a play in two acts
by Bob Giges
Hans Christian Andersen's 1843 fable The Nightingale finds The Emperor in turmoil. He can't seem to possess or control Nature as embodied by the plain-looking titular bird that sings the most beautiful songs, nor can he rely on the more predictable and functional Nigthingale machine that stands in for the live songstress. But in the mid-21st Century, the Emperor is an overfed cyberart collector named George, and the Nightingale, Marta, a diva electronica devoted to the sonic arts.
They're in trouble.
The Inspiration for Nightingale
I learned of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable The Nightingale later in life than most. In the spring of 2005, my colleague Timothy Jordan brought the story to me as a potential template for a new media theaterwork. Bolstered by Jordan's counsel and the active collaboration of Jess Damsen and Ted Warburton, I pondered how to work with Andersen’s meditation on the human-machine interface, one in which romantic notions of the natural world malign technology. As I researched the story, I discovered a provocative autobiographical context: the fable was understood by Andersen’s contemporaries to be an allegory for his tortured courtship of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind. In fact, the character of the Nightingale became so closely associated with Lind that she came to be known as the Swedish Nightingale. With the character of the Nightingale a stand-in for Andersen’s hoped-for partner, I felt drawn to making sense of the Nightingale’s rival—the Mechanical Nightingale—in the context of a romantic relationship.
As I considered this triangle of the protagonist and his real and machine partners, I began to develop a parallel story of a contemporary couple in struggle, one in which the machine is no longer demonized. Where the Emperor faces a choice between his relationship with the natural world and his love for the machine, the 21st Century couple in this work—George and Marta—are involved in a more contradictory relationship with the digital. Technological interventions keep them apart at times but at other times, connect them. In the same way that the Emperor in Andersen’s fable undergoes a transformation after his encounter with a machine, George also confronts his demons in a machine-induced environment. However, the modern story locates the demons in George’s own psyche, rather than in the machine itself. In moving the contemporary protagonist towards a different relationship with the machine and with technology, I hope to challenge Andersen’s binary opposition between technology and life. By interweaving the stories into a single text, I mean to set the distinct worldviews in dialogue with each other. Instead of easily blending, the two worldviews—one from 1843, the other from the 21st Century—collide in the interactive performance space of the work.
Interactivity and Emergence
In the stage production of this work, I seek ways to bring the "machine" into the performance space in order to make the two protagonists’ struggles more palpable and immediate. The scenes requiring interactivity between human and computer in the theater reflect this strategy. When George is immersed in a computer-mediated environment, interactively moving through the space, the audience is in a sense there with him, seeing what he sees. In some places, audience interaction is incorporated so that the production itself becomes emergent, taking on the qualities of a computer in dialog with a user, where the work is never fixed in a single script. It is instead different each time, improvisatory (and improvisation is explicitly required in several scenes of the play, including the ending).
This work suggests a new area of study analogizing the emergent properties of improvisation to those in human-machine interaction. The play pushes the boundaries of theater in hybridizing the scripted with the improvised, bringing in interactive (computer-based) technology to accomplish the latter. The theory section on improvisation and interactivity discusses this more fully.
This work now exists in the hypermediated environment of the Internet. As you are reading this, interacting with a machine, your choices define one particular iteration of this work. I invite you to find your way through the work—the play script, the images/audio/video of selected scenes from one production of the theaterwork, and the theoretical discussions of the issues raised by both the form and content of the play. You can certainly read the script linearly and then examine the theory behind it, but you should also feel free to develop your own path through, following your own interests and proclivities. You define the emergent properties of this work through your own improvisatory movements.
One note of clarification: when the italicized word Nightingale appears, it refers to this new work, composed of the two storylines. When Andersen’s fable is referenced, the definite article is used—The Nightingale.
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