TCG National Conference 2001

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF
JUNE 21, 2001



Photo by Mark Garvin

"Sacred Time, Sacred Space: The Role of Live Theatre Among Dead Media"


I'm actually pleased to come. I am a theatre person. Alas, once a theatre person, always a theatre person, no matter what happens to you.I was always interested in theatre and medicine. Those were the two things. And medicine not just because I was a Westchester kid who was supposed to be a doctor, but because, to me, theatre and medicine were the same basic question. In other words, what animates life?What's the difference between a live body and a dead body? What's the difference between action and death on stage? For me, theatre was always a human will striving towards a goal. And what is that?What is human will? What is human agency? And what animates a human being?


Those are the same questions I ask now as I work in interactive media. Really honestly, the only reason I left theatre was because I figured I could have been a psychotherapist if I wanted to continue directing theatre.The Method is a terrific thing. It's a terrific technique, but so many actors in the post fame generation use the Methodism excuse.Basically the play becomes a way of venting all their childhood traumas, rather than using their childhood traumas to serve a script. It got me too nauseous after a while. And I wasn't being paid enough to suffer through that.


I'm still a lover of theatre, and by theatre I mean real theatre, not the stuff you see on Broadway, most of which has the opposite effect of theatre, but we'll talk about that. I think that it's actually a terrific time for theatre, especially because of what's going on digitally and in mediated culture, where real life has become so artificial in so many ways, and so observed, that theatre can bring back some truth to human interaction.


I believe–and this is, I guess, me at my most optimistic–I believe that we are in the midst of a Renaissance of unprecedented magnitude, and Renaissance with capital R. If you go back to the original Renaissance and think about what were the main things that happened, we got perspective painting, which allowed people to see three dimensions in two. We got circumnavigation of the globe. We went around the world for the first time and experienced something as round that had been flat, which is again dimensionality, three dimensions. And we got calculus, the kind of math that allows you to relate different dimensions to each other, a point to a line, a line to a curve, a curve to a sphere. If you remember back from calculus, always there was an X and an X2 and an X3, an X4. That's dimensional relationships.


We got the printing press, the Gutenberg press, which created literacy and transparency. And we got coffee, really coffee beans. Up from Morocco. Which really launched the counterculture. It allowed people to stay up late at night in cafe culture in Europe and talk about things they hadn't talked about before.


Well, I believe there are corollaries in our current Renaissance to each of these leaps forward or leaps outward in dimensional perspective. The equivalent to perspective painting is the holograph, which is basically a plate that allows you to see three dimensions and time in two dimensions. The weird thing about a holographic plate, that got all the hippies all excited back then, was that if you had a holographic picture of me and you smashed it on the floor into a million pieces, the piece that was here wouldn't be a piece of my fingers, but it would be a piece of my entire body.That was the weird thing. In a holographic plate, each little piece contains a whole, and that's, whoa, holographic reality as above, so below. It's sort of an Elizabethan world picture on acid.


Instead of getting the world is round, we got the atomic bomb, right? Which is a different sort of mastery of the globe. Now for the first time mankind–and I do say mankind, not humankind–mankind can blow the whole thing up.


Instead of calculus, we got chaos math and the fractal. Fractals are really fractional dimensionality. It's a way to experience something between two and three dimensions. It's a new way of understanding dimensions.


Instead of the printing press, obviously we got the computer and the Internet.And instead of coffee, we got psychedelics, which again changed people's perspective of their relationship to the whole thing and launched another kind of counterculture.


A Renaissance is a shift in perspective. It's a moment where you go from the game to the metagame, or from theatre to metatheatre. Renaissance is that moment in a Shakespeare play when they go, "Oh, we're watching this play, and I wonder who watches us." You know those moments? And then the audience is supposed to go, "And who's..." It's that moment of "ah," of what's going on, of reframing reality. That's Renaissance. And in those moments, everything is up for grabs, whether that's happening on a personal level or happening on a cultural level.


In the way a kid today would experience it, it's the difference between playing Doom as you get it–you get a game of Doom, you put in the CD, you play this game–or going out online and getting the cheat code so that you get super strength or special weapons. The kid who goes online and gets the special codes by hacking through various bulletin boards and going to various fan sites, is he playing the game or not? Well, yeah, he's playing the game, but he's playing it outside the rules of the game.He's playing a different game.


