Nicholas Johnson
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Directing Play in digital culture

This chapter examines the intermedial performance history of Samuel Beckett’s 1963 Play, with a focus on the emergence of digital technologies and the evolving role of the director. Beginning with attention to the play’s ‘first wave’ of adaptations to radio and film in the 1960s, all of which proceeded with Beckett’s involvement and approval, the chapter demonstrates the flexibility and experimentalism inherent in Play’s algorithmic structure. It argues that a ‘second wave’ of Play’s performance and reception, involving digital and cybernetic technologies, has emerged since the 1990s, ranging from robotically controlled theatre lighting to ‘gamification’ of narrative in virtual and augmented reality. The directorial process for the author’s work with Play over a ten-year period is documented and analysed, including presentations of Play within Ethica (2012–13), Intermedial Play (2017), Virtual Play (2017–19) and Augmented Play (2018–19). Ultimately, this chapter suggests that while activating (and altering) Beckett’s text in newly available media may at first appear to be a radical break, such practice actually fits within a robust experimental tradition, highlighting both the openness of Play’s dramaturgy and its surprising continuity over time.

Although nearly every known text composed by Samuel Beckett has made at least one journey between media – plays becoming films, novels becoming performances, and manuscripts becoming XML – few texts have crossed between so many media as Play (1963). In its first decade of life, the play was performed in theatres (in three languages), published in periodicals and books (in three languages), and adapted – with significant revisions – for both cinema (Marin Karmitz, 1966) and radio (BBC Third Programme, 1966). Beckett approved non-commercial experimentation with the text as early as 1969, authorising Michael Scott's student project at the University of York in which photographs were used in place of urns, voice-overs in place of actors, and a camera (using close-ups) acted in the ‘inquisitorial role’ of the light (Beckett, 2016, 165). 1

Beckett's correspondence (especially that with Alan Schneider gathered in No Author Better Served, as well as with other collaborators in Volumes III and IV of the Letters) testifies to the persistent yet evolving specificity of Beckett's vision, repeatedly showing the extent of his effort to manifest Play accurately with the available theatrical technologies. In S. E. Gontarski's editorial work with the version of Play in the Theatrical Notebooks (1999) and Olga Beloborodova's genetic study in The Making of Samuel Beckett's Play / Comédie and Film (2019), the evidence that such creative experimentation also fed back into the text itself – not to mention altering its afterlife as performance – is overwhelming. Its early journey suggests that Play structurally invited adaptation, pushed at technological limitations, and challenged the boundaries of theatre. In the first wave of its performance history, lasting approximately from composition to the end of Beckett's life, Play also tended to reveal salient features of the medium in which it was presented, whether it appeared in a theatre or made the transition into recorded or broadcast media.

Revolutionary changes in media technologies, underway at the time of Play's composition but pervasive since the 1990s, have inaugurated a second wave – what might be called the ‘digital’ or ‘cybernetic’ phase of Play's performance and reception. Thirty years after its first adaptations to analogue film and radio, two suggestive digital experiments with Play occurred as a result of these new affordances. In 1996 Lance Gharavi adapted Play for a blended live/video performance using head-mounted displays (HMDs) called ‘i-Glasses!’ (Gharavi, 1999, 258–62). That same year, David Saltz staged Play within a multi-work Beckett installation exploring human-computer interface, using a programmed light known as the ‘Intellabeam’ to prompt speech, with live projection of each speaking head onto a fourth urn (Jaleshgari, 1996; Saltz, 1997, 45). Play's twentieth-century performance history ended with Anthony Minghella's provocative adaptation for the Beckett on Film project, in which he sought, like Michael Scott before him, to ‘find a cinematic correlative to the interrogative light’ (Knowlson and Knowlson, 2006, 281), but which employed digital-native editing, sound design and dissemination modes (like DVD or YouTube) that separate it from what ‘film’ might have meant to Marin Karmitz or Beckett in 1966. So far in the current century, Play has been translated into three new media that did not exist in any form when Beckett wrote the play: live webcast from a robotic camera (Intermedial Play, 2017), virtual reality (Virtual Play, 2017–19) and augmented reality (Augmented Play, 2018–19).

