Stage Performance in the Age of Virtual Reality: Part One (1)

Judith de Luce
Miami University

When asked about the health of live theater recently, Alan Rybant, Managing Director of Michigan's Purple Rose Theater, observed: 'One of the things we've come to that because of the changes in the entertainment field, live theater has to compete not only with other live theater, but also things such as the VCR, cable television, mega-amusement parks...and those types of things...' (The Ann Arbor News September 4, 1994, pp. E 1-2).

He might have added 'virtual reality' to his list. If virtual reality lives up to its potential, will anyone want to attend a live dramatic performance? For that matter, why are we participating in this conference? The allure of a trip to Texas in October notwithstanding, why don't we simply send our papers out over the Internet and forego the travel time of attending this conference in person?

With those questions in mind, this paper has two distinct parts. My contribution comes from the praxis of that theater which assumes the fourth wall, and from the experience of performing the role of a member of a theater audience. Previous papers have touched upon the theater audience, of course, but I want to consider again the peculiar role of the audience in dramatic performance.

I will also consider in passing, and in the most general terms, the experience of an audience watching a film. That in turn will prepare us for Lee's more theoretical reflections on virtual reality.

Let me begin by addressing the ambiguity of our title: this paper is about live dramatic performance as distinct from the technology-based phenomenon known as virtual reality, which is the logical extension of film and computer technology and which promises to enable us to 'perform' in dramas of our own devising.

I would argue that live dramatic performances are themselves models of a kind of virtual reality. That is, in keeping with the etymology of the word, they are virtual in the sense of 'resulting in the effect but not in fact' of something. Live theater also presents a kind of virtual reality in another sense of the word; it is virtual because it exists in the mind, in the imagination.

Originally, I had intended to take as a case study Churchill's Cloud Nine, and in light of the morning's discussions of gender-bending, I rather regret my abandonment of that original intent. But I recently attended a performance of Jane Martin's Keely and Du, presented without intermission in Cincinnati's Shelterhouse; this play represents for me what is peculiar to live theater, e.g., the role of the audience. To say that this complex and unpredictable play is 'about' abortion is to ignore entirely the range and power of the author's vision. But it is concerned with two people, Keely, a pregnant rape victim kidnapped and handcuffed to a bed in a basement where Operation Retrieval intends to force her to bear the child she has conceived from the rape. And Du, an older woman who has been assigned to take care of Keely. In time, the two women find themselves allies against men who have made decisions for them, including the viciously self-righteous minister who heads Operation Retrieval and the rapist ex-husband.

One scene in particular continues to shape my reflections on the audience's role in a dramatic performance. Well along in the play, the minister brings the ex-husband to Keely's underground cell. The movement had located the husband, 'saved' him in the fundamentalist sense. They bring him to Keely, clearly hoping that the two will reconcile and raise the child.

The ex-husband circles the bed on which Keely is manacled, begging her forgiveness, repeating that he loved her, that he wanted to care for her and the child. The audience did not make a sound; the theater was utterly silent except for the ingratiating voice of the husband as he circled the bed. Keely herself did not move.

Finally, the husband touched her hand, as in a loving gesture, and as Keely took his hand in hers and lifted it to her lips, she did precisely what she told Du she had done when he tried to silence her during the rape: she sank her teeth into the heel of his hand. The audience reacted at once...some laughed, some applauded. The husband, barely restrained from attacking Keely, was dragged from the room by the minister and Du to get first aid.

Keely was alone in the room for the first time in the play, for the first time in 80 minutes. Still manacled by one hand to the bed frame, she hurriedly searched in the bedclothes for a coat hanger, unbent the hanger, and performed an abortion on herself. This time the audience was not quiet as it realized what she was doing; people gasped, someone cried 'oh, no'.

That is not the end of the play, but it is that scene which I want us to keep in mind here. The set was austere; props were absolutely minimal. The directing was skilled and the acting was extraordinary, but the audience was remarkable, too. I realized, sitting there, that I knew about half of the audience members: they were regular theater-goers; they came from a variety of religious backgrounds; they taught, worked in, or had long been committed to women's rights and reproductive health. This was an informed and opinionated and sophisticated audience, more than competent to participate in this particular drama.

In the Prologue, the house organ of the Playhouse, Cecilia Johnson observed that the play 'doesn't permit passive viewing.' She was referring primarily to the currency of the topic, particularly in the wake of violence at clinics offeringabortions and now the Hill trial, but I would argue that all theater discourages passivity.

