“At the twilight of structuralism, fictional text came forth into the world and settled in. Can it still be a part of the creation of the world?”
Since the beginning of the 1990s, theatre studies have become interested in the new techniques and media offered by technological innovations in the fields of augmented and virtual reality. The department of theatre and film of the University of Kansas, spearheaded by Professor Mark Reaney, developed a program of experimental works whose goal is to explore technologies of virtual reality as applied to the theatre.
The relationship between theatre – the art that stages reality – and the technologies of virtual – and subsequently augmented – reality were explored early on. Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) was the first to use the phrase. In The Theatre and its double, the author defines theatre as “virtual reality”. The choice of this phrase emphasizes the paradoxical dimension of the genre. Anne Ubersfeld (1918-2010) argues that theatre is the “art of the paradox.” And indeed, theatre is an art of many paradoxes: the loneliness of the creator working in an art form that requires the presence and the active and creative participation of a multitude (including the audience); a text which is sophisticated and complex in its poetry yet whose outcome is an exaggeration, an inflation of its symbols, a practice of redundancy; the eternal nature of the written word as opposed to the unique and immediate nature of its staging. Theatre is a paradox insofar as it is both the practice of representation and the practice of a text.
Artaud’s phrase does not exclude the textual pole from the process of theatrical creation. However, studies in the field usually concentrate on the representative pole of the process, because theatrical experience and the experience of visual reality are both predicatedupon time and only exist when participants are engaged within them.
But beyond technological progress, which gives a new dimension to this art of the stage and of representation, the text itself can be seen as a tool that builds virtual and augmented reality. Philippe Fuchs argues that virtual reality is defined as that which puts one or several people in a sensory and cognitive activity within an artificial world, a world that is “imaginary, symbolic, or a simulation of certain aspects of the real world.” The theatre text helps in its own way in creating the visual universe of a theatrical representation. The question of materiality is profoundly inscribed within it, not only through stage directions, but also in its very dramaturgy. The elements of dramaturgy such as the construction of the characters or of the spatial and temporal dimension are in direct relation with Fuchs’ statement, as they indeed are constitutive of an artificial world, one that is both “imaginary” and “symbolic”.
In contemporary Palestinian theatre, these questions find a fertile ground for thought and practice. In a space where fragmentation, limitation and conflict are the rule, the contemporary theatre of Palestinians chooses to tell the story of territory. The practice of space/of spaces participates in the elaboration and the expression of a common set of questions relating to identity. In a space where the theatre stage is not the only space of representation because of specific material constraints – only a few stages exist, there is no national stage, there are difficulties in mobility, a lack of means, of practices and of local habits relating to the theater – physical space is not simply described or used as a setting but is constantly interpreted, problematized, and is highly metaphorical. In the framework of a reflexion about this genre, the question of theatrical space (the space of representation, the space of action and theatre, the space where the audience is),becomes crucial in the production and inscribes such a theater within global issues that concern world theatre as a whole.
The stage space and the audience space are considered and invested. Representing place, places, is a major component of Palestinian contemporary theater.
Because of the textual and scenic bipolarity of theater, the spatial dimension is of special interest and is linked to the goal of virtual reality onstage: that of emphasizing the immersion of the audience, of giving them the feeling that they are moving onstage. Clearly, verbal representations of space do not suffice to make the virtual processes visual. The Palestinian scene has everything to gain by experimenting with visual and augmented realities, while staying respectful of the usual processes of play-writing, and by opening up a space of dialogue between the text and its representation, which will serve a better construction of reality.
Najla Nakhlé-Cerruti is currently preparing a PhD thesis at the INALCO (Institut National des Langues et des Civilisations Orientales, Paris), under the supervision of Luc Deheuvels and is an AMI fellow at the IFPO-Palestinian territories. Her dissertation deals with contemporary Palestinian theatre and specifically with the representations of identity.
Translated by Karim Kattan.