Open Review: "Shakespeare and New Media"

3. Rebuilding Value

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 In this essay we have seen Shakespeare institutions attempting metaphorically (in the British Library’s “stories”), tangibly (in the Globe’s “Supporting Wall”) and, latterly, virtually (in the RSC’s facebook or Flickr pages), to recapture the cultural value that resides in visitors’ experiences and future creativity, and to reinscribe it within their walls. But the scale of their responsiveness to the shifting, protean narratives of cultural value is perhaps not yet realized. We can now observe the organisations going so far as to build the new language of value – of creativity and interactivity – into the architecture of their physical sites. The major, £100 million “transformation” of the original 1932 Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon, scheduled to be completed in 2010, sees the theater redesigned to incorporate more welcoming “public spaces”, such as bars, shops, a public square, a river walk and a viewing tower, and also describes the value of its central change – the replacement of the proscenium arch stage with a new thrust stage – in this up-to-date language of value. The new theater structure will bring the audience “much closer to the actors” to create a more “intimate” theater experience where the audience are part, as in other one-room theaters like the RSC’s Swan, of a “collaborative event”.[72] In this extension of Michael Boyd’s principles of collaborative ensemble acting, the audience’s contribution will be to “bring their imagination to the space and to concentrate more on the language”. Across town, Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, with the support of £250,000 from Advantage West Midlands, recruited “creative design and audiovisual installation company” Sarner to transform its existing exhibition of artefacts at the entrance to the Birthplace on Henley Street into a more “experiential” space for visitors. The “Life, Love & Legacy” exhibition, launched in April 2009, promises to provide “A NEW INTRODUCTION TO WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE” in the form of “A FASCINATING AND IMMERSIVE JOURNEY”. Far from trudging round a static display of artefacts and information, visitors, according to the website, are promised “an enthralling experience that interweaves theater with Shakespearian magic” (my italics).[73]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 The exhibition, at the entrance to the Birthplace site, is made up of five rooms or “zones” through which visitors progress in timed groups, moving from “Pre-Show” to “Hall of Fame”, and from sets of Tudor Stratford to London, and ultimately to the wider world of Shakespeare’s legacy. Each zone centers on a large audio-visual display, in which actors narrate the story of Shakespeare’s life over film and television footage of his plays. Readers of this transformation might regard it as an attempt by this heritage organisation to annex or “remediate” some of the immediacy and emotive appeal of live theater: the “five act” structure, actors, and sets, as well as the SBT’s recent history of innovations that include recruiting actors to regale visitors with lines from Shakespeare’s plays (“Shakespeare ALOUD!”), would support this assumption. However, “immersive” comes from the discourse of digital technology, and the SBT can also be seen to be attempting to remediate or appropriate some of the engaging relevance of new media. In particular, it appropriates the privileged status of “experience” in a digital medium that effaces its own presence to give the impression of unmediated access to experiences. The authenticity of an author’s birthplace – which, as Nicola Watson points out, has always been founded in a tenuous connection between successful writing career and long-departed place of origin[74] – is rearticulated as a virtual “experience”, in order to make it more real.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This new space suggests a more savvy engagement by the SBT with its marketing in the twenty-first century. “Experience” is currently highly prized in public policy. With the launch of its new website in 2009, Arts Council England changed the emphasis of its strapline from “getting great art to more people”, to doing so “by championing, developing and investing in experiences that enrich people’s lives” (my italics)[75]; and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is actively seeking ways to measure the value of the public’s experiences of engaging with culture.[76] The term, like “creativity”, is appealing to public services because it sounds unmediated, ostensibly deals in feelings and sensations rather than intellect, and is thus more democratically within reach of all people (even if not everyone, as I’d suggest, can articulate the value of their experience); it can, indeed, by a very positive objective for institutions. But in focusing on experience, public funding is moving into a territory that has increasingly, since the 1990s, been staked out by commercial business. Pine and Gilmore asserted that the “experience economy” was a higher order of economic evolution than the agrarian, industrial or, more recently, service economies that sequentially characterized previous centuries and decades. They exhorted companies such as shoe shops and airlines, traditionally trading in goods or services, to think of themselves as selling memorable experiences:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 When a person buys a service, he purchases a set of intangible activities carried out on his behalf. But when he buys an experience, he pays to spend time enjoying a series of memorable events that a company stages – as in a theatrical play – to engage him in a personal way.[77]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 Businesses are encouraged to claim or “remediate” for themselves some of the appeal of a theatrical event for which people are willing to pay for its own sake. When cultural organisations, then, subsequently adopt this discourse in the way they structure their buildings, they are converging, with more straightforwardly commercial businesses, on the territory of “experience”. Shakespeare institutions compete not just with each other, but with other leisure activities that trade in experiences: from “the original live experience” of Mamma Mia: The Musical in London’s West End, to the follow-up SMS text message from local hairdressers Toni and Guy saying “we hope you had a great experience”, and the host of other retail experiences in the immediate vicinity of the Birthplace.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The comparability of the SBT’s experience with other such leisure and heritage “experiences” was noted by a local newspaper reviewer, who described the exhibition as