As I am the director and co-conceiver (with Néill O’Dwyer and others) of these latter three works, these most recent intermedial and virtual adaptations inform this chapter, along with my theatrical direction of Play within the Ethica project in 2012–13. In discussing specific choices made in the context of these performances, my aim is threefold: 1) to expose the practicalities of rehearsing and staging Beckett in digital culture, in a form comprehensible to non-practitioners; 2) to extend the impact of these projects by rigorously documenting their preparation; and 3) to reflect on the affordances of contemporary digital media as such, and how these might alter production and reception of Beckett's works in the future. Multiple past publications describing our recent work, all of them co-authored, have addressed the technical, philosophical and interdisciplinary issues at stake, and have almost all focused on the second recent experiment (Virtual Play). 2 In order to write as a single author in a context targeted mainly at fellow scholars of Beckett or scholars of media, I have immersed myself mainly in questions relevant to directorial agency, especially as regards issues of mediation, stage technologies and the formal characteristics of Beckett's text, across its entire (documented) performance history. What this research into past intermedial adaptations of Play has revealed is that these apparently new projects, which we thought of as a ‘break’ due to their activation in wholly new media, in fact highlight the play's surprising continuity over time and suggest an inherently open quality inscribed within the drama. Innovations that we thought of as new and original to our versions have been revealed to have precursors in the performance tradition – even in Beckett's own practices with the text – of which we were unaware at the time of production. Such comparisons illuminate what might be called the ‘durable’ features of Play as an event.

Writing in ‘Ghosts’, his seminal essay about directing Beckett, Xerxes Mehta notes the tension that is always present when a text migrates from page to (presumably) stage:

A script is not a theatrical event. It is a blueprint for an event. Art is not engineering. Artists are not machines. The animation of the blueprint involves hundreds, thousands, of acts of cocreation by director, designer, performer, each act being inevitably conditioned by the differing personalities and life histories of the artists involved, by the circumstances of performance, by the pressure of the cultural moment, and so on.

(Mehta, 1997, 182)

The ‘circumstances of performance’ that Mehta refers to must include, naturally, the medium in which the play's performance occurs, which can no longer (or, in the case of Play, perhaps could never) be presumed to be the live theatre – nor is ‘theatre’ a static category, in any case. The internet and the whole terrain of extended reality (XR) form a new ‘media space’, which Nick Kaye calls ‘a kind of palimpsest in which real, virtual, and simulated spaces and events negotiate a writing over, reconfiguration, and translation of each other’ (Kaye, 2009, 129). Directors, actors and audiences spend an increasing proportion of their lives in such media spaces. By addressing what is different as the text moves through time via new media, this analysis necessarily throws into sharper relief what remains the same: the transmedial features of the play's intermedial history. The starting point for such an exploration is the same work that precedes rehearsal for a director: an exploration of Play's dramaturgy.

A threshold and a chameleon

Despite its early history of intermedial translations in which Beckett was personally involved, Play is typically discussed as a pivotal work mainly in relation to his dramatic oeuvre, notable for self-reference (in title, content and form) to the medium of the theatre. Dramaturgically, in its handling of embodiment and scenography, Play marks the transition between the development of ‘characters in situations’ in his earlier, longer plays – Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Happy Days and Krapp's Last Tape – toward the ‘arrangement of images’ (and sounds, voices and senses) in configurations that are less recognisably naturalistic, and often more dependent on stage technology for their effect. Play can therefore be considered a threshold work within Beckett's drama, after which the algorithmic apparatus of works like Come and Go, Not I, Footfalls and What Where becomes thinkable. A feature of the masterworks that precede Play is that they clearly take place as part of life on the planet: a place where the Macon country exists, where a person can record themselves speaking before they die, and where one character can say to another: ‘you're on earth, there's no cure for that!’ (Beckett, 2006, 118). At the level of plot (but also, fairly obviously, scenography), Play appears to take place after death, in a purgatorial space or limbo, where life elsewhere is discussed and reflected upon, a past time referred to as ‘when it was the sun that shone’ (313–14), as opposed to the present light that enforces sequence and compels speech. At the level of language, the play signals that music (which had, of course, always been a lodestar) is growing closer to the surface in Beckett's writing, with obsessive notes in the Theatrical Notebooks about tempo and tone, not to mention structural features like a repeating chorus and the da capo.

Writing as early as 1979 in Frescoes of the Skull, James Knowlson and John Pilling asserted ‘with some certainty that Play laid the foundations for Beckett's later emphasis on a subtle choreography of sound and silence, light and darkness, movement and stillness’ (Knowlson and Pilling, 1979, 112). Anna McMullan has argued more recently that ‘Play initiates a new phase of Beckett's dramaturgy’, which she suggests is ‘characterized by an even greater de-naturalization of the actor's body and formal patterning of all elements of the mise en scène: delivery of the voice, movement, gesture, spoken text, space, light and sound’ (McMullan, 2010, 105). These shifts in Beckett's theatrical development mirror wider cultural changes in the theatre of the 1960s, which could be considered under several different frameworks. Viewed from the perspective of actor characterisation and scenography, Play buttresses a movement from the ‘representational’ aesthetics of realism, naturalism and the period's popular cinema – rightly or wrongly associated with verisimilitude – to a more abstract or ‘presentational’ model (which in fact characterises the majority of theatre history, including mask, mime, vaudeville, melodrama, surrealism and a range of pre-colonial/indigenous and classical Asian theatre traditions). 3 Play also seems to map productively onto the shift from high modernism toward late modernism (Carville, 2011; Weller, 2015), which somehow fails to exclude its relevance at the emergence of postmodern dramaturgy, in relation to the discourse of ‘theatre of images’ (Marranca, 1977). It has even been enrolled in the expansive category of ‘postdramatic’ theatre (Lehmann, 2006, 26). In addition to changing its media spots with regularity, Play is apparently a chameleon that can blend in against the background of almost any aesthetic discourse.

