Understanding theatre as an inherently technological medium or hyper-medium with innate capabilities to incorporate and engage in dialogue with media components, broadly conceived, (Balme) reframes an investigation of interactive digital media in live performance to focus on dramaturgical methodologies that integrate, in particular actors, early in the development process. Coupling this paradigm of intermedial theatre with Hayles’s notion of technogenesis, that as humans, we are defined by our co-evolution with technologies, the actor becomes an animator-performer who co-creates with technology. The challenge is how best to develop and facilitate this dialogue within the development of works that integrate emerging interactive modalities.
In 2012, our creative collective Out of the Box Productions presented Bugzzz: a cautionary tale, our most innovative, interactive work to date. This experience helped to foreground issues and to reveal many tensions and dynamics inherent in the use of complex interactive technologies embedded within live performance. As artists/educators who integrate creative research into teaching, our ever-evolving understandings of intermedial theatre were used as a catalyst in an interdisciplinary pedagogical setting. The Interactive Stage: Explorations in Electronically Mediated Performance, in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University in Canada, is team taught and integrates students from theatre, dance, and digital media in a team-based studio. In addition, our current research creation project, Butterfly: a study interactive, focuses specifically on the tensions and dynamics of a development process where technology creation is integral, and practice is acknowledged as intimately involved with conceptualization.
This paper will expand on new modalities necessary for the end user – the animator/performer – who must be an active consultant during the developmental process. Further, we will discuss our methodologies developed synchronously in classroom and in production settings, aimed at the open exchange of ideas essential for the evolving theatre.As creators, researchers and educators in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University, we are rather uniquely positioned to offer a comprehensive voice on creating interactive performances. With quite different but complementary skill sets, we approach the work from our own areas of expertise. Still, we realize that the work demands an integrated, creative collaboration if we are to reach the goal of a cohesive vision. For our purposes here, we define interactive performance as one in which digital technology is a central strategy, and there is a corporeal presence (live body) on stage, and there is real-time interactivity between the two. We argue that this blend of science and art, scientist and artist working together, has necessitated a re-thinking of the creative process, and a redefining of roles. We see participants as belonging to two basic categories: “Animator Performer” and “Media Animator,” both of whom must willingly walk in the shoes of the other.
With an understanding of theater as an inherently technological medium, studies of interactive digital media in live performance must focus on dramaturgical methodologies that integrate technology into the creative process. Integrating actors and movement artists is crucial in this process.
It is essential to adopt an approach that resists othering technology. This takes us away from seeing the relationship between humans and technology as oppositional binaries, and fosters a view of these relationships as part of a system. By viewing elements as an interconnected whole, one then looks to where new properties and knowledge can emerge within a creative process. N. Katherine Hayles’s notion of contemporary technogenesis is relevant here, encouraging an interconnected, system-based viewpoint. “In this view, digital media and contemporary technogenesis constitute a complex adaptive system, with the technologies constantly changing as well as bringing about change in those whose lives are enmeshed with them,” she writes, adding “as we have seen, contemporary technogenesis implies continuous reciprocal causality between human bodies and technics [technical object].”
In Hayles’s notion of technogenesis, we as humans are defined by our co-evolution with technologies. The actor, by implication, is conceived of as one who co-creates with technology. Providing a slightly different perspective, Manovich sees humans and technologies composited together: “The result of this composite is a new computer culture — a blend of human and computer meanings, of traditional ways in which human culture modeled the world and the computer’s own means of representing it.” Thus we have not a divided binary, but a system where elements are codependent, woven together. Crucial currents flowing through these issues are embodiment, and ways of knowing. As Pickering observes, “embodied skill is intimately involved with conceptualization.”
All of this fuels an approach to artistic creation that treats technology as a co-participant in the creative process. But in order for this to happen, creative co-participants must be exposed to foundational concepts. Let’s take a deceptively simple question: What is movement?
For a digital expert, movement is a set of numbers. (Even video, at a lower level, is a set of numbers.) It is not until numbers are mapped into a different domain that they acquire meaning appropriate to a performance context. Video pixel values are mapped to display colours. Mapping, however, is very arbitrary. Movement can be mapped to sound or to the parameters of a 3D model. This understanding of movement in relation to technology typifies the kind of knowledge that figures in interactive work. Participants in a creative process should not only have a basic understanding of these concepts, but should have opportunities to experience an interactive context where mapping to media parameters is immediately apparent.
The challenge is how to encourage this dialogue within the development of works that integrate interactive modalities. In the Acting Conservatory in the Theater Department at York University, some of the tenets underlying the curriculum are: actors need to be “real people in real situations”; acting is truly playing in the moment with the scene partner in front of you, allowing you to affect and be affected; you must have the courage to reveal a truthful inner life.
With our company, Out of the Box Productions, we extensively use intermedial and interactive technologies. Thus, critical questions have emerged: How do these tenets apply for the actor if their scene partner is virtual? What if the performers are trying to affect a motion-tracking system? Do traditional training and creation processes support an interactive stage?
