«More Presence on Stage»
To see means to decide: on the impact of video on the theatre, the doubled view with the camera, and different functions of video on stage.
by Thomas Oberender
Translated by Johannes Birringer, From the special issue «Theatre und Video,» in: Theater Heute, April 2004, pp.19 — 26.
One of the fascinations of theatre is the attempt of its actors to create an event (something that happens in the moment), something event-ful, which at the same time it threatens to destroy in the process of production. Often plays and performances seem to aim at a very particular, unique moment, in which something very «real» takes place. This heightened moment appears as a particular accomplishment of something that has been rehearsed and planned, and now suddenly is transformed into a moment of revealing evidence. The essential ambition of each artform is probably directed at the production of such moments which are not producible in a calculated manner.
In the dictionary entry under «video» we find the explanation that the word is derived from Latin, and means «I see.» Video is a kind of optical recorder, and its great advantage is that I can see immediately what I see. The immediate availability of the image allows that it can be linked instantly and directly to the moment of its production, it can almost become at one with this moment. With video the image can for the first time become a part of the present moment (presence), in which it is generated, since it is its live witness, and even more so, it is its «real-time» result
At this point one remembers particular scenes in Frank Castorf’s productions [at the Berlin Volksbühne where Castorf is artistic director], one remembers the simultaneous presence of the actor as a person on stage along with her or his image projection. But one also remembers Paul Virilio’s preoccupations with the real-time technology of contemporary warfare, the green and gray flickering video images of missiles automatically seeking and aiming at their targets. Here the same aspect of video technology is fulfilled: action and reaction occur in the same moment, and one experiences the phenomenon of the «event» happening.
Video as a technology thus allows that we can produce an image of our own actuality: the image becomes a part of this actual reality. The video image thus becomes a feedback mechanism of the reality in which it is embedded. A good example of this is the memory one has of the first time one suddendly saw one’s own image on a monitor in an electronics store or shopping mall which had been captured by a hidden camera. The passer-by on the street - it was me, and this recognition usually causes a reaction in us, even if it is only a short, critical look at our own image on the monitor to check how one appears or how one looks, independent from the fact how one feels. This trivial example takes us close to the Latin meaning of the term ‚video,’ since this ‚I see’ means, in actuality, «I see myself’, or more precisely, «I see myself seing.»
When we reflect on the use of video in the theatre, we can distinguish two fundemantal strategies in which it is used: 1) the projection of prerecorded footage (film projection), and 2) live production (real time video projection or synthesis). In the first case we see video in its relationship to film, namely used as the projection of prerecorded or found footage. Video in this case is the poor cousin of classical film, which it reproduces as a video copy or as sampled and edited version of a movie. Basically this is not so different from traditional uses of film in the theatre, in the way in which Erwin Piscator at the beginning of the 20th century had used film projection on the proscenium. Video most often appears in contemporary theatre as such video copy. There is no difference to the use of film, apart from the fact that video is cheaper and more easily accessible.
Interestingly, a number of movies today are professionally produced as video, since often television productions have to be cost effective and completed quickly, for example in the music video, soap opera and porn movie markets. These productions have an extremely transitory character, their transitoriness is written into them, they are made to be instantly replaced by others. Although these video genres are not often seen on the theatre stage, they have left their mark on the theatre since they have created a certain aesthetic which has become the dominant style in popular and commercial culture. Video production in this sense has created its own aesthetic language, in which art and nonart, professionality and dilettantism, the fake and the authentic, spontaneity and market imperatives, experiment and lack of ambition mingle freely. What would pop music be without music video? Without video no trash, no soaps, no reality TV, and no René Pollesch or Wooster Group (without trying to use a value judgement now). In this sense, the transitory and democratic culture of pulp video has left clear traces in the theatre.
