Towards a Non-Binary Theatre

by Caspar Weimann (he/they), translated by Josephinex Ashley Hansis (they)

Binaries simplify complex issues. In the discourse on what theatre is and can be, a certain binarity has been vehemently defended for several years now: the distinction between digital and analogue. From my perspective as a person who works intermedially with theatre, as an acting teacher, as a queer person on my way beyond the gender binary and as a millennial, I would like to describe and deconstruct this binarity.

What many people understand as digital theatre is a trend of the pandemic. Its necessity is based solely on the urge to offer an alternative programme to audiences who are physically absent or to justify the allocation of public funds when no one could go to the theatre during the lockdowns. In the process, the analogue institution of theatre temporarily became a digital experimental kitchen. Artistic perspectives that were already dealing with digital theatre discourses and aesthetics prior to the pandemic (including the collective, of which I am a part) suddenly became important and were supposed to find solutions for the new reality – we became theatrical encounter strategists in physical distancing.

This greatly increased influence was new and at the same time disconcerting for me, especially since for years before the pandemic, digital theatre makers were considered naïve and inessential to the analogue medium of theatre, being marginalised both structurally and discursively. The “real” theatre was considered to be live, an encounter in bodily co-presence and to offer a digital detox.

This view has apparently survived the pandemic: the forums for discussion and exchange on digital experimentation are becoming quiet, inquiries from theatres are largely absent, the promises of sustainability from digital theatre experiments are turning out to be inconsequential, the trend is over. Of course there are exceptional institutions in this field, but it speaks for itself that many of the innovators who advanced experiments with and research into forms of digital theatre before and during the pandemic, have since then turned their backs on theatre institutions and are now active in new, transdisciplinary work contexts and creative nuclei. Many no longer want to identify themselves as theatre-makers. And that is not a bad thing for them, but it is a serious loss for the theatre.

Wherever there is talk of digital theatre forms, the existence of an analogue theatre form manifests itself in contradiction to it. It forms a binary understanding of theatre, in the logic of which, at best, a digital section can be created. But what actually is a digital section? Why must it be isolated? Does non-digital theatre even exist in a world that is digital, analogue, everything at the same time? And don't these digital sections thereby rather serve the self-affirmation of theatre as the last analogue bastion in this world?

I perceive the longing for analogue encounters – something that has been constantly expressed since the lockdowns and the growth of digital theatre forms – more and more as a nostalgia distanced from reality, as romanticised Biedermeier and as a diversion from the fact that the present is constituted in complex digital-analogue interrelationships. When my digital self becomes the victim of a hate attack, my analogue self is not unaffected. What my analogue self is consuming shapes the media environment of my digital self. What my uncle is reading in his Facebook communities poisons our family community. The feminist revolution in Iran is triggering an international solidarity movement via social media, which in turn provides the protesters with proxy servers with which they can circumvent state censorship and surveillance measures.

And it is precisely there, at these interfaces, that the theatre of the present must take place. It may not withdraw into a bourgeois attitude of observation, instead bearing the responsibility to see itself as an important, co-creating, intervening part of the complex digital-analogue reality. It should co-produce TikTokers, participate in protests with artistic means, tell stories of whistleblowers, stop dynamics of radicalisation, break through attention economies and make the voices of marginalised people heard beyond filter bubbles.

It is time for the theatre to creatively address the outdated assumption of a separation between digital and analogue. A complex reality cannot be simplified in binary structures. It is non-binary. And non-binary theatre is part of that non-binary reality. This theatre works in a way that is transdisciplinary, swarm-intelligent and intermedial.

November 2022