Susan Broadhurst writes,
I believe that new liminal spaces exist where there is a potential for a diverse creativity and experimentation. These spaces are located on the “threshold” of the physical and virtual, and as a result tensions exist […] I suggest it is within these tension-filled spaces that opportunities arise for new experimental forms and practices
Clearly we must explore how to train our actors to work within the tensions between flesh and virtual, and to embrace new staging modalities and new aesthetics.
The Animator Performer
During our recent research project Butterfly – a study interactive, we recognized the term Animator as better able to describe the blend of knowledge, interests and investment needed of all participants for a successful outcome. Further, we implemented the terms Animator Performer and Media Animator when working in the world of interactive performance.
May 2015 saw the creation of a hybrid performance installation piece, Rallentando, where we focused on new creation methodologies in which technology is integral. In that process, the Animator Performer remained intimately involved with conceptualization. The following suggestions emerged which specifically address the needs and responsibilities of the Animator Performer.
The Animator Performer must be an active consultant during the development of an intermedial performance. For an integrated outcome, the Animator Performer must remain in the room and in conversation with the Media Animators and with the technology. An increased understanding of what the Media Animator is doing allows the Animator Performer to ask informed questions and actively feed into the project. Katja Kwastek articulates this as learning the rules of the game: “The irritation provoked by the clash between different rule systems forms part of the aesthetic experience of interactive art.”
There must be a fluidity of process. During the Rallentando build, Animator Performer Katelyn McCulloch worked extensively with us, and the motion-tracking system to manipulate discrete light and video events. In our debrief she reflected, “The Animator Performer must remain in a place of ready while kinks are worked out, which can be very tiring. You must stay present, keep your body warm and energy levels up so that when your Media Animators are ready, you can jump in and do your job.” Equally, the Media Animator must step into the shoes of the Animator Performer to better understand the required embodied skills.
Intermedial and interactive technologies demand specificity and discipline in the physical training of the Animator Performer. Our training curriculum for actors at York University includes rigorous corporeal proprioception training, which prepares an Animator Performer to perform with accuracy and repeatability.
The Animator Performer must become a scene partner with technology, establishing a relationship with the virtual body. Broadhurst speaks about tension-filled spaces in which opportunities arise for new experimental forms and practices. In working with the motion-tracking system McCulloch observed, “to work with a scene partner such as this you must stay open and not be thrown off when what you’ve planned in your head doesn’t work out. It is a dance where no one person is leading.”
The Animator Performer must learn to play with technology. Robert Wechsler observes, “The best interactive performers we know are those with an adventurous sense of play. They have the attitude […] if the machine is going to talk back to me, then I’ll talk back to it.” Animator Performer McCulloch reflected, “If you try too hard to control it, it will inevitably change its mind so you must find playfulness, an improvisational spirit and ease when working with new technologies.”
For the Animator Performer, emerging interactive modalities require rigor, specificity, patience and a keen underlying sense of play. As Kwastek observes, “play cannot be pinned down in terms of fixed characteristics, but rather constantly oscillates between material and form, seriousness and pleasure, reality and artificiality, rules and chance, nature and intellect.” With all its challenges and frustrations, we continue to move deeper into the world of the interactive stage, seeing the relationships between humans and technology as part of an evolving system, moving toward an ultimate unity.
As mentioned, during this past year we have had the opportunity to develop and present a research project entitled Butterfly, a study interactive to dance artists and scholars in diverse locations around the world. During these presentations, the excitement that arose from the realization of “possibility” was palpable among almost everyone in the room. While the results of the creative effort were intriguing to watch and participate in, it was really the development process that we were focused on: the roles and relationships of the Media Animator and the Animator Performer. The following speaks to those realizations.
The Media Animator
The Media Animator is responsible for the development and integration of the digital tools we use to express the performance ideas and hold the team’s interest. However, the Media Animator cannot develop those tools with any degree of success without an Animator Performer who is willing to engage sincerely in the programming process, to work closely and clarify his/her needs, and who is willing to journey through the myriad of choices to be made. For, as Nathaniel Stern says, “we are always more than that which the computer detects […] we must look with, and feel, the body”–something that most Media Animators are less qualified in, and therefore in need of ongoing input from the Animator Performer. Only through that exchange can we realize breakthroughs that may move beyond the original vision. As Katja Kwastek observes, “the gestalt of the interactive artwork only emerges each time it is realized anew by a recipient […] for the aesthetic experience lies in the action of realizing the work.” Myron Krueger adds, “It is the composition of the relationship between action and response that is important. The beauty of the visual and aural response is secondary. Response is the medium!”
Actors are constantly working to find their intent, words and actions, text and subtext. In the same manner, the Animator Performer must work to solve the intent of their physical expression mediated by the machine. Only then may the interactive event meet Robert Weschler’s criteria: it must be intelligible, and it must be interesting / artistic.
