The Intermedial Kingdom of Bodies: A Narratological Analysis of the Live-Animated-Avatar Performance The Kingdom of Shadows
Maya Arad Yasur*
In this paper, I analyze the intermedial hierarchy of embodiment modes—from live to virtual bodies—in the live animated avatar performance The Kingdom of Shadows and show how it also serves as a narratological hierarchy. A narratological analysis can shed light on the dramaturgical effect and potential of intermediality to create complex theatre narratives, as well as elucidate the hierarchy of the live over the mediatized in intermedial discourse.
Keywords: theatre narratology, intermediality, performative narrator, embodiment, avatar, live animation, performance analysis
“Intermediality is about changes in theatre practice and thus about changing perceptions of performance,” write Chapple and Kattenbelt (12). In this paper, I analyze the intermedial hierarchy of embodiment modes—from live to virtual bodies—in the live animated avatar performance The Kingdom of Shadows and show how it also serves as a narratological hierarchy. A narratological analysis can shed light on the dramaturgical effect and potential of intermediality to create complex theatre narratives, as well as elucidate the hierarchy of the live over the mediatized in intermedial discourse.
Israeli artist Amir Yatziv’s The Kingdom of Shadows, presented at the Israel Festival 2021, invites its audience to explore, among other things, the tension between a phenomenal body, meaning “the actor’s bodily being in the world” as Erika Fischer-Lichte puts it (76), and a virtual body—the live representation of a character by an avatar. The presence of an avatar on stage, which is both animated by a live performer on stage and mediatized on screen, challenges the concept of liveness in theatre and performance—the defining characteristic of performance in comparison to mediatized events. The liveness of a theatre performance is constituted by the bodily co-presence of actors and spectators, which generates a feedback loop; a mutual influence of spectators on actors and vice versa, which keeps a performance unpredictable to a certain degree, as Fischer-Lichte argues (38).
Another concept central to performance in comparison to mediatized events is that of presence. Presence, says, Fischer-Lichte, is exclusive to human beings and excludes objects and electronic media. The latter may create the impression of presence, meaning they make presence appear, but they do not bring forth the bodies with their material physicality (Fischer-Lichte 100). Chapple and Kattenbelt, too, argue that the medial exchange between the bodies of performers and the bodies of spectators is so considerable that no technologically produced media can compete with it (20). These scholars argue for a hierarchy of the presence of the phenomenal body over the mediatized body. However, on the contemporary stage, as Robin Nelson argues, the performer is just one of many signifiers, alongside microphones, cameras, monitors, laptop PCs, projection screens, motion sensors and other technologies (23). In the case of an avatar animated by a live performer present on the stage, the line between live and mediatized is so blurred that the dichotomy between them may no longer be relevant.
In The Kingdom of Shadows, theatre actress Neta Spiegelman is present on stage, wearing a motion capture suit. On a screen behind her we see an animated pre-recorded male character standing in the forest. A female character enters the frame, and we quickly realize that Neta and the character are moving and reacting simultaneously. The character is Neta’s avatar and is being live-animated by Neta’s movements in the motion capture suit so that every movement or expression Neta makes is manifested in her avatar. Next to Neta on stage, a live actor represents a computer game director named Takashi, who is running a computer game audition for the characters animated by Neta. Takashi is auditioning the animated characters through their screen, while Neta, animating them, is present on stage. The co-presence of the phenomenal bodies of live performers (Neta and Elyia), a semiotic body of a live character (Takashi), the virtual body of a live-animated avatar (the three female actresses represented by Neta) and the virtual body of a pre-recorded avatar, all interacting in front of a live audience, opens a gap for the exploration of the interrelations between bodies and modes of embodiment on the contemporary intermedial stage.
