The following is a critical essay examining the roles of intermediality and emergence in The Wooster Group’s production of HAMLET written for the Critical Contexts unit of the MFA Performance Practice as Research course at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama:
I will be turning to current theoretical debates regarding intermediality and emergence in performance to support my claim that the use of projected archival footage in The Wooster Group’s 2006 production of HAMLET facilitates the emergence of new meaning through the formation of an intermedial event that exceeds their intended re-imagining of Shakespeare’s text. I will be examining three separate elements within one segment of their production through the lenses of intermediality and emergence in order to support this claim, specifically focusing on theories introduced by Peter Boenisch, Freda Chapple and Chiel Kattenbelt in 2006’s Intermediality in theatre and performance; Experience Bryon in 2014’s Integrative performance; and Joanne Scott in 2016’s Intermedial praxis and practice as research. I will be introducing Robin Nelson’s alternative definition of intermediality from 2010’s Mapping intermediality in performance as a counter-argument to my claim, and turning to Greg Giesekam’s account of The Wooster Group’s practice in 2007’s Staging the screen and Scott’s assertion that mediums within an intermedial event are in a constant state of ‘becoming’ to defend my claim against this counter-argument. In order to limit the scope of my claim, I have chosen to work from Chapple and Kattenbelt’s definition of intermediality as “a meeting point in-between the performers, the observers, and the confluence of media involved in a performance at a particular moment in time” and the intermedial as “a space where the boundaries soften – and we are in-between and within a mixing of spaces, media and realities. Thus, intermediality becomes a process of transformation of thoughts and processes where something different is formed through performance (2006: 12).” I will be focusing primarily on their concept of the ‘in-between’ as a space where various media collide, and new meaning emerges as a result. I have also chosen to work from Bryon’s definition of emergence as “what parts of a system do together that they would not do alone, or how collective properties arise from the properties of parts (2014: 14).” I will be connecting this concept of a collective property emerging from the interaction of individual parts to intermediality’s emergence of new meaning from the mixing of media and realities, specifically the interaction between archival footage and live performance in The Wooster Group’s HAMLET.
The discourse surrounding intermediality has led to numerous interpretations, and the term has been defined and redefined accordingly (we will encounter an example of this reinterpretation in my counter-argument below). While this frequent reconfiguration of the term provides insight into the intermedial turn in performance over the past several decades, I have chosen to focus specifically on Chapple and Kattenbelt’s notion of the ‘in-between’ space where various media mix in order to create new meaning. I am particularly interested in the relationship between this emergence of meaning and the expressed intention of a theatrical production. Intermediality relies on the mixing of media within the ‘in-between’ space, and the spectator’s own observation and interpretation of this ‘in-between’ space. Each individual spectator will encounter the event with her own unique understanding of the media in play, and thus the new meaning that emerges will differ greatly from one spectator to the next. While the creators of an intermedial event can be selective of the media they choose to present and stage as part of a theatrical production, I question an expressed intention for the mixing of that media from the outset. If intermediality is “an effect performed in-between mediality, supplying multiple perspectives and foregrounding the making of meaning by the receivers of the performance (Chapple and Kattenbelt 2006: 20),” then the intention of an intermedial event might best be expressed by its spectators. The live mixing of media inherently places the emergence of new meaning in the hands of the spectator observing the ‘in-between’ space, not the maker establishing that space. Therefore, the maker’s intention seems to be negated by the use of intermediality in performance and the implicit emergence of new meaning by the spectator.
Bryon’s concept of emergence as the formation of a collective property from the properties of individual parts appears to speak directly to this development of new meaning within an intermedial event (2014: 14). While the individual elements of the intermedial event may retain their own unique properties, by introducing them into an ‘in-between’ or intermedial space they form a new collective property that emerges directly from their interactions with one another. The collective properties that emerge cannot be pre-determined but will only reveal themselves in the doing of the intermedial event – the performance. The intention, then, of the intermedial event cannot be entirely formed by any one individual property of the various media in play, but rather must support the emergence of a new and unknown collective property or meaning. In essence, the emergence of new meaning occurs when an intermedial performance is received by the spectator, and it is in the mind of the spectator that a formation of collective properties transpires. If the theatrical production presenting this intermedial event attempts to dictate an intended meaning from the outset, in particular one that focuses solely on one particular element of the event, it is then negating or hindering the inevitable emergence of new meaning that will occur in performance and will dictate the spectator’s individual formation of an intended meaning.
