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Technology given a bad rap in the theater world

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We’ve all heard it before. Someone in the room starts complaining about how technology messes everything up and destroys human connection. Usually the person complaining either doesn’t fully understand how to use technology or doesn’t know its full positive impact.

But theater artists especially are guilty of this technology-bashing behavior. Too often have I witnessed conversations between theater artists that have devolved into complaints about how “People have no attention span anymore!” and, “It’s hard to keep audiences engaged when they are on their phones!”

It does seem to be true that as technology becomes more prevalent in our society, the collective attention span shortens. Whether or not this bodes well for society does not really concern me. After all, it will continue to occur with the increasing development of technology and I can’t change that even if I wanted to.

It’s the penchant of theater artists to blame technology for what they see as artistically illiterate audiences that concerns me. These bemoaning artists have adopted a privileged attitude that audiences owe a play their attention and that an inattentive audience is somehow morally deficit. Neither of these has ever been the case and never should be.

The digital age, as with any other age, brings its societal changes. But it isn’t killing the arts, especially not the theater arts. It is simply a shift in the norms of the modern era. People are obviously still interested in performance and studio art, as indicated by the still incredibly vibrant artistic scenes across the world. While the nature of the modern theater audience might be changing, the theater artist should not expend energy complaining about this change, but rather adapt the theatrical form to this new audience.

Technology forces the theater arts to adapt, and not entirely in negative ways. In fact, the theater has profited immensely from the technological advances of our time. Sound design has blossomed into a fascinating and popular field, lighting design has achieved greater simplicity and flexibility, and forays into on-stage projection have yielded promising results. As theater artists it is our duty, and quite frankly our only option, to accept the changes of our time and carefully guide our art into new directions. At the end of the show, we don’t make theater for ourselves. We make theater for an audience to see. If our audience doesn’t prefer us to their phones when in our theaters, we need to recognize this warning sign that we are growing stagnant in our creativity.

Honestly, if a play cannot pull an audience from their phones it isn’t really worth doing. Theater artists must always fight for people’s attention: This has never not been true. If Facebook is more compelling than the live story being told on stage, exactly how compelling is that live story? There will always be those weird people that will still habitually check their phones – those corporate types that can’t be disconnected for more than 15 minutes, or the odd ducks that read books during plays. But if ever an entire audience ignores a play, it speaks volumes about the play itself. We should be crafting live stories impossible to discover anywhere else. If we cannot, we shouldn’t be doing theater.

Another part of the reason artists bemoan technology is out of fear of losing attention, and I understand this sentiment. I won’t pretend I haven’t felt and acted similarly at times. But the proper response is not to blame a societal change too monumental to control, but to adapt to it. It’s true that adaptation can feel extraordinarily sad. It seems like a loss to need to change the way things are and move away from some of the old traditions. But with every adaptation, just as an old tradition is retired, a new tradition is established. And it’s a beautiful thing to be able to take part in the establishment of a new tradition.

suther1@stolaf.edu