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Amodern 7: Ephemera and Ephemerality


Flickering Documents in Unsteady Archives

Lindsay Brandon Hunter

Recordings of theatrical performance are notoriously unsatisfying. The long history of attempts to mediatize theatre (and the general sense of disappointment that has attended those efforts) is a testament to the difficult proposition of translating theatrical performance to television or film, in particular. In his history of the UK’s National Theatre, Daniel Rosenthal shares then-director Richard Eyre’s assessment of the difficulty of recording stage work in the mid-twentieth century: “[I]f you just squirt a camera at the stage … it will always look clumsy … It can’t ever be regarded as anything but a wholesale dilution of the theatrical original.”1 Decades later, David Sabel, then head of digital media at the National, echoed those reservations in a talk for TEDxBroadway when he voiced a piece of commonplace wisdom regarding “the “terrible … track record of filmed performance”: “[I]t’s the complete opposite of what we want from the theatre,” he admitted. “It’s deadening to the art form, it’s static, someone else is choosing where we look.” In addition to those more formal objections, he noted, it usually fails to entertain: “you start pointing cameras at a play, and you bring the expectations of a filmgoer, and you start thinking the acting’s too big, it’s overlit, the makeup’s not good, why don’t they just move off that set and go on a location?”2

The National’s particular concern with mediatizing performance is informed by its mandate to make its work accessible not only to audiences in London, where it occupies a complex of three theatres, but across the U.K. In Rosenthal’s account, the theatre’s concern with mediatization as a way to address that mandate dates nearly from the theatre’s establishment in 1963. By 1997, the matter of how media might best make the National’s work accessible to the nation was far from settled; Eyre prefaced the above comment with the more dire observation that “[O]ur work is inaccessible to large numbers of people and we MUST do something about this, or die.”3 If, in Eyre’s construction, conventional theatrical events’ boundedness in terms of time and space poses a problem, necessarily limiting the access he sought to extend, the same limitations often render performance potent and rare. Performance theorist Peggy Phelan argued in 1993 that (live) performance “honors the idea that a limited number of people in a specific time/space frame can have an experience of value,” casting such limits as a creditable attribute rather than a shortcoming. In frequently cited lines from that essay, Phelan asserts that it is through vanishing that performance “eludes regulation and control,” brandishing its own disappearance as a cunning strategy of resistance. In Phelan’s argument, efforts to foil this evanescence by arranging for performance to be “saved, recorded, [or] documented” have more drastic consequences than rendering performance clumsy, dilute, or static, as Eyre and Sabel have described. Rather, in those attempts, performance “betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology” – or is abandoned by that ontology completely, since her argument holds that once performance “participat[es] in the circulation of representations of representations … it becomes something other than performance” (emphasis in original).4

Although performance studies’ “liveness debates” are often dated to the publication of Philip Auslander’s monograph Liveness in 1999 (which, among other offerings, articulated a rebuttal to Phelan’s arguments about the ontology of performance), theatre and performance studies’ concern with disappearance, loss, and evanescence is longstanding. Eyre, describing his concern about the “wholesale dilution” of theatre delivered via screen, declares that “In trying to achieve this bogus ‘access’, we’d only succeed in making thousands more people doubt that a visit to the theatre was worth making.” The scare quotes he places around “‘access’” and his description of conventional mediatization as “bogus” communicate that result of the attempt would not only be unattractive, but also counterfeit: not really access, at least not to real theatre. He does offer one possible solution, however: “But maybe if it was a live event, a sort of outside broadcast, then it could work” (emphasis added).5 In this comment, he presages the National Theatre’s later use of an outside broadcast apparatus to transmit theatrical productions to cinemas, but more importantly he highlights liveness as the sine qua non which, if preserved, might save an otherwise “bogus” exercise in mediatizing theatre from being worthless.6

The centrality of liveness to attempts to mediatize theatre is a main concern of this essay, which examines efforts to render theatre as theatre on screen, in mediatizations which aim to be theatre more than they aim to document it for the archive. I leverage theories from Wendy Chun and N. Katherine Hayles in order to argue for considering contemporary digital mediatizations of theatre not as valid or otherwise according to their attempts to preserve the vestiges of liveness, but as opportunities to explore how digitality, and especially the broadcasts and recordings it makes possible, might open up opportunities for theatre itself to mean differently. While Chun’s figure of the enduring ephemeral and Hayles’s notion of the flickering signifier do not arise from theatre or performance studies, they can provoke new interrogations of the seeming constitutive liveness of theatrical performance, the presumed stability of recorded documents, and the translation of different forms from analog to digital. All of these have direct bearing on how scholars might “read” and theorize digital renderings of theatrical productions, which mediatize highly visible stage productions for global audiences. The popularity of such productions give them considerable – and growing – power to shape the customs and standards by which theatre is assessed, produced, consumed, and even defined. Hayles’s figure of the flickering signifier, in particular, could equip performance scholars, as it has scholars of literature, to investigate contemporary shifts in the ways in which previously exclusively non-digital forms are instantiated across digital platforms. Perhaps more importantly, it emphasizes the opportunities for mutation and experimentation resulting from the new modes of signification those instantiations bring into being. I make a case, in this essay, for encountering recorded and broadcast theatre on its own terms, according to its unique valences and affordances, in hopes that a robust curiosity regarding such a theatre might spur audiences, practitioners, and scholars alike to investigate what exists beyond theatre’s strong correlation with live acts and fleshly bodies.

