The Future is Here - Interview with Mathias Woo

6 Feb 2018
Interview by Max
Edited by Sam Kee

In the next few years, we will be witnessing the completion of some new theatre facilities, such as Wild Rice’s own theatre space in the redeveloped Funan Mall, and Esplanade's new medium-size theatre. How are these new theatre facilities designed? What will theatres look like in future? How would lighting, projection, sound and other technologies change performances on stage? Do we really need to remind audience to turn off their mobile phones before a show starts?

Recently, a project titled Freespace Tech Lab took place in Hong Kong to explore possibilities that innovative technologies can bring to the black box theatre space. Zuni Icosahedron, together with West Kowloon Cultural District, has initiated this three-year project with showcases, exchanges and training sessions, responding to the growing number of new theatres being built in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

We speak with the creator, artistic director and spatial designer of Freespace Tech Lab, Mathias Woo, to find out his thoughts and vision for technology in theatre.

(Woo responded using a recording device in Hong Kong. The sound clip was sent to Singapore, and the answers were transcribed and edited by Arts Republic.)

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1. In 1941, Robert Edmond Jones wrote this in The Dramatic Imagination: "Theatre owners take great pains to make the auditoriums of their theatres glowing and cheerful and comfortable, but what we call a stage today is nothing more than a bare brick box fretted with radiator pipes. Why should this be so? One would think that a stage was something to be ashamed of, to be hidden away like an idiot child. Surely the first step toward creating a new stage is to make it an exciting thing in itself."

With the emergence of black box and alternative spaces for theatre performances where the audience ‘shares' the same space as the performers, is today's stage still 'something to be ashamed of'?

No, I don’t think there should be a shame or not a shame. I think it’s just a different approach. But with latest technology the traditional relationship between audience and performer, the stage and the auditorium could be reviewed and experimented.  That’s why this time with Tech Lab, we’re experimenting different ways for audience to experience the space so the audience can be inside the space to experience the mirror space, or above the mirror space to look at it as a stage. And the concept of stage could be different. Especially in a kind of a ‘handphone’ era, where people are always looking down at their phone, the phone becomes the stage. The relationship between the viewer and the performer is getting closer and closer. I think people are spending a lot of time with their phones, rather than go to the stage. So somehow, how can we create a new experience? Something that is not a traditional performance space, which is kind of detached, and which cannot have a more interactive approach between the audience and the performer, and the audience kind of retreats or become passive – they are just receiving what’s happening, rather than interacting. But then, this Tech Lab mirror space actually allows audience to move around, to experience, to make a decision on how to move or navigate, whether to sit down or lie down. So I think this is an approach, it is more like a museum too. When you go to a museum, you, the viewer, can choose how to view a painting. I think in the future, theatre will be exploring this new way of expression, rather than just the traditional way of stage-and-auditorium kind of one-way relationship. 

2. In an interview, you talked about the concept of "craftsmanship" as a component of art. Is there room for evolution for traditional crafts such as scenic painting? Or is it replaced by technology, such as projection and lighting design?

I think the Chinese language "art" is composed of two words "艺术" and the first word is more like creativity, the second word is more like technology or craftsmanship. So I think in the Chinese concept 艺术 means a combination of concept and technique. In the modern day, I don't think you can really replace human. I think technology cannot replace craft, I think technology can only enhance craft. I think scenic painting has a lot of potential if we combine this human craft and new technology. For example, you can do scenic art using digital technology to recompose the scene to become more visually dynamic. There are a lot of possibilities. I think the challenge is how can we combine craft with new technology. For example, I did a series of multimedia music theatre work that combined both. We used human craft and then digitalize it to create a new experience. Somehow, I think human craft can never replace craftsmanship because there is a certain human touch that technology cannot reproduce. For example, lighting designs have a lot of human touch because the lighting designers have to understand the performance and the performers on stage, in order to create a [necessary] lighting to lit them up, rather than just turning on and off the light. Lighting design is a very complicated design process; it's not as simple as it sounds like and it cannot be replaced by technology. I think in the very beginning of theatre, when electricity was invented, and when stage lighting was introduced on stage, did it replace the craft of the performer? It did not and cannot. [The lighting] can only enhance the craft. So, the performer can perform in a very different way, rather than just under the sunlight or in the presence of fire, they can now perform under this new form of electrical light, which I think must have been very exciting then. I think technology is exciting because it can really give you a chance to reinvent, re-investigate traditional crafts and then reinvent it, rather than replace it. I don't really see [the replacement]. Take the scenic painting example again, maybe in the future we can document the scenic painting and make the scenic painting real, so that the audience can see how the scenic painting evolved from nothing to a scene. I think that is going to be exciting and can also be interactive with the live performance too.