I could dispense with this paper entirely, of course, by observing right now that without the audience, a play does not exist. The play is incomplete, it is simply a 'rehearsal', without the audience. Moreover, unlike the multiple showings of a film, no two performances of a play can ever be precisely the same, in part because of the audience. At the theater we are present at the creation of art; and we play a part in that creation.

The theater audience assumes an active role at the very start, when it agrees to a number of conditions as it enters the theater.

-- The audience agrees to abide by the conventions of dramatic performance including consideration of other members of the audience, and consideration of the actors themselves. This is the 'tact' sociologist Erving Goffmann refers to when he describes the care an audience can take to 'protect the performers from its own spectatorship.' (2) This tact does not and need not exist at the showing of a film.

A stage manager at the Shelterhouse said as much several months ago after observing an audience member carrying on a conversation on a cellular phone in this very intimate theater. The manager suggested that anyone who couldn't last 45 minutes without a phone, should reconsider attending the theater. I will return to this point again, but theater is a community experience: our physical presence is part of the performance and affects the performance as a whole for actors and other audience members. This is not the solitary viewing of a video in our living room, or the even more isolated experience of playing a virtual reality game.

-- The audience also agrees to the double deception of the stage. Occasional breaking down of the dramatic illusion aside, the actors, while always aware of the particular audience, may act as if they are not.

-- And the audience agrees to believe that whatever occurs on-stage is virtually true, that Keely has turned the coat hanger on herself. Wendy Lesser says that the theater 'asks us simultaneously to believe and disbelieve in what we are seeing. ... everyone on stage is both really there and not there at all.' (3) Indeed, as a character in the Lyre of Orpheus observes: 'We are deceived because we will our own deception. It is somehow necessary to us.' (4)

The excitement of the stage relies on the very fact that we know that what is on stage is not true, that we know these are actually actors, and that the actors know we know it. As Wendy Lesser has written in an attempt to distinguish between theater and film: 'The central fact about theater is that it places us in the presence of fictional characters. In that element of fiction, it differs from reality; and in that element of presence, it differs from film. ... The characters portrayed by theater actors are by definition illusory or fictional, but the actors themselves are bodily present to us, verifiably real.... ' (5)

I cannot resist recalling Quince, Bottom, Snug et al. preparing for their performance of 'the most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe' (A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Act I, scene 2). Bottom grows concerned lest the suicide of Pyramus displease the audience, especially the ladies who 'cannot abide' such things. Bottom orders Quince:' ...Write me a prologue; and let the prologue seem to say, we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not killed indeed; and, for the more better assurance, tell them, that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver: this will put them out of fear.' (Act III, scene 1)

Even without Bottom's prologue, the conventions of the theater include breaks in the dramatic illusion which remind us that we are not participating in literal reality at all. The parabasis in Greek Old Comedy provided such a break, as does the modern intermission. Yet the break in dramatic illusion does not undercut the drama but heightens the tension between what we know and what we have agreed to believe. The curtain call, of course, further underscores the deception at the same time that it allows a transition from the virtual reality of the performance, to the literal reality off the stage.

--Above all, the audience agrees to attend to the play; to apply its imagination and intelligence to the signs of performance... to language, gesture, and inflexion; and to metaphor and analogy. In that sense the audience completes the performance; it is not only present at the creation of a particular work of art, but it is itself a performer in that work.

Two examples from musical performance enforce this notion of the audience's active participation in the creation of art. A young cellist, performing Bach's solo suites in Rome this past summer, reminded us in the audience of the enormous challenges of playing a fugue on a cello; she called on us to use our imaginations to supply what was needed for us to perceive of the fugue as such. The theater audience agrees to do just that, to apply its imagination, to attend to symbol. As States as observed, in writing about the phenomenology of the theater, 'theater is a license for a remarkable exercise in group imagination.' (6)

Glenn Gould is much in fashion these days, primarily because of the recent film, 'Thirty-Two Short Films on Glenn Gould'. Granting the considerable differences between musical and dramatic performance, Gould is an especially appropriate name to invoke here as we consider art and the relationship between performer and audience. Gould was not simply an extraordinary performer himself, one whose iconoclasm irritated critics. He also wrote at some length about the relationship between performer and audience, in time withdrawing from public performance, which he referred to as one of the last 'blood sports.' (7) He also experimented with and exploited the technology available to him, in his recordings, in his radio work.

