University of Toronto
By Erin Baldwin
Pia Kleber has her eye on both the history and future of theatre.
A long-time professor of Drama and Comparative Literature and the Helen and Paul Phelan Chair in Drama at the University of Toronto (UofT), Kleber is well-known for her work on Bertolt Brecht, the transformative twentieth-century German playwright and theatre director. More recently, Kleber has turned her attention towards new and innovative ways of using technology in theatrical productions, particularly in her work with the BMO lab, a new hub for collaborative creative research at UofT.
I recently sat down with Pia (over Zoom) to discuss the intersection of theatre and technology, her involvement with the BMO lab and some of the Canadian stage directors she's watching.
You have published on a wide range of topics in drama and theatre, particularly on Bertolt Brecht. How have your interests evolved to have more of a focus on technology and artificial intelligence?
At the University of Toronto (UofT) we began looking around at the world, seeing what artists were working with technologies. We found a lot in Japan, Germany – everywhere. But they were not connected. The next idea was, what happens if we connect them? I was curious so I talked to David Rokeby. He is really the expert – an internationally known visual artist. He thought it was a good idea to try something with the performing arts centre. I talked to the Director of the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies (at UofT), Tamara Trojanowska and she also thought it was a good idea. First, we wrote an application for SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) and then we wrote an application for BMO and we got five-million dollars. The five-million dollars helped us to establish the BMO lab.
There is a lot of hype with AI, but it’s all very much commercially linked. There is not really anything about the performing arts. We tried to not only use AI, but all emerging technologies to see what we could do in performances. We started this two years ago. We have already taught two courses and it’s very interesting because they’re totally interdisciplinary courses. We have students from drama, theatre, music, computer science, engineering, the iSchool (Faculty of Information). Students are coming together and working together. Our music students learn a lot about technology but also engineering and computer science students learn about theatre. David and I were really surprised with how open everybody is and how well it is working.
We are specifically lucky because we tried to find a silver lining to COVID-19. A lot of theatre people are unemployed. This summer we had weekly Zoom meetings with directors and actors around the world. We really tried to introduce them to the newest technology and, together, to see what we could do. We realized everybody was really antsy and wanted to get on their feet and start doing it, not just talking about it. We started a collaboration with the Canadian Stage and hired first two actors – we had an open competition, forty applied and we choose two – then we hired two more actors. Everyone is going to be paid. And so now we have four actors, and since September we really tried to work together in person. At the moment, we’ve stopped the in-person a little bit because of the shutdown and have continued on Zoom, but we have already done a lot.
It’s not only that we see what the actors can do and take them up with all kinds of ideas, but also they have wishes: ‘I would like to do this on stage.’ They push David and the other technicians to come up with technologies that don’t exist yet. It is a fantastic experience.
In Canada, who are some of the stage directors or companies you’re most excited by that are using technology? I know you’ve done some work on Robert Lepage who, I think for Toronto audiences is probably best known for Frame by Frame, which he did with the National Ballet of Canada and Guillaume Côté.
Of course Robert Lepage. I’ve known Robert for 35 years. I worked with him – I was for twenty years the director of the University College drama program and during this time Robert Lepage did a production with my students. He did Macbeth at Hart House and we worked very closely together so I know him well. I have seen all his shows and I think he is one of those visionary directors who did things long before anybody else thought about it. He’s also somebody who really knows how to introduce, and how to involve, the technology in his productions. He has certain technicians and they have worked with him for basically 25 years. They know his work very well, and know also how to provide all these things for him, and give him ideas. It’s something. Every set, for instance, that he’s building, he’s building in Quebec City with his own crew. Even if he’s working Japan, he’s building in Quebec City and then it will be shipped overseas because they (his crew) know so well what he wants. He is a genius. He has just built a new theatre in Quebec City and, unfortunately, when he wanted to open it COVID-19 came, but we’ll see what he comes up with and what new ideas will come up. He really is a genius and I was surprised in Europe that everyone knows Robert Lepage – he is a household name.
There are a lot of very good directors. Brendan Healy, from the Canadian Stage, is very interested in technology. He also participated at our Zoom meetings during the summer and is the one who came up with the idea of the residences split with the Canadian stage. We’ve also had many discussions with Tarragon (Theatre), with Richard Rose (Tarragon’s Artistic Director). There is a lot of interest here. I think what BMO Lab can provide is that we have all the technologies here – they can come and try it out. It’s very expensive for people to buy all this kind of stuff so it’s a place where people can gather, ask questions and try out things. We encourage all the theatre people to come in and just to work with us.