The live creation of video images in the theatre, in contradistinction to the use of precorded footage, fascinates us because the real-time projection of filmed action on a screen onstage opens a second, rival «scene». The first production in which I observed this use of video was Fred Kelemen’s staging of «Desire» (after Eugene O’Neill’s «Desire under the Elms») at the Prater, Berlin Volksbühne, in 2001. Bert Neumann had created a unfied stage design for the entire season - the set of a Western, with a farm in midst of a cactus desert, and with a huge screen in the background on which classical Western landscapes from old movies were projected. Thus, the live action onstage and the projected film scenes began to compete with each other for the «right image.» Above the roof of the farmhouse, furthermore, there was a second screen attached, much like an advertising billboard. On this billboard Kelemen showed the live video (or certain prerecorded scenes) of the actions that were taking place inside the house. But here the director goes one step further: After Abbie, performed by Kathrin Angerer, begins her seductive temptation to attract the desire of both father and son, she disappears as a real stage person and from now on only appears as the desirable woman (projection) on the screen. The tension between the stage characters now shifts toward the tension between the action onstage and the action on screen.
Video as an observational and documentary medium, which is constantly tracking us, from the money dispensing machines to the airport, shows itself here from another side: as a seducer arousing, grabbing and captivating our desire. The projections, with which O’Neill’s characters relate to each other, are transfered by Kelemen to the screen as mirror of the characters’ self-projections. The drama of narcissism has found its ideal medium in video. Kelemen’s dramaturgy, in using multiple presences of stage actions (onstage mingled with live video and prerecorded video onscreen), thus created a liminal situation, a threshold between near and far, presence and absence, directness and indirectness, narcissistic self-observation and surveillance of the other.
Similarly, Frank Castorf’s production of Dostojevsky’s «Erniedrigte und Beleidigte» (The Humiliated and the Offended ) shows how video generates images in real time and splits this real-time into two simultaneous conditions which rival with one another; they do not become synthesized in this production but remain contrastive. The reaction of the screen to the stage action provokes an awareness, how the perceptional process of the viewer is a decision-making process which essentially produces her or his «truth» or «reality». Like the stage sets of Bert Neumann, which relocate the stage action into closed rooms from where it can only be seen via video transmission and thus put the viewer into a situation in which she can fundamentally only see fragments (selections) of the action, in the same way the live video images also point to the fact that «seeing» is an active, world-producing or reality-producing process. This drama of seeing corresponds on the thematic level with the world view of Dostojevski’s characters experienced as existentialist drama. With this explicit dramatization of perceptional processes, Castorf responds to the implicit dramaturgy of Dostojevsky’s subject matter — the actors do not experience themselves as sovereign subjects, but see their becoming-guilty as purely a matter of being in this world, since this world has no Being that remains independent from their existence. The live video accentuates this dual nature of Being.
As video is considered culturally as objectifying surveillance media on the one hand, and as media that can translate our desire for the other - for example in MTV, or in pornography, but also in such video installations as Samuel Taylor Woods’ recent work - it is particularly well suited to our search for the «real», since its «real-time» character and its «profanity» allow it to become a part of the reality it depicts. It penetrates into spaces where it makes itself forgotten again. But through its presence, actual reality becomes simultaneously objective and subjective. In this space of interference, «human beings» (humanity) in Frank Castorf’s production of «Erniedrigte und Beleidigte» reveal themselves. But not only in this production: the model reality of the small TV societies which expose themselves to public viewing in the «Big Brother» or «Superstar» Reality-TV laboratories is characterized by a similar oscillation of its inner condition, since these laboratories show us human beings who perform their social survival in a self-conscious manner as well with the awareness that they are observed. They live under the conditions of the show, as if viewers were not present, and the TV viewers see them living as if their lives were only a show. In front of the video camera, the behavior of the chosen performers (the tested, the guinea pigs) is at once public as well as intimate; it is determined by both calculation and authenticity, driven by money but also by souls and the will of the people, always both ways, always inextricably entwining the presence, the Now of the event, with the anticipation of its effect.
Thus the TV-laboratories create «transparency» for spontaneous moments through the procedure of «enclosing» or embedding the people in a locked space — it is a procedure that Bert Neumann’s stage design refers to. When in these Reality TV-laboratories, and in the constant tension between competition and need for community, between a sense of self and a calculated sense of one’s effect on others, moments or flashes of true insight into the depths of the characters of these candidates occur, then such moments are ultimately those which such constant media surveillance is trying to tease out. One could argue that the actual testing in these «laboratories» is not about discrete and detachable characteristics or capabilities, such as knowledge or athleticism, but «humanness» in general, woman and man as total resource.