Sabel’s comment about “go[ing] on location” points not to the actual portability of theatrical productions but to the intractability of the dilemma of translating those fleshly bodies and their theatrical environments into satisfying screened forms. Given the seeming insolubility of the mismatches between what suits the theatre and the screen, respectively, and what each requires, perhaps those who would record theatre would do better to throw in the towel and make a film – or at least move to a soundstage.7 However, while soundstages are easier to record in, removing a play to a soundstage is never a simple or trivial change of venue. Instead, such a move represents a nearly global change to the theatre’s constitutive contexts. The particular repertoire of actions and responsibilities that create theatre give way to the myriad (and equally specific) practices which shape and constitute recordings. While the necessities of light and sound (and cameras and microphones) probably represent the most immediately apparent differences between the soundstage and on a theatrical one, any actor can tell also you of the practical difference between hitting marks for a camera and the relative latitude and variability involved in executing stage blocking, related skills that are still distinct enough to require separate and specialized training, and which constitute specific and meaningfully dissimilar performances – which are then apprehended by audiences according to distinct repertoires of consumption.

The prospect of recording in situ, from the playing space itself, with audience intact and no or minimal accommodation for the camera, also represents significant intrusion into long-standing conventional theatrical processes. The logistics and aesthetics of inserting and integrating cameras and microphones into theatre spaces (including those spaces’ available light and particular acoustics) have long been troublesome. The size and bulk of analog film cameras poses difficulty, which, along with their requirements for available light, has historically made them prohibitive for use in theatres. Smaller television cameras are less unwieldy than film cameras, allowing for in situ telecasts of theatrical productions like the ones broadcast by PBS’s Live from Lincoln Center (and in the UK, by the BBC), as well as studio-produced “plays” for television like those featured on hour-long drama anthology programs like Television Playhouse and Westinghouse Studio One in the 1940s and 50s. Even on occasions when smaller cameras entered the theatre, however, the consumption of televised plays still traded the co-present bodies of an audience sharing the theatre for private homes’ isolated cells of domesticity.

When a new process called Electronovision promised to be able to record theatre in situ, with only minor adjustments to available light, and for consumption by a communal cinema audience rather than a private televisual one, it was billed (in a trailer for the resulting film) as an innovative technical “miracle.” The 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton was Electronovision’s proving ground: the production was recorded inside the Lunt-Fontanne theatre and then shown in cinemas throughout the US weeks later. The trailer for the film touts its authenticity in a barker-like voice over: “See the original New York production, with the all-star New York cast, presented in its entirety in this [movie] theatre through the miracle of Electronovision. For the first time in history, you will see a live Broadway hit in your own motion picture theatre.” Perhaps tellingly, the text on screen places the word “live” within quotation marks, but the intended take-away was clear: audiences were to understand this product not as a piece of cinema, but as theatre – or at least as the innovative hybrid implied by the new product’s name, Theatrofilm. Anticipating the objection that no canned reproduction of theatre could ever hold the same ontology as the presumably im-mediate real thing, the pitch Burton himself offers in the trailer promises not only a thrillingly innovative technology, but a remarkable ability to preserve a sense of theatre-ness: “This has never happened before. The immediacy, the sense of being there, is unlike any experience you have ever known. This is the theatre of the future, taking shape before your eyes today. And you will be there, part of this historic first.”8 The miracle was actually a glorified kinescope process, in which video cameras placed inside the theatre relayed moving images to a truck outside, where the video monitors were filmed. The resulting film record of the performance could, although it was of significantly lower quality than a native film record, be projected in cinemas.

Image 1: “The Electronovision Process,” author’s collection.

Differentiating, in an interview included on recording’s eventual DVD release, the “Theatrofilm” of the Burton/Gielgud stage Hamlet from film itself, Burton (a producer on the project as well as its star) argued that the experience shared by the cinema audience would be a specifically and pointedly theatrical one, not a cinematic one:

INTERVIEWER: Will we get the immediacy of the live Broadway production of Hamlet when this is translated onto Theatrofilm with Electronovision?

BURTON: I think you will. I think you will because the nervousness of the actors – knowing that they can’t go back on it, that this is it for all time – unlike, shall we say, in films, where you can – if you make a mistake – go back and do it again. I think the particular intensity and nerves of this is probably the same kind of thing that excites a real live audience in a real live theatre.9