In terms of Play's genesis, it is no accident that the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project module and monograph pair the play with Film; Beloborodova highlights the manuscripts’ ‘growing emphasis on the visual element and a progressive obfuscation of the textual’ (Beloborodova, 2019, 25). Drawing on Martin Harries (2012), Beloborodova usefully challenges past readings of Play as being essentially or transcendentally about the medium of theatre as such. Due partly to its gnomic title, it has always been appealing to point to Play (like Film for film) as an example of Beckett's attraction to the unity of content and form, and to view it mainly as a philosophical commentary on the theatre. Writing in the Journal of Irish Studies about Beckett and radio, Joseph O’Leary seems at first (through an aside) to elevate Play as a paragon of this feature of the author's general approach: ‘Beckett exaggerates the typical traits of whatever medium he tackles, so that his writing is hyper-theatrical (Play, 1963)’ (O’Leary, 2008, 9). However, O’Leary goes on to make a more nuanced point:

Thus he signals the limits of the medium in its conventional forms at the same time as he wrings from it new potential – just as some modern composers writing for traditional instruments or ensembles parody the conventions of the medium and then force it to do unprecedented things […] The ‘hyper’ of parody becomes the self-reflexive ‘meta’ that makes the performance a representation of the medium itself as such. (9)

In this union of ‘hyper’ and ‘meta’, even if Play both literally and figuratively takes place in the theatre, it also exerts outward pressure on the boundary conditions and conventions of theatre. What was latent in the earlier plays – small eruptions that remind an audience that they are in a theatre, moments like Waiting for Godot's ‘at me too someone is looking’ (Beckett, 2006, 84) or Endgame's ‘I see a multitude in transports of joy’ (106) – becomes a guiding and persistent dramaturgical principle here: ‘Is anyone looking at me?’ (314). Play is simultaneously a cliché of a theatrical story, the ‘love triangle’ plot, and a reflection on the situation of the stage actor, minimally defined: get into your jar and wait; when the light is on you, speak; when the light is off you, cease; repeat. Rather than an emphasis on plot points or immersion in character (both of which are reduced by the speed of speech), the system of Play should lead the audience to a reflection on the light itself, its status, its operation, its meaning and the ways in which it might also stand in for them – their persistence in coming to hear these stories, their culpability and responsibility that the system continues. Twenty years later, when Beckett uses a recording of audience applause at the end of Catastrophe, the same gesture of implication of the theatre's audience seems to persist. A key question for digital adaptation is what becomes of such gestures when actors and audiences are no longer sharing the same physical space, and how current media might help us to identify, more strongly than ever before, with the light.

One final detail of note, as regards a threshold represented by Play, is that Beckett's officially credited work as a solo theatre director begins in the period shortly after its production. In their Companion, Ackerley and Gontarski relate this directly to Beckett's collaboration in 1966 with Karmitz on the film adaptation of Comédie, but the beginning of Beckett's thinking like a director can, in fact, be dated earlier within the life of this play. Beckett's correspondence with Schneider during the contretemps with Kenneth Tynan during the 1964 Old Vic production of Play in London – in which he was viewed unfavourably by theatre management as a co-director with George Devine – predates the filming of Comédie by two years. 4 Although Ackerley and Gontarski assert that ‘as a director SB remained a generic purist, treating the systems of theatrical communication separately’ (Ackerley, 2006, 142), the production history of the 1960s versions of Play suggest that Beckett was immensely flexible in his approach to this play's form, permitting a range of cross-media interventions while allowing and initiating numerous variations. The wide-ranging intermedial history since that period suggests an expansive set of possibilities contained within the play's few pages. In Play, Beckett did not merely write a play. He invented a surprisingly malleable performance system, developed through collaboration and shaped by his emerging artistry as a director of his own work. What resulted is, quite understandably, highly adaptable to conditions beyond its native theatrical environment.

