Deja Vu: the sick feeling of still not knowing how to use video in theater

The mad use and misuse of video in theatre since the mid 1980’s has been mentioned by many, among them Melissa Heller, who is a writer and assistant to a Broadway and Off-Broadway producer and a producer of several shows currently, this show in Fringe NYC, and this show in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, in addition to being an old friend who has a perspective on the theater industry that is delightfully different than mine.

Altar Boyz (produced by Davenport Theatrical Enterprises)

Melissa recently said in passing that video is almost never used “well” in theatrical performance, and those included in this conversation agreed in passing, as most have in most similar conversations of which I have been a part. This post about video is not meant to be overly theoretical, there are plenty of excellent books and articles about the use of video in performance, but I would like to explore a couple of considerations that I have been working through as I approach new works, in light of the “video is almost never done well” declaration, which seems to be a commonly held viewpoint.

unexpected re-cognition/familiarity without awareness: I’ll begin with the most recent consideration; the delay between (even!) live-feed video and “real time.” What if we analogize that this delay is much like the kind the brain manufactures in the creation of artificial ‘travel time’ between the cause of pain and its sensation? We know that this delay in the brain has been seen as a way of confirming existing conceptions of the body in space (something I assume it must do constantly lest its many quantitative pieces spin out throughout space and time?) and, when recognized by another part of the brain, this delay is sometimes thought to be the cause of deja vu, that which feels as if it has already been seen. If this is an analogy that can really be made, it may explain why theater artists keep insisting that video lends them “immediacy” even though it is on a “different plane,” “removes the breath from the space,” “monumentalizes time and gesture” and etc: it triggers the feeling of familiarity in the brain, simply because of its slight delay and the rest of the brain’s recognition of it as a past event. This trigger may be one of the inherent elements of video in live performance (as opposed to film or television).

The Builder's Association's Continuous City

What are the other “inherent elements” of video in performance? At this point, including 3LD‘s video gadet the Eyeliner, and the clever contortions of layered projections used by The Wooster Group and The Builder’s Association it is unclear what “video” really is, and whether or not it can even be considered as a production value. So far, I have only used straight-up back or front projections onto a sheet or wall (due to abject poverty not aesthetics). These projections have contained video sequences, live video of actors, with and without sound, and flash animation sequences. These are mixed in with various still projections, diagrams, painted backgrounds, etc, so I can/will only speak to this very basic use of video’s inherencies: it is durational (beginning and end marked clearly, either it is “playing” or “not playing”), flat, completely mimetic (the same every time), and existent in a time before the action/event of the moment even if it is live-fed. Associatively/creatively then, its “use” for me is often:

a.) to mark time (as in a flashback or flashforward)
b.) to comment on the action from a place of (timeless or pre-time) authority
c.) to illustrate an idea, action, place, time, or event
d.) to provide a contrasting perspective/image/viewpoint to that which is being said or done or depicted live
e.) to create a psychological or emotional space/action that is neither on stage or on the video but existent in the audience member.
f.) to evoke a certain state/place/rhythm (abstract video/video in which the edits overcome the image).

It seems that the “video is hard to do well” doxa relies on the declaration that all of this can be done without video. My boss Mark Rossier, who sees more theater than may even be healthy, often says that the video is “unnecessary” or “doesn’t add anything” and sure, any director worth his or her salt can think of other ways of doing each of the above (lettered) things, so why use video? Is it just a distracting aesthetic choice, used for disorientation?

Dis-orientation: As in the brain, the rules of time and space must be constantly asserted in live performance, if the tools of these are to be used by those creating it. In other words, communication of time-based narrative through performance is severely hampered by a lack of consistency in the internal rules of time and space, just as the body’s ability to move in space and perceive time would be hampered if the brain decided to serve the world in immediate time and sunny-side-up the way the eye initially sees, then switch to a single eye’s view, then insert three minute blocks of the deepest sleep into one of your single waking moments. Disorientation in and of itself, I feel, is best when made both subject and object, as in the work of Richard Foreman and his many followers, where “orientation” is conceptually aligned with conformity, narrow-mindedness, and often death, as in Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland.

Deep Trance Behavior in Pototoland

Yet, I am moving farther and farther away from the idea that disorientation alone and in and of itself is particularly useful unless it is part of a cognitive narrative (i.e. disorientation on the road to a re-orientation in another “place” or from another “angle”). Therefore, I’d rather use video as a means of concentrating focus, and reinforcing the internal logic of time and space needed for the communicable “sense” in performance; because these rules of time and space can never be “the same as” non theatrical experience (which is also never neutral in terms of time and space to begin with), the rules have to be carefully and formally constructed. Video can assist with this due to its inherent durational and spatial restrictions, which can also, of course, be toyed with…

I am bored now, I’m going to go edit some video.

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