The interviewer’s use of the verb “translated” suggests a gentler action than transformation or adaptation. It prefigures, in a casual way, the scholar (and RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon producer) John Wyver’s more precise suggestion of the figure of translation as apt for describing a process which requires both “a strong degree of fidelity to a pre-existing original” and “a recognition of inevitable and intentional creative mediation” by camera directors and other creative agents.10 Burton is clearly more interested in the film record’s promised fidelity to the stage production than any acknowledgement of the creative agency of the filming team, however. Elsewhere in the interview, he promises that the recorded version of the stage play “will be exactly as they shot it in the theatre, there’s no cheating of any kind, no trick shots … It’s actually what you do see in the theater.” Further, he declares that “none of the actors make any concession to this new process” as regards their own performances, that they “don’t tone it down to seem like film actors,” or “play it up” for those cameras because “they are further away than they would be in a studio.” He also stresses that a vulnerability to mischance assumed to be fundamental to the theatre will be preserved in the recording. In the same interview in which he cites the actors’ “nerves” as productive of the effects of liveness, he emphasizes that the recording will be subject to the same rules of chance and tests of skill as any individual live performance, in which the actors will be revealed as “adept or inadequate or good or fluffing or being articulate, just as they would if you went to see a production tonight at the Lunt-Fontanne theatre.”11 In fact, Burton lays a good deal of responsibility for safeguarding the theatricality of the filmed record squarely on the actors’ shoulders, not only suggesting contingency as constitutive of live theater, but figuring that contingency largely in terms of the actor’s jeopardy or peril. The suggestion, somewhat ironically, is that the product’s authenticity, and therefore its value, rests on the chance that it may be “inadequate.”

It perhaps goes without saying that, in actuality, the production of the Theatrofilm involved more than a few “concessions,” and even some “cheating.” The product, while not particularly cinematic, was edited together from three different recorded performances, and so represents no single performance that a present audience member could have seen during a night at the theatre. While it eschews “trick shots” in general, the cameras do pan and zoom, and the final version includes at least one camera angle that represents an upstage point of view unavailable to the audience (see Image 2).

Unsurprisingly, the Electronovision Hamlet is less than completely felicitous in its commitment to forswearing filmic interventions in favor of a transparent mediatization of the live theatrical original. The truth or falsity of Burton’s claim may be of less interest than the rhetoric he uses to make it; as W. B. Worthen observes, it was never so much Electronovision’s “technology” that was “seductive,” but its “virtualization of liveness.” That liveness is “a category of experience produced by recording technology,” as Worthen notes, but also a quality which is repeatly negotiated through language. In the interview, Burton somewhat paradoxically claims that Theatrofilm is, or is as good as, theater because of how it mediatized theatre, or more pointedly due to how it did not. The most important arguments for the Electronovision Hamlet being received as theatre, or as more attached to theatre than film, emphasized seemingly vital aspects of theatricality. These included the specificity of the Lunt-Fontanne stage, and the vulnerability to mischance described earlier, but also the amassing of a co-present audience to view the production on the large screens of movie theatres, rather than individually via the intimate and relatively isolated domesticity of in-home televisions. Electronovision offered a novel taste of in situ recording that could be projected in the cinema, making use of the cinema’s communal audience and the form’s potential for spectacle – even if the rather grainy result was, in the end, disappointing in many of the ways David Sabel enumerates in his critique of recorded performance. Arguably, the real innovation of the “miracle of Electronovision,” which used a kinescope-like process to render high resolution (for the period) video into film, was its integration of live-to-tape television techniques with a delivery medium – film – which would allow the resulting record to be shown in a movie theatre, where the spectators made for a better analog to the theatre’s audience than did the distributed, domestic audience of television.

The liveness of the audience’s consumption, moreover, was elevated by a kind of forced evanescence, or at least scarcity, that the producers engineered for the product by announcing a plan to remove the filmed record from circulation after its limited run (four showings) in cinemas. Burton, in the interview cited earlier, mentions the public showings and then rather uncertainly adds that afterwards the film “will never, possibly, be shown again” (emphasis added).12 The film was removed from circulation, if not permanently; it remained largely unavailable to the public for decades before it resurfaced. Though a few prints remained in various library archives, the film was not shown in cinemas again, nor was it offered for sale to consumers until its 1997 release on DVD and VHS.13 The Electronovision experiment was pointedly not an exercise in preservation or documentation, although it did eventually emerge as a widely available document; rather, part of the strategy to secure a kind of theatrical temporality for the showings of the Electronovision recordings was to ensure their scarcity via this planned disappearance.

What emerges from an examination of the various strategies by which the Electronovision recording attempted to attach itself to a popular imaginary of theater is the picture of a process fundamentally at odds with itself: a recording process that advertises, as its strength, that it is as little like a recording as possible, though it declines to fully exploit film’s cinematic artistry and its relative iterability. Also of interest, though, is that rhetoric’s implicit declaration of how the name of theatre is negotiated: primarily, it seems, through gestures toward various aspects of liveness. If the Electronovision Hamlet is notable in its attempt to innovate a mediatized theater substitute that, as much as possible, worked to efface the usual conditions of mediatization, it is equally striking for its reification of conventional theatrical bona fides like publicness, liveness, contingency, and ephemerality. In claiming to be “the theatre of the future,” Electronovision also contributes to defining theatre for the future, in relation to this set of attributes.