So that's really the shift I'm talking about. And what happens when our culture is undergoing such a shift from game to metagame, from one sense of perspective to another, is that the stories, the models, and the language we use to describe our reality are up for grabs. We are no longer in the story, but we see the story being told.


These are short moments. They last maybe a century or so, and during these moments there's this big battle to lock down the next reality. It's like, okay, it's up for grabs. There's no frame around it. What's going to happen? All the different groups come in with their thing.That's really why they call it a Renaissance. Renaissance means rebirth of old ideas in a new context. Why is there a rebirth of old ideas?Because everything's up for grabs and each group grabs its oldest ideas and throws it in. The Jews take Kabbalah. The theatre people take Greek.Each group will take whatever its original great core idea is, throw it in the new frame and say, "Now look at it. Now you get it."From this new perspective all of a sudden it has this dimensionality.


That's why Shakespeare keeps showing up, because he keeps working in each new frame. It worked in the Freudian era, it works in the postmodern era. It keeps working. Isn't he great? Now, is that because Shakespeare's so great or because the institutions behind Shakespeare are so powerful that they can get it in the new frame? Who knows.


But what we're talking about is a negotiation for consensus reality, nothing less than that. I believe that reality it an open source proposition, meaning that it's more like Linux than Microsoft. It's something that we can all contribute to. And even if everything is not open source, there might be some floor reality down there. There might be atoms or quarks or something. I think there's a lot of the stuff that most people accept as hardware is actually software. It can be programmed, it can be changed, it can be hacked. The profound insight of a Renaissance moment is that you realize "we can rebuild this."


Now, how do you retain that memory is the tricky part. How do we lay that into the next culture before it gets locked down again? That's really the question for artists in a Renaissance period. How do we take the insight of reality as open source, everyone participating?This is a collective consensual hallucination that we're building here.How do we preserve that? It's the same as asking when you're having a great mystical experience or an acid trip or something and it's like, "Whoa, I see it!" The next thing you think is, "How am I going to remember this the next day? How am I going to retain this insight?"


I think the purpose of art is to make people aware of the negotiation that's going on for our reality. The purpose of commercial culture, which is sort of a corollary, or the antonym of art, is to keep people unaware of this negotiation of consensus culture. It's to keep them trapped in survival mode so that they buy more stuff from the market.


So artists work to, for the most part, expose and erode established institutions, and commercial culture works to support institutions, to support institutions so that they become more and more concrete. And ultimately the most concrete things are considered sacred. Those are sacred truths.Is nothing sacred? What does that mean, is nothing sacred?"Is nothing sacred" means isn't there anything that we can say that we're not allowed to question anymore? Like sexual imagery is bad for children.That's the big one in the West, right, in America.You can't even question that.Of course, in Nepal and Amsterdam and Sweden and everywhere else, where children are exposed to sexual imagery, there's less rape, less incest.We can't talk about that. Sexual imagery, bad for children.Boom! That's sacred. You mention that?God.


I mentioned that in public. I did this PBS documentary. The board of PBS was concerned about letting me narrate the documentary after I had said this at a talk at a college. That alone. Because there's nothing sacred. It's sacred. Sacred truths.


So what the sacred does is lock down the infinite possible into these little concrete blocks and be built ultimately into the pyramids that our dear Bible tells us about. What the sacred means, is it's not up for discussion, when, in fact, everything's up for discussion.


The negotiation I'm talking about, this discussion happens in two ways, and theatre people know this as well, if not better, than anybody. There are two ways you can negotiate reality. You negotiate through content, through stories, which would be the "what," or through tools, which would be the "how." So you either tell really compelling stories, build really compelling models and influence people that way, or you change the rules through which stories are told. You change the playing field itself. That's another way to win the game, to change the playing field so that it tips in a different direction.


So in our terms, the "what" would be the Aristotelian story, right? It would be this thing we all know and love, right? That's the "what."You create a character the audience likes and have them make a series of decisions that put them in some kind of jeopardy, bring the audience to as much tension as you can, then come up with a solution. Athena comes down, whatever you want. As long as you have a captive audience, you do what you want. Then they go to sleep. That's the point.It's the male orgasm curve of storytelling. So that's the "what."