From analogue to digital: actors and rehearsals

After the preparatory work involved in dramaturgy and casting, a director's task is to plan and facilitate rehearsals, such that the performance will be fully ready on time (and ideally under budget). How actors and directors arrive at the appropriate form of rehearsal for a given work is dependent on a large number of variables external to the text: interpersonal relationships, regional theatre cultures and funding levels all have an impact. Designers, stage managers and crew members must participate in the rehearsal room as well: never a separable element, design is especially central in the case of Beckett's plays, and even more important to incorporate early when working with new technology specifically. In the ecological understanding of acting pioneered by Phillip Zarrilli (2009; 2018), the actor within a performance is ‘enacting a performance score while responding to the immediate environment the actor inhabits each moment of performance’ (2018, 102). This reveals the extent of entanglement between the work of design and acting, since the ‘environment’ that will ultimately stimulate actors and perhaps even govern their embodied responses often depends upon microscopic differences in the external surroundings, imperceptible to audiences: width of urn, intensity of light, height of hidden pillow, texture of fabric, even olfactory sensations. Zarrilli describes the purpose of rehearsal, if the actor is treated as a ‘sentient being’ responding to ‘constraints and affordances’:

In this view, both the design process and rehearsals are devoted to problem-solving the constraints of a text as interpreted in this specific production, as well as discovering how actors as individuals and as an ensemble exploit, utilize, enhance, embody, and actualize what is afforded.

(Zarrilli 2018, 102)

In terms of constraints that require problem-solving for both actors and designers, Play has a great deal to offer. An obvious hurdle, familiar from post-show discussions everywhere, is ‘how do you learn the lines?’ Before directing actors in Play for the first time as part of the Ethica project in 2012–13 (presented in Dublin, Sofia and Enniskillen), I performed the role of M in a student production at Trinity College Dublin on 13 April 2006 (directed by Bush Moukarzel). I made the natural mistake of preparing lines block by block and performing them based on cues provided by the other actors. If this approach is taken, then the person cueing lights must follow the actors or try their best to follow the script, rather than exert real agency over the proceedings by leading the actors, and this inevitably diminishes the accuracy of timing, ‘depressurising’ the event to a large extent. While this situation is conventional for naturalistic drama – where mistakes or missed cues can be more easily rectified with ad-lib improvisation without drawing notice – any form of responsiveness between the urns is not aligned with the performance system in this case, where the sole relationship of each performer is with the light. In spite of the appearance of the script as a dialogue, each actor in Play is actually just speaking a monologue, and the light determines where the monologue is prompted or arrested mid-statement. Beckett noted this in correspondence as early as 1964; reflecting on the newly introduced variation in the repeat, he wrote in a letter to Barbara Bray that it ‘Won't matter to them as they are not cueing one another’ (17 March 1964; Beckett, 2014, 596).

My experience as a performer verified that it is fundamental to the play for the light to have the supreme authority in the space. In order to incorporate that idea early on with actors and to accustom them to responding solely to the technological prompt, since 2012 I have asked actors to memorise their own text as a monologue without cues; typed into a single document at a comfortable font size, each speech is only three pages (excluding repeat). This stage of rehearsal can begin from the date of casting, without calling all three actors into rehearsal together or needing to book any space; in the lead-up to Intermedial Play in 2017, I was able to rehearse with W2 (Caitlin Scott) using FaceTime while she was still at home in the UK, covering or exposing the camera to trigger the next line (‘am I as much as … being seen?’). I encourage actors to become accustomed to doing the full monologue with precise textual accuracy at all hours, in all weathers and physical configurations, in different spaces and with different levels of distraction, and to get used to being interrupted. This prepares them for the situation of performance – the dramatic action of being obliged to speak, but never being allowed to complete the speech in full – while also strengthening recall.

In naturalistic drama and its associated training, actors are often encouraged to examine their text critically for evidence of a ‘character’ with motivations, objectives, actions and obstacles, to break down ‘beats’ of individual action, and to live truthfully in the moment ‘as if’ one were the character in that situation. In Play, all that is required to achieve this is to enact the system, which will automatically produce the emotional state in the actor (and, one hopes, in the audience), due to the embodiment of the actor under duress. David Saltz categorises Play as an ‘interactive algorithm’, which, although ‘written out like a conventional playscript, with sections of dialogue ascribed to characters and transcribed sequentially’, nonetheless has the ‘underlying logic’ of an algorithm: ‘a text and a rule’ (1997, 45; emphasis in original). I have strongly encouraged actors to experience the interaction of text and rule as a challenge or game at which one could gradually improve through practice, rather than to perceive it as torment or trauma, which is a tempting but historically problematic discourse in testimonies of Beckettian acting (see Johnson, 2018, 58–62). To emphasise this, we would practise quite freely and with an element of fun, but always maintaining the game-structure of the ‘goad’ or the ‘prompt’. We played naturalistically with situations like one-on-one interrogations, in which each line of monologue was prompted by an invented question (helping understanding of the text, early in rehearsals). We imagined this at n=1 (the first time it was asked), n=10 (the tenth interrogation), n=100 (the hundredth time) and n=1000 (at which point both the interrogator and subject are exhausted); this enabled us to create our own agreed scale of speed and intensity for the repeat, which we varied throughout the rehearsal period. We played with different methods of prompting the three heads: pointing a phone, a flashlight, a pair of scissors, or tapping on the shoulder when the actors’ backs are turned, never allowing Beckett's actual sequence to arise until late in the rehearsal process, so that actors would not become too accustomed (through memory) to a textual cue, rather than a visual one. This approach ensured that the actors engaging with the technical demands would always be working in a situation of ‘live risk’, a condition palpable and engaging to an audience in performance.