One particular intermedial performance that exemplifies the tension that arises from this predetermined declaration of intent is The Wooster Group’s production of HAMLET directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. The Wooster Group, formed in 1975, is a New York-based experimental theatre troupe led by Artistic Director LeCompte that has spent the past several decades devising original works of live performance that incorporate various media, most notably archival footage. In 2006, they first presented a new piece centered around William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and archival footage of a 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud. The premise of their intermedial production was straight-forward – they projected an edited and abridged version of the 1964 production on a screen at the rear of the stage while the performers within their ensemble manipulated their bodies and the bare set pieces in front of this projection in order to sync-up with the projected video (HAMLET 2006). Often, they were in perfect unison with the 1964 performance, even going so far as to imitate the voices and physical expressions of Richard Burton and his supporting cast. At other times, they diverged from the archival footage, almost as though the two performances were occurring simultaneously in separate locations. While they never attempted to hide the fact that they were working directly with and in response to the archival footage (even presenting the technology used to manipulate the footage in a lengthy prologue), they clearly stated the intention of the production in their marketing material as a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s classic text and a “repurposing of Richard Burton's 1964 Broadway production (The Wooster Group n.d.).” It is my claim that the inclusion of the archival footage from the 1964 production creates an intermedial event within their 2006 production that facilitates the emergence of new meaning – meaning that speaks more to the relationship between live performers and archival video – that exceeds (and possibly negates) their stated intention. In essence, the individual parts of their production – Shakespeare’s text, Richard Burton’s filmed performance, and LeCompte’s staging – are combined in an ‘in-between’ space (The Wooster Group’s production) and new meaning emerges as the spectators observe this performance. The new collective property of this performance cannot be predetermined; therefore, the intention of The Wooster Group’s production cannot be limited to a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s text nor a repurposing of the archival footage. In order to further support this claim, I will be limiting the scope of my inquiry to three separate elements of LeCompte’s staging from one particular segment of their production that coincides with Act I, scene ii of Shakespeare’s text.
Throughout this segment, the aforementioned scene as staged by John Gielgud in 1964 is projected on a large screen at the rear of the stage. Gielgud’s staging is minimal – the actors are seated around a long table, with additional actors standing nearby, including Richard Burton as Hamlet. The Wooster Group’s performers are positioned around a similarly long table fitted with wheels in front of the screen. As the projected scene progresses, the live performers carry out the same staging as the performers from 1964. If the camera angle changes, the table and chairs are wheeled into a new position that aligns with the new angle. If the actors in Gielgud’s production physically accelerate or decelerate, the live performers follow suit. However, the two scenes are progressing simultaneously without any apparent interaction taking place that would alter either. The Wooster Group’s performers have seemingly rehearsed their own staging of the scene in such a way that it could be executed without the presence of the projected video. Throughout this segment, it becomes very apparent that two separate ‘performances’ with their own individual properties are being presented simultaneously in such a way that a new collective property begins to emerge from the space in-between the archival footage and the live performance. This is particularly evident in the way in which the live performers manipulate their own bodies and the various set pieces in order to align with the performance captured from the 1964 production. By rolling the long table into a new position each time the camera angle shifts in the archival footage, and by adjusting the positions of their bodies as to align with the performers from the 1964 production, the live performers are establishing a new emergent narrative of sorts that exists somewhere between the camera angle of the projected footage and the physical movement of their live performance. While the circumstances for the mixing of these elements may have been established in response to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this context does not define the emergent meaning or intention of this intermedial event. Joanne Scott even goes so far as to state that “live intermedial events always overflow their context” and that “the practice is set up to exceed its context, to constitute an act of emergence (2016: 80).” This act of emergence in the case of The Wooster Group’s HAMLET is facilitated by the alignment of the projected footage and the live performers onstage. Shakespeare’s text, while a property of each individual part of this intermedial event, is exceeded and a new meaning emerges.
