The Dramaturgy of Experience
In the past twenty years+ artists have been experimenting with pervasive media to create works of art that fall somewhere between performance, public intervention, political act, and, in some cases, therapy. A move, by some artists, away from the dominance of the ‘screen’ as the main medium for innovation towards RFID (radio frequency identification), QR codes (quick-read), mobile phone technologies, Bluetooth, email, arduino-powered objects, social networks, and other technologies which are embedded into the flow of daily life, has not, however, been accompanied by a cohesive framework for understanding, analysing and disseminating the findings of this work. This shift can be seen as the beginning of a transformation in artistic practice that has been enabled and encouraged by the increasing pervasiveness of digital technology. The lack of a clear attendant transformation in the way this work is discussed, analysed and disseminated is the key problem this project seeks to begin unlocking. Through research I’ve been conducting, I am hoping to produce new knowledge in the area of pervasive media, digital performance, and dramaturgy that might help artists, critics and thinkers frame the work they are engaged in making/participating in.
One way to describe the process of creating pervasive media projects and the effect they have on participants would be to describe them via a dramaturgy of experience, a phrase I have been using for a few years now in talks and discussion informally but which I have not fully defined as of yet. This phrase particularly applies to pervasive media works in which duration is a key organising feature and it builds on an emerging subset of research carried out by pervasive media artists who are seeking to develop theoretical frameworks with which to critique their own work (BlastTheory, 2010; Montola, Stenros and Waern, 2009; Petralia, 2010; Petralia, 2011). These research-practitioners have applied theories from architecture, design, narrative and game theory to generate knowledge about the creative and cultural shifts in current digital practice. However, very few research papers have considered the influence of dramaturgy on pervasive media practice. This gap in research is surprising given that many artistic experiments using pervasive media stem from theatrical or performance-related contexts.
Starting in 2009, my company, Proto-type Theater has been working in the public realm on a project called Fortnight, which uses the space and time of the everyday to create a theatrical experience of a city. Fortnight is a two-week long project where up to two hundred participants agree to provide their mobile phone number, home address, their name, and their email address to Proto-type. Fortnight uses these technologies to guide its participants on an exploration of what it means to be present in the city where they live. Fortnight engages participants in real time by sending SMS messages and emails that reach its participants wherever they are, seeking to insert a theatrical element into the flow of their daily lives. Participants not only receive messages (which they can reply to) but they also are invited to particular locations throughout the host city to engage in specific creative tasks. These tasks also fit into the flow of daily life and participants have to choose whether to accommodate them in their work and personal life schedules or whether to act as voyeurs by reading about what happened online in the absence of physical participation. In this respect, duration functions as a dramaturgical device, allowing occurrences in Fortnight to accumulate on a non-theatrical time scale.
It was through Fortnight and by experiencing pervasive media works by other artists (notably Blast Theory and the work of Duncan Speakman) that the notion of a dramaturgy of experience began to emerge for me. I realised that in Fortnight my company was acting as a dramaturge for the two hundred people who signed up, shaping and directing the distributed actions of the participants’ lives from afar. Over the course of the two weeks, a bond developed between the anonymous voice of Fortnight and individual participants; participants shared the most intimate details, asked for crucial life advice and admitted terrible failings that they had not told anyone else. Somehow the combination of the anonymity of the sender (Fortnight), the duration of the project and the tone and content of the messages encouraged a behaviour, which went beyond a simple, playful, theatrical experience. What we were doing with Fortnight was strikingly similar to the process a dramaturge goes through when working with a playwright; we were shaping the lives of our participants to fit a particular dramatic text (one written by me).
The term dramaturgy, although contentious, is generally defined via its etymology to refer to the act of putting something “into dramatic form” or “to write a text in dramatic form” (Luckhurst, 2006: 5). Marco DeMarinis (1987) describes dramaturgy as “the techniques/theory governing the composition of performance-as-text” where text refers not only to the written word but to the scoring of behaviours, scenic items, words, images and all aspects of theatrical language. He also asserts that it is possible to consider dramaturgies of the director, the performer, and of the spectator (ibid.). His framework, written before the development of sophisticated artistic use of pervasive media, seeks to provide a structure for understanding how audience members receive performance and even complete performances through their piecing together of fragmentary information. But the word spectator assumes passivity – a spectator watches but does not act. In asserting a dramaturgy of experience, I am hoping to understand how many distributed digital performances turn spectators into participants, and further, how these participants could be considered actors in a dramaturgical sense. For example, in Fortnight, Proto-type act as dramaturges for the actors’ (the participants’) experience of their city; without acting on the messages that they receive by replying or by going to the geographic locations they have been invited to through those messages, or by even opening the messages to read them, participants do not get a full experience of the work. It might be possible to consider the interaction of these pervasive technologies that we use everyday as contributing to a structuring or ordering of our lives. If so, what these technologies might be doing, when employed artistically especially, could be referred to as a kind of dramaturgy.
