The Hunger No Screen Can Satisfy

A guest post from Charlie Varon

We live in a world of screens: this has been true for some time now. But as we move deeper into the Digital Age, we who devote ourselves to creating live performance have to reckon with this cultural moment and with the future of our art form.

The default is now that we are either looking at a screen or have a screen at hand, which can claim our attention at any moment, steal our focus. We live not just on clock time but on phone-clock time, with the numerals of the hour constantly announcing themselves. We live in the possibility that if not this minute, then perhaps the next something new will pop up to divert or distract or terrify us.

The shift has been gradual; it has crept up on us, but now everyone is tethered to the electronic world. The result is that human beings have increasingly lost control of their attention, their time, and thus their consciousness. 

In its baldest form, the problem for live performance in the Digital Age can be expressed this way:

If I can watch any movie or TV show ever made, virtually for free, without having to get out of my pajamas, and I can pause it to go to the toilet, or stop watching entirely if I’m bored, why should I ever leave home, look for parking, risk being infected by other people’s germs, and pay money to see something I may not end up liking?

This is a consumer’s view, and the Digital Age privileges individual consumption over the community. In the digital world, the basic unit is the “user,” the system is set up to cater to each user’s “preferences,” and these preferences lead each user to the “content” they consume.

Taken to its extreme, this model results in a world of happy, plugged-in users, each consuming his or her favorite customized online content, never venturing out of the house and never talking to another user, except perhaps electronically.

My friend Lloyd Lynford, when I presented him with the unhappy vision above, reframed the problem. Lloyd put the question this way: 

What is the unique competence of theater in the Digital Age?

I find these 11 words liberating. They remind me that for millennia, since the advent of writing, forms of storytelling have had to reinvent themselves, reshape themselves to new realities. Theater had to adapt when movies arrived, radio had to adapt to television, and so on. When the culture shifts, each form of storytelling must take stock and ask what the new time demands of it.

photos by Daniel Baumer / danscape

So what is the unique competence of theater in the Digital Age?

My fellow Marsh artists Mark Kenward and Rebecca Fisher and I – when we looked at Lloyd’s question – identified three unique attributes of live performance: energy, relationship, and community.

ENERGY. Live performance can crackle with a kind of aliveness that no screen will ever provide. Hundreds of times I’ve seen audiences walk out of the theater buzzing, recharged, revivified. In the past that energizing element may have been a nice “plus” for a night at the theater. Today it is an essential component. As Mark Kenward puts it:

Life Force is at a premium these days. People are busier than ever. Their computer screens are grabbing their attention, pulling them in a million directions, all day long. Their Life Force is thus depleted (or at least at risk of depletion).  And therefore simply leaving the house (especially at night) is potentially exhausting. They still want to get out and do things, but in order to get them out to do one more thing, they have to feel there is a reasonable chance the event will energize them rather than leave them even more tired the next morning. 

RELATIONSHIP. As more of our experience of the world is mediated by digital devices, there is a growing hunger (whether or not we recognize or acknowledge it) for authentic face-to-face experiences. A performer who understands this hunger, who knows how to connect with an audience with craft and heart and authenticity, offers a special gift – an experience of what it is to be alive and in relationship with one another. In an age of digital overload, live performance can reconnect us with what it is to be human.

COMMUNITY. Every audience is a kind of community sharing an experience. Even watching a movie at the cinema is different from watching it on your computer. If it’s a comedy, you hear other people laughing with you. Live performance opens up bigger possibilities. These fall into two categories:

A. the temporary community of people who happen to have bought tickets to the same show

B. ongoing communities who come to the theater as groups, or to whom a performance is brought at another venue

The challenge now is to put community, both temporary and ongoing, at the center of the theater experience, and to imagine what other elements of the evening’s experience (food, drink, conversation) can enhance the sense of community. Each performance is an opportunity to strengthen human ties, a need that is increasingly urgent in our digitized, atomized society.

I’ll close with a credo I wrote a few years ago:

I believe there is a hunger no screen can satisfy: 

a hunger to hear and tell stories face to face, as human beings have done since the beginning of language

a hunger to have a shared experience that will never be repeated in exactly the same way

a hunger to laugh and listen and think together, and thus become more fully human

I believe there is a yearning:

to express what we have lived and felt and imagined

to express it fully and beautifully, with heart and soul and depth and craft

I believe this takes time and searching and struggle, and is best done in the company of others.

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