As stated above, the text of Hamlet is active in this intermedial exchange. In this particular segment, Scott Shepard – a member of The Wooster Group portraying the role of Hamlet – not only speaks his dialogue in alignment with Richard Burton’s speed and rhythm, he even manipulates his voice as to imitate Burton’s tone and timbre. Again, while the context of this vocal imitation might stem from an investigation into Shakespeare’s play, the intermedial event created by mixing Burton’s recorded voice and Shepard’s live imitation of his voice facilitates an emergence of new meaning. The individual properties of live and recorded voice combine to create a new collective property that is observed by the spectator, who establishes her own emergent narrative or meaning. Peter Boenisch asserts that the spectators of an intermedial performance are invited “to find their own paths through the pluri-focal networks of signs, worlds, messages, and meanings offered by the performances, often without being closed into the single, unanimous meaning (2006: 115).” If we focus solely on the intermedial exchange between live and recorded voice in The Wooster Group’s HAMLET, Shakespeare’s text becomes just one message or meaning within a network of signs that includes (but is not limited to) recorded voice, vocal dexterity, imitation, rhythm, etc. To claim that the intention of this intermedial exchange is to re-imagine Shakespeare’s play, as The Wooster Group clearly states, ignores not only the additional messages within this network, but the unknown emergent meanings that are bound to be produced in performance.
This ‘network of signs’ is physically manifested in LeCompte and set designer Ruud van den Akker’s construction of the playing space. They make no attempt to hide the technology used to create their intermedial event. The video operator can be seen at her post near the front of the stage. Wires are in full view as they snake their way from the grid and across the playing space. The set pieces are simply constructed, and no attempt is made to mask the wheels that allow them to line up with the angles of the projected footage from 1964. In this particular segment, the performers correct themselves when they are out of sync with the projection. There is a clinical and calculated quality to their performances that matches the clinical nature of the scenic design. The exposure of the ‘nuts and bolts’ used to execute their dual performances – the projection of the 1964 production and the live stage event taking place in front of that projection – firmly establishes the ‘in-between’ space in which the intermedial event of the production occurs and challenges the intended meaning of that event. Joanne Scott argues that “the practice of live intermediality focuses attention on the intermedial space as a site of discourse and exchange between the distinct mediums of which it is composed (2016: 38).” The mediums at play in The Wooster Group’s HAMLET are woven into the scenic design itself, entering into the discourse they are facilitating. Again, while the original context for the construction of this intermedial space might have been an investigation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the execution of that construction is encouraging the emergence of new meaning that cannot be predetermined and exceeds that context. The physical space itself – the ‘in-between’ space – makes up part of the network of signs in play and enters into the intermedial exchange.
Robin Nelson argues against Chapple and Kattenbelt’s definition of intermediality as an ‘in-between’ space, claiming that their terminology establishes “a sort of negative definition (neither this nor that but something in the middle)” and that “the compound ‘both-and’ better characterises contemporary performance cultures (2010: 17).” Joanne Scott, in analyzing Nelson’s definition, claims that “the very construction of the phrase ‘both-and’ allows for analysis of the multiplicity and numerous tensions created by intermediality in performance. Also the grammatical balancing act of the phrasing places the mediums in a concurrent but not conflated form allowing both to exist in that moment, similarly to the intermedial effect itself (2016: 40).” Thus, the mixing of individual properties within an intermedial event not only facilitates the emergence of a new collective property, but those original properties actually retain their individual meanings within the event. The event itself is not establishing an ‘in-between’ space where new meaning emerges but is rather allowing for new meanings to exist alongside and in conversation with the original meanings of the individual parts of the intermedial whole – a ‘both-and’ space. Nelson’s claim directly counters my argument that the use of archival footage within The Wooster Group’s HAMLET facilitates the emergence of new meaning that exceeds their stated intention by allowing the individual property within that intention (the re-imagining of Shakespeare’s text) to enter into conversation with the archival footage with equal weight and force, and suggests that both the archival footage and the stated intention make up the intermedial event. The focus is no longer on the ‘in-between’ space where new meaning emerges, but rather on the individual parts of the intermedial event and the emergent collective properties.
