I have said one more than one occasion, only half in jest, that until the holodeck, as portrayed on the later Star Trek series, is perfected, theatre’s unique live aspects will sustain it through challenges. Now I’m growing less worried about even the holodeck because, if the current pace of technology holds true, continual upgrades will be constantly rendering that still-imaginary invention obsolete.
I’m prompted to this musing by a recent article from The Atlantic, which chronicles the challenges faced by vintage, though not necessarily classic, movies. In a medium a bit more than 100 years old, the pace of technology may well serve to make it impossible for some older films to ever be seen again. The conversion to digital projection eliminates access to 35 mm projectors, and the economics of conversion from film to digital means that only films deemed most worthwhile will make that leap. We’ve gone from worrying about early silver nitrate films going up in flames to being unable to view movies on stable stock in a relatively few years. And just as the Edison cylinder gave way to the acetate (and later vinyl) record, which in turn fell to the CD which has now been supplanted by the mp3, progress may well leave a significant portion of film history abandoned in its wake.
The new impending crisis in film preservation worries me, because while I have made my career in theatre, I am an avid filmgoer. Indeed, I am a movie Luddite to many, because I do my best to see any film I’ve not seen before in a theatre, not on my 42 inch flat-screen with home theatre sound. Movies (we’re really going to have to stop calling them films in a film-less era) are, or at least were, made to be shown at a grand scale, and watching them in my living room diminishes the experience.
At the same time, the movie conundrum reinforces my unwavering belief that theatre will survive perpetual technological advances. Even though new innovations may well have their own opportunities for wonder (elements of science fiction films from my childhood are now everyday items), the theatre benefits – as does music, dance, and other live performing arts – from the fact that any electronic duplication diminishes the experience. While we can make a record of what happened on a stage, watching it on a screen, even in the finest 3-D imaginable, inevitably distances the viewer from the immediacy of “being there.” When we watch an image, we do not share space with it; our responses cannot influence it in the slightest.
Even when stories were passed from generation to generation orally, and certainly from the time they began to be written down, theatre set an important artistic pattern that is unchanged today. The initial act of creating for the theatre, the invention of the text, was rooted in the establishment of a template, a script, rather than the crafting of a competed object, be it cave painting or sculpture or movie. Even though an artist such as Sol LeWitt created “kits” that would allow for the replication of his work without his direct involvement, they were exacting; museums replicating LeWitt works still were required to obtain his approval.
Because of the practice of script (and score) as template, to which actors, directors, designs are added in ever-changing sets of interpreters, there is nothing fixed but the roadmap. Efforts to dictate a singular, “proper” way to mount a play or musical usually prove detrimental; prior magic cannot be recaptured – even within long-running shows, carefully maintained, there are shifts in style and emphasis; we saw the life return to Gilbert & Sullivan’s works only when they were loosed from the stifling museum of the D’Oyly Carte straitjacket. Even the strictest of authors’ estates, seeking to preserve what they believe to be the original “intent,” can’t entirely quash new visions; theatre’s most importantly innovations aren’t technological, they’re human, each and every time. And even though theatre’s human element may prevent it from being “cost-effective,” there will always be those willing to pay for the live event (though our challenge is to keep it accessible for more than just the wealthy).
As with movies, we tend to be most familiar with the “greatest hits,” the works that have proven most popular or respected over time. But for at least the past few hundred years, even when they go unproduced, plays aren’t necessarily lost forever; they’re just hidden on some back shelf, gathering dust, awaiting rediscovery. They won’t disintegrate, or become utterly inaccessible, or be maintained in some diminished or altered form, as many films likely will be. A theatre script will just wait, patiently, for some group of people to pick it up and breathe life into it once again.