Robin Nelson defines the intermedial theatre stage as multiple and interrelational, searching to explore the relations between the media on stage, defining it in terms of both–and: “Intermedial theatre may be both physically based and on-screen; experiences may be both actual and virtual; spaces may be both public and private; bodies may be both present and absent” (17). I argue in this paper that those relations between different media on stage correspond to different levels of narrative structure, as described by different classical and postclassical narratologists. Seymour Chatman and Gerald Prince (26–48) describe narrative through a two-tiered structure: the story level (histoire) includes events, characters and the setting—it can be roughly defined as the content; and the discourse level (discours) refers to the means of communication of the story to the addressees. According to Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, a narrative text is a hierarchical structure in which the highest level is the level of overall narration of all the levels of the story. Underneath it, there are lower story levels, and each character within the story can narrate another story to another character and become the narrator of that story. Such a narrative level is called a hypodiegetic level in which the narrator is a hypodiegetic narrator (91).
This paper seeks to analyze the narratological impact of the interrelations between different modalities of embodiment as featured in The Kingdom of Shadows, exploring the hierarchy between all these modes of embodiment: from the virtual (mediatized) body of the live-animated-avatar to that of the pre-recorded avatar, to the semiotic body of the live character and, finally, the phenomenal body of the performer. Such an analysis proposes a narratological shift in discussions of intermediality and shows how intermedial strategies impact the content level of a theatre performance, or how form and content intertwine.
My methodology will employ a narratological analysis, exploring the narrative level that each of these embodiment modes has, and their fluidity to shift between levels. Narratology is productive here because a narrative structure of discourse-story-fabula (Bal 5–6) corresponds to the different modes of embodiment and captures the impact that every medium in the performance, and their intermedial interrelations, has on the content transmitted to the audience, as my analysis will show.
Modes of Embodiment in The Kingdom of Shadows
Fischer-Lichte argues that corporeality on both production and perception levels depends on the tension between processes of embodiment and the phenomenon of presence; between “having” a body and “being” a body (76–77). By embodiment, Fischer-Lichte refers to the transformation of the actor’s phenomenal body into a semiotic one, serving as a material carrier of meaning (78). The Kingdom of Shadows demonstrates different modes of embodiment: from a live actor embodying a character to virtual embodiment (through technologies such as VR or motion capture).
When analyzing The Kingdom of Shadows from a purely theatrical point of view, four modes of embodiment can be identified:
- a non-embodied performance, where actress Neta Spiegelman is moving on stage as herself, without any mode of representation—the performer operating a motion suit;
- a virtual embodiment where Neta embodies three different avatars;
- an NPC (non-player character) embodiment, which is a pre-animated (non-live) and pre-recorded male character on screen;
- a live phenomenal (as opposed to virtual) embodiment of actor Elyia Tsuchida representing the computer game director Takashi on stage.
If we observe the embodiment mode of each character in the performance, in Elyia’s case there is a (relative) unity between his phenomenal body and his semiotic body. At the same time, the male NPC lacks a phenomenal body altogether, and in the case of Neta we see a split between her phenomenal body and three different semiotic bodies she embodies.
Narrative Levels of The Kingdom of Shadows
While Chatman and Prince are concerned mostly with literary narrative, the two narrative levels of story and discourse can be identified in every theatre performance as well. The story level is the level where characters, not performers, operate. It is the level where the NPC, the three animated-live-characters of the three female computer-game-characters and director Takashi are all operating. The intermedial interrelations take place on the discourse level—where the live actors Neta and Elyia are performing on stage, together with the animation on screen. The discourse level is the level of mediation, and it is the level that theatre analysis should focus on, rather than on the on the story level of characters and events, as narratologist Monika Fludernik argues (6).
But what is the mediation level in theatre? Fludernik offers two different narratological models of theatre. The first model considers the dramatic text—the playtext—as the discourse level of the theatre narrative, whereas the performance level is considered an optional level. The second model, which Fludernik defines as radical and not her preference, considers the performance itself as the discourse level of the theatre narrative. According to such a model, each production is the discourse level from which the audience can extract the fictional universe (362–6). From the point of view of performance studies, this second model is not radical at all, considering that most scholars—including Chapple and Kattenbelt—agree that the bodies of the performers are the medium of theatre together with the bodies of the spectators, and therefore the performance level is the mediation level—the discourse level of the theatre narrative.