The strategies producers levied in order to attach the Electronovision Hamlet to live theatre worked diligently against the reputation films and other recordings carry for stability, iterability, and permanence; however, the film has neither vanished nor persisted so much as it has flickered between presence and absence, including in ways producers could hardly have schemed. As of this writing, a surprising amount of the film is available carved into chunks on YouTube, where it exists not as a cohesive whole or stable destination, but as a series of disparate, possibly temporary clips which are undependable and add up to less than the entire record. In a more spectacular example, the digital record of the film became the source material for a 2007 production by the experimental performance ensemble The Wooster Group, in which the performers playfully attempted to re-enact the production live on stage by mimicking the recording, while a manipulated version of the Electronovision film was projected onto various onstage screens. By re-enlivening a recording, The Wooster Group mischievously reversed video’s usual documentary strategy, but they also interfered with and adjusted the video before attempting to embody it. In an uncanny resonance with Phelan’s concern with disappearance, in their treatment of the Electronovision reproduction of Hamlet, individual performers from the 1964 recording are wholly or partially erased from some scenes, others more made more faint, and the meter of the spoken verse altered by manipulating the actors’ digitally rendered speech – making manifest Sean Cubitt’s assertion that if video is a medium for recording, it is also necessarily “a medium for erasing.”14 Though practitioners and audiences alike are perhaps used to thinking of video as the canned, storable, and dependable other of live performance, the Wooster Group’s performance demonstrates video to be hardly impervious to intervention and loss, even disappearance. As Worthen notes, the Wooster Group Hamlet reveals the Burton Theatrofilm as “both rewritten by and incapable of determining its [own] performance.”15 Their project – as well as the recording’s history and provenance more generally – suggest that what is most theatrical about video recordings of theatre may be those recordings’ ability to impersonate permanence, to costume themselves in the outward character of stability.

Media theorist Wendy Chun does not speaking specifically of video – and moreover, not of analog technologies like Electronovision at all – when she reminds her readers that digital media objects, though often treated as permanent and durable, depend on (rather than forbid) degeneration. Still, her notion of ephemeral endurance is useful for its interrogation of digital media’s presumed stability, which applies rather well to scenarios in which analog and digital media alike are understood to confer similarly apparent stability to the records of live performance that they produce. Although analog video might be more popularly associated with degeneration – in generational copy-making, in magnetic tapes that thin and wear over time, in formats that have become nearly inaccessible due to obsolescence – Chun notes that degeneration and disappearance attends (or even defines) the digital, too: “This degeneration,” she writes,

“which engineers would like to divide into useful and harmful (eraseability versus signal decomposition, information versus noise) belies the promise of digital computers as permanent memory machines. If our machines’ memories are more permanent, if they enable a permanence that we seem to lack, it is because they are constantly refreshed so that their ephemerality endures.”16

The digital’s potential for rapid replenishment and nimble dispersal of copies far outstrips the limited reproduction and diaspora of the Electronovision Hamlet, but the Theatrofilm has nonetheless managed to endure rather ephemerally according to Chun’s model. It has survived not due to an inherent permanence but to the multiplicity of its vulnerable copies, including the surviving prints and the negative unearthed at Warner Brothers, but in particular its digital forms: privately held DVDs, and especially and the clips and copies available on online, where the Electronovision Hamlet’s digital existence is “constantly refreshed” in a manner that overcomes the analog film’s near extinction from the commercial market. While Chun’s model theorizes the digital, its focus on the ways in which digital media is subject to degradation and disappearance suggests shared vulnerabilities, rather than stark opposition, between both analog and digital documentation of live performance – and also, importantly, between those forms of documentation and live performance itself, as all of these are inevitably subject to loss.

When a desire to hybridize live theatre and cinema-quality recording media resurfaced decades after the 1964 Electronovision experiment, the story and the strategies mobilized in that effort were remarkably similar despite ensuing changes in video and recording technology. The narrative offered by David Sabel about the origins of NT Live, the live broadcast program of the UK’s National Theatre, begins with inspiration from The Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series. Live in HD, which began in 2006, provided proof of concept that high definition video could indeed capture live performances from within the challenging environment of the theatre for showing on the large screen of a cinema, and could do so with a resolution that was as crisp and clear as the Electronovision recording was murky and grainy. When The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington saw the initial NT Live broadcast of Phedre, he described coming to “a startling conclusion”: that, as theatre, “the production worked even better in the cinema” than it did on the stage.17

However, NT Live addressed the long-standing problem of how to mediatize live theatre only partially through the beauty of high-definition digital video. NT Live also followed the Met in their use of a broadcast model: content would be relayed from the performance arena to cinemas as it happened, so that the remote audience watched the performance unfold in real time (realizing Richard Eyre’s thoughts of how “outside broadcast … could work”). The simultaneity of broadcast enabled a claim on theatrical liveness which echoed Electronovision’s concerns with immediacy, but which realized those concerns in terms Electronovision could only dream of. The emphasis on broadcast’s temporal liveness staged a preservation of theatre’s contingency, representing through media some of theatre’s seemingly constitutive nowness. “We felt incredibly excited by this concept, we felt connected to it,” Sabel remarked remarked of his first encounter with Met’s model. “There was a sense of theatricality to the big screen, a sense of event … [Which] retained something of the DNA, something of the magic, of live theatre.”18

