How Digital Technologies Are Changing Our Relationship to History and Performance

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Sarah Bay-Cheng

 

Sarah Bay-Cheng is professor of theater and dance at Bowdoin College, although she readily admits she cannot dance. She prefers to describe herself as a theaterist.  “The Germans have a formal term for theater studies—Theaterwissenschaft—but we don’t really have an equivalent in English, so theaterist is just a term I made up for someone who makes, thinks about, works in, and lives all things theater and theatrical and performance.”

In a lunchtime faculty seminar on September 7, 2016, Bay-Cheng talked about the interface of history, performance, and digital technology. Titled “New Media, New Methods: Digital Historiography and Performance,” her lecture addressed the impact that new technologies are having on our study of history, and how performance artists are using these technologies to reflect on contemporary culture, and in the process create new kinds of historical documents.

Bay-Cheng said she’s currently researching a book on the subject. “I make the argument that digital technologies—computers, audio recordings, smart phones and things like that—change our relationship to history and performance.” They do this in two ways, she explained: first by providing us with a digital history, online databases that can be accessed much more easily than old, paper archives. “The other impact is in how these technologies can turn historical artifacts, displays, and discourses into modes of performance. So I look closely at the way museums function, but I also look at how artists use digital technologies to talk about theater, and to restage and reenact historical moments.”

Bay-Cheng cites an ongoing project by Professor Joanne Tomkins at the University of Queensland in Australia, who has been working on “digital restagings” of Elizabethan drama using a computerized simulation of the Rose theater, the London venue where many plays by William Shakespeare and Philip Marlowe were originally performed more than 400 years ago. There’s a wealth of archival data available for Tomkins to draw on as she puts together these restagings, said Bay-Cheng. “We have grocery lists, we know what people bought, what they wore, what materials were being used. We also know exactly where the original theater, which was open air, was positioned and what time the performances were held,” she said, “which enables Tomkins to recreate the precise angle of the sunlight in her digital reenactments.”

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Digital recreation of the Rose Theatre from late sixteenth-century London. Content by Ortelia Interactive Spaces. Research by Joanne Tomkins and Matt Delbridge of the University of Queensland

Other examples mentioned by Bay-Cheng include Visualizing Broadwaya project undertaken by Harvard English professor Derek Miller. He uses a series of large data sets, and visually portrays them in ways intended to help students reexamine some of their traditional assumptions about the history of Broadway theater.

Bay-Cheng said a number of museums are also changing the way they do things. “Various museums are using theatrical technique to engage visitors.” For example The National Maritime Museum in London hired a theater group last year to put on an “immersive and interactive” children’s show to highlight their collection. Museums are also using digital technologies to enhance their experience, said Bay-Cheng, who cited the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Texas, where visitors play an interactive, role-playing game, in which they pretend to be the president.

In conclusion, Bay-Cheng said that because digital technologies are now so interactive (think touch screens) and ubiquitous (thanks to devices like tablets and smart phones), they are completely changing the way we view history. “This type of technology is dynamic, not static,” she said, “so it creates an engagement with history and historical artifacts that becomes performative, not only regarding the material as it’s being presented, but also regarding our mode of engagement, which becomes much more like that of a theater or performance audience, rather than a straightforward reader, for example.”

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