Hans Belting, who studies the interrelations between image, media and body, argues that bodies serve as a living medium through which we perform, perceive, project or remember images (31). Whereas there is a relative consensus that the bodily co-presence of performers and spectators is essentially the medium of theatre, Kattenbelt argues further that theatre is unique in its ability to incorporate all other arts without depending of any of them to still be considered theatre (32). Additionally, in the introduction of their book, Intermediality in Theatre and Performance, Kattenbelt and Chapple describe the junction points of meetings between different media as the place where intermediality in theatre and performance is located (18). The theatre offers a space where realities “in between performer, computer-generated realities and the audience perception of those realities is realized in performance” (19). Following this intermedial approach, and considering the different medialities of body representations on stage, I offer a narratological analysis of the performance in which each medial level functions as a narrative level.
An Intermedial-Narratological Analysis
If the body of the performer is the medium of a character, then the body of actor Elyia is the narrating agent of the discourse level of computer-game director Takashi and the body of Neta is the narrating agent of the discourse level of the three characters auditioning for the computer game. According to Mieke Bal, the discourse level, which she calls text, is the level in which an agent conveys the story to recipients by converting it into signs. The agent of the discourse level which converts the story into signs to communicate it to recipients, according to Bal, is the narrator (9),and thus we can say that the body of Elyia is the (performative) narrator of Takashi, and that Neta is the narrator of the three auditioning characters. What we see narratologically is two live performers performatively narrate the story in which a computer game director is auditioning three characters.
But is it only the phenomenal body of the actor on the discourse level that narrates the semiotic character on the story level? Kati Röttger points at the multifunctional aspect of the actor, saying that “An actor (as body and as a human being) is simultaneously producer, product, medium, and material of his or her work” (“An Actor in the Age of Cloning” 33). Translating Röttger’s observation to narratology, we can say that the actor is both a narrator (producer) of the character and the character itself (product), while the process of narration is the process of embodiment; of turning from a phenomenological body to a semiotic one, or of becoming a character. Such an observation is aligned with Philip Auslander’s quest for the self of different actors in the same character (28–38).
Auslander presents an overview of theorists and directors who perceived the self of the actor as the logos of performance. The exposure of the self, he observes, serves as the entrance to human truths (30). The human truths are the story narrated by the actor’s self, which includes body. Stanislavski, as Auslander shows, treats actor and character as autonomous entities. The actor has to find their own emotions, which are analogous to those of the character they are representing. Brecht, on the other hand, separates actor from character, suggesting that the self of the actor must be present in the character, while remaining the authority over the character (30). Lastly, Auslander points at some genres of the post-dramatic theatre which gave up character altogether, structuring performances around the personae of the performers as their self-presentation (41).
When looking at the different acting modes of The Kingdom of Shadows, while Elyia is using the conventional acting mode identified with Stanislavski, Neta is a post-dramatic actress, presenting herself as she is. She is not wearing a costume nor makeup, she is pregnant, and she does not hide her pregnancy, wearing tight black clothes under her motion capture suit. Although she is operating characters with her suit, she is not hiding the fact that she is changing characters by using different voices and gestures; her own self, both in terms of body and expressions, is revealed.
In a personal interview with Amir and Neta, I inquired how much the smiles of the avatars are influenced by Neta’s. Amir responded, “If another actress would have animated those three avatars, they would definitely have different smiles.” Thus, what we see is the presentation of Neta of herself on stage, of an actress wearing a motion capture suit, making movements and voices to impersonate the characters on the screen. She is not even trying to hide the technical difficulties involved in the attempt to keep the synchronization with the screen. In the same interview, Neta stated that it took a long time before she and Amir realized that she needs her own little screen on stage to see the live consequences of her movements and correct them on the spot. So, what we see is an actress not only playing characters, but also struggling to make sense of their movements and the direction of their gaze on the screen. For example, when the character is speaking to the NPC standing to her right, Neta has to turn to the left. When the character is trying to communicate to Takashi on her left, Neta has to turn to the right. “I was constantly inside and outside,” Neta says. “It is similar to working with a mirror, but on stage you never walk around with a mirror in front of your face.”