The National’s HD cameras do not only relay for synchronous display elsewhere, of course; they also record. Despite the simultaneity of NT Live broadcasts, they concomitantly produce a more conventional recorded document which seems, just as the Electronovision recording did, static, stable, and asynchronous. As with Electronovision, NT Live has manufactured a disappearance strategy that allows the record to, if not “disappear,” at least to flicker, to be insubstantially available – to endure ephemerally, not only as all digital records do, but through the particular strategy of removing them from the marketplace. After the first showing, which is temporally live for cinema audiences in the UK (in the United States and other geographically distant locales, the premiere is delayed and billed as “Captured Live”), the National restricts access to NT Live recordings to viewing on location in their archives, and to select encore presentations in cinemas. These encore presentations are sometimes (as with the recordings of Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller) offered quite a few times, but always according to a production calendar, in specific cinemas, and subject to a limited run. The initial broadcasts’ temporal liveness echo something of theatre’s fleetingness as well as its vulnerability to contingency. By offering the initial broadcasts as a singular occasion in a production’s run (and, less emphatically, by making the content available only for scheduled, limited appearances), the National also mimics the scarcity which distinguishes live theatre in a contemporary context in which many recorded media products are available on demand. Taken together, these efforts carefully manage the presence of the product in the marketplace in order to produce for NT Live audiences what Martin Barker has termed “eventness”: “the creation of and participation in senses of heightened cultural togetherness” (emphasis in original).19

However, as with the Electronovision Hamlet, the realities of of persistence and disappearance are less manageable than producers intend, and the safeguards less sure than they might like. Wendy Chun could well be speaking of the illicit torrents of NT Live recordings that inevitably circulate online when she reminds readers that though “the internet is available 24/7,” online content constantly disappears and reappears, “often to the chagrin of those trying to erase data.”20 When Benedict Cumberbatch fans’ avid trading of illicit copies of his performance in NT Live’s Frankenstein prompted David Sabel to make an official statement on bootleg recordings, he sounded less chagrined than authoritative as he reminded fans that “if you choose to record, distribute or download the screening of Frankenstein, you are breaking the law and risk legal action.”21 The collectivity and sense of occasion invoked by Barker’s eventness is positioned by the National as vital to their model for broadcasting theatre; the same official statement discourages illicit home-viewing not only by threatening legal jeopardy, but by reaffirming the theatre’s desire “to emulate the theatrical experience as much as possible” through a “big screen, collective cinema experience [which] comes as close as we can get to the original theatrical event.”22 In other words, the fans trading files of Cumberbatch’s performance online are not only breaking the law, but also doing the entire enterprise a disservice by making it un-theatrical, by rendering the recording privately enjoyable and massively accessible. In their attempt to strictly control where, when, and how the recordings may be viewed, producers seem to invoke Phelan’s requirement that performance be available only to “a limited number of people in a specific time/space frame” (even if in the case of NT Live that frame is quite an expansive one). Ironically, in this case those limitations place the licit performance event – in this case, the screened broadcast, not the stage production – at a premium, granting it additional value within the economy of reproduction of which Phelan is so suspicious.

This attempt at enforced disappearance also reads like an attempt at secure for the broadcasts something of the aura of an original art work as described by Walter Benjamin, despite their arguable status as digital reproductions of a stage production. After all, disappearance is largely considered to represent a compelling, central attribute of the original work which does not similarly attend the radically multiple reproductions of it that (in this case digital, rather than mechanical) contemporary technologies make possible. Interestingly, this formulation places not only the stage production, but also the initial broadcast as “originals” which bear an aura that their copies do not. A paradox inheres in the National’s attempt to position NT Live broadcasts as simultaneously as “close” as possible to the “original” while also functioning as its own original, of which illicit copies are forbidden to circulate online. To be sure, no eventness attaches to the copies of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet I located online within days of having traveled to London to see both the stage production and the cinema broadcast. In that sense, the licit performances do bear a quality the illicit copies have little access to. As Patrick von Sychowski put it in a 2014 article about piracy and NT Live (and similar “alternative content” relayed to movie theatres), “Event cinema is experience cinema, which watching it at home does not replicate.”23

Still, both Sabel’s warning and von Sychowski’s call for a more robust conversation about the realities of piracy suggest that the National and other producers will continue to contend with digital data’s tendency to endure unpredictably, to mutate, vanish, or multiply. Phelan suggests that “live” performance’s disappearance allows it to elude regulation and control in ways recordings could not, but in this context disappearance and reproduction seem similarly unruly, similarly elusive. The realities of piracy make clear that while neither live performance nor its digital reproduction can escape commodification, the latter might actually be adept at resisting conventional strategies of profit in ways Phelan’s argument could not anticipate. Despite the high demand (and in many cases price), for event-based experiences featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and his likeness, his digital performances continually flicker anew as massively multiple, mobile copies oscillate between presence and absence online.

Image 2: Benedict Cumberbatch in camera rehearsal for NT Live’s Hamlet, 2015. Photo credit: Ludovic des Cognets.