The "how" was words, was language, it was theatre which, as far as I'm concerned, theatre was created to help people remember their lines. That's what it was for. And then finally TV, right? And TV does this the best. The reason why TV does this the best is because it hides the tools from the audience. TV is a closed-source medium.They don't call the stuff on television "programming" for nothing.They're not programming the schedule or the channel; they're programming us. That's what it's for. You choose your programming, but it is programming.And the reason it's closed source, the reason it works, is because television is magical. No one knows, or no one knew, how it was made. No one can get in that box. This is like gospel truth being piped in the home. Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, you know, Angie Dickinson, whoever it is. Whoever gets in that tube is telling the truth.


The further you are from the tool, the less you know about the tools through which the story is being told, the more you have to accept the story on faith. That's the way it works. That's the basic premise of media literacy. The more opaque the interface, the more you believe, the more mystical it is.


The problem with magic is people forget the stories are allegories. The problem with stories is that people believe them. Stories are great as long as they're stories. When you believe them, you collapse the allegory. You collapse the metaphor and it goes away. Actually it collapses simile into a metaphor. You lose the dimensionality.It becomes real.


The easiest example would be in the great metatheatre moment in the third Star Wars movie. "Return of the Jedi." When they go down to this planet with the little Ewoks, and the Ewoks take them all prisoner. It was this horrible thing. It's like, "Oh my god, we've got this water fight," but they're all taken prisoner, the little rebels Luke and Han Solo. And C3PO and R2D2, the robots, tell a story to the Ewoks about Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and R2D2 is shooting his little special effects, and the Ewoks are listening, the little babies, you see their eyes.And they go, "Wow! So the empire's so bad and little Luke and Han Solo are so good." They take off their bonds and they fight a war on their behalf. And I was a kid, but a theatre kid, watching this, and I thought, "Oh shit. What would have happened if Darth Vader had gotten down there first and told his story?"


So stories work on a captive audience. In their more propagandistic function, stories work in terms of closing reality rather than opening it. Stories work when the audience has a very distant relationship to the tools.


Interactive media. This is what interactive media does, no matter what anybody else tells you, what interactive media did was broke this tyranny of the what and how. It equalized the "how," the tools, and then broke the sanctity of the "why." This is a temporary state, but it's changed everything. Three devices–the remote control, the joystick, and the computer mouse–changed everything.


The remote control allowed people to break this. You're no longer a captive audience. If my dad is watching a commercial and he's down here and it's a 28-second Aristotelian play, the executive is in his office, his wife calls on the phone that she's going to divorce him, the daughter crashed the car, the boss is going to fire him, we're at 24 seconds, oh my god, what are we going to do. He opens the door. Dristan, right? Takes the pill and everything goes to his body and everything's good.


So my dad is watching this commercial, he's sitting in his Lazy-Boy chair with the popcorn in his lap. If he wants to get out of tension, this imposed state of tension, he's got to lift the thing, go up and turn the dial.Circa 1964. And his brain goes–its about 20 calories of human effort to get there, and maybe 10 calories of human effort just to last through the Dristan until I get the pill. So of course he stays in the Lazy-Boy.


Kid with the remote control, .0001 calories of effort and he's out of this story. So he's going to go path of least resistance. He's gone. The kid with the remote control now is no longer watching television; he's watching "the television." And he's putting it through its paces. He's constructing. So the remote control deconstructs media.


The joystick, the Atari joystick, demystified the pixel. If you remember the first time you ever played a video game, if you're old like me, it was probably Pong, right? It was these two little white squares on each side of the screen and a little ball. Now, what were you thinking when you played Pong that first time? And I know you remember it. It's like the Kennedy assassination. It was that massive a moment. Were you thinking, "Oh, what a great simulation of Ping Pong. Now I don't have to have a Ping Pong table in my basement and now we can beat the Chinese"? No, you were just thinking, "Wow!I get to move the pixel around." That's what you were thinking.The ball would go off and people would go like this with the white squares.So we demystified the pixel through the joystick.


Finally we created a do-it-yourself culture through the computer mouse and the keyboard. It turned what had been a monitor into a portal. So if the remote control deconstructed the content, the joystick demystified the technology, and then the mouse and the keyboard created a do-it-yourself collective culture, it allowed us to do this together. This is great for people like me, because now all of a sudden everyone was distant from media, everyone was seeing the story, everyone was participating. It created this great shareware DIY–do it yourself–joyous, chaotic culture.


The problem was, it was costing people money. Not us money; it was costing business money. It was breaking the tyranny of mainstream media, and every family that had an Internet connection was watching four less hours of TV a week. Big, big problem. So the effects of these three devices had to be undone, and they were. If you read Wired magazine in the mid-nineties, they talked about how we're living in an "attention economy." Attention is the super important thing.The "attention economy" was developed and the techniques of the attention economy, sticky websites, eyeball hours, all these things were developed to stop the kid with the remote control who was deconstructing television.


