Technology has been a part of theatre almost from the beginning: we might think of Ancient Greek drama as theatre at its purest, but the auditoria were carefully designed to focus the actors’ voices towards the audience. The later addition of masks were also a form of technology – it is believed that they acted as resonators for the actors, enhancing their voices and giving them a greater sense of presence.
Technology became increasingly important in theatre, though, in the late 19th century – the possibilities of electric lighting and increasingly sophisticated stage machinery were even partially responsible for the emergence of the role of the director. With all those possibilities, someone needed to take charge of how they were deployed. Nowadays, theatre without some sort of technology – whether it’s lighting, amplified sound, projections or music – is almost unimaginable.
But how to use technology in theatre without it overwhelming the direct communication of actor to audience? How to avoid the problem encapsulated in the famous (and possibly apocryphal) dismissal of Camelot that “the audience came out humming the scenery”? By making it essential to the telling of the story. In our 2014/15 show A Walk at the Edge of the World, we used projections in two concurrent ways: firstly, for the narrator to illustrate his description of the places he had visited, secondly to act as a visual sub-text. The first set of images came from a 35mm slide projector which the narrator operated, the second set were projected behind him – at first supporting his narrative, then counterpointing it, then contradicting it. This was a theatrical way of employing the literary device of the unreliable narrator, and the story could only be fully understood by hearing the story and seeing the images at the same time.
Our forthcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe production of Erewhon counterpoints two technologies from different eras. The magic lantern represents the era of the original book, while the iPhone is a technology of today. When playwright and performer Arthur Meek began looking at Samuel Butler’s 1872 book Erewhon as a source for a new play, he quickly recognised the connection between the 19th century magic lantern and PowerPoint, the medium he used in his 2016 fringe hit On the Conditions and Possibilities of Hillary Clinton Taking Me as Her Young Lover. The magic lantern was the technology that led to cinema: a machine capable of projecting images large enough for hundreds of people to watch at the same time. Live-streaming from an iPhone is as new and startling to many of us today as mechanical magic lantern slides were to Butler and his contemporaries – why not use both technologies?
In Butler’s book, technology has been outlawed in Erewhon for hundreds of years because its inhabitants feared it was taking over their lives. The book’s narrator is regarded with suspicion because he has a pocket watch, which is taken from him and destroyed. In the development of the play, we looked at how the Erewhonians’ fear of technology’s power mirrored our own current concerns, and the ubiquitous iPhone seemed to be the quintessence of that fear – the desirable, addictive piece of technology many of us spend far too much time staring at every day. Our Erewhon employs a fair amount of technology - including live music from electronic instruments, which would have been unimaginable to Butler in the 1870s – but we hope that its supports and amplifys the storytelling rather than replacing it.