The Liveness of a Recording: Reflecting on Hybrid Theatre
It was this time two years ago, that we were in intense rehearsals for Mind The Lag, my first hybrid theatre experience that took place simultaneously in two physical locations in London and online as part of my MA graduate production at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.
In each space, myself and Arthur Pai performed as avatars born into the real world in front of a live audience, with Laura Lounge joining remotely from Denver, Colorado to complete the hybrid landscape, along with audience members on the internet from all corners of the world, bringing to life words by Hector Huang in a spatial setting designed by Mari Katsuno and Carly Altberg, wearing our flesh suits designed by Esme Lowrey.
In July 2021, during a discussion following a work-in-progress sharing at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, a classmate asked me a simple question. “Was it live or was it pre-recorded?” she inquired, following it up with “...and did you want us (the audience) to know either way?”. I quickly jumped to answer the first question, which I perceived to be grounded more in the technical choices made in our design that relied on cameras and projectors in two different geographic locations to capture and project performers into the other space.
As I rumbled through how we use the video conferencing software Zoom and Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) along with mobile cameras to execute our design, I realized I did not quite know how to approach the second question – was it a technical, dramaturgical or a stagecraft-related question? The quizzical look on my face prompted my classmate to expand on her observation, remarking that if she had the knowledge that something is happening ‘live’ (as opposed to watching a recording), it would have led her to perceive our work in a completely different light.
Our show, cheekily titled ‘Mind The Lag’, explores the lives of two digital avatars who are plucked from cyberspace and born into the meatspace (a term attributed to American essayist and political activist John Perry Barlow that refers to the real-life physical world we inhabit), discovering agency outside the computerized world to find a genuine connection with each other. With a larger commentary on the devolution of communication in today’s hyper-connected world and a larger question about “presence” and “liveness” in our post-pandemic mediatized lives, the show has two live performers in two separate physical locations with their live audiences interact with each other, engaging in digital dialogue and actions with real-time projections via the internet.
The decision to connect each performer and space to each other as a synchronous, real-time event was a deliberate one. Informed by logistical and technical concerns, the question that confronted theatre-makers in the early days of digital theatre was “Can it be live?”, whereas now it has grown to become more pointed and specific, such as “Should it be live?” or “How is the live experience different from the digital one?”
There is a sense of safety and reliability associated with pre-recorded digital performances that is uniquely different from doing things live, for the latter carries both a technical and artistic risk of things going wrong at the last minute. My classmate’s observation had prompted me to think more critically about the evolution of questions around ‘liveness’ in the context of theatrical composition, as well as focusing attention on the audience’s awareness and perception of the choice made.
DEVISING Gaurav Singh Nijjer / Laura Lounge / Arthur C. H. Pai / Hector Huang
PERFORMANCE Arthur C. H. Pai / Gaurav Singh Nijjer / Laura Lounge
DIRECTION Laura Lounge
TECHNICAL DIRECTION Gaurav Singh Nijjer
SCRIPT Hector Huang / Laura Lounge
COSTUME Esme Lowrey
LIGHTING Carly Altberg / Mari Katsuno
SCENIC Mari Katsuno / Laura Lounge
SOUND / SCENT Laura Lounge
MOVEMENT DIRECTION Antonietta Mazzei
PRODUCTION SUPPORT Anna Smith / Hector Huang
ACADEMIC MENTORSHIP Ada Mukhina
DEVISING CONSULTING Alex Hutson / Sam Kioni Roberts / Dana McMillan / Esme Lowrey / Carly Altberg / Mari Katsuno / Antonietta Mazzei
SPECIAL THANKS Lynne Kendrick / Nohar Lazarovich / Anna Smith / Alain Fielden / Maja Milatovic-Ovadia and others