Another aspect of live-animation that Neta and Amir struggled with was facial expression. The avatar’s facial expressions are very limited. Normally, when we see complex animation of facial expression, it will not be live-animated, but the delicate post-production work of an animator, Amir explains. One of Neta’s characters is crying, but the avatar cannot shed tears and the eyebrows cannot show distress. “The avatar can only lift both eyebrows together,” Amir and Neta explain. Therefore, every time her character cries, Neta turns around and moves her shoulders. Then, she turns back, as if she wiped her tears. What we see is the discourse level—the how—of Neta narrating the story—and the what—of the character.
In a way, the self of Neta on the stage resonates with the relationship Jerzy Grotowski defined between actor and character. Grotowski tries to free his actor from the time that separates inner impulse from outer reaction. Ideally, for Grotowski, the impulse is the reaction and the spectator sees the body as a series of visible impulses in an acting process that converts the body as material into energy (Fischer-Lichte 82). When we look at Neta alone, without comparing her to her characters on the screen, what we see is an actress in a series of dissected movements and impulses. As Fischer-Lichte puts it: “the body acts as embodied mind” (82). While what we see on the stage is the phenomenal body in a series of visible impulses, those are translated into the semiotic characters on the screen. In narratological terms, the narrator and the process of narrating are visible to the spectators. In intermedial terms, what we see is hypermediacy, which aims, according to Chapple and Kattenbelt, to remind the spectator of the medium (14). Such a process is described by Röttger as a vortex of intermediality which enables “the co-constitution of the theatrical event by the audience” (“The Mystery of the In-between” 12), since it includes the beholder’s perspective, shifting between the medium and the mediated.
While for Stanislavsky the performer/the medium/the narrator is invisible, hiding behind the character, the use of live animated avatars and the split between the avatar and the performer show that the narrator and the character are separated agents. The characteristics of the virtual bodies of Neta’s avatars are given: each one has a certain hair style, hair color, facial features, body features, clothing, etc. All three avatars embodied by Neta have nothing in common with Neta’s body, and they are certainly not pregnant. Fischer-Lichte mentions strategies such as cross-casting as leading to oscillation; the spectator is caught between the phenomenal body and the semiotic body, switching focus from the one to the other (88). With motion capture live animation in which the body of the animator is present, this state of oscillation becomes apparent as the semiotic and the phenomenal bodies split. The characters not only look different than Neta, but they exist in different spaces (stage versus screen) and on different media (body versus screen). Neta, her body and her self as a human being, is what gives them a mind—her own mind and her interpretation of her character. The avatars themselves, without Neta’s mind and impulses, are hollow vessels; if another performer were to animate those same characters, they will appear the same yet be different—have different expressions, different temperament, different reactions.
Returning to the hierarchy of media and modes of embodiment, we might argue for the superiority of this hybrid creature, which is both live and mediatized over the live character (Takashi) and the NPC. The fact that the live animated avatars have both a body and a mind, that they have impulses and the live possibility of acting and reacting, not only gives them an advantage over the NPC, but it also gives them the power to operate on different narrative levels: while the NPC cannot exit the computer game and Takashi cannot get into the computer game, Neta’s live animated characters are the only ones who can live in both worlds. Moreover, while Neta is operating on the discourse level as the main narrator, her characters operate on the first story level (the story of a director auditioning characters for a computer game, communicating directly with the live character Takashi) and on the hypodiegetic level of the story, as described by Rimmon-Kenan, within story level (the computer game story in which a female character communicates with the NPC in the forest).
