Redefining the space for performance: Layers of hybridity and exchange in digital theatre
Envisioned as a collaborative exchange on hybrid theatre formats and methodologies, the conference saw participation from theatre-makers, designers, academics and others who had something to say (and think!) about the subject. Moderated by Lea Goebel (dramaturge, Schauspiel Köln, co-founder of Digitale Dramaturgie, DE), the exchange was spread across different sharing formats such as keynote addresses, technical walkthroughs and a speed practice-sharing rounds. True to its name, the conference even had a hybrid attendance model with attendees dialling in online and others attending in-person at the Theater im Balsall. This manifested creatively in the space with dedicated sections for each audience segment to interact with the speakers as well as a common “coffee space” for casual conversations.
The day started with a keynote address by Martynas Petrikas (Associate Professor at Vilnius University Faculty of Communication, LT, editor-in-chief of the Nordic Theatre Studies journal) tracing the early discourse around technology, media and performance. From debate around mediatization and reproduction of live performances, such as the work by American scholars Peggy Phelan and Philip Auslander, to an exploration of contemporary digital theatre projects, the opening talk set the ground for what was to follow. This was followed by a presentation by Katharina Rösch (freelance dramaturge, co-founder of “Digitale Dramaturgie”, DE) and Ceren Ercan (author, dramaturge, Platform Tiyatro, TR) that focused on hybrid storytelling and narrative formats that integrated (and built upon) the challenges of not having the audience and performers in the same room. Katharina’s comparative breakdown of digital vs in-person methodologies (For eg. Mediated: Embodied, Digital Space: Physical Space, Technology: Human) and the changing nature of theatrical narratives (For eg. simultaneous storytelling, interactive and participatory design) explored the growing emergence of ‘hybrid dramaturgy’ in the theatre-making toolkit. Ceren shared her experience of incorporating similar storytelling elements while writing Map To Utopia, a hybrid co-production between the fringe ensemble in Bonn and Platform Tiyatro in Istanbul.
After a swift lunch break, we were witness to a speed practice-sharing round by Martin Wisniowski (programmer, DE), Fehime Seven (game developer and programmer, TR) and Annika Ley (set designer and digital specialist, DE) focused on spatial and participation challenges in hybrid performance spaces. Annika spoke of designing physical and virtual spaces to support a truly hybrid environment (including the one for the conference itself!), including practical challenges around minimizing audio feedback loops, crafting audience (and tech-friendly) stage layouts and creating a common space for all. Fehime’s talk focused on the encounter between theatre and games and the emergence of a new “gamified theatre” genre. She spoke of thinking critically about the audience as a player in the experience and what might their individual role, motivation and objectives be in the larger game. Martin’s presentation focused on the practicalities of making hybrid theatre happen, such as different tools, software and hardware one encounters in this domain. He also introduced the hybrid theatre platform Hybi Galaxy and all that went on behind the scenes that led to its development.
The culminating program of the day dived deep into three international hybrid theatre projects.
The first one was led by the Boat Theatre Projekt from Göttingen who presented a small demo of their new project Win Back Damascus. The project looks at the city of Damascus in Syria and moves across digital performance, public installation and radio play. With a hands-on demonstration led by directors Amer Okdeh, Nina de la Chevallerie and Reimar de la Chevallerie, we had a chance to explore the bygone days and fading memories of the city through augmented reality (AR) headsets. The team also spoke about the project’s development, such as the photo archive that served as the starting point, the challenges of onboarding public audiences on AR glasses and the many moving parts of the narrative’s composition and audience experience. The second project was Hektomeron by the National Theatre Croiva in Romania, presented by George Albert Costea. Across the first four months of the year 2021, the project staged over 100 short stories from Giovanni Boccaccio's collection of novellas written with the help of 100 artists from 100 countries, soon growing into a dedicated project of its own. George spoke about the business models of such a digital theatre project as well as the accompanying production methodologies, challenges and audience outreach. The final presentation of the day saw fringe ensemble's director Frank Heuel take the stage with actors Laila Nielsen and David Fischer dive deep into the role of the performer in Map To Utopia. From technical responsibilities and audience guidance to their actual characters and performance responsibilities, the discussion focused on the growing need for a hybrid theatre performer to go beyond merely “learning the lines” and take on additional roles, such as making the audience feel safe, managing technical difficulties in the moment and moving the performance along.
In summary, the collaborative and theoretical exchange covered a significant and diverse number of topics within the world of hybrid theatre and performance. From thinking of the audience as an equal stakeholder in the artistic process and widening our understanding of “space” to incorporating digital language in performance and investing in digital-first roles and vocations, there is still a lot for theatre-makers to encounter and account for. Perhaps one of the ways to move forward is to make space for such conversations and realizations, so that we can take a step back and think about all that goes into making a theatre performance into a hybrid theatre performance.
My attendance at this conference was supported by the fringe ensemble as well as the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung under the German Chancellor Fellowship (Bundeskanzler-Stipendium).
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