Thomas Wright, An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe (London,1750).
Many… if not most… of my theatrical influences come from outside the traditional theatre world. If I think about this deeper, I realise that a lot of the artists who have inspired me are those that break the boundaries of individual art-forms. I’ve always loved all the art-forms – and at a certain age, I realised: why choose?
Georges Melies (1888-1923), for example, is known as one of the first visionaries of film but what I love most about his work is how he never quite escapes his theatrical background (as a magician) and how he grapples with this strange new art-form of cinema by seeing it as a form of magical theatre. Similarly, Stelarc (1946 - ) is often regarded as a pioneering biotechnology and performance artist but I love how theatrical and provocative his sensibilities and “performances” are. (Once, on a hot summer's day in Perth, Stelarc proudly let me feel the ear implanted into his arm. A story for another time.)
However, three “stage-based” theatre practitioners who have embraced new forms of theatre and greatly influenced my thinking are Robert Lepage, Manual Cinema and Dimitris Papaioannou.
I first saw Lepage’s The Anderson Project in 2006 at the Sydney Festival. Robert Lepage and his Ex Machina company (founded in 1994) are in some ways the forbears of contemporary multimedia theatre. For the last three decades, Lepage has had a significant impact on the theatrical landscape, creating a unique “techno-en-scene” for his multimedia work (Dunjerovic 2007, 39). Lepage’s view of technology as a meaningful and legitimate way to bring a newness to theatre immediately struck me as both incredibly unique and yet deeply intuitive. For World Theatre Day 2008, Lepage wrote: “The survival of the art of theatre depends on its capacity to reinvent itself by embracing new tools and new languages.” (Lepage 2008). Echoed in the Ancient Greek origins of his company’s name, Ex Machina, there is the sense that theatre has always embraced technology in some form or other. Why then should digital technology - with all its power and potential - be any different?
As a result, my first major multimedia work Emergence: Build Your Own Being (2007) was directly inspired by Lepage’s work. Before then I had been tinkering with short films and VJing for bands. Lepage opened my eyes to the theatrical possibilities of melding performance and cinema together, using projection as a powerful new way of adding further dimensions to character and narrative. And, for me, this reveals Lepage’s greatest contribution to theatre and to my work – not the technology itself but the fact that character and narrative are still possible in experimental technological works and that digital technology can add new complexities and layers to these elements rather than just act as 'eye candy' or distraction.
Another theatre organisation that has been influential in contemporary theatre and on my personal practice are Manual Cinema. Manual Cinema (formed in 2010) are an ensemble of theatre-makers from Chicago who create “filmless’ films through the use of an old (perhaps archaic) technology: overhead projectors and transparency sheets. However, to dismiss them as "lo-fi" would be to miss the incredible sophistication in Manual Cinema’s theatre-making. The collective combine a profound knowledge of the tropes and language of cinema (especially film noir) with an incredibly sophisticated form of performance choreography (up to 6 artists place down hundreds of overhead slides with precise timing to create their live “filmless” film performances). Indeed, the Chicago Tribune commented that: “The directors of Manual Cinema have created a whole new art-form” (Jones 2018).
I was lucky enough to meet the key members of Manual Cinema in 2012 at a festival in New York and their unique crossing of cinema with performance have had a great impact on my work ever since. In particular, I have been developing a multimedia rock opera – the Lumiphonic Creature Choir (2012 – ongoing) - that draws heavily on cinematic sci-fi tropes as well as theatrical performance and choral music. Manual Cinema have shown me a new way in which cinema can be used as a highly performative experience, whether it is through archaic analogue techniques or the use of cutting-edge digital technology.
Another theatre practitioner that has had a large impact on 21st century theatre-making and on my more recent work is Dimitris Papaioannou. Born in 1964, Papaioannou has had a profound significance on dance and theatre with his reimagining of “tools from Arte Povera”, creating both small intimate shows and large-scale events such as the Opening of the Athens Olympics (Capitta 2019, 1). For me what is most influential about Papaioannou’s work is his startling and highly precise reimagining of the human body, freeing it from the well-known constructs and shapes that we have come to known. Whilst perhaps not as multimedia-focussed as the others, Papaioannou uses the human body as a form of playful technology – an ancient tool able to reveal new, highly-visual and non-verbal narratives. I could feel Papaioannou’s work influence my staging of Icarus (2020) at NIDA - in the shapes and forms that we explored with the actors and in the way that the actors moved through space and interacted with the kinetic set. Given more rehearsal time and creative development, I feel that Papaioannou’s influence would become even more pronounced, leading to highly non-naturalistic and inventive new ways for the actors to use their bodies within this work and potential forthcoming works.
Capitta, G. 2019 “Dimitris Papaioannou e i possibili percorsi della condizione umana”. Published in
Dundjerovic, A. 2007. The Theatricality of Robert Lepage. Quebec: McGill-Queens Press.
Jones, C. 2018. “Chicagoans of the Year” in Chicago Tribune. Accessed January 10th 2020.
Lepage, R. 2008 “World Theater Day”. Accessed 12th January 2021.
** But that is not the kind of theatre that I am interested in making.