The secondary challenge of the performance is physical, or perhaps ‘athletic’: the actor will ultimately be constrained inside a narrow urn, which – in line with Beckett's specifications to avoid ‘unacceptable bulk’ (2006, 319) – requires either standing below stage level (i.e. through trap door or false raised stage) or kneeling. In the case of Ethica, the audience entered the theatre with the urns already populated by the actors’ heads, telling their cyclical story in barely audible tones, as in the opening of Not I. This added ten minutes to what was already a twenty-minute stress position. To prepare for this in performance, actors can use rehearsal time to gradually build up tolerance for ‘playing the game’ in a kneeling position, preparing at each rehearsal by building breath and diction control. Initially in rehearsal this requires kneepads; once the urns are built, they can be fitted out with foam cushioning and interior handles, to stabilise the performers. Each time I have directed Play, the actors have formed a strong bond with their urns (which have slight variations based on construction and the actors’ heights), inscribing their names or initials on the interior, so that arrival on stage becomes a kind of homecoming.

The methods above, worked out with an eye toward theatrical presentation, form the same underlying infrastructure for actors working in intermedial, digital or virtual translations. Indeed, digital culture has already slyly intervened in these descriptions of theatrical rehearsals, so much so that we could only be talking about the second wave of Beckett's Play: scripts were typed and reformatted on digital retrieval systems; rehearsals were held through video calls; mobile phones were used as flashlights. But the most important question for directing actors in our virtual experiments might be: what becomes of Beckett's system, of the performers’ ‘live risk’, in other media than theatre? The next section takes on this question via a closer look at the design elements, especially the role of the light, in our cycle of digital adaptations.

From analogue to digital: designers and technicians

As stage lighting – which is dramaturgically central to the play given the role of the ‘unique interrogator’ (Beckett, 2006, 318) as a fourth character – moved away from analogue technologies in the mid-1980s to a digital communication protocol, Play entered a new era of performance possibilities that were unavailable at the time of composition. Both Rosemary Pountney (1988) and Olga Beloborodova (2019) have already traced the history of the light's centrality and the key moments of its development for Beckett in terms of today's published text. To illustrate just how transformative the shift to digital lighting was for performance in particular, however, a close reading of the (Faber) published script's note entitled ‘LIGHT’ is necessary (Beckett, 2006, 318); the form of the philosophical dialogue is used to illuminate its many confounding issues. B, in the following extract, represents Beckett, whose dialogue is taken verbatim from the Faber text and his related letter to Christian Ludvigsen (22 September 1963; Beckett, 2014, 574); D is a twenty-first century Designer, whose text is imagined.

B: The source of light is single and must not be situated outside the ideal space (stage) occupied by its victims.

D: ‘Victims’ is evocative. But what do you mean by ‘outside the ideal space (stage)’? The stage is a real space to me; it is never ideal. What is ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the stage to you? The wings? The flies? Do you mean that you want the lighting instrument itself to be visible to the audience on stage?

B: The optimum position for the spot is at the centre of the footlights, the faces being thus lit at close quarters and from below.

D: Can we assume there will be footlights? Footlights are a technology from the late seventeenth century that stopped being essential to theatre architecture in the early nineteenth century. We perform mostly in black boxes with open stages now. Sometimes we rent strips of footlights for effect – but what if there are no footlights, or even a raised stage?

B: When exceptionally three spots are required to light the three faces simultaneously, there should be a single spot branching into three. Apart from these moments a single mobile spot should be used, swivelling at maximum speed from one face to another as required.

D: Single lighting instruments do not ‘branch into three’ – definitely not in the 1960s, anyway. Achieving this effect at reasonable cost will take four lights: one spotlight for the faces, and three others for the moments where all three faces have to be illuminated. Are you prepared to give up on ‘the source of light is single’, or do you want to cheat these so they seem to be coming from the same place? And remind me again: you want these lights to be on stage somewhere, not hung from the ceiling or behind the audience?

