Aug 09, 2021

There is absolutely no inevitability, as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

Marshall McLuhan

In 1993, very early on in SITI Company’s 30-year history, I proposed a project that would ask the question “Who are we becoming in light of the emerging technologies?”  The result became SITI Company’s very first devised work, entitled The Medium.  We premiered the play at the International Arts Festival in Toga, Japan and then performed in Saratoga Springs and later at New York Theater Workshop in New York City, City Theater in Pittsburgh, the Wexner Center in Columbus, the Walker in Minneapolis, and in many other cities including Louisville, San Francisco, and Dublin. This coming 2022 season, as part of our thirtieth anniversary celebration, we are reviving The Medium. We will start out in January 2022 at City Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then tour the production to other venues over the course of the year. 

When we created The Medium, the internet was only being whispered about in tech circles and in obscure academic laboratories. Fax machines were ubiquitous, but email was not yet available to the public. But clearly, something enormous was afoot. Where were we headed? Would the new technological developments instigate a tipping point in which the very experience of being human would be altered irrevocably?

In constructing a devised work, it helps to choose three foundational tentpoles, three organizing principals for the production: 1. a Question, 2. an Anchor, and 3. a Structure. A powerful question gives the process momentum and longevity.  An anchor is the beating heart of the endeavor.  The structure is what informs the order and shape of the piece.

For The Medium, the questions were clear:  Who are we becoming in light of the new and emerging technologies? What is the effect of media and the evolving technologies on our perceptions, our psyches, and on our personal lives?  At the time, plenty of information and conversation was swirling around about what was about to happen. New books were appearing regularly, and the monthly magazine Wired was a great source of facts, predictions, and insight. Psychologists, neuroscientists, and tech innovators hypothesized about what the future would bring and how the technological advances would affect us. But no one really agreed.

In gathering the material and possible text for the production, I sampled from these many sources, but I also needed a solid foundation. I wanted to find an anchor for the story in order not to get lost in the morass of information and speculation that was floating around at the time. The anchor that I chose was Marshall McLuhan.

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher whose work became a significant cornerstone in media theory in the 1960’s. He was the first person able to articulate the stress and complexity of the world in which we now find ourselves and he understood the effect of media and emerging technologies on our perceptions, our psyches, and our personal lives.  He was best known for coining the expressions, “the medium is the message” and “global village,” and he predicted the World Wide Web almost 30 years before it was invented.  Although always a controversial figure, he became a fixture in media discourse.  Then, with the birth of the internet, his insightful perspectives became increasingly valuable. 

Once the question was determined and the anchor chosen for The Medium, I began to search for a structure for our production. I knew that Marshall McLuhan was known as a great speaker and conversationalist and that he did not care about the discipline of writing and re-writing. For that reason, his books are somewhat impenetrable. Then I learned that towards the end of his life, McLuhan suffered a stroke and found himself unable to speak. What a tragedy for a man who loved to talk to be robbed of that very ability! Bolstered by this discovery, I began to imagine the structure, the narrative scaffolding, for The Medium. What if the entire production took place in the moment of McLuhan’s stroke?  What if, in the moment of his stroke, he was jettisoned onto a journey through the world that he had spent his life studying: television. SITI Company actors Kelly Maurer and Will Bond came up with the idea for the ultimate animating metaphor: a remote control.  Disoriented, McLuhan discovers a remote control in his hand and every time he clicks it, he finds himself on a different channel and in the middle of a different TV program.

Creating and performing The Medium was both challenging and thrilling and the process of devising the play together turned a group of disparate artists into a cohesive company.  Although SITI had launched its initial season the previous year with a production of Chuck Mee’s Orestes, it was The Medium that shaped our destiny. Through lateral thinking, curiosity, leaps of faith, and hard work, we were able to transform the rather complex and ambiguous ideas about technology into a language of the body and a journey for audiences.  We learned while doing. And with this process, study and research became part of SITI Company’s DNA, a vital ingredient in our shared enterprise.  We study together and then we look for communicative theatrical shapes to embody the questions that we are living. 

Nearly thirty years later, the questions that originally animated The Medium are as relevant now as they were in 1993, perhaps even more so. Marshall McLuhan continues to be a lighthouse, still able to help us to envision and analyze our circumstances. In McLuhan’s own words: “There is absolutely no inevitability, as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”  The “author’s message” of The Medium is simple:  Wake Up!!!  Wake up to what is happening to us via technology.

