As the world continues to battle coronavirus and theatre practitioners engage with the idea of what theatre is and can be, creators Amitesh Grover and Benjamin Samuels have been pushing the boundaries of the form and creating interdisciplinary work for a long time. At a recent Unrehearsed Futures conversation, they shared their foray into using technology as a crucial element of the work they create, art as a social practice and more.
A few years ago, Samuels, the artistic director of a UK-based touring company Limbik, saw a call out for theatre companies interested in experimenting with motion-capture technology. As someone who trained in physical theatre and Lecoq-based approaches at the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA), working with motion-capture seemed like an extension of that training as it involved using the body to animate digital characters or avatars.
Recalling his training, he reflected how everything around us arose from movement and how we observe that and embody it. This leads to discovering certain movements dynamics and out of those dynamics might even arise poetry; the sense that everything contains its own metaphor. “So, when I started thinking about how to approach working with motion capture and technology, I began asking this question: What’s the intrinsic metaphor that sits within the technology?” Samuels says. Following such explorations, Samuels produced Fatherland in 2019 which is based on his experiences with his father who has Pakinson’s-induced dementia. It is a real-time motion capture performance merging with audience participation, live video-projection and virtual reality.
Similar to Samuels, Grover’s work also stems from personal triggers. He confesses that he tends to work conceptually and poetically with no regard for disciplinary boundaries or integrity. “I have, from very early on in my career, moved very freely between theatre, performance, poetry, writing, technology, visual art and photography and back. And so, it’s a sort of a blend of work that I end up creating.”
Grover, who is also a professor at the National School of Drama, New Delhi, says that he is deeply interested in investigating non-theatrical subjects in his work. “In 2015, I created an entire festival of sleeping, in which I invited audiences to come and immerse themselves in different sleeping conditions, and in different relationships of sleep with other bodies and with our environment, in public as well as private ways,” he shares. In 2016, Grover also created On Mourning, in collaboration with a professional mourner from South India, and tried to investigate the deeper, unsayable knowledge that one finds in traditions of mourning, grieving, and what they can mean to one today in the modern world, where he feels one has forgotten to mourn.
“When I work with technology,” explains Grover, “I work with it in terms of its political force. Technology can be extremely fascinating, and can also help us create a spectacle. But for me, what’s important is to sort of uncover the layers behind the screen and behind the materiality of these devices, and to see what are the different kinds of inter-relational experiences these technologies are unleashing for us. They’re proposing to us.”
Using technology to create physical spaces in virtual worlds
Speaking of his experience in using motion-capture technology and Virtual Reality (VR) on Fatherland, Samuels shares it is about existing in a virtual and physical space simultaneously. The project began when he was in California and his father napping on a sofa behind him. From an observer’s perspective, Samuels had watched his father, who has Parkinson’s-induced dementia, be physically present but mentally somewhere else. Thinking about this, motion-capture, embodiment and disembodiment, presence and absence, he decided to use this technology to tell a story that circled around a character with dementia, and the experience of dementia. “And that ultimately became an interrogation of reality and where different notions of reality sit,” says Samuels.
“The mechanics of Fatherland was that there was a performer (which was me) who was in a motion capture, would invite audience volunteers on stage, and I’d get them to wear a Virtual Reality headset. And then I would perform multiple characters for this audience volunteer who would then experience the world of the story, as well as those different characters from within – they would see it through the headset. So, they were seeing a virtual world with all of these characters that were unfolding inside of it. We would project what they were seeing to the rest of the audience. Essentially, the audience was seeing a kind of live animated film being constructed for them,” he further explained.
Working with VR means working with space. It was a very theatrical experience of trying to imagine space, then add things that would happen in a virtual space, in a physical space, Samuel says. “The constant work is essentially to map physical space onto virtual space. And a lot of what we do in enacting and performing is essentially trying to imagine ourselves in other spaces,” he says. “You’re making the invisible visible. It’s just the visible is manifesting itself in a virtual space.”
The Last Poet
Grover likes to work with narrative in a non-linear way to create immersive experiences. He began working on his latest work The Last Poet during the lockdown in March 2020. “We started to see many, many authoritarian governments in South and Southeast Asia, taking advantage of the pandemic and rounding up artists and activists who produce work that demonstrates dissent. So, in India, China and elsewhere, I kept reading about a lot of poets, artists and activists who were being incarcerated. And one of my friend’s parents was also amongst these names in India,” he shares.
Thus, Grover began working on the idea of losing somebody and toying with the idea of a biological virus serving as a metaphor for the political virus that is part of the South Asian politics. Collaborating with coders to create a virtual world according to certain rules. “On each browser, this world could be slightly different from the others. But these rules kind of guide this world,” he says.