In addition, the Media Animators must engage with a central idea, the purpose of the work. Without this engagement, there is no way to offer creative solutions to challenges that will move the project in the desired direction. They must work to answer that fundamental question, succinctly articulated by the pioneer of modern dance lighting, Jean Rosenthal: “Why who is where in the first place.” The Media Animator must rise to a new and integral role. As Kwastek states: “The technical system supporting the interaction proposition and the material components of that system must be considered actors in their own right.” Kwastek expands this thought with the words of Bruno Latour, that the machines “can also authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on.”
As Hayles argues, “when objects acquire sensors and actuators, it is no exaggeration to say they have an Umwelt, in the sense that they perceive the world, draw conclusions based on their perceptions, and act on those perceptions.” At times, a technical element seems to have a personality, complete with its own foibles. No doubt, every now and then, those in any role involving intermedial performance have cursed at a technical element as if it were a living entity. Previously, we referred to technology as a scene partner. The Media Animator’s primary task is to create a scene partner that will allow, afford, encourage, permit, and suggest; not one that blocks, forbids, or even destroys. If we as Media Animators are creating characters, we have a responsibility to avoid bringing life to a faltering Frankenstein, to avoid being cursed as in the words of author Mary Shelly: “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from [it] in disgust?”
The time involved in making changes to the system often frustrates the whole team, particularly those who are creating the system. The objective of Mackwood’s research into “sustainable design on demand” was to find and/or create a system of tools that allowed for almost immediate, “in the room” response to requests by directors and choreographers. If we can conceive of the relationship between the Animator Performer and the system as scene partners, then in an ideal world, our role as Media Animator is to select and design a nimble, accessible, and quickly configurable entity.
As a collaborative team, we believe that everyone should be in the room together, and that means being respectful of that dreaded enemy, time. To quote Rosenthal again, “only when you know that necessity remains the guiding factor, and when the techniques and functions are under your complete technical control, may you adopt even the artist’s approach safely.” However, in a field where technology advances daily, and work may be “materials-driven” instead of “content-driven,” staying on top of the tools remains a monumental challenge.
As Hayles notes, “contemporary technogenesis is about adaptation, the fit between organisms and their environments, recognizing that both sides of the engagement (humans and technologies) are undergoing coordinated transformations.” This demands an on-going conversation that can only take place through the immediate response and constant adaptation mutually realized by the Animators, in an integrated creative process.
 Here we use “animator” as “one that provides or imparts life, interest, spirit, or vitality” as in bringing the “vision” to life.
 Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012, p. 18.
 Ibid., p. 123.
 Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002, p. 46.
. Pickering, Andy. The Mangle of Practice, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995, p. 19.
 Broadhurst, Susan. “Intelligence, Interaction, Reaction, and Performance” in Broadhurst, Susan and Josephine Machon (eds.), Performance and Technology, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2011, p. 141.
 Kwastek, Katja. Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2013, p. 207.
 McCulloch, Katelyn. “Re: You and the Kinect,” Message (E-mail) to Gwenyth Dobie, 2 June 2015.
 Weschler, Robert. “Artistic Considerations in the Use of Motion Tracking with Live Performers: A Practical Guide” in Broadhurst, Susan and Josephine Machon (eds.), Performance and Technology, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2011, p. 73.
 McCulloch, Katelyn. op. cit.
 Kwastek, Katja. op. cit., p. 354.
 Stern, Nathaniel. Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance, Gylphi Limited, Canterbury, 2013, p. 52.
 Kwastek, Katja. op. cit., p. 173.
 Weschler, Robert. op. cit., p. 230.
 Rosenthal, Jean and Lael Wertenbaker. The Magic of Light: The Craft and Career of Jean Rosenthal, Pioneer in Lighting for the Modern Stage, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1972, p. 8.
 Kwastek, Katja. op. cit., p. 302.
 Ibid., p. 303.
 Hayles, N. Katherine. op. cit., p. 60.
 Rosenthal, Jean and Lael Wertenbaker. op. cit., p. 4.
 Coniglio, Mark. “Materials vs Content in Digitally Mediated Performance” in Broadhurst, Susan and Josephine Machon (eds.), Performance and Technology, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2011, p. 253.
 Hayles, N. Katherine. op. cit., p. 209.
Broadhurst, Susan. “Intelligence, Interaction, Reaction, and Performance” in Broadhurst, Susan and Josephine Machon (eds.), Performance and Technology, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2011.
Coniglio, Mark. “Materials vs Content in Digitally Mediated Performance” in Broadhurst, Susan and Josephine Machon (eds.), Performance and Technology, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2011.
Hayles N., Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012.
Kwastek, Katja. Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2013.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2002.
McCulloch, Katelyn. “Re: You and the Kinect,” Message (E-mail) to Gwenyth Dobie, 2 June 2015.
Pickering, Andy. The Mangle of Practice, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.
Rosenthal, Jean and Lael Wertenbaker. The Magic of Light: The Craft and Career of Jean Rosenthal, Pioneer in Lighting for the Modern Stage, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1972.
Stern, Nathaniel. Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance, Gylphi Limited, Canterbury, 2013.
Weschler, Robert. “Artistic Considerations in the Use of Motion Tracking with Live Performers: A Practical Guide” in Broadhurst, Susan and Josephine Machon (eds.), Performance and Technology, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2011.