of live encounter
Mind the Lag by meatSPACE Theatre
Welcome to meatspace in cyberspace, a webpage based documentation.
Formulated as a contemporary, media-based take on the Brechtian modellbuch, this page is self-guided for you, the user (Kershaw and Nicholson, 2011, p. 162).
Here we combine text, images, and audio to take you on a journey through our process, from theory to praxis.
Meatspace is a term coined by cyberpunks in the 1990’s as a way of differentiating the online webspace and chatrooms from the physical world; what millennial slang would call now, IRL or ‘in real life’ (Astley, 2009).
Mind The Lag is a multisensory performance piece that explores (dis)connection in the digital age, welcoming the dawn of a new era in theatre-making and performance techniques by blurring the origin of the live event.
Utilising international performance spaces and mediated images, a digital avatar is born out of cyberspace and into the meatspace. Can a digital avatar achieve agency outside the computerised world? As these avatars acquire ever more human processing power, are they able escape the productivity the matrix demands? Or can they acquire agency to escape to the unknown?
Below: Although intended for live broadcast viewing, a recording is linked for documentation.
Right: Production Stills from 2 and 3 September 2021 at the Camden People's Theatre.
Tip: Hover on each image to reveal more information.
INFLUENCE - Hannah Ringham - November 2020
In the fall of 2020 at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama we, Gaurav Singh and Laura Lounge, first began our partnership in making in a practitioner study workshop guided by theatre artist Hannah Ringham. In this workshop many students remained online and the group, both online and in the rehearsal room, began exploring the theatre making process in a mixed mode format. It was Ringham who introduced us to this phrase ‘meatspace’ and ignited our curiosity of where technology and mediated culture meets live performance (Lounge, 2020).
Following this workshop and the provocation, ‘I’ll meet you in the meatspace’, we developed the Sustained Independent Project company, MeatSPACE Theatre, and embarked on creating a multimode live encounter in which both audience and performers span time and space, performing in multiple geographic locations simultaneously. This led us to the question first provoked by Ringham in said workshop, ‘where is the live event?’ (Lounge, 2020).
Photo Credits: Hannah Ringham
INFLUENCE (Station House Opera) - December 2020
We first chanced upon the interplay between live and mediatized performer bodies when we were introduced to the work of Station House Opera during our Interdisciplinary Practice: Scenography unit. The dramaturgy of distance in their piece At Home In Gaza & London was particularly inspiring, as it connected audiences and performers separated by physical distance by holding space for their shared perspectives and emotions. From a technical perspective, the use of life-sized projections to engage the two kinds of bodies in an ethereal conversation was striking. For us, this evoked the memory of speaking to our loved ones on screens and devices for a better part of the previous year, their 'live' presence translated onto a digital interface and streamed into our personal space.
Photo Credits: Station House Opera / website
STARTING POINT - May 2021
Beginning with the provocation, 'where is the live event?' and the current state of the socially distanced world, we wanted to explore the themes of grief and longing through technology. Reflecting on the year we spent learning and being separated from loved ones, we sought to use the skills we acquired that could launch us into the contemporary theatre landscape. Many of our initial ideas were abandoned but the seeds of grief and longing grew to the exploration of disconnection in the digital age. Maintaining from our original proposal, we wanted to explore mediated performative bodies in separate geographic spaces to question of what can and can not be communicated digitally.
REHEARSAL ROOM EXPLORATION - May 2021
In this age of digital connectivity, are we effectively communicating?
What about those exchanges that deepen connection that cannot be communicated digitally?
A handshake, a high-five, a hug?
KEEPING COVID IN MIND - May 2021
The first influences to shape our content and working methods were the environmental factors. Living and making in a time of COVID dictated that we weigh these factors and safety of ourselves and others first and foremost, with the content and narrative following. As a result ‘obstacles into opportunities’ became a MeatSPACE Theatre mantra and challenged us to think creatively and push our mindset out of the blackbox- so to speak.
The goal was to create a SIP that reflected the challenges and skills acquired throughout the year; following the old adages ‘form follows function’ and ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ we worked in the reverse. We looked at the restrictions, and formulated the content from what that form allowed.
From this, the research inquiry grew and evolved: With performers in separate spaces, mediated into the others’ space, can we still communicate? How do we curate and compose distinct scenographic landscapes for the different viewing mediums? How do you maintain the intimacy and immediacy of the live encounter in broadcasting performance online?