Chun’s trenchant reminders about the qualities digital media display in practice (which often differ from the qualities they hold in contemporary imagination) might illuminate the state of digital translations of theatre. Though those translations certainly place the theatre emphatically into an economy of reproduction, they do not stand in wholly in opposition to its tendency toward disappearance, given the way digital objects can degenerate and flicker. While Chun does not exactly – or, honestly, at all – invoke Peggy Phelan, she does argue for disappearance as fundamental to digital media: “Digital media,” she writes, “is not always there. We suffer daily frustrations with digital sources that just disappear.”24 When she characterizes digital media’s enduring ephemerality as “a battle of diligence between the passing and the repetitive,” Chun implies an important parallel between live performance and digital recordings of it, despite their usual, often reflexive, opposition.25 Her description of repetition, in addition to disappearance and degeneration, as important to digital content’s endurance further amplifies this harmony, given how central repetition is to theatrical practice – in which scenes are rehearsed over and over, canonical scripts performed again and again over hundreds of years, and even a production’s limited run usually represents an exercise in conformity to an expected standard. Chun’s theories remind us that theatre remains a kind of art which, despite its seeming ephemerality, somewhat weirdly (to paraphrase both Shakespeare and performance theorist Marvin Carlson) insists on appearing again tonight as one of its most basic conventions.26

Given that recordings, and especially digital ones, of theatrical productions seem to have a significant relationship with disappearance and precarity, it is worth pondering the extent to which the process of digital translation to the screen, from Electronovision to NT Live, is driven by the effort to prioritize those vulnerabilities as uniquely foundational to the ontology of theatre. What other kinds of hybridity, literacies, and meaning-making might the affordances of video make available to theatre if liveness and contingency were not an obligatory attribute pursued so doggedly?

In thinking through what might become possible for theatre in the realm of the digital, I find it helpful to recall N. Katherine Hayles’s work on electronic and digital texts, and in particular in her 1999 monograph How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.27In that work, Hayles expresses an insight particularly sympathetic to theatrical performance when she points to an “entanglement of signal and materiality in bodies and books” alike. Both literature and theatre, after all, have grappled (if differently) with the threat of loss of a constitutive materiality in the face of digital and virtual modalities. In both arenas, bodies and objects have long been “traditionally marked” by a “resistant materiality,” to the extent that the abstraction of performance and of literary texts from their traditional material substrates might be met with similar consternation.28 Hayles notes that the human body and the “literary corpus” are both understood as physical, material structures, but simultaneously as sites of representation and as expressed information (genetic or textual). Similar dualities attend not only the dramatic canon, but the performance of theatre, a site of representation which conventionally requires physical expression through objects and bodies. In theatrical performance, dramatic plots and embodied actions, frankly present objects and fictional circumstances, actual bodies and speculative realities all coincide regularly, instantiated in the material reality of the stage and its actors. “Because they have bodies,” Hayles writes, “books and humans” – like actors and their dramatic texts – “have something to lose if they are regarded solely as informational patterns.”29

Meaningfully, however, Hayles never considers literature imperiled by the advent of electronic texts. Rather, she points to the inevitabiltity of new technologies “instantiat[ing] new modes of signification” – a radical shift, according to Hayles, but an not an ontological one.30 She recognizes the overwhelming importance and significant implications of this “important shift in the plate tectonics of language” without invoking the ontological underpinnings of literature, writing, or reading.31 To be quite clear, her argument centered on books and texts does not map perfectly onto theatrical practices translated from stages to screens; the particular and peculiar ways embodiment has traditionally created the theatre is as significant as it is specific to theatrical performance. Too, aquestions of liveness as well as of embodied presence register very differently in theatre, as a time-based form, than in literature. Still, it is helpful that when Hayles speaks of literature encountering the flickering screen in the place of the paper page, she speaks in terms of information and signification rather than ontology, despite the long tradition which links the particular materiality of paper and books to practices of writing and reading.

Rather, Hayles’s concern is with the way new modes of signification constitute a fundamental alteration to the relationship between signified and signifier. The resulting flickering signifiers carry the instability of Lacan’s floating signifiers a step further, placing at the core of signification not a tension between presence and absence, but a distinction between pattern and randomness.32 In Hayles’s de-centering of the Lacanian binary of presence-and-absence in favor of this tension between pattern and randomness, performance scholars might find a paradigm which is helpfully disinterested in defining performance in terms of present, corporeal bodies, and an inevitable, fundamental disappearance. Rather, informatics’ preoccupation with pattern and ramdomness might help scholars to address digital recordings and live acts according to their shared affordances instead of presumed opposition, and to see the live theatre’s translation or transposition to the digital more as a conversion of state than an abrupt rupture of ontology. The resulting theatre could be one for which liveness, whether figured as a vulnerability to the vanishing moment or the co-presence of performing and spectating bodies, may be present but does not function as a sine qua non which must be approximated even by forms of theatrical performance which have less affinity for it than does the stage.

