Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Keynote #3: Gina Bloom

Hello, everyone! I’m Cass Morris, back on the blog for our third keynote session from 10:30am-11:30am on this sunny Friday morning.

Gina Bloom, University of California – Davis
Every Body Can Act: Reclaiming Histrionic Gesture through the Digital Theatre Game Play the Knave

Sarah Enloe introduces our next keynote speaker, Gina Bloom. She begins by noting that facility of language is common in this room, yet many of us still have some trouble with technological terms. She then rattles off a list of jargon far too quickly for this humble blogger to keep up with. “We need some help with all of that. Fortunately for us, there are people like Gina Bloom” who can connect the world of early modern drama with the world of modern technology, as well as connecting theatrical and academic organizations.

Bloom has been at UC-Davis since 2007, focusing not only on technology but on gender studies and sound studies, among other topics. Enloe shares a list of Bloom’s august publications, as well as noting that she is responsible for “expanding the digital canon” through the Luminary project. “Bringing worlds together in promising and thrilling ways.”

Enloe then passes off to Bloom.

Bloom begins by thanking Enloe and Cohen for bringing her to the ASC and to the whole technology team for helping her to get her “post-late-modern technology to work in this early modern theatre”. She cautions us all that if the technology is testy today, it’s because “it’s unhappy. Computers have emotions,” and this program has been moved around and demonstrated at many different locations, and is expressing displeasure at its tumultuous life.

Bloom is here to discuss and demonstrate a video game called “Play the Knave” being developed at UC-Davis: a Shakespeare simulator game, where the player is performing in a Shakepseare game. She describes it as a mixture of “karaoke and machinima”. Players can choose their characters, plays, the theatre they want to perform in (early modern and modern). When all of the components are set up, they perform their scene karaoke style. But there’s a twist — it’s not just karaoke, but motion-capture karaoke. The player’s own gestures inform how the avatar moves.

Bloom notes that the experiment is interesting because the avatars are always inhabiting a model of a theatrical space and because the game is generally played with an audience (similar to Guitar Hero or other musical performance games). “When people play, they tend to gather a crowd around them” — and that crowd watches both the digital and the analog performances. The motion-capture technology and the code written for it rewards players who use large “histrionic” gestures. “Although not all players think about gesturing… the ones who are ready to gesture, they inevitably end up using these exaggerated, big motions, that interestingly recall the declamatory style developed by ancient rhetoricians.” She notes that this happens regardless of the player’s experience with acting — both novices and professionals — so it’s less the player’s training that produces this style of acting, but rather the digital machine. As such, players feel like they’re puppeteering the avatar, but the digital machine is also puppeteering the player, getting a certain kind of performance out of them.

Bloom introduces actors who will play the game for us — but will first perform as they would in any theatre, to get a sense of the difference between the acting style that is more natural and the acting style that the game produces. ASC Dangerous Dreams actors Zoe Speas and Josh Innerst perform a scene from Hamlet, wherein Hamlet speaks to his father’s ghost.

Before having the actors do the scene a second time, through the game, she notes that while they have not done this scene before, they have played the game to get a sense of its operation — but that in doing so, they proved her point! Bloom also notes that they are adding new theatrical spaces from participating organizations, such that actors at the Stratford Festival were able to play the game with their own spaces.

(Encountering some difficulties with the program running in Windows 8, Bloom jokes that, “The real problem here is that all of us are Mac users”)

Prepping us for the scene, Bloom states that “Coarse exhibitionism gets a better response from the game.” She wants to examine what is digital about that declamatory acting style and what might be significant for theatre history in exploring that inherent digitality of bodily motion. Declamatory acting has gotten “a bad rap” — and Bloom relates this to the derogatory comments made in modern society about emoticons and emoji. (We’re unable to get the tech to cooperate, but Speas and Innerst testify to what Bloom says regarding the necessity of large gestures to get a good response from the avatar.) She presents a picture of a 1644 gestural language next to a field of emoji — and the two are remarkably similar.

Bloom moves to discussing how the system actually works: the Kinect sends out infrared dots, which the player’s body interrupts. The software then translates this information into “discrete and stable datapoints”, reconstructing what the camera thinks is the skeleton of the player’s body. The skeleton then drives the movement of the avatar. “Precision is largely a function of the granularity of the data”. She notes that the Kinect works well for the public playing aspect of the game. The information is not quite as precise when it comes to nuances of gesture, but does not require multiple cameras or for the player to put on a suit of reflective markers in order to play — a trade-off they considered worth it. To get the full-body capture, they have to forego smaller elements like the hands and the face.

Bloom notes that this challenges an assumption of modern acting regarding the importance of the face as a locus for emotions. She relates her discoveries via the game to other early modern and modern theories of movement and action in acting. She comments on Hamlet’s advice to the players — and Innerst provides a humorous moment in making the same gesture for “saw the air thus” as he had attempted when trying to get the game to pick up his form for the screen. Bloom points out that Hamlet’s advice advocates subtlety over declamatory style. The latter, connected to the rhetoric that might have been learned in the classroom, might have been more accessible and efficient for the younger boy actors — thus connecting it with an amateurism. Bloom suggests that Hamlet’s comments might have been calling upon common criticisms of that style, particularly in light of a professional company looking down its nose at less experienced players.

Bloom connects this to the modern idea that while singing and dancing are social activities, acting is still considered something best left to the professionals. Few people put on Shakespeare in their living rooms — though she jokes that this might not be true in this room. There are no theatrical motion-capture games the way there are games for singing, dancing, and playing instruments. She suggests this is because we now consider acting as something that can’t be done without refinement through training.

The game, she notes, often makes tragedy funny — emotions tend to slip into a comedic mode. She thinks this is because calling attention to the emotions as codified feels like an ironic move. Bloom posits the question: if “we should be encouraging everyone to perform Shakespeare if the result is countless bad productions?” She comments on the phenomenon of YouTube Shakespeare, which may corroborate those fears. Digitality has the potential to democratize acting, but it can also threaten to reinforce a generalzed view of acting and emotions. She hopes that Play the Knave might mitigate that by adding context to the digital-visual elements. Players’ gestures are digital artifacts, but not only digital — spectators get a unique experience of the declamatory style because they watch both the digital and analog performances. Bloom thinks this may help participants understand the historical importance of gestural acting even while they are laughing at what they produce through the game.

She returns to Hamlet’s critique of the declamatory style: “Such a snob, that Hamlet.” Bloom thinks his comments indicate that “naturalistic” acting, requiring training, reduces the diversity of bodies on stage. Play the Knave’s digital components may distill and even erase differences between playing bodies, but the analog components can remain diverse.

Bloom concludes by stating, “Perhaps there is something to be gained if we sometimes take Shakespeare performance a little less seriously.”