OUR TEAM GROWS - May 2021
Originally a duo, we invited another collaborator from the Advanced Theatre Practice cohort to join the team. Given our initial proposal to stage the work across two different international locations, we realized that we needed more hands on deck. In particular, separating out the collaborative roles by location (for eg. producer in the UK vs producer in the US vs online producer) was one initial approach we tried to divide the work amongst ourselves. Drawing upon working methodologies shared by visiting practitioners Alan Fielden, Shybairn Theatre, Gob Squad, we instituted a few rehearsal room practices for ourselves: a check-in ritual (for eg. what icecream flavour you feel like today?), drafting an agenda for the week, taking minutes of rehearsal discussions, among others. We also wrote out job descriptions for ourselves, filled in a How We Work document to articulate our preferred working styles (read: boundaries) and attempted to make the most use of our time in the room.
DESIGN: Theory to Praxis - June 2021
An integral tutorial with TSD led us to simultaneously expand and contract our ideas. The realization that our tech needed to become less about relying on the school's tech resources to be able to sustain our work in the future and instead turn to other creators as a resource to actualize our ambitious design scheme. We simplified our design, cut the audio in room to room sharing, and had a designer call-out to expand our creative team. In a practical sense, they helped streamline the designs as well as inspire us to think about our work in a broader collaborative sense.
Playing with Filters, Camera & Media - June-July 2021
As the lines between the digital and the live blurred for us for the better half of the past year, we found ourselves playing with our 'online' image.
This included the use of Zoom backgrounds, Snapchat filters and other visual manipulations that allowed us to explore how 'digital' presence is captured, recorded and manipulated every single day.
Our use of filters evolved vastly during the rehearsal process, opting for some that heightened the avatar vs human debate whilst foregoing some due to technical challenges faced during production week.
INTERIM SHARING - July 2021
For our interim sharing, we set up one of the two live locations completely and invited an audience in. In the other space, we had the sole performer playing to the camera. This unusual set up was grounded in our practice of trying things one step at a time, something that oddly brought us comfort but equally made us realize the technical and logistical challenges that awaited us.
In the screening, we received critical feedback on the narrative and scenographic elements of the show. In particular, the attempt of the two avatars to find, recognize and connect with each other was highlighted. Additionally the choices of live vs recorded made by us was picked up by our classmates, one of whom asked us to think more critically about this question as they shared how the knowledge of knowing something is happening live (as opposed to knowing it's recorded) vastly shifts the contextual lens with which you view the work and your positionality as the audience.
DESIGN, SCRIPT AND TECH EXPANDS - July 2021
COSTUMES - Esme Lowrey
Esme came on board initially to help design the projection screen fabric and subsequently, brought her intelligent and intuitive costume design which helped two different performative space feel cohesive and connected. Her use of the digital wire and graph elements on the costumes made each avatar's presence feel more grounded in the hybrid nature of the world being built.
LIGHT & SET - Mari Katsuno
Mari took Laura's initial design and aesthetic, that looked at cyberpunk and early 90s computer trends (for eg. the use of the green analog screen on black monitors) and expanded it to fit the stage requirements (including the traverse setup for PS2 and adapting it for an end-on setup for Camden People's Theatre). She was a dream to work with, translating the show's narrative language into visual language of the set and the lighting design.
SOUND & SCENT - Laura Lounge
The sound design was part inspired by the digital soundscape of notifications and interruptions that have now occupied a comfortable existence in our mediatized lives as well as musical influences of Brian Eno, The Buggles and early MTV (a nostalgia hangover shared by both the collaborators). Lounge seeks to incorporate scent for their live audience in every performance. For this one, the intention was a scent that would heighten the alertness and energize the audience, whilst still being subtle.
TECH - Gaurav Singh
Each physical space had 2 live cameras and a projector, which were then connected via Zoom to the other physical space as well as our virtual performer. All of these images were curated into a 2-D screen design using Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) and then livestreamed on our website for the online audience. We also used video and audio filters to distort our digital presence and integrate the technology more strongly within the narrative arc.
SCRIPT - Hector Huang
We originally wanted an unscripted exploration, however as the process evolved and became more complex, we realized the script served a specific function as a tether to unite the playing spaces and anchor the performers. Huang was an excellent collaborator, not only for their writing skills, but stepping up as operator and venue lead when a core collaborator left the project.