A kid who deconstructed television too much, he's not paying enough attention.He must have a disorder. Attention deficit disorder is a reactive strategy to a world in which someone's trying to program you everywhere you look.This is true. It is not a disease. I mean, there is a disease, but the fact that the diagnoses of attention deficit disorder went up fourfold in the same year that Wired announces we're in an attention economy is not a coincidence. The kids aren't watching TV. We want to drug them. And if we feel bad about that, we'll drug ourselves with something else. Consciousness must be drugged. Really that's the weird thing. It's hard to wake up these days.


So how did they undo the effects of the joystick, the demystification?By remystifying the interface. We don't have time to go into it, but how do install something in Windows 98? With a wizard.Why do they call it a wizard?Because you need a mystical, magical interface between you and the technology.It's not you programming anymore. Kids aren't taught programming in school; they're taught software. They're taught how to interface with the wizards, because technology is remystified.


And how do you undo the effects of the keyboard and the mouse in the DIY culture?Through proclaiming content is king, which is what the Internet people used to do. Saying this is about information and data, and ultimately about commerce rather than about communication. This is a communication infrastructure we built, not a direct marketing platform. But NASDAQ needed a public relations campaign, and the Internet became it. They invented a new story. They invented a new story for the Internet and it basically looked like this: it's a pyramid. Again, it's from the Bible. The idea is there's an angel investor up here, first-round investors here, second-round investors here, Goldman Sachs here, and then NASDAQ down here. By the time it's on NASDAQ, these people up here, they've done something called an exit strategy. You guys from theatre, you know about Amway, right? Same thing. Same thing.


Now, this failed. This failed because communications technology ultimately is a social phenomenon, not a business phenomenon. It failed.The Internet fought this off like you fight off a fungal infection, right?And although The New York Times and Wall Street will say the Internet's over, no, the Internet has survived this slavery, this captivity, survived this first effort at contextualizing the Renaissance as a business phenomenon.That's what this was about, and it didn't work. That story didn't take hold.


But the battle and its aftermath have changed audiences and have changed the audiences that you're talking to. That's really what I want to address: how has digitalness affected theatre and what's our job now.


The first main change is that audiences are suspicious and ironic. Generation X is about distance and irony, maintaining distance for safety. The kinds of media that have arisen for this ironic distance, suspicious, distanced viewer are things like "South Park." Why is "South Park" so safe?Because it exposes the tools that it's using. These are paper cutouts.It keeps you aware of the techniques it's using, so it's animation that is not magical. So kids feel safe watching that.Adults feel safe watching that.


It's the same thing Shakespeare used to do at the beginning of his plays."Oh pardon gentles all, that this stage would presume to be." What are they doing there? What's that about? It's like saying, "Oh, please, I'm sorry. I'm humble. I know this isn't really the kingdom." It's what Woody Allen does at the beginning of each of his movies with that black and white text and the little jazzy music.It's like saying, "Don't worry. This isn't going to hurt you.I know.It's just a story."


Young people, especially, but almost everyone living in this time are also very disoriented and they're looking for patterns. What happens when we live in a chaotic reality is that instead of having Aristotle and rules and platonic ideals to guide you, you end up looking for patterns. You look for self-similarity. You read a book on fractals and you'll see they're actually very reassuring because there's a kind of self-similarity on every level. What you have now is a culture of people looking through an apparently chaotic world, trying to get some sense of the rhythms, trying to get some sense of what are the patterns I can recognize in this.


There are ways to help people find patterns and make connections between things.The great media example would be "The Simpsons." "The Simpsons" will have a story like this in it about Homer and his job. That's not what kids are watching for. What kids are watching "The Simpsons" for is that parody that they'll do of a Hitchcock movie, and it's making the connection. It's going, "Oh, I recognize this commercial in that moment." The reward of "The Simpsons" is not the big old male orgasm curve, "Ah, Homer is safe at the end of the day." It's not.And usually they don't even end properly, in that sense. The reward moment is the moment of connection. It's that sense of opening, of, "Aha, aha, aha." And it's very, very different from "uh-huh."It's making connections.


