©Christian Chierego

3 April 2012

Skype interview-chat with theatre-maker, digital artist and researcher Helen Varley Jamieson, creator and performer of the make-shift (2010) collaboration performance with Paula Crutchlow.

CHRISTINA PAPAGIANNOULI. How would you describe the make-shift cyberformance?

HELEN VARLEY JAMIESON. It is difficult in a few words. It is a process and an event; there is a lot more to the whole project than each “performance”. In fact we are moving away from calling it a “performance” at all, because this sets up expectations in the “audience”, who are really “participants”, rather than “audience”. So, we describe it as a networked event about connectivity and consequences, where we are aiming to bring together people in domestic houses, via the internet, for a conversational event around the themes of disposability, consumerism and the environment.

How did you come up with the idea of using the internet in your work? What was your inspiration, your starting point?

My background is in theatre, I have always worked as a playwright, producer and director for theatre, but I was also working in the internet industry in the mid-90s. I was working at one of the first companies making commercial web sites in New Zealand, and in my spare time I was also helping artists and theatre groups to learn about the internet and make web sites. I started to find out that people were making art on the internet, not just using it as a way to disseminate information, and then in 1999 I came across Desktop Theatre, a group who were making live performances in a graphical chat environment called the Palace. I started improvising with this group and it was really exciting – I just got hooked! Previously I had looked a little bit at text-based chat-rooms like MUDS & MOOS, but these did not have the same appeal to me. I really liked the cartoonesque atmosphere of the Palace – it is/was very playful. I soon began wondering what it would be like to experiment with combining internet and stage. I made a presentation at Odin Teatret in Denmark, in January 2001. That was a turning point for this, as I was challenged by the audience as to whether or not this was “theatre” and that is what set me on the road of thinking about what is cyberformance.

Is cyberformance finally “theatre”? In your Master thesis Adventures in Cyberformance: experiments at the interface of theatre and the internet (2008), you note that you used the [word] cyberformance to avoid academic criticism about whether this is theatre or not.

That’s true; and in 2001, when I was challenged about it, in fact I was not calling it theatre. At that time “theatre” seemed like a very heavily laden word that was tied to very boring mainstream theatre that is about bland entertainment. I have always been interested in work that is engaging, thought provoking as well as entertaining – and so for a time I didn’t want to use the word “theatre”. However in my thesis, I directly address the question of whether or not cyberformance is theatre; so I had to first think about what is theatre itself and once I started doing that, I realised that cyberformance really is a form of theatre. It shares all of the fundamental concepts, such as liveness, co-presence of artist and spectator and shared experience. Liveness and co-presence really are the fundamental things for me and I have come to understand “theatre” in a much broader sense than simply western script-based theatre. 

In relation to your other work, what was the difference in terms of directing methodologies in cyberformance? Directing an online performance means automatically a different directing methodology?

Certainly there are some differences; you have to have different communication processes for a start, but your role as a director is still essential the same, in creative terms. There are many differences in how you can relate to people online. How you deal with the different personalities in a group. For example, one thing I learned early on is that sarcasm does not work! Also often I am working with people whose mother-tongue is not English. This means that you need to be very clear and at times even quite blunt, in order to communicate efficiently (translation is a really big issue for a lot of my work, especially make-shift).

In your opinion, cyberformance director is closer to a theatre director or a film director?

I think the connection is still closer to theatre, because we are working in real time. A film director spends some time with the actors, but then spends time with the editor and the finished product is exactly that, a “finished” product. Whereas in theatre, I believe it is never “finished” because it is live, every time is different; and the audience brings an important live element. So a theatre director is working to make a shared, live experience, while a film director is producing something that will be consumed by a passive audience.

Would you suggest that internet is a tool or a space (cyberspace)?

It is a space. The tools are the software and technologies that we use in the space, so it is a space that is created by what we do with the tools. I have found that it is useful to use tangible metaphors. Maybe we will move away from these in the future, but when you are making something quite new, it’s useful to use words that people understand, such as talking about a “stage”. This helps people to visualise what we are talking about.

What are the key advantages and disadvantages of using the internet as the basic platform of a theatrical performance?

Well, one of the key advantages would have to be that it is a new and unformed space; therefore it’s possible to be highly experimental, since we are making it up as we go. There aren’t yet many conventions about how things can or should be done. For me, it is very exciting to be experimenting with this space and these tools. Things are constantly changing which means that we have to also constantly change. This has its frustrations too, for example with UpStage we constantly want things to be developed but we have no money, so it takes a long time.

I guess one of the biggest disadvantages is the same – that it is a new and unformed space; therefore we have to do a lot of work to communicate things to our audience. Even though I have been doing this for more than a decade, still most of the time when I meet people and tell them what I do, the response is “wow, I never heard of that before”. So we are constantly trying to reach out beyond the circle of people who know what we are doing because they’re involved in something related. This is changing, as technologies like Skype and YouTube become more ubiquitous, and more people have internet access. However then we also have to work with the increasing commercialization of the internet.

Do you think that during that decade there was an audience change as well?

Yes, definitely. People are becoming much more familiar with the internet. Most people use it in some regular capacity for booking travel, or banking, or email and many people use Skype to keep in touch with families. So, it is becoming a lot more “normal” to be carrying out daily activities on the internet – therefore it is also more “normal” to think about participating in a performance online.

What are your aims as an artist? When do you think that your work will be done?

Like theatre, my work will never be finished. My aims are always changing and multiple. At the moment one of my strongest aims is to develop make-shift, to make it as good as we can. Another aim is to get more people involved in UpStage, taking on ownership and tasks, since it is too much for Vicki and I to continue. I am always aiming to find funding for things, but this is only getting harder. I have a secret dream to move back to New Zealand, buy a farm near a small town, and start a residential theatre company and space where artists and non-artists can come and make wonderful work in all mediums. My main aim has simply been to experiment with the relationship between theatre and the internet and that continues.

Please feel free to make any comments you wish. Maybe some words about the CyPosium you are organizing.

Ok, well it is not just me that is organizing the CyPosium!!! The idea of the CyPosium is to create a space for people to present and discuss cyberformance. It will be an online event, with presentations from people around the world, so we are working out what platforms might be good to use. I think it will be very interesting, we already have some good proposals and the deadline isn’t until June. There hasn’t been anything like this before – a fairly open event, independent of academia and the formal conference structure that is actually quite exclusive – we really want to bring together people who are interested in talking about cyberformance, in an open way (also of course we have no money, so we are working with the main resource that we have – people’s voluntary time).

It seems like 2012 is going to be the year of cyberformance, especially now that is the last possible date for the UpStage festival dates sequence (10:10:10, 11:11:11, 12:12:12).

That’s right – which is why we are breaking the format this year in anticipation of changing times ahead. Previously it’s been purely a festival for performances in UpStage. This year we have widened that, to include performances in any online platform. We can’t provide technical support for anything outside of UpStage, so that might limit it a bit, but hopefully we will be able to include performances in a variety of platforms. Plus we are remounting some of the performances from past UpStage festivals, which I am very happy about. Generally people have worked really hard on shows for the festival, which have 2-3 performances then are never seen again. So this year we are making a special opportunity for those who want to, to restage their shows from past festivals one will be an Avatar Body Collision performance – we haven’t performed together since 2007 so it is a bit of a special event.

Interviewed by Christina Papagiannouli on 3 April 2012