Mar 09 2020

Professor Jen Parker-Starbuck, School of Performing and Digital Arts, is presenting her inaugural lecture 'Becoming hybrid: cyborgs, animality, VR and embodiment' on Monday 16 March. The lecture examines the concept of 'cyborg theatre', which explores the relationship between technology and the artist. We recently caught up with Jen to ask about the topics she will be discussing in her lecture, and to find out some of her other research interests. 

1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role within the School of Performing and Digital Arts?

I am currently the Head of School for Performing and Digital Arts; I joined Royal Holloway only in 2018 as Head of Department for Drama, Theatre and Dance, having spent over a decade prior to that at University of Roehampton, where I had most recently been Head of Department of Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies. I loved working there, but was ready for a change when I came to RHUL—the restructure happened just as I arrived and because my main research interests have always been interdisciplinary (largely around media and performance), the Head of School role was an interesting and exciting challenge for me. I’m also an investigator on the AHRC funded StoryFutures, which intersects with many of my research interests.

2. You are presenting your inaugural lecture 'Becoming hybrid: cybogs, animality, VR and embodiment' next week, in with you will be talking about 'cyborg theatre'; How do you think the ways in which we study/watch theatre will change in the future?

I think some of the ways we understand theatre, especially mainstream theatre, have changed pretty drastically over the past few decades, although I’d stress that many of the changes have historical precedents. One notable change, for example, is that we, as contemporary audiences, are now well-accustomed to participating physically—through site-specific productions, promenade performances, being asked to participate or engage with emerging technologies such as gaming devices, mobile phones, and so on. Another change is that technologies have become ubiquitous in performance (so there is really no need to even specify ‘multimedia performance’ anymore). Through these changes we will continue to see more experimentation with emerging technologies in form and content. Artists have always taken advantage of the tools around them, and these are traditions that have long been a part of evolving historical theatre practices. One of the things that is changing now is a concerted attempt to engage audiences through immersive technologies such as Virtual or Augmented Reality (VR/AR) experiences (something we are focusing on at StoryFutures!). These will of course evolve as well. The future is always about experimentation.

3. Did you hear about the Whitney Houston holographic tour, whereby concert goers head-bobbed to a hologram of the late singer; would this be a good example of the effects of 'cyborg theatre'?

Interesting question! Well, in some ways this example is more akin to film projection, in that it is a new way of mediating the image (here in holographic form). Yet it is an example of an intersection between her live and recorded concerts and this new technology, so you could consider it cyborgean. For me, the term ‘cyborg theatre’ was develop to find a way to theorise media performance works I was seeing (largely in the late 1990s and early twenty-first century) in which theatre artists were increasingly using screens and other technologies on stage in ways that made me understand embodiment in a technological era differently. Bodies were merged with, fragmented by, and danced alongside their digital doubles in ways that made a comment about the intersection of these rapidly growing technological forms and live bodies. For me these were ‘cyborg’ bodies.  

4. Do you think the use of VR makes theatre more immersive? Or do you think the lack of 'live' theatre, and disconnect from the audience would make it feel more distant?

It really depends on how it is used. I went to the production at the Young Vic, Draw Me Close, which took spectators one at a time into an immersive VR world to share the experience of a son learning about his mother’s cancer diagnosis. In the headset, as the son, you ender an evocatively hand-drawn depiction of ‘your’ childhood house, and become completely immersed in this world and your memories. It then becomes a moving and intimate realization that you are interacting with live ‘Mother’ there in the room with you, who hugs you and tucks you into a bed. This experience really allowed you to be fully immersed in the story as a character while also being fully embodied in the space with another actor. While much of the VR in theatre I have experienced is in segments that isolate you as a viewer—for example, in Curious Directive’s Frogman, the audience sits on either side of the playing area and watches a live actor for much of the piece, but periodically is asked to put on VR headsets to see scenes from the character’s childhood, or follow elements of the story—I think there is potential for it to be explored further for its potentials around embodiment, gender, identity. It may be that Augmented Reality (AR) is better suited for this exploration, since it allows you to see both the image in the glasses as well as through into the space you are in. We shall see!

5. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway?

The thing I have enjoyed the most about working at Royal Holloway so far is getting to know such a diverse range of generous and interesting people. The work being done in Drama, Theatre and Dance is incredibly rich and forward-thinking and I am always stimulated by the array of ideas being worked on by my colleagues. As I have gotten to know the other Departments in my School more closely, I am triply stimulated and see such possibilities for interdisciplinary growth and exchange. 

6. How do you like to spend your time outside of work?

I go to a lot of theatre! I try to go at least one a week, depending on my schedule and try to see as much variety as I can, but also anything that falls into my areas of interest around multimedia performance, animal studies, VR/AR and immersive technologies. I also try to take advantage of London and I go to exhibits and galleries and restaurants. Because I am originally from the U.S., I do travel a lot to see family and friends, as well as broader travel—I love new experiences and learning about other places and people.

7. Are there any theatre productions that you recommend?

All of them! The main thing is just to go to the theatre and support the phenomenal artists and venues in London. I see so much and can equally love a tiny experimental production or a large West End musical. I am usually stimulated by the work at the Young Vic, the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Barbican, Battersea Arts Centre, the Vaults Festival—too many too chose from really! I did recently see Far Away, one of my favourite plays by the brilliant Caryl Churchill (our Theatre here is named after her) at the Royal Court, a play always worth seeing. My recommendation is to find the kind of theatre that excites you and makes you want to go again.