The virtual world has close to 200 rooms. He also went and photographed the centre of Delhi at its most polluted which resulted in the amber haze generated in the virtual world. When one enters this world, the rooms are whirling around with no gravity in place. There are objects strewn across this space – lamp posts, automobiles, benches etc. and each of these objects is interactive. When one clicks on an object or a room, they meet a character.
“And then that’s how the piece progresses. As all performers are live, you go from one room to another. They’re all talking about one person. You know at the start that there’s one poet in this world who has gone missing. And everybody you meet has had some kind of relationship with the poet. You meet people who are very close to him, you meet his neighbors, you meet other people who’ve heard about him, who’ve been inspired by him. And you slowly begin to understand that not everybody can be trusted in this world. There are some characters who seem to be speaking the truth, but they really aren’t. There are others who can be believed, and yet others who are very clearly spreading rumours.”
The 90-minute long show also includes audience interaction, sonic art, films in the other rooms. One thing Grover needed to do while rehearsing and building the piece was to think about how to adapt theatrical exercises performed in a physical space, to an online space. Since performers were performing live from their homes due to the lockdown, a lot of effort went into finding nooks and crannies that can be dramatic and discover the poetics of the home. Grover also created a backstage dashboard, similar to a backstage mechanism in a physical theatre. Except, here he could see how many actors were streaming live, how many were watching them in separate rooms. There was a ‘Start Show’ and ‘End Show’ option. Since the code was running live, he could also track bugs and the myriads of things the code was doing in performance.
In their work, both Grover and Samuels have investigated the idea of space and how what they learned in a physical space can be transferred and transposed to another space, such as the virtual. In their investigation they found that audiences can have a live, embodied experience even in the virtual world.
Samuels looks at what he learnt for the stage and which parts of it cannot be let go. He then explores how this knowledge can be taken into other spaces. He emphasizes that makers must look at space, whether physical or digital, as a partner. “In this space, what if I knew where I was. And then, I could try and upskill and learn all of these new bits of technology and software and all this stuff that you needed to do in order to manage that. But that intuitive knowledge that I’m crafting something for a sense of space, kind of got me through it,” he says, referring to his experience of working with technology in the beginning.
Grover believes technological intervention has been a part of creating a live, embodied experience in our daily lives for a long time. He gives the example of the crowd watching a cricket match at the stadium. If one is sitting in the topmost row, it won’t be possible to see the actual ball. To combat this, there are huge screens put up in the stadium and more often than not, most people in the stadium end up following the game through the screen.
“And so even a game like cricket, which is live and is being played physically, is a post-technological game now in the way in which you know, how it is experienced, watched, played, and results are declared. It’s also this idea of liveness that affects the way we watch things on screen. So, liveness is just not liveness is an ontological category,” he comments.
Grover also feels that post-technological theatre has made it more difficult for physical performances to take place. In this post-technological era, physical and live performances are necessarily interactional. “They are interactive. The mechanisms, the tools, the parameters and the ways in which performance unfolds in the physical space needs to have some kind of unpredictability to it. And I think that is something that, liveness for me has become more dangerous in a sense. It’s more radical, not just of the effect that it has on my skin, but also of the unpredictable nature that’s inherent to the life,” Grover emphasizes.
He also believes that, in his experience, the physical and virtual spaces amplify each other. “Physical gatherings in India, for example, have become larger and larger precisely because of the digital mobilization that is compelling people to gather physically at spaces such as political rallies. And there is a significant effort to mobilize people through digital means, which then we see the results of in physical spaces. It works the other way around too,” he says.
The two creators encourage theatre pedagogues and makers to embrace all that technology has to offer and that diving into it doesn’t take away from our previous understanding of “theatre”, “embodiment” and “liveness”.
As someone who trained in physical theatre to using those principles in a digital space, Samuels says it has been a process of iterations and reiterations. He picked this up while working with technologists where they worked on something over and over again until they got it right. The process itself happens in stages, he says. “And so, you have to keep going through this process of iteration and reiteration until you finally try and arrive at the result that you’re looking for. And recognizing that that is very similar to any process, to any process of creation is crucial.”
Grover challenges artists and practitioners to let their practice traverse multiple paths, including the virtual. “Our relationship with digitality is a political one. It’s not just a social one. And we have to understand what this new freedom, and also chaos that it unleashes, means for us in our cultures. And I think, if we can understand this, our artistic practice here can take a different turn so that resistance can reproduce both in digital ways and in physical ways,” he asserts.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
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