The use of video in the theatre seems to be everywhere at the moment. Ubiquitous in the middle scale, its pixels splashed over many recent Christmas and children’s shows and have even brought a whole range of different digital hues to magic acts and church services across multiple faiths.
Are we experiencing a new orthodoxy? Doesn’t all this colour, the hum and whirr of this technology, make us nostalgic for a poorer theatre, the kind of pared-back action imagined by Peter Brook in his idea of theatre as an empty space? After all, in this era, when we cannot escape the ever-present glow of our smartphones, don’t we go to the theatre to escape the screen’s tyranny over our daily lives?
Working with a company renowned for its use of technology, Imitating the Dog, I’m haunted by these questions. I cannot help but wonder, as we are currently adapting George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead at Leeds Playhouse, whether our use of multiple projectors and cameras is reflective of a cultural orthodoxy that I find deeply worrying.
Of course, theatre has always attempted to hold a mirror up to nature. Whether we like it or not, technology is now intrinsically enmeshed into our lives and it’s difficult to imagine a way of thinking that isn’t influenced or affected by the screen.
If I had to defend the constant use of technology in our theatre it would be that we need to be creatively critical of our relationship to technology and our use of technology always has this idea in the mix when we are creating our works.
For us, the technology is not a decorative flourish, it is at the heart of what we do. It is with us from day one in our making process. It’s the extra actor in the space. There’s no allocated technical period in the final days of rehearsals for us – it’s always a technical rehearsal, every day and in every session.
Our performers are currently battling with cameras trying to capture every shot of Night of the Living Dead in exact time with the original running inexorably above their heads. Maybe we’re investigating how impossible it is to escape the screen, to exist without the earbud soundtrack and the selfie.
Yet when the actors just miss their mark or suddenly appear beautifully lost on the stage – in those moments when what they make doesn’t quite match the original – they create something that is suddenly so vibrant, something that moves and amuses me.
It’s that moment of truth, of reality, that I’m always on the hunt for in the theatre – and I always find it deeply affecting, whether technology is involved or not. Maybe my fear about technology is the realisation that poor video makes for poor theatre, and not in the way Brook intended.
Night of the Living Dead: Remix runs at Leeds Playhouse from January 24 to February 15, then tours until March 21.
Andrew Quick is co-artistic director of Imitating the Dog