The May 15, 2006, issue of the New York Times magazine has a fascinating article (billed as a manifesto) by Kevin Kelley. He writes about the coming digitization of all books and their interlinked availability to anyone on the planet with an Internet connection. He details how the era and notion of "the copy" of something as being the primary article of trade in the market will soon be bowled over by the technology of "the search," which connects all items with all other items through hyperlinks. In terms of books, Google's effort to digitize the library collections of five major cultural institutions (and Google is not the only player in the "digitizing books" game) will lead, in Kelley's words, not to 10 million digitized books but to one massive book all linked and searchable.
I, for one, cannot wait for this to happen. Yes, yes, all the nostalgia about handling a book, etcetera, etcetera—but if all human knowledge in any form can be collated, bound, and made available to me as I sit at my desk, I can only see this as enormous expansion of human imagination and creativity. And I also fully believe that the ancillary technology for reading and annotating these works will improve through such creations as electronic paper through nanotechnology.
So what does this have to do with live theatre?
I often think of the relationship of theatre to other cultural entertainment choices (and, let's face it, "culture" in a 21st-century corporate capitalist society is all about entertainment) as similar to the relationship of vinyl records to CDs or MP3s. It is something of an antique medium, with its insistence on its "liveness" as a certificate of something authentic about being human. Also, there is a perverse pride taken in its evanescence, its ghostliness -- one performance will never be exactly the same as another, and once the performance is gone, it can never be re-materialized, etcetera, etcetera.
These kinds of attitudes, along with the wacky economics of producing live theatre and the limited audience any single production will reach (even the most wildly successful Broadway run, stretching for years, will, in its totality, reach an audience that is a fraction of the opening two weekends of a Tom Cruise blockbuster), to me means that we need to re-think how theatre gets done in a digital, and digitizing, age. Otherwise, it will become (as in many respects it already is) a niche art form with an aging audience and nothing much to say to the rest of the world.
I confess I don't really have a clue (yet) about what the products of this "re-thinking" would look like. One notion I've played with for several years is radio theatre done online with accompanying podcasts (a form that would bleed boundaries with shows like This American Life or Selected Shorts, which in many of their production aspects are often like small scripts well-acted).
Another is to "film" a stage performance—not just set up a camera but shoot it with multiple cameras and edit it tightly—and make this available for viewing. This is not new—think of PBS' "Great Performances" series—but it would then make the piece available for those who can't make it to the theatre. In fact, there wouldn't be any impediment (except legal in terms of copyright and actor contracts, but these could be worked out) to have the DVD version on sale at the live performance Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM so that someone could actually watch the performance again if desired.
I am certain that people more imaginative and fanciful than I can figure out other ways to do this, but whatever forms digitized theatre takes, they will move beyond the "copy" factor of a play: that it exists on a page, that the process of production is to take it from "the page to the stage," that it appears on the boards as a unitary production, that when it is done it is done (except for its residue in a printed script which may, or may not, bring in some income through royalties-- that is, the sale of discrete copies on the market).
I agree that the "liveness" of theatre is its special hook, but that "liveness" does not necessarily come out of the fact that live bodies occupy the same darkened space at the same time. (Any of us can recall "live" performances that felt dead and inert.) "Liveness" inheres in the synaptic connections made between audience and performers by the machinery of the production—and as long as the machinery enables those connections to be made, then it doesn't matter what the machinery is: stage lights and memorized lines or digitized bits in a computer workstation or some combination of both (or many other things). The important thing is the "connect"—it's the connect that makes us feel the "live."
Finding ways to get outside the usual parameters of theatre would also liberate playwrights from the tyranny of having to depend on the kindnesses of strangers to get a production. In a sense, playwrights have always had this option: save some money, rent a theatre, send out the invites, rehearse the piece, open the doors, pay off the debts, start saving money again. But finding new ways to digitize themselves as playwrights gives them more power to define for themselves how they can get their names and works out there. After all, it is about getting seen and heard, and if the usual route of petitioning the gatekeepers of artistic directors and festival managers fails to shake the fruit from the tree, then it's time to find new trees to shake.
These thoughts are very raw and ragged because, at the moment, I don't really know what I'm talking about. And some of this thinking comes out of my own frustrations with trying to pry something loose for myself as a playwright. But I think there is a kernel of possibility here that needs exploration. Musicians have been able to make it work to their advantage, as have photographers, filmmakers, visual artists, and so on. So why not playwrights? Why not?