This testing corresponds to recent Castorf productions in which the actor has been made «transparent» through video. The reality in these stagings is the effect of quite different fields of ambivalence: strategies of performance include the authentic innocence of an amateur actress within a professional theatre production which uses the effect of this «authenticity», along with the interference of sensual and erotic seductiveness (porn movies projected on the screen) and intellectual provocation (monolog downstage). Live video is here only one dimension of a staging which aims at using various simultaneous and antagonistic effects.
Bert Neumann has developed stage designs which are unthinkable without the use of live video projections. To exaggerate a little, one could almost speak in this connection of a «spatial revolution» of theatre space through the use of video projection. The forced intimacy of the stage life of those city dwellers and suburbanites (in the plays) is created through our observation of the camera’s observation of their actions. In this case the spatial inventions of Neumann’s design for «Erniedrigte und Beleidigte» or for Dostojevsky’s «The Idiot» require the use of live video, but these images do not create the spaces, they only allow us to peak inside them. The images used in the Volksbühne productions are not digitally manipulated, they use no additional effects. The video here shows what I cannot see, and it establishes an unresolved or unredeemed reality next to reality; the simultaneous impact of this consists of the alternative, and autonomous character of these realities. Video dissociates the action.
It is quite different with Matthias Hartmann (Bochum Theatre) - here video appears to be an integrative means which concentrates all elements to one unified impact. Matthias Hartmann in this sense creates highly complex integrated works of art whose effectiveness impresses us through a kind of purified illusionism. These stagings are romantic, in the sense of Friedrich Schlegel, since they completely reveal the construction of their suggestiveness, and they self-consciously refer to the artificiality of their reality. In Hartmann’s premieres of Albert Ostermaier’s «Es ist Zeit. Abriss» and «Deutschland, deine Lieder,» and in his stagings of Christian Kracht’s novel «1979» and Falk Richter’s play «Electronic City», live video is used in combination with film projections and recorded footage, and it predominantly becomes a space-creating medium which generates a stage reality which could not be created in conventional ways and also could not have its own existence.
The screen becomes the dominant scene which absorbs the entire material which is produced by the actors and camera operators, and which synthesizes this material on a higher level. For example, in the staging of «1979» one actor wanders through the villa of a millionaire, and this walk is created through superimposition of his own image with images that are created by means of another actor leafing through an architectural magazine whose design photographs are filmed live by a camera person: these filmed images become projections of architectonic space for the walk on screen.
Matthias Hartmann’s premiere staging of «Electronic City» takes this principle even further by locating the entire action in a blue box and by using several screens to mix the real time images of the actors with live recorded image-illusions of realistic spaces, superimposed and collaged with other filmic materials and computer simulations. The screen is the integrating «stage», the scene which combines the action on stage with the simulated images. The perception of this synthesis is rivalled by the live action of its generation in front of the cameras. An additional doubling is created by the use of two parallel screens on stage right and left, which show the synthesis from two differing perspectives, for example by separating the image of the seeing actor from the POV image of what the actor sees. The live video projections, created by the video team directed by Stephan Komitsch and Peer Engelbracht, thus appear as a virtual form of the design and as a hyper-scene (hyper text). The neutral stage space of the blue box is defined as a zero space without any narrative dimension: it becomes a stage which is «played upon» in an entirely new sense.
This method of using video images can be said to create a «playful» reality which shows up how it is created artificially, while it also offers itself to be experienced as an «open» illusion. Here too the use of live video creates an epic dimension of the dramatic action, but in a rather different way from the productions of Fred Kelemen and Frank Castorf. To use a paradoxical formulation: Matthias Hartmann’s productions of «1979» and «Electronic City» develop a precise hermeticism precisely through their use of such an «epic» technology of live video, as the narrative dimension of video becomes dominant and without competition - neither the stage space nor the actions of the actors have a reality besides the one created through the video. The simultaneous actions do not problematize each other, but generally happen only for the intended synthesis as a total effect. In achieving this, the closed hermeticism of the staging becomes nearly invisible or unnoticeable through the complete transparency of its production: the video technician at the editing controls (computer) sits in midst of the audience, the camera persons and his assistants work with handheld camera directly on the open stage, and the actors are clearly interacting with each other as well as with the camera.