B: The light should have a probing quality, like an accusing finger levelled at them one after another. This is obtained by a single pivoting spot and not, as in Ulm, by three fixed independent spots, one for each face, switching on and off as required.

D: We've been over this – you need four lights. But if the single spot has to move, who moves it? Where is that person? If you don't have somewhere to conceal the body, it looks like we will need to rent a moving light remotely controlled by digital multiplex protocol (DMX – invented, by the way, in 1986). Those are still expensive and did not exist when you wrote your notes.

B: It should be worked by an invisible operator with perfect knowledge of text, either by electric control from wings or manually from a kind of prompter's box below footlights.

D: Operators are neither invisible nor perfect. The prompter's box died out with the footlights more than a century ago. This twenty-minute script has 260 lighting cues.

B: This mobile spot should be set mechanically once and for all so as to strike full on its successive targets without fumbling and move from one to another at maximum speed.

D: (exit weeping)

B: (a fortnight later) I shall never give another theatre text, if there ever is another, to be published until I have worked on it in the theatre. 5

One of the reasons the light proved so challenging – still the ‘chief problem’ of Play as Beckett writes to Schneider on 11 December 1981 (Beckett, 1998, 417) – is that Beckett seems to have been imagining a future capability for lighting that did not exist in the 1960s, and which is still quite challenging to achieve today. Beckett describes a mobile/pivoting light in which both the instrument and the beam can be visible. For the beam to be visible before it hits the faces, some form of medium in the air is necessary – though some smoke effects were used before electric light in the Elizabethan theatre, theatrical haze (again, usually controlled by DMX) did not become commonplace for this purpose until the 1980s. For the instrument to be visible within the same ‘ideal space’ as the actors, but also moveable without adding a visible operator, it needs some form of digital control. The ‘Intellabeam’ used in David Saltz's Beckett Space (1996) appears to be the first use of this solution.

Unaware of this precedent at the time, in Ethica in 2012–13, my collaborators Marc Atkinson Borrull and Colm McNally used an unconcealed, DMX-controlled moving-head light (MAC250), which was visible on the floor of the black-box theatre in front of the urns. This light switched on (pointing straight up) for the pre-show announcement and returned again post-show, suggesting a potentially threatening relationship with the audience as well as the actors. To begin Play, it would come to ‘life’ with an audible motorised swivel, sweep over the heads of the audience, rove back and forth across the faces to initiate the chorus (our interpretation of ‘branch into three’), and then begin interrogation, changing intensity over time in line with the stage directions. The cues were pre-programmed following Beckett's order for the first round, but with a variable set of variations in the repeat, injecting additional risk into the system. The lighting operator, Ali Hayes-Brady, rehearsed extensively both on her own and with actors, learning to cut off the actors by hitting the ‘go’ button on each cue slightly before their final word, to account for the latency in the digital cable. The MAC250 enabled pinpoint accuracy for each focal point spatially, but also created new challenges temporally: we discovered that it used different motor speeds for different distances, so a minor repositioning (between W1 and M, say) might go at a slightly slower speed than a larger move (from W1 to W2). The powerful bulb activated risks that analogue lighting does not have: even at low intensity, it was dangerously bright for the actors to look at directly, although this is called for in the ‘meditation’ section of the script – we ‘cheated’ it.

The concept of Intermedial Play (2017) was to stage Play ‘live’, but for an audience in a different room from the actors, using a web-enabled ‘pan-tilt-zoom’ (PTZ) camera in the role of the light. The audience would be watching a performance they knew was happening almost simultaneously, but with each line having been said just seconds before in a different space. Like Karmitz and Minghella before us, we would be finding a cinematic correlative for the ‘mere eye’ (Beckett, 2006, 317), but unlike both, we would not have recourse to any editing – the piece would have to be delivered accurately in one sitting as if in the theatre, but without the actors getting any live feedback from the audience's attention, and with the audience accessing the intensity of the actors’ task only through a screen. Highlighting the surveillance aspects of this new technology and our uneasy relationship with our own devices was a strong motivation conceptually, but practically there was a huge problem: an actor does not know when the camera is on them, unless there is also a light on that camera. After exploring numerous options for a cueing system linked to the camera, we settled on the human interface as the most effective: sitting at the console, I would hit a lighting cue with my left hand, at the same instant as the right hand triggered the aligned video cue. One system was communicating with the actors in the room, while the other system opened the channel of visibility to the remote audience, manifesting the liminal status of this part-live, part-screened adaptation.

