Technology has always been a part of theatre. Even back in the ancient times of daylight performances, technological consideration was given to how the audience would view and hear what was being performed. Actors were seen and heard by way of simple, but effective engineering. We live in a time where technology does more than assist the audience in experiencing a show. In our day and age technology has become the show. Forget the actors and disregard the theater. Audiences can now travel into completely new worlds and be part of unforgettable stories. The transition begins with Jerzy Grotowski.
Grotowski was a Polish Director who had a fascination with the actor/spectator relationship. His experimental productions lead to what is now called environmental theatre. His goal was to eliminate the boundaries between the audience and the performers. He wanted to bring the spectator into the world that was being created on stage. He achieved this in fascinating ways. The lines were blurred between audience space and performer space. He wanted to eliminate the stage, and leave only an immersive world in which the audience would truly experience the play.
Grotowski later commented on his frustrations with the experiments. He believed that most audience members felt uncomfortable and did not respond as he had hoped. This was perhaps due to the fact that people were not seeking realistic and thought provoking experiences. They may have simply been looking for good entertainment. Maybe they felt their space was being invaded. Perhaps what was really causing people to feel uncomfortable, was not the experience itself, but those trying to create it; the actors.
Grotowski was not the only person to experiment with environmental theatre. A small group of creative folks from the animated film industry were experiencing higher levels of audience satisfaction with their innovative form of environmental theatre. Their spaces were not created for playhouses in New York city. Their productions were operating daily in California, at the world’s first immersive theme park called Disneyland.
At the same time Grotowksi was debuting his work in the west, Disneyland was opening their greatest achievement in environmental theatre. It was called Pirates of the Caribbean. The production lasted about 15 minutes long and told the story of a town in the Spanish Main that was attacked by Pirates. The scenic qualities were beyond impressive. The cast was made up of 119 characters. It included men, women, children and animals, and the audience was sent right through the middle of it all. Performer space and spectator space had truly become one.
The biggest difference between what Disney had accomplished and what Grotowski was doing was simply technological. Pirates of the Caribbean relied entirely on animatronic figures to bring its story to life and while the audience certainly felt risk and excitement, they didn’t feel invasive. As convincing as the effects and technology were, the audience knew they were being immersed into a fantasy world. Technology had become the theatre and replaced the actor, removing the discomfort felt by many of Grotowski’s spectators.
When it comes to environmental theatre, there are many ways to do it, but its the themed attractions that display our most impressive advances in theatrical technology. Lighting, sound, automation, robotics and countless other special effects come together in wonderful ways to create truly spectacular experiences. That is how an artificial world becomes truly immersive. Its how we can really eliminate the boundaries between performers and spectators. It’s also how technology becomes theatre.
Slowiak, James & Cuesta Jairo. Jerzy Grotowski. Routledge. 2007
Surreal, Jason. Pirates of the Caribbean: Magic Kingdom to the Movies. Disney Editions. 2005