The heightened control atmosphere, which is created through such use of video technology as a determined regime of timings, positions, angles and precise shots, appears to considerably reduce the levels of freedom in the performance of the actors, whereas the levels of freedom of perception in general are raised. Different from Castorf’s productions, the video in Matthias Hartmann’s work creates a central perspective through which the whole staging is directed: the video image and the simultaneous process of its production is clearly the horizon line of this staging, from the beginning. Within this constellation the actor behaves functionally - from the perspective of the video his or her acting is only another form of video sampling and rendering/projection. The total constellation of this complex and multi-layered construction functions well, since the tensions or ruptures within the processes, which are set in motion by the actor’s performance and his/her re-encounter with his/her images, are not thematized by the actor, and thus do not have a thematic dimension in the performance as a whole but are resolved and fused by the open synthesis of all stage components.
In the productions of Frank Castorf and Matthias Herrmann the reality of the video images always show a different reality from the live scene on stage. In the stagings of Matthias Herrmann, however, the actions do not irritate each other; rather, the use of video projection completely closes off the world of the performance (the staged world) from the spontaneous experiences of the performers. This closed hermeticism of the staging at the same time hides behind the almost perfect transparency of its production — everything is made visible and observable. Stage designer Volker Hintermeier built installation landscapes for «Es ist Zeit. Abriss», «Deutschland, deine Lieder,» or «1979» which exhibit all objects openly, and thus refer to the screen as a membrane and an integrative scene within the scene. Therefore the spatial designs in these productions do not show any social spaces but only medial spaces without a fourth wall: in a certain sense they remain empty and only come to life when they are «mediated» through images.
The inverse principle characterizes the stage designs of Bert Neumann (Berlin) - here the stage sets close with a fourth wall, and create a space which is not open and transparent to our view but at first appear closed. What is offered (hidden) by the stage set has to be discovered slowly by the viewer - in following the action on stage the viewer makes acquaintance with distances and depth, with the fundamental fragmentariness and selectiveness of the shown , and with its fundamental recalcitrance. The stage sets of Bert Neumann create their own form of reality, since they are based on the disruption of the sovereign viewpoint, for example by splitting the focus and perspective into different viewpoints which do no longer allow for a central, unified perspective. Video artist Jan Speckenbach, who has worked in many of Castorf’s more recent stage productions, called the method of using real time video a kind of «lived cubism» - I translate this as a revealing of multi-layered actions within the plane and the simultaneity of images. The stage in this case shows different views through diverse ways of seeing - and the effect is always only a patchwork of selected views, never generalized as a totality. Out of this fragmentation of perspectives, these partial views and their rupture points, a simultaneous collage of discrepant ways of seeing is created. Jan Speckenbach’s video transmissions place the dissociated aspects of the action side by side, and thus inevitably split the moment into dynamic and conflicting components. This method creates what one could call a disturbance of impressions, and through its erros it provokes the success of the event.
A staging which is as hermetic as Matthias Hartmann’s «Electronic City», on the other hand, must rely on a very smooth functioning of its procedures, since all disturbances threaten the illusion of this romantic mode of production which self-assuredly points to its complete artificiality. Disruptions within the situations generated by video are rather unromantic glitches which are not commented upon or used but smoothed over. Thus the characters within the open spaces of Matthias Hartmann’s stagings tend to look much more locked in than in the enclosed and encapsulated spaces of Frank Castorf. In a staging such as Castorf’s adaptation of Dostojevsky’s «Erniedrigte und Beleidigte,» the real-time video shows us the «other side» - it brings into the foreground or into view what (as Castorf argues) the actors cannot or do not want to see by themselves.