Quite apart from the opportune resonance between Hayles’s flicker and the flicker of (analog) cinema projection (or, for that matter, of CRT screens as they refresh, or the constantly reversing polarity of voltage applied to pixels on an LCD), conceiving of digitally rendered theatrical performance as flickering particularly suits the translation of theatrical practice to digital media. Hayles herself describes the flickering signifier as carrying an instability that manifests as a “tendency toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations, and dispersions,” bringing to mind the similarly undependable ephemerality Chun claims for the digital.33 Hayles insists that when texts become digital, information technologies’ effects and implications extend further than merely changing modes of textual “production, storage, and dissemination,” just as the recording or broadcast of live theatre into digital media cannot be theorized as merely a change in delivery mechanism (as in the “direct and mechanical transposition” model with which Wyver rightly takes issue).34 Instead, Hayles theorizes a translation to the digital which reconstitutes the very codes by which representation works, asking scholars (and writers and readers of all stripes) to engage with information technologies as an opportunity for radical intervention in the ways literature can make meaning. Without reducing theatrical performance to processes of signification alone – and without positing an uncomplicated or exact correspondence between theatrical practice and writing, or reading and spectating – we might take Hayles’s analysis of the complex interplay between information technologies, texts, and the bodies of readers and writers as a model for how to read similar interplay between digital media, performance, practitioners, and audiences. The “complex feedback loops” Hayles posits between “contemporary literature, the technologies which produce it, and the embodied readers who produce and are produced by books and technologies” might correspond valuably to the co-constitutive processes of performing and spectating that make up (and are made by) a night at the theatre.35

Within theatre and performance studies, Phelan’s landmark assertion of disappearance as the ontology of performance has often meant that questions of liveness become questions of ontology and taxonomy: what “counts” as theatre, what to call mediatized performance, how to classify it, and by extension how to critique, teach, and value it. The question of digital media’s potency or utility – that is, not the widely accepted utility of digital video (for example) when it comes to producing documentation of live events for the archive, but the opportunity digital technologies, including video, present to re-figure complex systems of representation and reception – has been less fully explored. Certainly, there is no shortage of accomplished voices examining the deep imbrication of the digital with putatively “live” performance; contemporary scholars in media and performance have built an impressive body of theory which effectively troubles any reflexive opposition between the two. Similarly, an exciting body of directors, performers and ensembles –the Wooster Group, but also Big Art Group, The Builders’ Association, Blast Theory, Katie Mitchell, and Jay Scheib – explore the possibilities for recording media to intersect with theatrical liveness in more emphatically intermedial works in which, as Greg Giesekam has written, “the interaction between the media” is emphatically not transparent, but “substantially modifies how the respective media conventionally function and invites reflection on their nature and methods.”36 However, while such intermedial performance may challenge conventional notions about mediatization and liveness, far less often does it trouble the idea of performance work itself as time-bound and event-based. Generally speaking, while the artists cited above create work that is more easily legible as provocative and innovative than NT Live is, most of them consistently maintain a clear ontological distinction between the performance event and its documentation. This is a distinction that NT Live and similar endeavors rather pointedly imperil, or even threaten to collapse. Though their aims at transparency and fidelity mean that they do not overtly solicit or provoke the reflection that Giesekam describes above, products like NT Live do productively trouble prevailing understandings of theatrical performance as necessarily bounded by time and space. Even as producers mobilize strategies to create “eventness” for such products in order to certify them as event-based theatrical performance, the pervasiveness, wide availability, and slippery online mobility of those same products implicitly destabilize the claim that theatre must be an event, and that “mere” copies exist as categorically secondary documentation which, following Phelan, do not hold the properties or potential of performance itself.

Despite this, the particular practice of broadcasting/streaming/recording/relaying performances from the stage has failed to capture the attention of media and performance scholars in the way that overtly experimental performance has.37 It is easy to surmise that the generally traditional content of the highest profile examples of this practice – NT Live, the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon, and even Branagh Theatre Live, the broadcast series of Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, which recently took the moderately daring step of broadcasting its Fellini-inspired Romeo & Juliet in Fellini-esque black-and-white – might not be particularly compelling to critics and theorists concerned with cutting-edge interactions of performance and media technologies. To speak very generally, many of us who study media and performance tend to be more interested in interruption than conservation – and although I argue for understanding them as more subtly subversive, most broadcasts and recordings of the type analyzed here do appear to conserve and foreground a remarkably traditional theatricality. Hayles’s model is particularly useful in this light, as its insights hold regardless of the canonicity, conventionality, or experimental nature of the text (or productions) to which scholars might apply it. Because Hayles’s model works at the level of information, it might provide a paradigm which encourages scholars to read digital theatrical production with an eye toward how the translation itself is necessarily remaking theatre by reconstituting the practices by which signification occurs, thus infiltrating and re-making the codes that govern representation. Though intermedial experimentation is generally outside the mission of most broadcast series, the considerable popularity and extensive reach of digital translations of stage work suggests that they merit attention, not least for their considerable power to communicate to (or define for) a massive audience what theatre is and how it does its work.