One of the conceits of Intermedial Play was the idea that the audience would gradually be seduced into identifying with the camera itself. The videography, designed by Néill O’Dwyer, referenced both Karmitz's Comédie and Beckett's SDR adaptation of Was Wo at the beginning of the piece, using a static, wide-angle shot, with the lights picking out the heads of the actors, perhaps initially lulling the audience with the ‘film-of-a-play’ aesthetic. Only from the first meditation did the camera begin to move, zooming in on the actors looking back into the lens. Referencing an idea from Minghella's version, the sound designer Enda Bates added the sound of the camera's own motor from the start of the repeat. This suggested that the viewer was travelling inward into the mechanism itself, actively ‘converging’ in our era of convergent media. 6 The VR and AR adaptations, Virtual Play and Augmented Play, completed this trajectory by turning the user into the light itself.

Towards the virtual

A week after their first proto-XR experiment with Intermedial Play in April of 2017, the same actors and creative team entered the green-screen studio at V-SENSE, a laboratory at Trinity College Dublin concerned with ‘Extending Visual Sensation through Image-Based Visual Computing’. The project's principal investigator, Aljoša Smolic, was supporting our VR/AR experiment with Play out of a belief that creative projects would generate novel questions and challenges, driving research forward and creating new opportunities for impact. In this case, the research was on how to (relatively inexpensively) capture high-quality interactive ‘free-viewpoint video/volumetric video’ and ‘ambisonic audio’, for implementation in six-degrees-of-freedom (6DoF) immersive VR. 7 On the day of the shoot, each actor would get into a single urn surrounded by carefully calibrated cameras in a 150-degree arc. Months later, after extensive digital processing of these files and integration with sound, audiences would ultimately experience Play by donning a head-mounted display and being immersed in a 360-degree digital environment: a grey, somewhat misty oculus with an open dome, referencing both crypt and eye.

Digital urns – finally narrower than the bodies of the actors, and needing no holes for legs – hold the captured performance of the live actors’ heads, extracted into voxels and mapped on to a 3D mesh, to create the striking illusion of dimension and weight where there is, in fact, only code. A user, unconstrained by the time or space of this captured live performance, acts as the light exploring this dark space, and whenever their attention rests on an urn, its inhabitant speaks. As soon as their attention diverges, the monologue stops, but it immediately picks up and precisely where it left off if the user looks again, enacting the interactive algorithm of the play without the mediation of a separate light operator. Deprived of its single da capo repetition, Virtual Play is effectively infinite: a user could explore all possible permutations and sequences, if they wished, forever. Augmented Play, perhaps even more powerfully and intimately, uses the same source files and algorithms to insert the Play actors and urns into whatever room the user is currently in, through the interface of a smartphone screen, a HoloLens, or a Magic Leap.

Such virtual dramaturgy obviously opens new potential for this text, while also doing violence to it: Beckett's sequence, for example, cannot be preserved unless the user is already intimately familiar with Play. This violence, however, is not without precedent. Describing the radio adaptation of Play for the BBC Third Programme in 1966, Martin Esslin records:

In his original production […] Beckett had not merely had the whole text repeated exactly as it had been spoken the first time round; he had supplied a new way of permutating the order in which each of the three characters spoke his text. Each character spoke the same lines in the same order within his own text, but the order in which he was called upon to speak was different. Beckett suggested that each character's part should be recorded separately and that these permutations of exactly the same words spoken in exactly the same way be achieved by cutting the tape together like the takes of a film.

(Esslin, 1983, 139; emphasis in original)

In his authoritative essay on Karmitz's Comédie, Graley Herren offers an alternative reading of Beckett's infamous 1957 proclamation, made in a letter to Schneider, that genres must be kept distinct. In his reading, Beckett's resistance to All That Fall on stage is ‘an insistence that any work of art take its medium of expression appropriately into account’ (Herren, 2009, 14). Herren boldly extrapolates, observing Beckett's own practice, that ‘if a work is to be effectively transplanted into a new medium, it must be adapted; otherwise distinction between genres is lost and confusion ensues’ (14; emphasis in original). This adaptation of Play depended on identifying what the virtual medium is truly about, making an argument that it is about truly opening narrative to the user's control, engaging the user in the ‘game’ of the actor and the director, moving from the sequential to the simultaneous. In his 2019 essay ‘Digitizing Beckett’ for The New Samuel Beckett Studies, Dirk Van Hulle writes that in Virtual Play, ‘Lessing's Neben- and Nacheinander are turned into a Durcheinander’ (Van Hulle, 2019, 20), whereas in Intermedial Play, he sees instead that

The striving for the Miteinander – both the literary aim of simulating simultaneity and the human wish to truly live together – turns out to be a painful realization of our fundamental Nebeneinander-ness, living next to, rather than with, each other, everyone in her/his own urn. (20)

All available evidence suggests that two ideas can be true at the same time: Play can be an immensely specific and refined performance system with clear restrictions, organically related and responsive to the medium of theatre in which it first appeared. It can also make a translational journey between languages, nations, directors, contexts, performers, eras and indeed media, with the performance system altering, but with the thought the play is thinking left intact. Through such transmissions between contexts, some of which may result in quite radical differences from an original medium, the experimental heritage of Beckett's own work is reinvigorated, and the work is opened to a new generation accessing Beckett through new media.