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 a ten-minute celebration of the Bard’s life, using the kind of mixture of props, scenery, music and voice-overs that you might have seen at other local attractions like Cadbury World or Blenheim Palace …[78]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This sense of parity is perhaps confirmed by the award to Shakespeare’s Houses and Gardens of the prize “Best Tourist Experience” in the “Heart of England Tourism Excellence Awards 2009”, jointly with the Severn Valley Railway and the Ludlow Food and Drink Festival.[79] The SBT exhibition designers also produced the new, experience-focussed monorail at the major UK theme park Alton Towers. How, then, do the SBT, and other cultural institutions like it, benefit from their place in this leisure economy, but also demonstrate that the positive effects gained from the “experience” they offer – such as pleasure, delight, confidence, socialisation, enjoyment, education, understanding of heritage – are unique to them?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 What we see, in the midst of the user-oriented, experiential transformation of the SBT, is the reemphasis of an older language of intrinsic value. As the web marketing continues:

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 This enthralling experience interweaves theater with Shakespearian magic and you will see real treasures and artefacts, associated with the man himself, including Shakespeare’s First Folio, brought to life!

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The “real treasures and artefacts” of the SBT – the books and objects that used to be the mainstays of its static exhibition – are now “brought to life!”, an intriguing existential claim that, in practice, means they are illuminated, behind gauze or glass, as the film presentation directs. The exhibition builds towards a

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 powerful finale – the reveal of Shakespeare’s actual First Folio. As the real book is illuminated, the screen above it shows a cgi animation sequence of the pages turning, and from this emerges the wonderful legacy of Shakespeare. Produced as a 30 second collage, the production uses images taken from the pages of the Folio itself and is set to the haunting music of Mendelssohn.”[80]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 That these artefacts, these “real” objects claim to be “brought to life” by new media is at once familiar (Stratford frequently claims the supremacy of stage over page for the understanding of Shakespeare) and unusual (it is another process whereby the intervention of new media is intended to make its object appear less mediated). Above all, the high point of the SBT’s multimedia “experience” is an invocation of the originary, intrinsic value of that “real book”, the “actual First Folio”.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 4 It is not only the SBT that, in housing what Sarner calls “a national treasure”, and “the most important artefact in the exhibition” in an armour-plated case, resorts to the compelling, intrinsic value of the “real” object in the midst of its newest “experience”. It is possible to argue that the digital discourse of experience and creativity leads all these Shakespeare institutions to reassert the intrinsic value – to refetishize, even, as the dramatic “reveal” above suggests – the cultural objects and artefacts that they own. Very often, the objects reasserted are books. The British Library’s “Shakespeare in Quarto” site, and the “Turning the Pages” collection more widely, reasserts the value of its material holdings at the same time as demonstrating the limitless potential of the “knowledge network”. The Globe is making special arrangements to house the collection of rare books, including Shakespeare quarto and First Folio editions, bequeathed to it by a private collector.[81] The RSC has placed double emphasis on the bookish concept of Shakespeare’s “Complete Works”, both in a dedicated, year-long festival theater season by that name in which every play was performed in Stratford, and in a collaboratively-produced edition based on the First Folio, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. Even the Illuminations Media team headed their early blogs about filming Hamlet for the BBC with an image of the title page of that play in the First Folio. It is intriguing how often Shakespeare’s earliest texts – and particularly the First Folio – are invoked in the name of his authenticity: once a new medium for Shakespeare, this book now stands in for a rare “original” in multiple institutions. For all the new, digitally-informed rhetoric of creating new cultural value (and indeed, the SBT digital display does imagine a positive legacy radiating out from the book), there is a sense in which these institutions have come full circle, recoursed, even, to an uninspected language of intrinsic, auratic value.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 At the same time, the institutions increasingly present themselves as objects as intrinsic value. The RSC is restructuring itself around the discourse of collaboration and interactivity, but the “transformation” vision reveals a desire for the theater to be “A landmark building instantly recognizable the world over and that Stratford can be proud of. A destination in itself”[82] – that is, an object of value in its own right. The RSC might in this sense be competing with the iconic value of the Globe, which stresses that it doesn’t have any subsidy other than “the uniqueness of its building and the abiding enthusiasm of its audience”[83]. The British Library and SBT’s digital displays not only promote their material artefacts to a wider audience but also, ironically, preserve them from direct public contact. But both initiatives emphasize in a new way the significance or value of their physical buildings: the SBT seeking a new way to necessitate pilgrimage to their Henley Street site; and the BL, perhaps anticipating a future, large-scale digitisation, whose freely-available products might not necessarily be identified with the library, by emphasising the iconic nature of its London base.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 We thus see organisations attempting to imbue the act of visiting the physical space of the institution with intrinsic value. This is precisely what Michael Boyd is doing when he declares that “Live theater is in rude health”, and that

