Can Theater Speak to a Modern Audience Without Showing Screens?

Theater people think and talk a lot about being relevant to a contemporary audience, and that’s a good thing to think about.

But when you consider the way young adults (and really everybody) use smartphones and computers now as key parts of how they interact with others, it leads me to a question: Can theater possibly speak to a modern audience without a good way to depict phone and computer-based interactions?

Of course, there are workarounds, but they sound, look and feel just like that. If a character is reading a text message aloud, that’s OK, but that kind of thing has its limits. And yes, people also communicate naturally. I’m not saying it’s only people texting and Skyping.

But what I am saying is that if the goal is to express something truly contemporary, it’s impossible to ignore the five hours and 46 minutes a day that people spend with digital media, much of it communicating with other people.

This is a technical problem, and a conceptual problem. I can’t help you there, except to point it out. It’s also a problem of will. In other words, this is a tough problem for which maybe there aren’t any good solutions yet. But shying away from it is already and will increasingly make theater content look different from our actual lives. I’m not saying do it because it’s hip. I’m saying do it because if you want to reflect reality, you can’t very well do that anymore if you’re not showing people texting, browsing and webcamming.

It would be much easier to set everything in the ’70s and go for that retro vibe, or on the exact day in 2007 before the iPhone was launched, thus making it as modern as possible while also plausibly ignoring the topic. That’ll work for another couple of years.

Or solve it. That would be cool.

For a few thoughts about how movies have dealt with this, watch this:

A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

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