Models for Multimedia Writing? They're Right There in the Discipline.

How can we model multimedia production based on genres native to the discipline we are supporting?

As one semester recently wound down, I was winding up for another semester, and I had the chance to sit down with a terrific theater professor. She was teaching playwriting in the coming semester, and she wanted her students do work with multimedia.

So based on some recent experiences, I had two sets of issues around genres I thought could be worked out to support student multimedia authoring in two steps.

First, what is multimedia authoring within the discipline? What genres exist within the discipline? And what kinds of work do they do?

Second, how can we give the students some pre-made forms or genres–specific configurations of formal elements such that students know “how to put together” an assignment?

Since this was a playwriting course, the instructor and I developed some justifications for embedding multimedia writing in a playwriting course–which is ostensibly about “live” theater.

Namely, theater and playwriting are disciplines with their own internal ways of writing and reading.

  1. Theater has always been a combination of written and live elements.
    • What’s written and what’s live are constantly changing–and it will likely to keep changing.
  2. The stage’s physical borders have always been porous, and writers have always played with these borders.
    • Every era’s theater has both used and played with spatial distinctions.
      • Shakespeare had trap doors and balconies.
      • Writers and composers have long used sounds and dialogue “offstage.”
        • Several operas feature ‘heavenly voices’: Aida and Don Carlo to name two.
  3. Theater at its heart involves adaptation.
    • A written play is made new when it's performed.
    • Old plays and stories are re-written. (Shakespeare did mostly adaptations.)
    • A staging is an adaptation.
    • Acting a role interprets and adapts the role to the actors and the production.
  4. Theater was always “multimedia.”
    • There have been special effects and stage illusions.
      • Wagner expected dragons alongside his singing heroes.
  5. While there is still a zero-tech, turn-the-lights-on-and-let-the-actors-work approach, there are also sophisticated multimedia productions.
    • It makes sense to prepare writers for the theater as it actually exists and will exist, as much as for most stripped-down 'poor theater' approach.

So the question of how to embed multimedia in the teaching of playwriting is already given in an understanding of the art and discipline at hand.

  • Theater will still be theater, but the fixed ‘written’ text may be an audiovisual recording.
  • Theatrical performance may also adapt a written text onto a multimedia platform as part of a live performance.

These precepts suggest five implications for bringing multimedia authoring into a theater playwriting course.

  1. Theater students should continue to explore and experiment with the relationship between a written document and a live performance.
  2. There is no reason video and music cannot be part of the ‘written’ elements which performers adapt and interact with live in real time.
  3. Live remote performers–who Skype in, call on cell phones, are brought in by live remote video feeds–are the new ‘offstage.’
  4. Theater students should be learning how to incorporate media in their work, both written and live, whether it’s turning on and off the room lights, directing flashlights at the performers or the walls, playing mp3’s from their phones, etc.
  5. Student who know how to work flashlights and phones and Skype and mp3 players will be better prepared to work with whatever multimedia technology comes next–which we cannot foresee but should expect.

A playwriting course that asks students to write and perform can thus be a space in which different forms of writing and recording–fixed, captured messages, whether written words, moving or still images, sounds or music–become fodder for live performances which may “adapt” or “remix” the fixed, written or recorded text–just the way a live theater performance adapts and remixes a written play.

Theater in its broadest and least-fussy sense already knows many genres which mix recorded and live media with the performance of a written play.

  • Drag queens lip sync to recorded music.
  • Rocky Horror fans act out a live accompaniment to a recorded film musical–: sometimes amateurs perform live right next to filmed professional performances.
  • Singers sometimes perform live to a pre-recorded back-up tape.
  • Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape revolves a man starting, stopping, listening to and commenting on a tape recording.
  • Lear wanders through a storm that is not only poetic but often also an opportunity for the sound and lighting teams to have a rollicking good time.
  • Increasingly, theater productions incorporate live remote elements.
    • Anastomotic* theater connects two live performances with a digital remote hookup–aka the “new offstage.”

The theatrical modes of adaptation, orchestration, synchronization, pantomime, integration are easy enough to bundle into performing genres which students can base on their written work–the plays they write.

Such genres might be:

  • synchronizing live behavior with a recording–e.g.:
    • one character is pre-recorded and others respond live,
    • the play is recorded and then accompanied by a live performance–maybe just gestures;
  • collocated live performances from at least one external locations–e.g.:
    • some actors perform remotely via videoconferencing software;
  • a live performance embeds and interacts with a recording, possibly including turning it on and off–e.g.,
    • the play might actually involve live actors replaying a prior recorded performance;
  • a visual or audio track accompanies a live performance–e.g.:
    • actors perform a play live but with a music or visual track that is pre-recorded, perhap even giving cues to the live performance.

By using existing genres as models, we can support students in writing using multimedia–writing in its broadest sense. And we can also help an art or discipline (like theater or playwriting) to adapt–even simply to expand upon what it already does.

–Edward R. O’Neill

*An anastomosis names (among other things) a narrow passage between two larger bodies–whether lakes or organs. J. Hillis Miller has used “anastomosis” as a figure for intersubjectivity in fiction. The figure is noticeable in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films.


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