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The sociable act of gathering in the same space, to share an imaginative journey through real time, and the same air with performers and other audience members is proving more attractive than ever. Perhaps people are seeking the authenticity of an art form which works with the full human presence, at a time when so many voices in politics and the media seem inauthentic and dehumanized. Or perhaps they are seeking a sense of community in an increasingly atomized culture.[84]

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 In this account, the “liveness” of theater, the physicality of “gathering in the same space” with performers and other audience members, achieves the status of intrinsically valuable object. Boyd is playing off the intrinsic value of live performance (“real time”, “authenticity”, “human”), which can only be gained inside a theater, against the implied opposition of an “inauthentic”, “dehumanised” and “atomised” digital culture.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 This defiant claim, however, is a perfect example of what Philip Auslander calls the “common assumption … that the live event is real and that mediatized events are secondary and somehow artificial reproductions of the real”.[85] As Auslander demonstrates, the very concept of “liveness” is only created retrospectively, in response to the perceived dominance of newer media forms, and is inevitably shot through with those newer forms. Boyd’s claim to the prior, intrinsic value of live performance is, in fact, constructed out of (albeit in opposition to) a newer language of value. “Real time” is the most obvious of the apparently intrinsically valuable aspects of live theater that he borrows from the discourse of new digital media. “Sociable”, “space” “share” and “community” could be seen to overlay new, digitally-determined spatial metaphors for communication on to the imagined physical space of the auditorium. When institutions attempt to assert their special value by recoursing to what seems like a prior, unmediated notion of intrinsic value, they often find that that very notion of value is permanently inflected by a newer discourse. “The inseparability of mediation and reality” – the fact that “all mediations are themselves real … as real as artifacts … in our mediated culture”,[86] means that these worlds can no longer be separated in a clear hierarchy of value. Ultimately, this overlap problematizes the claim of all these cultural organisations to a real, authentic, “Shakespeare”, and reveals that they, like new media, are creators, as well as mediators, of “Shakespeare” in twenty-first century culture.

  • [72] “The Thrust Stage”, Royal Shakespeare Company: Transforming our Theaters, http://www.rsc.org.uk/transformation/vision/thrust_stage.asp.
  • [73] “Life, Love and Legacy Exhibition now open!”, Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, http://houses.shakespeare.org.uk/visitor_center
  • [74] Nicola Watson, The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
  • [75] Arts Council England home page, http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/.
  • [76] “About CASE”, CASE: the culture and sport evidence programme, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, http://www.culture.gov.uk/case/case.html.
  • [77] B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy: Work is Theater and Every Business is a Stage (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press, 1999), 2.
  • [78] Graham Young, “Stratford-upon-Avon brings Shakespeare to life with new exhibition”, Birmingham Mail, April 10 2009, http://www.birminghammail.net/what-is-on-in-birmingham/birmingham-days-out/2009/04/10/stratford-upon-avon-brings-shakespeare-to-life-with-new-exhibition-97319-23355651/.
  • [79] “The Heart of England Excellence in Tourism Awards”, http://www.tourismawards.visittheheart.co.uk/.
  • [80] “Themed Design: Sarner brings Shakespeare to life”, Blooloop, http://www.blooloop.com/PressReleases/Themed-Design-Sarner-brings-Shakespeare-to-Life/1431
  • [81] “John Wolfson pledges private book collection”, Shakespeare’s Globe, http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/abouttheglobe/latestnews/20081106/5657/.
  • [82] “Consultation results announced for the RSC building project, 31 January 2006”, Royal Shakespeare Company, http://www.rsc.org.uk/press/420_3525.aspx.
  • [83] Shakespeare Globe Trust, “Annual Review 2007-8”, 6. http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/docs/Annual%20Review%202007-8.pdf.
  • [84] Michael Boyd, “Artistic Director’s Report”, in Royal Shakespeare Company “Annual Report and Accounts 2008-9”, 15. http://www.rsc.org.uk/downloads/pdfs/annualreport2009.pdf.
  • [85] Auslander, 3.
  • [86] Bolter and Grusin, 346. This phenomenon can be observed in the SBT’s “Life, Love and Legacy” exhibition, where the “real” artefacts illuminated are, in the second room in particular, placed to the side of the space, and the viewer’s gaze might more naturally fall on the digital magnification of the pages of the books on the large screen at the center of the back wall.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/ShakespeareQuarterly_NewMedia/rumbold-from-access-to-creativity/3-rebuilding-value/