DOCUMENTATION - Team
The OneNote Notebook became our Digital Production Holy book, as well as the zoom platform for video conferencing (and eventually an element of our livestream). Throughout the year, online making was chaotic without an adequate communication consensus or stage manager. We maintained a successful collaboration utilizing this method for all things from note taking to timetabling to cue sheets and production materials.
INFLUENCE (Gob Squad) - July 2021
As our tech and design scheme grew, the cue sheets became ever more complex. We had initially turned to Gob Squad for inspiration because of the light hearted and effortless state-of-play they exude. But as all master's of their craft, a peak into their technical outlines from multi-camera and live broadcast encounters, reveal a carefully calculated exchange. We modelled our cue sheets after these, generously shared with us in a workshop with Sharon Smith. It takes a lot of effort to make the work appear effortless.
Photo Credits: Gob Squad / website
REHEARSALS CONTINUE - AUGUST 2021
In this game between 'technical' and 'compositional', we made sure to think about movement quality and body language. The difference in these, shared by the avatar in the cyberspace and the meatSPACE, was something we wanted to bring out distinctly. To this effect, the two performers spent considerable time playing with the frame (and the physical relationship they shared with it) as well as engaging in mirroring, syncing and call-response exercises that led us to devise some shared moments between them. This was complemented by additional movement workshops led by Antonietta Mazzei, physical devising supported by co-performer Arthur Pai and movement-on-camera direction led by Lounge (whose virtual presence allowed us to craft the movements from the POV of the virtual audience).
EYE CONTACT IS KEY - AUGUST 2021
This voice note was left by Laura for Gaurav one day after realizing how important eye contact is with others. Lounge had just shared a non-verbal exchange with a stranger and this was a key moment when in realizing the avatar needed a tipping point, a catalyst for the desire to leave into the outside world. They connect with the audience ultimately through eye contact, something they cannot achieve in the digital world. This is connection is unlike any they have ever experienced and is what makes them want to break away from cyberspace and the Voice control completely. It is a nonverbal, physical, energy exchange that has no cyberspace equivalent. Reminiscent of the initial rehearsal in exploring a physical exchange in a digital space (see rehearsal room exploration video above), eye contact became that physical transference.
REMOTE COLLABORATION & HYBRID REHEARSALS - Aug 2021
As production week approached, the format of our rehearsals changed considerably. Whilst Lounge had flown back to the United States and was collaborating remotely in a different timezone, we said goodbye to one of our core collaborators and undertook the sizeable pre-rehearsal prep work needed to set up the spaces. Typically our rehearsals included 30 minutes of set up time (cameras, projectors, set) followed by a 15-minute check in. We would run each scene on the script, pause for feedback, run again and move on. Between debilitating internet connection and the awkward communication gaps (as we waited for the 'lag' to settle), we found ourselves holding on to each other's presence a lot more than what we originally anticipated. This included our collaborators stepping up considerably, such as performer Arthur Pai who undertook producer responsibilities for one of the two live locations as well as Hector Huang, Mari Katsuno and Carly Altberg as operators, along with Anna Smith's superhuman production support.
In a year that had been exceptionally tough for all of us... the last leg of this show was a challenging one. We tried to be kind with each other and with our own selves.
In the end, we learned to trust each other, even if we couldn't hear each other or see each other for brief moments of time.
We just had to... mind the lag.
Through our intentional capture and reproduction of the avatar's image in different spaces as well as the choice of traverse audience seating, one of our screenings prompted a discussion around surveillance and voyeurism and its deep-seated connection with the digital world. One audience member described the role of the audience as 'a scientist making observations about a subject Inna cage' (Singh, 2021) whilst another said 'watching the avatars watch each other made (them) feel the power of their gaze and the control it held' (Singh, 2021). The character of the Voice, an all-seeing artificial intelligence machine that guides the avatars through the meatSPACE, seeked to bring forth some of these arguments whilst not completely surrending to them.
One of the earliest intentions around the creation of work was that of grief, isolation and loneliness. Having spent the better half of the last year living in a foreign country away from our loved ones, our shared perspective on digital connections was one of longing. In the absence of touch and presence, we had grudgingly made peace with links and pixels. Our first proposal explored the idea of drawing upon existing literature and characters such as Mrs. Haversham, whose grief and longingness was deliberately romanticized, in a way that's similar to how digital communications has been touted as a better version of what we had before (the pandemic). That even in our grief, the glimmer of opportunity and possibilities shine even more.