This publication has emanated from research supported in part by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) under the Grant Number 15/RP/2776, as well as from creative funding from the Trinity Long Room Hub (Interdisciplinary Seed Funding, 2017–18) and the Provost's Fund for the Visual and Performing Arts at Trinity College Dublin. While this is a single-author work, the theatre/digital practice discussed in this chapter was collaborative, and the research is thus indebted to the artists and institutions who helped to make the productions discussed. Virtual Play was co-conceived with Néill O’Dwyer and Enda Bates, and co-supported by the V-SENSE project and the Trinity Centre for Beckett Studies. The author acknowledges the collaboration of Rafael Pagés, Jan Ondřej, Konstantinos Ampliantitis, David Monaghan, Aljoša Smolic, Maeve O’Mahony, Colm Gleeson, Caitlin Scott, John Belling, and Colm McNally. Translation assistance was provided by Céline Thobois. Finally, these research projects have benefited from the kind support of Edward Beckett and the Estate of Samuel Beckett.


1 Michael Scott's description of the project's visual structure resembles the second and fourth movements of Intermedial Play (2017): ‘When the actors start speaking individually, the camera would zoom into a close-up showing the top of one urn and the actor's face, and remain on this as lines are spoken’ (Beckett, 2016, 165, n. 1). Beckett's letter to Scott in response included a note of caution against this approach: ‘you lose the speaker's urn and the other two urns and faces whose shadowy presence during individual speeches is of use’. But he also offered some (conventionally self-deprecating) support, perhaps sharing lessons from his own film adaptation of the play three years previously: ‘There is really no film here as I think you will discover perhaps not without pleasure and excitement […] I hope in any case that you will enjoy trying’ (after 23 June 1969; Beckett, 2016, 165).
2 A full description of the projects and full list of publications, with images and video content from all three versions, is available at Publications from the project include a generalist overview of the project for a special issue of Contemporary Theatre Research (Johnson and O’Dwyer, 2018) and an interdisciplinary assessment of VR narrative strategies for the International Journal of Performance and Digital Media (O’Dwyer and Johnson, 2019), as well as the proceedings of several computer science conferences, including IEEE (2017), SIGGRAPH (2018) and HCII (2020). Virtual Play received first prize at the New European Media Awards in 2017.
3 There is considerable complexity in the terminology around ‘presentational’ and ‘representational’ qualities in drama, due to conflicting usages of these terms in actor theory and the semiotics of drama considered as a whole. My terminology here draws on Keir Elam, who writes of ‘presentational’ moments like audience address that ‘they appear to be cases of “breaking frame” […] but in practice they are licensed means of confirming the frame by pointing out the pure facticity of the representation’ (Elam, 2002, 81). In fact, there are also elements of Play that are (perhaps parodically) aligned with what Elam describes as ‘representational’ but which he notes are in fact quite non-naturalistic conventions: ‘dialogic exchange […] organized in an ordered and well-disciplined fashion quite alien to the uneven give-and-take of social intercourse’ (82). Elam could be writing of the action of the light in Play when he says, of such conventions: ‘The exchange proceeds, usually, in neat turn-taking fashion, with a relative lack of interruption and the focus firmly centred on one speaker at a time’ (82).
4 Writing on 17 March 1964 to Barbara Bray, he exposes just how much he was involved, to the extent of seeing actors on his own for half the day: ‘Rehearsals morning with George, then individually with me afternoon’ (Beckett, 2014, 596). This extent of unmediated contact with actors would be unusual for a playwright, or even an assistant director.
5 This final line comes from a different source, but it was also written in the context of Play – Beckett's letter to Siegfried Unseld (19 March 1964; Beckett, 2014, 598).
6 Sean McCarthy references Play in the context of his argument that Beckett is a ‘convergent artist’ (2009, 104), drawing on the concept of ‘convergent media’ as discussed in the first decade of the twenty-first century by Henry Jenkins (2004) and Gracie Lawson-Borders (2006).
7 These terms and the specific research aims of V-SENSE with Virtual Play are explained in greater detail in Johnson and O’Dwyer (2018) and O’Dwyer et al. (2017).

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