The other major component of this framework is the notion of experience. In Fortnight as in many pervasive media projects, such as Duncan Speakman’s Subtlemobs (Speakman, 2009) and Blast Theory’s A Machine to See With (BlastTheory, 2010), participants are asked to do real things in the real world under often fictional circumstances.
The act of doing something implies a physical interaction with objects, ideas, or people, and how you describe that doing might be called experience. You can say that you experience an emotion, or an idea, or an inspiration, but research suggests that these non-physical terms are physically inspired, as the definition of experience seems to suggest. The term experience is widely used in the arts and humanities to describe an engagement that is beyond a mental calculation but is somehow sensorial or tactile. Indeed, dramaturgy and notions of experience are intricately linked. Eugenio Barba (1985: 77-78) describes the way that audience/spectators engage with complex theatrical material as a process of becoming aware of “the experience of an experience”; in essence a self-reflexive understanding of experience as it happens. He calls this reflexivity “actions at work” (ibid), highlighting the tactile in notions of experience. Barba, and others who study dramaturgy, have largely focused on theatre, however. In proposing a dramaturgy of experience, dramaturgical principles can be used to understand the complex artistic methods of pervasive media practitioners and the highly participatory behaviours of audience actors in this work. Thus, a dramaturgy of experience draws on research into dramaturgy to help understand how digital encounters in the physical world are engineered and ordered, particularly by theatre artists, and received and enacted, particularly by participant/audience members.
By posting these ideas here I am seeking to start a process of thinking about and defining more clearly what I mean when I talk about a dramaturgy of experience. Over the next months (and longer) I will attempt to illuminate this further by looking in detail at some specific case studies and applying my framework to the discussion and analysis of particular works of art. In the meantime, this short post is an attempt at laying out the genesis of my ideas about this subject (publically) in more detail than I have in the past. I am eager to hear from anyone who has anything to say about these ideas or wants to recommend readings that I should check out. I have seen that there is a paper coming out that uses the title dramaturgy of digital experience, which I will be reading soon! I am interested to see if there is overlap between the author’s work and the work I have been doing on this subject for the past several years.
Barba, Eugenio (1985) ‘The Nature of Dramaturgy: Describing Actions at Work’, New Theatre Quarterly, 1: 1, 75-78.
Blast Theory (2010) A Machine to See With, dir. Matt Adams, Banff New Media Institute: Banff.
DeMarinis, Marco (1987) ‘Dramaturgy of the Spectator’, TDR: The Drama Review, 31: 2, 100-114.
Luckhurst, Mary (2006) Dramaturgy: A Revolution in Theatre, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Montola, Markus, Jaakko Stenros and Annika Waern (2009) Pervasive Games: Theory and Design, New York: Morgan Kaufmann.
Petralia, Peter (2010) ‘Headspace: Architectural Space in the Brain’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 20: 1, 96-108.
Petralia, Peter (2011) ‘Here, There and In-Between: Rehearsing over Skype’, Performance Research, 16: 3, 113-116.
Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson (eds.) (2005) experience, n., Online: http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t140.e26250 (accessed: 20 July 2010).
(2009) Subtlemob, dir. Duncan Speakman, Pervasive Media Studio: Bristol.
 I think I first used this phrase at the Pervasive Media Summer School two years ago when I was giving a talk about Fortnight; it just came out of my mouth and I only thought about it in depth after the fact.
 In the Oxford Dictionary of English, the noun ‘experience’ is defined as “practical contact with and observation of facts or events” and the verb as to “encounter or undergo” (Soanes and (eds.), 2005). In both of these definitions, the noun and the verb are defined in relation to a real-world interaction of some kind.