Computers with a human face

Simon McBurney, director of Théâtre de Complicité, talks about how he adapts technology to fit his plays
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The Independent Online

The first thing about the use of technology within theatre performance is that technology is not invented for theatre performance. Technology has always been adapted.

The first thing about the use of technology within theatre performance is that technology is not invented for theatre performance. Technology has always been adapted.

The use of modern technology such as video projection, pre-recorded dialogue, slides, lighting effects and sound effects that we used in Mnemonic, for instance, actually required the same kind of juggling as getting a prop on and off stage without it being seen. Every single object in technology is used in the same way as a prop, that is to say, used in a multiplicity of ways.

For example, there is sink on stage that moves from side to side quite fast, and yet when it arrives at the other side it has still to be able to produce water. It requires an adaptation. For the use of video, I am not interested in having a screen and setting up a conventional projector. I have someone filming my girlfriend, live on stage, and it appears on my chest. The bed moves from side to side on stage, so you can imagine the technological nightmare of keeping the video sharp. On the first night, the bed ran over a cable, so it didn't come out right.

Any technology used in theatre performance is necessarily using conventional means, but also requires a degree of Heath-Robinson type invention. The essence of theatre technology is bluff and invention. And if you go behind the scenes it looks preposterously lo- tech; yet from out front it looks as though you are using the most sophisticated technology in the whole world. It gives a human side to what are always considered inhuman and humourless objects.

I tend to think of a computer as a sort of flint implement. It's there to be used, not to be frightened of. Of course, it comes down to common sense; I believe that using technology or using a computer doesn't require any more skill than the technological expertise of the ice man who was 5,000 years old - the subject of Mnemonic. He made a copper axe and all his objects from17 kinds of wood - and he had objects thought to have been invented in the 20th century. Of course, these are not computers, but the skills required to make those objects are of the same order as the skills required to work a computer today.

The central love story in the show takes place between two people who have been talking on mobile phones for an hour and a half, having not spoken for a year and attempting to understand what has kept them apart. At the end, it's inevitable that someone's battery runs out and they get cut off. We are not making a heavy comment on technology, but the technology itself serves as a metaphor for the breakdown in human communication.

We may be able to communicate more easily with people than ever before, but perhaps there is a question of whether the quality of contact is better. I wouldn't care to make a moral or value judgement, but it's always a question worth asking.

I think that the question is, when you have access to so many chaotic elements, how do they fit together, and are they enabling us to create a better society? Human beings have always adapted and used all technologies at their disposal. If you look at the prehistory of Homo Sapiens, the speed with which technological advance has been made not just in the last 30 years but in the last 30,000 years is simply incredible. From the use of stone tools to the mining of copper and iron, to the making of paper and the domestication of wild animals, all of these are dependent upon a very rapid technological advancement. Sometimes I think that we get carried away in thinking that our era has advanced faster than others.

Which, of course, it has. The desktop revolution is on par with the Industrial Revolution, no doubt. But it's better to think of it in the context of constant human development. And the important thing is to appropriate its use for good use.

Perhaps the most startling thing about the show is that if anybody were to talk about the most remembered images I think they would be technological. But the most remembered were the simple ones, operated by human beings.