The actor is here subjected, via the eye of the camera, to a second examination: does she lie or does she not lie? The video camera extends the grip of the system to the furthest corners and nooks of the stage life, and creates an experimental situation in which the oscillations of reality turn the actor into someone who is tested within a heightened social scenario: privacy and professionalism, freedom and constraint, deceit and honesty, all of these aspects become amalgamated inextricably in a reality which does not allow an outside objectivity that could grant reliable judgement. The actor is made transparent in Castorf’s productions, while in Hartmann’s case we have a stage made transparent, and Castorf’s actor appears more vulnerable than ever, as does Hartmann’s stage. The actor is vulnerable in front of the zoom of the lens on a doubled live stage, more so than ever appeared possible in traditional theatre. Any kind of acting method we remember from this theatre, any particularly drastic theatre rituals, manically rehearsed choral-choreographic dramas or provocative nudity on the boards of the old theatre appears almost philanthropic, mild and literary compared to the harsh vivisection through live video. But Castorf seems to have this forceful politics of viewing as his main objective: there are literally different stakes. The form seems to protect the actor, but under the conditions of our contemporary suburban and city dwellings everything becomes video-form, and thus the actions of the performers in «Erniedrigte und Beleidigte» come to feel existential as rarely experienced in the theatre.
The notion of «disturbance» or self-irritation also marks an important aspect in this, if one wants to move from the epic effect of real-time video, for example its transparency of production, the creation of a double scene within the scene, and the oscillation of perception, to a further differentiation. While the synthetic illusionism of Matthias Hartmann’s stagings develops, thanks to the use of live video, a heightened suggestiveness of the action that is based on the integrative effect of video projection, the use of live video in Castorf’s production has a rather dissociative effect on the stage action: it specifically increases the heterogenous motives in the action by enlarging its self-disruptive moments.
Thus the use of real time video seems to enable a dramatiziation of epic material whose conflicts can perhaps no longer be personalized (in a psychological sense). The narrative adaptations created by Frank Castorf and Matthias Hartmann would appear strangely banal or less complex, if they were robbed of their video dimensions, and this means that the dramatic sensations in these stagings rely to a large extent not on the tension between characters (characterization), but on the tension between character on stage and character on the screen. In this new forcefield opened up by live video, the actor is obviously not only subject but also object, and therefore it suddenly becomes possible on stage to present other, more abstractly operating forces of the social and the political, for which the novel always seemed to be the primary medium in its epic mode of narration and its freedom to range between times, places and points of view.
Live video creates a climate of roaming, vagabond viewing and of multiple scenic presences, among which the actor moves within different perceptional conditions. The romanesque narrative form of such video stagings therefore is not accidentally connected to the director’s adapations of novels.
After the strategies of ironic irritation of the relation between actor and role, for example in the well-known manner of «stepping outside the role,» and after the intertextual perforations of the dramatic text, now the use of live video in the theatre seems to shift the distanciation effect (Verfremdungseffekt) to another level. The doubled view, which is always created through the use of video projection, seems to achieve in a very subtle manner that the performer appears, and must appear, relatively unbroken in her immediate action, since her identity as a character in the live screen projection already suffers from an irritation in the overall effect. There is a tendency, then, that the play with the split identity of the character shifts from the actor herself to the spectator and her perception of a doubled reality. Thus on a higher level an «identity» of the actor’s relation to her character may become possible again, although such a process of course would lack any unselfconscious naiveté.
The splitting of the view, the spontaneous feedback mechanisms between performer and the performed, the roaming vagabond viewpoints, or the problematization of seeing and understanding —- all this appears to give the use of real time video in the theatre a tremendous capability for enforcing the drama of seeing. It is our perception, which generates the world - we are reminded of this by the doubled gaze of the real-time camera on the stage. Potentially such alternative viewing offers the chance to make visible what gets out of control, whenever in the theatre control is executed. The roaming view of the camera person at his viewfinder promises the testimony, the real-time presence of the event on stage. Thus the use of real time video grants the special opportunity to heighten the theatre staging and translate it into a presence whose highly concentrated simultaneities open up perception to a degree of freedom and to ways of cognition which would not otherwise be possible.