3. Does Zuni face problems adapting performances to different technical specifications when the company performs at different cities? What are Zuni's strategies in facing these issues?

We never see this as a problem. We see this as a challenge, which also can stimulate our artistic creativity because Zuni’s approach to stage is that every stage is different. We have to adopt the stage. It’s like when you’re building a building, you need to know the context, you need to note where it is, its location, what the weather is like etc. So for us, when we perform overseas, we need to study the site, the theatre, the sight line, what the limitations are and how to turn these limitations into advantages. For example, I remember many years ago, we performed in a place called Yellow Springs near Pennsylvania. It had a gigantic window at the back of the stage. So somehow, we adopted and used the strategic advantage of this window combined natural daylight and stage light to creating a different stage experience. I think for us, stage is organic. We need to interact with the stage, rather than force the stage or create a stage that is not according to its nature. So we will also adopt the contexts of these cities [in our performances]. It is part of the cultural exchange; it is part of the cultural interaction between different cultures and different artistic ideas.

4. The Freespace is quite a large space as a black box theatre. Is this a hint of the future of theatre design? Is a space that provides high degree of freedom to the artists an ideal theatre? Is this the beginning of the end of the proscenium stage?

The future is already here because the technology for new forms of theatre design is already available. You can see this kind of technology applied to a lot of theme parks and entertainment. I think in the traditional theatre scene, we still have a lot of room to utilize this new technology. Freespace has the potential to integrate this new technology to create a new form of theatre experience. For this, you need to be very technically advanced. Being advanced means it has to be very functional; it has to be very easy to install; you must have good network connection; you must have good electrical supply; you must have very flexible seating arrangements… that sort of things. About the idea of freedom, there's no absolute freedom. Freedom is confined by what you can do. For example, if you have two legs you can run, you can jump. Your technical limitations confine your freedom. So freedom is not [independent]. There's no absolute freedom, for artists too. The artist is confined by the kind of resources he or she has, and does he or she have the freedom to express this kind of limitation. Freespace has a potential to become very flexible and interesting canvas for artist to express on. And I don't see this as the end of the proscenium stage. I think that the proscenium stage still has a lot of potential. I see many experiments happening, but more often in the context of theme parks or entertainment, because they have the resources and money to do that. I think the traditional theatre still has a lot of possibilities because of new projection technologies, staging technologies etc. We can actually create more immersive experiences on the proscenium stage too. And we are looking forward to do more experiments in this context.

5. Mobile phones don't seem to be going well together with theatrical experience. Some theatres even block mobile phone signals. With the increase of human's reliance on technology especially mobile phones, is there a need for theatre to change? The invention of movie and television influenced the evolution of theatre. How has the mobile phone been influencing the theatre of today?

I think the phone has become like a little theatre. The difference between it and the televisions and movies is that televisions and movies cannot be interactive; they are a one-way experience. Audiences are more passive looking at the images in front of it. But, a phone, we can interact with it – the phone can talk to you, or you can play [games] on the phone, or you can communicate with others through the phone. You can do a lot of things on it. It is multi-purpose; it is interactive. How can we create a new experience in theatre utilizing phones? There are many ways and I think we are still in a very early stage. But for sure, it's only a matter of time. The mobile phone is also still evolving. But I think what theatres should do now is to actively utilize mobile phones as a tool, as a way to collect information, about audience’s feedback. When the audience takes photos of the stage, [we can] think about how this act can be made more interactive… Actually, there could be a lot of experiments made on that. But at the end of the day, how can we create an experience of theatre that is as attractive, and as interactive as the mobile phone? I think this is something we should experiment on. If [the experience] is attractive enough, people will put down their phones to watch, and maybe participate in, the theatre. So I think audience participation, and how we can let people use their eyes to see the theatre, rather than use their phones to [merely] take photos of the theatre, is very challenging. Now, I think we can learn a lot from entertainment theme parks. But how can we really re-generate content, artistic content, on philosophy, literature and ideas, and using entertainment technology to make people learn, rather than just be entertained, is something that I'm very interested to explore in the future.

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Freespace Tech Lab 1 Wittgenstein / Photo by Anthony Po


This interview is made possible with support of Sense Connect and Zuni Icosahedron.