The theatre that started to do this was in the late sixties, early seventies.Lee Breuer and Mabou Mines, that kind of stuff, was the first stuff of bringing in cultural references, okay, I'm going to take gospel and Oedipus and bring them together. What is that but helping people make the connection between form? It's not postmodernism; it's something else. It's actually reassuring.


Last, people are afraid to fall into another dream. Your audiences are afraid to fall into a dream. So what do you do? Maintain transparency. This is what Julie Taymor's doing and really well.The reason why everyone loves to go to "The Lion King" and that "The Lion King" allows people to feel something that they can't feel at "Les Miz," is because "The Lion King" has transparency of its technology, so that people feel safe. It's that old "Are we going to make the water by taking a blue thing?" Why do we always like that so much?It's because people are longing to let go, but they need permission to let go and they need to feel safe, so they need to know you're not going to fuck with them.That's the tricky thing.


Now, theatre is important. Theatre is the most transparent medium that we have. It is it. So don't do things now, especially because of digital culture and movies and special effects, to make it more opaque.It is the last bastion of transparency. It is more transparent than text, and I'm the big old text-only Jew. I'm a text-only guy.I always think of text as transparent, but it's not. Everyone can talk.It's the most transparent medium. So the audience is most involved in their commitment not to get up and shout during the play. That is interactivity. You can't get up and shout during Archie Bunker or during one of these TV shows. But that is it.


What the audience is paying for is the privilege of not talking. Really, they are. In real theatre, the audience doesn't want to believe what's happening on the stage, but they do want to believe that the actor believes what's happening on the stage. It's very different.It's like in an old Jewish synagogue, the cantor was the guy. There was no rabbi. The cantor was the guy. He was called a hazan, and he was the guy who was supposed to be really feeling it. Oh yeah. He was singing. He was the cantor. Everybody else is talking about business and candle-making. Oh, but he cares.He believes. Oh, look. Oh, he's really getting into it now.


That's why theatre can't be anonymous, which is why national theatres and big theatres try to get movie stars in there, because the audience needs to be relating to the human being that's on the stage. I know we all think it's so sad that soap opera actors have to be in Shakespeare in the Park, but it's because Shakespeare in the Park is not community theatre, right? It's national theatre. It's generic theatre. Local theatre you can do that, because there's Bob the baker, and then you're relating not just to the character, but to Bob the baker in the play.It's crucial. It's crucial. Movies can be anonymous, but theatre really can't be.


Nobody's participating in cultural conversation anymore. Machines are doing it for us. We are living in corporate culture, and corporate culture is being magnified and expressed by computers, by media, and by machines.No one is actually in charge. Even the president of the corporation is answering to the board of directors, who's answering to the shareholders, who are the same people that have the Gap stock or whatever in their 401(k) plan, walking into the store being subjected to the marketing techniques.It's a machine and there is no human intervention in the machine.Everyone feels that they have to serve this thing six days a week, and the seventh day they go into the store and buy.


Theatre, unlike film and TV and any of the other things that are actually written and directed by machine–and they are–I mean, look at the customer service, the focus groups. This is not art. Theatre is one of the only places where we can actually put human intervention back into communication, real human intervention, agency, and in that sense theatre is most alive.


The other thing that theatre does–and we only learn this because of all these new media, when new media comes, the old media figures out what it's about–theatre is most simply the creation of perspective. The old proscenium, that's most simply what theatre is, is the creation of perspective, dimensionality.I am not alone, but two people makes theatre. Where one agrees to be silent and the other agrees to talk, you have perspective. In that sense, it's enacted Renaissance. It's a way of enacting Renaissance.


Adding digital and all these kind of fearful hybrids, that's what I would call them, fearful hybrids of theatre, tech, new media stuff, are a shame in a world that is so desperately in need of something live. It's a terrific thing. You can do it. It's art in a museum. Whatever.But theatre is not about illusion. It never, never, never was.My grandmother goes and sees "The Producers." She's not watching "The Producers."She's watching Nathan Lane! It's never about the illusion.It was always about truth. And what theatre does, both in the stage action and in the story action, is communicate the difference between life and death.That's what it does. When you work in theatre, the big moment that happens for everyone, sometime in college or grad school, is they realize, "Huh. The energy and the action of performing this scene is analogous to the action in the scene."It's when you make that connection that what I'm doing as a performer is what I am doing as a human, when it comes together, it's like, "Whoa!"And what is that but the Shakespeare moment over the shoulder. That's the perspective. And it only happens in real life.



© - 2001 by Theatre Communications Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.

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