Hayles writes that in the shift to a model in which “no simple one-to-one correspondence exists between signifier and signified,” users “know kinesthetically as well as conceptually that text can be manipulated in ways that would be impossible if it existed as a material object rather than a visual display.” In enacting those newly possible manipulations (and combinations and re-combinations of possible manipulations), readers and authors alike “instantiate within [the] body the habitual patterns of movement that make pattern and randomness more real, more relevant, and more powerful than presence and absence” (emphasis added).38 Some makers and audiences of screened theatre may know this, too, in a similarly kinesthetic and conceptual manner: that a curiosity into pattern and randomness might well be more relevant to mediatized work than a more conventional preoccupation with presence and absence. The theatre has long been an operation which shuttles between template and spontaneity or misfire, invoking pattern and its rupture at nearly every turn. It is, on one hand, made from strips of twice-behaved behavior, actors’ blocking ingrained into muscle memory, weeks of rehearsals, and the endless repetition of tropes; on the other, it is equally defined by its constitutive moments of failure, its missed cues or brilliant ad-libs, its multifarious audiences and nightly performances which might range from adept to inadequate to fluffing. Investigating the power the digital holds to make signifiers flicker might lead critics, scholars, and audiences alike toward recognizing and investigating spectatorial practices already inarguably changed as new technologies for producing, communicating, storing, and intervening into theatre have come into play in remarkably high-profile venues. If we take Hayles at her word when she reminds us that “technology is not merely a medium to represent thoughts that already exist,” but rather “an articulation capable of producing new kinds of subjectivities,” we can hardly ignore the potential for digital theatre like NT Live and its ilk to call those subjectivities into being.39

  1. Quoted in Daniel Rosenthal’s National Theatre Story (London: Oberon, 2014), Kindle edition, locations 23234-23235. 

  2. David Sabel, “Infusing Theatre into Digital Mediums,” YouTube video, 14:20 minutes, March 1, 2013 <>. 

  3. Quoted in Rosenthal, National Theatre Story, location 23233. 

  4. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London; New York: Routledge, 1993), 146. 

  5. Quoted in Rosenthal, National Theatre Story, location 23235-23237. 

  6. In general terms, “outside broadcast” refers to the broadcast of television or radio from a remote unit (like a van or trailer) rather than from a conventional studio. Live sports and event coverage are commonly produced by outside broadcast.  

  7. As Laurie Osborne notes Ian McKellen did for his 1992 production of Richard III. In “Speculations on Shakespearean Cinematic Liveness,” Osborne relates Ian McKellen’s sense that attempts to document the performance ultimately failed to “capture much of the impact of the original occasion,” while his thoroughly cinematic film adaptation of the production was more successful (Shakespeare Bulletin 24 no. 3 [Fall 2006]: 50, DOI: 10.1353/shb.2006.0057). 

  8. “Trailer,” Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud (1964; Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment, 1999), DVD. 

  9. “Richard Burton Discusses Electronovision,” Hamlet, dir. John Gielgud, DVD. 

  10. John Wyver, “Screening the RSC Stage: the 2014 Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcasts,” Shakespeare 11, no. 3 (July 3, 2015): 5, DOI 10.1080/17450918.2015.1048280. 

  11. Wyver, “Screening the RSC Stage.” 

  12. Wyver, “Screening the RSC Stage.” 

  13. Kenneth S. Rothwell and Annabelle Henkin Melzer cite three library holdings, including the Folger and the Library of Congress, as extant prior to the 1997 release; another print remained in Burton’s personal collection and was discovered by his widow Sally after his death (Shakespeare on Screen: An International Filmography and Videography [New York: Neal-Schuman, 1991], 70. Print). 

  14. Sean Cubitt, Videography: Video Media as Art and Culture (London: Macmillan, 1993), 147. 

  15. Worthen, Drama: Between Poetry and Performance, 135. 

  16. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 1 (September 1, 2008): 167. 

  17. Michael Billington, “Theatre Review: Phèdre / Chelsea Cinema, London” Guardian, June 26, 2009. 

  18. Sabel, “Infusing Theatre into Digital Mediums.” 

  19. Martin Barker, Live To Your Local Cinema: The Remarkable Rise of Livecasting (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 57. 

  20. Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral,” 167. 

  21. David Sabel, “OFFICIAL Statement re: Frankenstein DVD/Bootleg Recordings,” National Theatre Live (accessed Jan. 4, 2017), 

  22. Sabel, “OFFICIAL Statement.” 

  23. Patrick von Sychowski, “We Need To Talk About Event Cinema Piracy,” Celluloid Junkie, Feb 13, 2014,  

  24. Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral,” 160. 

  25. Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral,” 167. 

  26. Marvin Carlson. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 2002. 

  27. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).  

  28. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 29. 

  29. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 29. 

  30. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 29. 

  31. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 30. 

  32. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 30. 

  33. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 30. 

  34. (Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 30. 

  35. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 29. 

  36. Greg Giesekam, Staging the Screen: The Use of Film and Video in Theatre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 8. 

  37. Live broadcast work and other forms of digitaltranslation have, however, recieved valuable attention from many in Shakespeare studies, including John Wyver, Pascale Aebischer, Laurie Osborne, Susanne Greenhalgh, and Peter Kirwan. I am indebted to those scholars for their close attention to this area of study – and in particular Wyver, whose generosity enabled my fieldwork with the RSC on live broadcast in 2015-16, and Osborne and Aebischer, who each offered thoughts on an early draft of this essay. 

  38. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 26. 

  39. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 26. 

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