Technology and theatre in a library


When I read Where Humbert Humbert Might Whisper in Your Ear in the New York Times on a flight back to Colombo from the US, I immediately thought of doing something along the same lines in Sri Lanka to explore to what degree, post-war, we were still under invisible frameworks of control and censorship.

Upon my return, I emailed the British Council in Colombo, and also members of the Floating Space Theatre Company. Detailed exchanges over email around the conceptual basis for the production, the selection of texts, discussions around technology and several long meetings with the cast to thrash out ideas resulted in ‘OverWrite‘, performed at the British Council library from 25 – 27 October. There had never been anything of the kind attempted before in any library in Sri Lanka, and as we learnt on the final day, even after giving us approval to go ahead with the production, the British Council itself didn’t know quite what to expect.

Working primarily with Ruhanie Perera from Floating Space to conceptualise ‘OverWrite’, the production was, in and of itself, a compelling example in how theatre can and should embrace some of the most pressing challenges and opportunities of our time related to the production of and engagement with critical ideas. As I noted in an interview around the production conducted with Floating Space,

Technology today both enables the freedom of expression as well as stifles it. It’s that tension between these two uses of technology that’s interesting. On the one hand, you have the Internet, mobiles and the web working independently of each other and collaboratively to give voice to people who were without any voice, even just a few years ago, in a number of ways – not just through writing but short form video, documentary, Instagram, podcasts and so on.

What is also not often talked about is that along with this emancipatory potential is potential of technology to stifle, censor, contain and control. The best examples of this came after the revelations of Edward Snowden just over a year ago. We find that in repressive regimes, long before his revelations and continuing to date, there are a whole range of technologies, a whole architecture of censorship that is very pervasive and gives the illusion of technology in the service of greater voice, greater representation, greater emancipatory potential but is in effect trying to contain difference, dissent and clamp down on diversity through a range of ways.

My chief interest in this production was to explore how technology could both aid in the production, dissemination or engagement with critical texts (including those produced online), and at the same time, also serve as pervasive architectures of control, censorship around and the violent containment of dissent. In addition to the web and Internet, I was also interested in how instant messaging (e.g. WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger) created new texts that often existed under the radar of censors, and by extension also incredibly hard to engage with unless one was actually part of the sub-cultures, groups, networks, collectives or institutions that exchanged this content.

As I noted in my interview,

Technology comes into this production in a number of ways. One is the incorporation of real-time, instant messaging. WhatsApp for example is a ubiquitous app, locally as well as globally. WhatsApp has its own language – the use of emoticons, use of abbreviated forms, plus the use of, for example “Singlish”.

We’ve also incorporated Google Docs. Google Docs for me is a demonstration of what is today possible in terms of real time co-creation using technology. Today, teams wherever they are in the world, whatever device they are using, however they are connecting on to the Internet can if they so choose to do so, collaborate in real time in co-creating a document. Of course there is also the contestation there – if somebody makes an edit do I go and edit it again? What are the hierarchies of power on Google Docs? Can there be a gendered critique in that process of co-creation? Is the process of co-creation a reflection of real world power, social hierarchy, caste, class, economic power, etc or does the process of co-creation on that blank white space erase all of that? Are all the cursors on a Google Doc equal?

There is also stuff that we are doing around Timelapse using an iPhone. I was interested in how time can be seen, recorded and projected differently using nothing more than the smartphones we have in the palm of our hands. Beyond the aesthetic, I wanted to explore how time and the passage of time is very different in our connected world and what that means for not just the production of text but its consumption.

Photos from the production over all three nights can be seen on Flickr here. Ruhanie’s own thoughts on the production can be read here. The production attracted a stellar cast, and as I keep saying whenever asked, it’s a singular blessing in Sri Lanka for me to know most of them as close friends, even though this work was undertaken in a strictly professional capacity.

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 10.39.14 AM

A trailer for the production, shot using the Hyperlapse app on my iPhone 5S, is embedded below.

What was for me the two most compelling aspects of the production, the acting and dramaturgy aside, was the use of Google Docs to co-create a text with audience input, as well as the co-creation of a conversation around texts conducted on WhatsApp, between members of the cast, which was recorded and played back at the end of the production. As noted on OverWrite’s event page on Facebook,

OverWrite offers many journeys, one of which was the story written during the performance with actor and audience involvement. Each audience contributed to part of the story which ends after the last show today, and begins again tomorrow.

The Google Doc that was the result of all the performances can be accessed here. Though it is static now, during the production, this ‘text’ was alive – with sometimes multiple authors over different computers typing at each other, responding to what had been written earlier, or competing with each other to express something they feared the other would erase.

The WhatsApp conversation was recorded on my iPhone 5S using Yosemite’s new screen recording feature. This is embedded below, and was projected to a blank wall at the end of the production, when the audience was asked to burn books in a barrel (one of the most controversial aspects of the production). While most in the audience on all three nights were aghast at the prospect of burning books – though a few actually did with great enthusiasm – the conversation on WhatsApp was a reminder for me around how difficult it is to truly censor the footprint of an idea or a text (by burning physical copies), in an age where they are created, disseminated, engaged with, revised, even archived, virtually and in real time, from the palm of everyone’s hand.

‘OverWrite’ was for me a way of helping others look at the banality of the most intrusive censorship (often rendered invisible or even perceived as benevolent) as well as appreciate the value of how much technology had emancipated us from repressive architectures. It resonated on so many levels – from having texts being softly or forcefully read out aloud, to the intimacy of a library space where one was surrounded by books and ideas the production complemented and challenged. The production was at times subversive and provocative, and at other times questioning, open to live engagement, allowing the audience to explore their own reactions to what they saw and heard. In many ways, it was more than what I thought it would be, and a template for how theatre, when combined with technology, can really help flesh out highly divisive and emotive issues.

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