We humans have always been looking for ways to use technology to release us from the biological constraints of our bodies. And certainly, there is no aspect of our experience that has not been touched by technology. Commerce, medicine, how we work, play, travel, wage war and negotiate peace has been fundamentally reshaped by technology.  Our own bodies are greatly affected and altered by the technologies that we employ.  

Now, in 2021, there are far more questions about the effects of technology on the human experience than in 1993. In order to “contemplate what is happening,” here are some salient questions that I am asking myself:  Am I using or being used by technology? Does it empower or disempower me?  What are the environmental effects of the technology that I am using? How does technology redefine my sense of reality? How is my day-to-day attention being compromised?  How much waste does the technology that I use generate? How is it serving my community?  What are the effects of the technology that I use on my relationships?  How does it affect my way of sensing and experiencing the world?  Does it contribute to or take away from how I learn and accumulate knowledge?  What is its potential to become addictive?  What values does its use foster?  What is gained?  What is lost? Is it ugly?  What noise does it make? How does technology affect my quality of life?  Does it replace other human beings? Does it enhance or decrease the meaning of work? Does it alter my sense of time and space?  When does technology foster mass thinking or behavior? Who does it benefit? What is its purpose?  Where were my gadgets produced? Where do they go when I am done with them? What does the technology that I use allow me to ignore?  To what extent does it distance me from its effect?  Can I assume personal responsibility for its effects?  What behavior might it make possible in the future? Does technology reduce, deaden, or enhance my creativity? 

Many of these exact questions have been contemplated for thousands of years. Perhaps the most well-known story about the risks of technology is the ancient Greek tale of Icarus and his father Daedalus, who constructed two pairs of wings so that together they could take to the skies like birds and escape their imprisonment on the island of Crete.  Daedalus was a genius inventor and craftsperson who invented many things including carpentry, innumerable tools, the first bathhouse and the first dance floor.  Exiled in Crete and finally imprisoned in a tower for his hubris, Daedalus invented giant wings covered with wax that would allow him, with his son Icarus, to escape. He warned his son to keep a distance from the water, which would weigh down the wings, and away from the sun which would melt them. They both took off from the tower, flying out over the Aegean Sea. Daedalus remained midair while his young son, who was enthusiastic about flying, got carried away by the wonderful feeling of freedom and flight that the wings gave him. He started flying high up towards the sun, then diving low to the sea, and then up high again.  His father tried in vain to make the young Icarus understand that his behavior was dangerous. Finally, flying too close to the sun, Icarus saw his own wings melting. He fell into the sea and drowned. 

As a theater director I work hard to balance the use of the cutting-edge technology that is available to me with the ancient acoustic or analogue phenomenon of bodies in space generating an event for and with a live audience. I have seen many directors, with their designers, like Icarus, swallowed up by their use of technology. I believe that without “contemplating what is happening,” the work can suffer tremendously. The excitement about the ever-advancing technology available to directors and designers is palpable.  But the dangers of being subsumed by technology is ever present. 

Of course, it would be unwise to ignore the benefits that technology brings to the theater. In my own case, I try to follow the advice of Thomas Freedman in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree where he advocates balance between high tech and ancient culture. He posits that the world is undergoing two struggles: the drive for prosperity and development, symbolized by the Lexus car, and the desire to retain identity and traditions, symbolized by the olive tree.  Our current world seems to be split by a disagreement between those who subscribe to the fundamentalism of the olive tree and those who live by the benefits of the technological culture of the Lexus. The key, according to Friedman, is to balance the two.  

Our return to The Medium offers me the opportunity to remember to be as wide awake as possible to the phenomenon of technology. Rather than using technology for technology’s sake, I want to use it in service of something supremely human and use it to strengthen relationships. I want to distinguish between active and passive uses of technology. Passive use occurs while consuming content without accompanying reflection, imagination, or participation. Every time I type a password into my computer, I want to remember that it is an opportunity to practice being wide awake, to re-member, to check in, to be present. Active use occurs during deep engagement. This is the opposite of “the algorithm made me do it.”  I want to bring as much personal responsibility as humanly possible to the situation that I am in.  As Mr. McLuhan said, “There is absolutely no inevitability, as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”