While I understand the basis for Nelson’s definition of intermediality, I am not convinced that the individual properties of an intermedial event exist in equal measure with the collective property that emerges as a result of that event. Following Chapple and Kattenbelt’s logic, the mixing of those properties facilitates the emergence of new meaning within the intermedial event, placing the emphasis on that emergence of meaning rather than the individual parts in play. Elements of those properties exist within the emergent meaning, but the event itself relies on that act of emergence. Joanne Scott suggests that each individual part of the work “represents a new iteration of intermediality, that the mediums themselves can be seen to be in a constant state of ‘becoming’, while simultaneously generating discourse between such ‘becomings’ in the intermedial space (2016: 39).” This repeated emergence of meaning through constant discourse suggests that an emphasis be placed on how the mediums transform and generate new meaning through an act of ‘becoming’. In the case of The Wooster Group’s HAMLET, the placement of archival footage alongside and in conversation with live performance places the emphasis of the event on the emergence of meaning developed by that conversation, not on the individual parts of that event. While Shakespeare’s text, Richard Burton’s filmed performance, and LeCompte’s staging are all necessary elements within the intermedial event, they are merely entering into conversation with one another to allow for the emergence of an unknown meaning that will be formed by each individual spectator. LeCompte herself, in describing her rehearsal process, insists on “allowing different elements to be in the space together, without this demand for meaning (Giesekam 2007: 81).” She appears to be aware of the fact that meaning will not emerge until the performance takes place – until it has been observed and interpreted by the spectator. It thus seems counterintuitive to offer meaning within a statement of intent before an intermedial performance takes place, especially if that statement of intent focusses on the meaning inherent in the individual parts of the event rather than on the potential collective emergence of new meaning – in this case, meaning that exceeds The Wooster Group’s stated intention.
To reiterate, I have argued that the inclusion of projected archival footage in The Wooster Group’s 2006 production of HAMLET establishes an intermedial event that facilitates the emergence of new meaning that in turn exceeds the company’s stated intention of re-imagining Shakespeare’s text. I have turned to current theoretical discourse regarding intermediality and emergence in performance to help support my claim, specifically the writings of Peter Boenisch, Freda Chapple and Chiel Kattenbelt in 2006’s Intermediality in theatre and performance; Experience Bryon in 2014’s Integrative performance; and Joanne Scott in 2016’s Intermedial praxis and practice as research. While the basis for my inquiry began as an investigation into the use of archival video in intermedial performance, an interest in the stated intention of an intermedial event has emerged in response to my research. I believe this tension between a company’s need to express their production’s intended meaning and the implicit emergence of new and unknown meaning as a result of an intermedial event points to a growing source of conflict that exists in contemporary performance practices. How do we market intermedial performance in a way that supports both the emergence of new meaning and the commercial demands inherent in producing live performance? In the case of The Wooster Group’s HAMLET, where the inclusion of archival footage had established an intermedial event and thus facilitated the emergence of new meaning in performance, could they have stated the intention of their production in such a way that not only called attention to the individual parts of the performance but also placed an emphasis on the unknown collective property that would emerge in performance? If I were to take this inquiry further, I would begin to research intention and the use of mission statements in theatrical practices, particularly those of experimental nonprofit company’s like The Wooster Group who often incorporate intermedial events within live performance. I believe much could be learned by investigating how these statements of intent are formed, how they support intermedial practices, and how those practices are marketed in production.
 Kattenbelt, in his 2008 article ‘Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions, and medial relations’, points out that “over many years the concept of intermediality has been so frequently used in different discourses and in different meanings that it is almost impossible to map out its semantic field or range” and suggests that everyone who chooses to use the term should define it for themselves (2008: 25). This statement alone suggests that the discourse surrounding intermediality in performance is vast and constantly evolving.
Boenisch, P.M., 2006. Aesthetic art to aisthetic act: Theatre, media, intermedial performance. Intermediality in theatre and performance. Rodopi, pp.103-116.
Bryon, E., 2014. Integrative performance: practice and theory for the interdisciplinary performer. Routledge.
Chapple, F. and Kattenbelt, C., 2006. Key issues in intermediality in theatre and performance. Intermediality in theatre and performance. Rodopi, pp.19-29.
Giesekam, G., 2007. Postmodern collage: The Wooster Group. Staging the screen: the use of film and video in theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, pp.80-115.
HAMLET by William Shakespeare, 2006. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte [The Wooster Group in partnership with the Edinburgh International Festival at the Royal Lyceum Theatre. Filmed 13 August 2013].
Kattenbelt, C., 2008. Intermediality in theatre and performance: Definitions, perceptions and medial relationships. Cultura, lenguaje y representación: revista de estudios culturales de la Universitat Jaume I, 6, pp.19-29.
Nelson, R., 2010. Prospective mapping. Mapping intermediality in performance. Amsterdam University Press, pp.13-23.
Scott, J., 2016. Intermedial praxis and practice as research. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
The Wooster Group, n.d. HAMLET. <http://thewoostergroup.org/hamlet>. Accessed 19 November 2018.