatre – the stage, the curtain, the interval, the actors – that you wonder if it's right to refer to them as theatre at all. As artists give a central role to iPads, Skype, video googles and internet downloads, they are challenging our definition of theatre, if not inventing an artform that is distinct in itself.
It's a point I put to Jonathan Holloway after watching his Invisible Show II at the Latitude festival. To passers by, the audience looks like a bunch of people sitting in the sun on a grassy bank wearing headphones. But those headphones are picking up the voices of actors who pop up on all sides of the audience to act out a series of bitter-sweet tales. Part of the fun is trying to identify where the voices are coming from; a challenge that will be particularly acute when it plays amid the crowds of the Pleasance Courtyard.
As director of Red Shift, Holloway has a 30-year history of putting on regular plays in regular theatres, so does he think Invisible Show II is doing something different? "It's undoubtedly theatre," he says. "I am a classic theatremaker, but I'm also a person who got fed up with it. I'm still a storyteller. I'm interested in elevating everyday human experience to the status of high drama. There's nothing about Invisible Show II that is cooked up; it's rooted in real people's experience and there's a motive for wanting to do that. I've tried to take advantage of a simple piece of technology – the silent disco – and use it to create theatre of a kind of honesty and intimacy that you don't ever see in the theatre."
Although you listen to Invisible Show II through headphones, the nature of the performance makes you uncommonly aware of your fellow audience as collectively you try to spot where the actors are standing. This sense of shared experience is also central to You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas by the Fringe First-winning company Look Left Look Right. Like most Fringe shows, this one involves an audience gathering in Edinburgh; the difference is that a parallel audience is also gathering in Texas. Thanks to Skype and Twitter the two audiences start to communicate. It makes "social" networking a truly social experience.
"Once you've booked your ticket you'll get an email from one of the characters saying, 'I'm so glad you're coming to my party – join me on Facebook,'" says artistic director Mimi Poskitt. 'You interact with them before you arrive, then you come to the party, which is the theatre show. There's a great rapport between the audiences. We also have an online audience that watches it. So if you are sitting at home are you watching a theatre performance? Well, essentially you are because it's actors and it's live, but the boundaries are blurring."
Another live show is And the Birds Fell From the Sky, but with this one, you have only a peripheral awareness either of the performers or your one fellow audience member. The company, Il Pixel Rosso, straps video goggles onto your head, sits you in a wheelchair and creates the impression that you are getting into a car to join a madcap crime caper. The work of theatremaker Silvia Mercuriali of Rotozaza and filmmaker Simon Wilkinson, it is a thrilling, disorientating piece of work that is not quite theatre and not quite film, even though it feels both theatrical and filmic.
"Because cinema evolved from theatre and uses the same structures, it is somewhere in between," says Wilkinson when I meet the two of them at Latitude.
"Anything that gives the audience an experience that is really live is theatre," says Mercuriali. "Even though the film is pre-set, what happens is very different for each person, so it's a very personal adventure."
"It's about adventure," says Wilkinson. "We wanted to immerse people, to give them a first-person feeling in their bodies, which film tries to do but it's always on a screen in front of you."
Another company blurring the line between film and theatre is Glasgow's Fish and Game. In Alma Mater, one audience member at a time is given an iPad and left alone to explore a replica of a child's bedroom. The images on the computer flesh out the little girl's world. "From our point of view, Alma Mater is theatrical because it's a live experience for each audience member," says co-director Eilidh MacAskill. "For us, that's what theatre is. But, yes, this is a film piece with a musical score that's been recorded. The technology is the way you receive that, rather than being the most important part. It's important that the screen is hand-held and you can move it around the space yourself. Having the screens quite close to you makes it an immersive, live experience even though they're just flat screens."
All of these shows maintain a link with the theatre by being events, timed to start and finish at a particular hour. That is not, however, the case with (G)host City, a '"virtual festival" curated by Laura Eaton Lewis that can be enjoyed at any time during or even after the festival. Artists including David Greig, Momus, Alan Bissett and Kieran Hurley have made recordings in response to particular corners of Edinburgh such as St Margaret's Loch, Calton Hill and the North Bridge, offering alternative histories or imagined versions. You can listen on your smart phone or mp3 player in the appropriate location or on the internet wherever in the world you happen to be.
"I would say theatre is at the heart of it," says Eaton Lewis. "There are dramatic structures at work there, but the architecture of the piece is very different. The theatre element is where the live interacts with what the audience is seeing and hearing, where the environment connects with the fiction. The person who is listening and making decisions about where to go is playing imaginatively and becomes part of the game."
Film, theatre, art or some hybrid form of the future – call it what you like, but it's making the Fringe an altogether more curious place.
Alma Mater, St George's West, 6–29 August; And the Birds Fell From the Sky, Il Pixel Rosso, C ECA, 14–29 August; Blood and Roses, St George's West, 5–27 August; (G)host City, virtualfestival.org, every day; Invisible Show II, Pleasance Courtyard, 21–27 August; A Machine To See With, St George's West, 24–28 August; Technodelic Comedy Show, C ECA, 3–29 August; 3D Hamlet: A Lost Generation, the Spaces on the Mile, 3–29 August; You Wouldn't Know Him He Lives in Texas, Underbelly, weekends only, 6–28 August.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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