Payzant tells us that Gould considered '... [art's] capacity to serve as a mirror to those who contemplate it. ... Perhaps what one discovers ... is nothing less than one's own real self, revealed in its weaknesses and strengths, its simplicity and complexity.' (8) '... while a work of art might please its beholder, it also presents him [sic] with an occasion for introspection of a special and potentially salubrious kind, and ... to indulge in such introspection is an active, proper response to a work of art and a condition without which nobody can produce a work of art.' (9) Yet for Gould, the reaction of the audience member to a work of art is a private one, which he characterizes as 'ecstasy': '... a solitary condition, an individual person's standing-outside-himself.' (10)

Unlike Gould, Wendy Lesser sees the experience of theater within the context of a group ritual: 'Part of what theater gives us--at its best, and its audience's best--is a sense of community, a feeling of shared if unspoken response. This feeling of shared existence does not just apply to the members of the audience; it links the audience to the people on the stage as well. ... Our spectatorship brings them to life, and they in turn create a world for us. ' (11) Or, as States would have it '...the theater is the one place where society collects in order to look in upon itself as a third-personal other.'(12)

Presence and attention to the language of the theater (verbal and non-verbal) are the most significant differences between a theater audience and a film audience. As a transition to Lee's remarks, I'd like to pursue this a little further. The irony of film is that what looks so spectacularly 'real' on the screen is as far removed from the real as is a matter of emulsions illuminated by a bright light.

With a film we are not actually in the presence of the actors, and they are not aware of our presence. Their 'audience' had been other actors, the film crew, visitors on the set. Their art does not require an actual audience to complete the creation--in a sense they create in private (as Gould wanted to do)--and once filmed and edited, the process is complete. Lines are not flubbed because the scenes are shot again and again until perfect. By the same token, just as the telephone always rings when it is supposed to in a film, the unexpected rarely happens; the ineffable, that which makes theater so close to magic, rarely happens either, at least, not in our presence.

Moreover, while we may discuss interpretations, and analyze a film, the fact remains that we have limited choices--The camera determines where we will look, and when, for how long, and in what detail. This does not mean that the effect may not be stunning. In 'Henry V', for example, in a scene unattainable on the stage, we become a soldier caught in the midst of that ghastly battle. But in a sense, film often relies on the close-up, on verisimilitude, for the horrors and delights of the imagination which must be engaged in most theatrical performances.

In distinguishing between a theater audience and viewers of a documentary film, Goffmann remarks that 'our presence is live and complicitous and acknowledged in the former, hidden and unacknowledged and, yes, voyeuristic in the latter. As viewers of a documentary film, we inevitably commit the sin of allowing someone else to be exposed without being exposed ourselves.' (13)

I am not sure I agree with Goffmann, that only in film do we allow another to be exposed while we remain safely unexposed. I was struck by a comment a friend made as we left the performance of Keely and Du; she wondered why it was that at a play she could tolerate listening to political views which she found repellent and which in literal reality she would have felt obligated to rebut. She wondered if she didn't check her guns at the door along with her politics; that in the theater she found a safe space to explore what she believed, where she could not rebut and thus had to respond by watching, listening and reflecting. The importance of that act of reflection provides the transition from praxis to theory, from live drama to film to virtual reality.

Notes: 1. I am indebted to my colleagues whose insights have helped me formulate my ideas about what happens at the theater -- Julie Solo, Wallace Ragan, Ann Fuehrer, and Howard Blanning.

2. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York, 1959), p. 204.

3. Wendy Lesser, Pictures at an Execution: An Inquiry into the Subject of Murder (Cambridge, MA, 1993), pp. 195- 196.

4. Robertson Davies, The Lyre of Orpheus (New York, 1988), p. 248.

5. Lesser, Pictures, p. 194.

6. Bert O. States, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater (Berkeley, 1985), p. 158.

7. Otto Friedrich, Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations (New York, 1989), p. 100.

8. Geoffrey Payzant, Glenn Gould: Music and Mind (New York, 1978), p. 64.

9. Payzant, Music and Mind, p. 65.

10. Payzant, Music and Mind, p. 63.

11. Lesser, Pictures, pp. 198-199.

12. States, Great Reckonings, p. 39.

13. Goffman, Presentation, p. 206.

Judith de Luce
Miami University