Many Voices, One Song
© Kathryn Farley
July 30, 2004
Attempting to assess the soundscape of a complex performance work separately from its visual content is like trying to learn the steps of an intricate ballet while being blindfolded: it's a difficult, often physically exhausting undertaking. Concentrating exclusively on the audio text of a live theatrical event that is being transmitted via the Internet from a venue many thousand of miles away is not only strange, in many ways it defies pre-conceived notions of what theatre is and how it might function in the contemporary world.
I found, though, that when one sense (in this case sight) was severely restricted, others were greatly heightened. So, while I anticipated this technology-mediated experience to be cold and impersonal, I discovered it to be just the opposite: sharp, penetrating and oddly visceral.
The arresting performance I am referring to, Demotic, begs the important question: how do we best portray the multiplicity underlying the American experience? But rather than offer politically-correct and easy-to-digest answers to this query, the project's originators, artists Antoinette LaFarge and Robert Allen, depend primarily on the audience to fill in the conceptual gaps. Their work, a truly collaborative effort, introduces us to a plethora of possible stories, personalities and perspectives from which to chose from and navigate through. Because of the multivocal elements of the piece I assumed that I was listening to a huge cast of characters-- an entire city of colorful and closely-knit inhabitants, much like the citizenry depicted in plays such as "Under Milkwood" and "Our Town." I was surprised to read in the publicity materials that, contrary to my assumptions, the voices emanated from a single character, as a means of "creating a kind of covert national anthem."
If the performance represented a version of "America The Beautiful," then it conveyed a decidedly bleak picture, complete with overtures to dysfunction, displacement, and disjuncture. This song, though, at the same time proved to be a hymn of hope and redemption (highlighted by the moments when performers were able to connect, listen and learn from each other).
My misperception regarding the source of multivocality points to some of the less-refined elements of the production: namely, the fuzzy relationships between performer agents/actors, and their collective impact on storytelling processes. I was left to wonder, for example, how technological instrumentation influenced actor relations (and their physical actions within the stage space). Further, on the level of storytelling was there one narrative being created- a patchwork quilt composed of many tiny bits of fabric, all individually selected? Or did the work strive to present numerous vocal vignettes that related to each other in ways that were not easy to ascertain or comment upon? We (the audience) seemed to be stuck in the middle of a long-winded and often-repeated tale- situated in a fixed point somewhere between being able to discern the patterns among words and, occasionally, the meaning of entire phrases. Where did the story begin and end, and what could be taken from the narrativeās braided, labyrinth-like structure?
As far as relating the moment-to-moment discoveries of this unique auditory experiment, I initially felt the overlapping sounds to be jarring and emotionally distancing. In time, however, I was able to relax into their uneven rhythms and staccato-like flow. Interruptions, pauses, the funky Mexican music played during computer glitches, even the audience's laughter and the heavy breathing of one media artist brought the diffuseness of the work's narrative composition back down to human scale. This was a live event, after all, and I often pictured myself (at least in my imagination) to be in direct proximity to the stage. Focusing so intently on making sense of the conflicting voices running through my head was as close as I have come to experiencing the internal struggles of mental illness: so many messages, so little time to act on each one.
In sum, theatrical performance, by its very nature, is an interactive art form. What the Internet is able to contribute to the medium of theatre is not just another useful communication tool, but an effective forum for sharing ideas, debating ideals and exchanging creative impulses. A performance project like Demotic provides evidence that the Internet can successfully elevate the interactive dimensions of theatre, by facilitating a more immediate, immersive and participatory mode of engagement.
About the Author:
Kathryn Farley holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and currently teaches at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her dissertation was entitled "Teaching Performance in the Digital Age: Interactive Technologies, Improvised Spaces and Aesthetic Considerations in Learning." Kathryn's writings concerning digital theatre practices have been included in such interdisciplinary publications as Body, Space and Technology and Crossings: Electronic Journal of Art and Technology. For more information, please visit her website.