I think what will be difficult is, as you said, for smaller companies to pull through financially. Obviously, the Canadian government has arts funding, but I think that will be the challenge – just getting through the next six months or year.
I think that the Canadian government, the provincial and city – all governments – should understand how important art is. It’s vital for people at the moment when we are so isolated. I think they should support artists as much as they can. If you look at other countries, if you look at European countries, they really support artists much more than we do. I applaud the Europeans and I think the Canadians should really learn how important artists are to keep people somehow sane. It’s a very isolating time. It’s very difficult. Therefore, we also decided to hire these actors because we pay them. At least we can do a small part, and it’s shared with Canadian Stage who are really great.
There are countries where they have never closed theatres, for instance in Seoul or in Taiwan. They came up with a fantastic solution where you go through this channel, which is disinfecting you, everybody has masks on, and afterwards you go out through a different channel which disinfects you. They’ve had not one case in the theatre. Normally capacity is 90% and now its 85%, so people really go, and you can see there is that hunger for live performances.
For any readers who aren’t as familiar with the use of technology in theatre, can you give some specific examples of ways theatre companies have been introducing it into productions?
I’ve found in looking at a lot of companies who are working with technologies that very often the danger is to use technology as a gimmick – to make it spectacular. You really have to think very carefully about what kind of technology you use, how you use the technology, how this really enhances the text. Whatever can be done with the actor’s body should be done with the actor’s body. Technology is only a tool that the actors can use to do something else which they couldn’t do with just their bodies. It should never replace an actor – it will never replace an actor. The most important thing is for us is the human being. The actor is always at the center. We try all kinds of things and we analyze what it does to performance and, also, what it does to an actor.
For instance, we did The Tempest and there was one scene where we had a circle of sand and it was just Ariel and Prospero. Around the circle, a music student composed, every two meters, a kind of music or sounds, like birds or whatever else. This all could be triggered by the movement of the actor. Also the storm – we had it programmed so when the actor moved like this, you had rain. When they moved like this, it was like wind. It was very magical because the audience didn’t see where it was coming from – it was all in a computer on the side somewhere. But it means that the actor not only has to act with their partner, has to know the lines, but that the actor is responsible for the technology. It means you have to introduce technology at the first rehearsal.
I remember the World Shakespeare Company joined with Intel four years ago and did a huge production. For me personally, it was very disappointing because they rehearsed the whole show and then the technology came in. The actors did not react to the technology, so it was not really integrated. It’s all very complex and very difficult – it’s not an easy thing to do it. It needs a lot of rehearsals and a lot of time to try things out. What we try to do in the lab is to introduce many Canadians to the technologies to learn this.
The Immersive Van Gogh exhibit is probably one of the first large-scale productions of immersive art that we’ve had in Toronto. What are your thoughts on immersive art that uses technology in the way that they did with Van Gogh? Do you think that theatre and art is going to become increasingly immersive?
I think it will have everything. I saw it (the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit) in Paris and I found it was really something for young people. It’s a fantastic introduction to art because they are so familiar with technology. I took my grandson, for instance – he’s 13, and could totally relate to all this. Personally, I like to see the paintings myself, but I think they’re two different experiences and I’m very happy that I could see both. I think you will always have both: you will have immersive art and you will have paintings.
I think that’s a very good way of seeing it. Something like the Immersive Van Gogh can spark an interest particularly in younger generations and that can bring them into actual art galleries and stimulate an interest.
For me yes, that is the interesting thing about it.
You mentioned the BMO lab earlier. Can you speak a bit more about it, in terms of what is done exactly at the lab? I know you teach courses there. Is it also a hub for creating new works?
It is absolutely a hub for interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary creativity where do theatre, music – all the arts and performing arts. We have students there but at the moment we also have Canadian actors here. We have talks – we Zoom in people from around the world if they cannot travel. We have a lot of workshops. Whatever you can imagine, we do.
Right now, in Toronto we’re in the midst of a second lockdown. The performing arts is facing a sort of reckoning with live performing halted. Where do you think theatre will go from here? How will theatre in Canada and Toronto recover?
Of course, it will recover. People need theatre and it will always survive. Some smaller companies may go under, but theatre will survive absolutely, and people will go. People are so hungry to see a live performance. I’m on Zoom so many hours – I teach on Zoom and I also have meetings on it. At the moment, if people say, can you see another play on Zoom, I really hesitate. I spend so many hours on the computer. I think people are really hungry for live performances. I can guarantee you in droves people will go to the theatre.
Pia Kleber by Olga Nabatova