Takashi is a character, embodied by an actor, therefore restricted to the first story level, with no ability to move from one level to the other. The only moment that the split between his phenomenal body and the semiotic body that he embodies becomes visible is during the applause when he gets out of the Takashi character and presents himself as Elyia. Similarly, the male NPC is restricted to the lower hypodiegetic narrative level—in the story within the story level (that of the computer game that Takashi and the live-animated characters, who came for an audition for Takashi’s game, are operating).
Neta’s avatars can shift between levels and Neta is their (performative) narrator. We could say that Neta the actress/narrator uses the three different avatars as her own actress alter egos, featuring three approaches, statuses and phases of an actresses’ relationship with big known directors, and that she is using her characters and her power to exist in all narrative levels to speak directly to Takashi through the screen. For example: the first avatar she embodies features an enthusiastic actress in the beginning of her career who begs for the director’s attention, while the second avatar is that of an experienced and confident actress, who knows the director personally and is aware of her strength, which enables her to oppose the fact that she is being asked to audition. She talks directly to Takashi, and she says what is on her mind, but when he gets annoyed, he laughs, together with the NPC, and by pushing a button, he starts a heavy rain in the forest, knowing the characters cannot get out. For a moment, we might think that Takashi is in the top of the narrative hierarchy because he has control over the video game, but that is not true because Neta can choose at any given moment to either take a few steps to the side and get out of the frame, or take the motion capture suit off altogether, which makes the character’s virtual body collapse like a fleshless skin. It is a virtual suicide committed by the embodied mind, but it is also a form of freedom the others do not have. Elyia can get out of character but he cannot leave his own body. Therefore, Neta’s characters, containing and operated by Neta’s mind, are more empowered than Takashi, who is confined to his phenomenal body and therefore to the space.
Intermediality as a Narratological Performative Act
One of the main concerns on the discourse of intermediality in performance is whether it is possible (and if so, how) to understand intermediality as a performative act. Kattenbelt states that in the process of theatricalisation, “the other media become ‘signs of signs’ as opposed to ‘signs of objects’” (37). What we see on the intermedial stage of The Kingdom of Shadows is a narratological chain of signs and stories. We see a narratological chain of story levels in which Neta is a performer animating (performatively narrating) live the avatar, but we also see the actor Elyia performatively narrating a live character (Takashi). Since narratology is traditionally a literary theory, and since, as Bal defines the act of narration as converting the story into signs that belong to a certain medium, the narrative act in literature is the conversion of the stories into text. The narrative act in theatre, however, is not a literary narration, but a performative narration—the performative narrator narrates the story components, such as character, into performative acts. Such a conclusion supports Kattenbelt’s proposal that intermediality in performance is about staging media: staging as a performative act that changes the interrelations between the materiality, mediality and their modes of perception (Bay-Cheng et al. 27). Thus, the act of (performative) narration in theatre is a performative act, and the chain of story levels, performatively narrated by the bodies in different modes of embodiment on stage, presents a hierarchical relationship between different mediatized bodies, as we can see when comparing the NPC to Takashi.
While the NPC is pre-recorded and has no freedom to react in any other way than the recorded one, Takashi, as a live embodied character, although pre-scripted, has some control over the recording and also his body—being able to react to the live action on stage. Yet, despite his corporeal presence on stage, he is not above the live animated characters, despite their mediatization. Being possessed by a live-corporeal-embodied mind, the live avatars have more power than all the other characters, able to operate on different narrative levels and media. The avatars animated live on stage are intermedial; they have both a virtual and phenomenal body, both a body and a mind, following Chapple and Kettenbelt’s “both–and” approach to intermediality. The live animated avatars have the mind of a live actress yet a virtual body, a combination that gives them the superpower that Takashi and the NPC do not have: vanishing altogether.
 See Richard Schechner (2002). Also, Fischer-Lichte mentions Max Hermann, the founder of theatre studies in Berlin, who said that theatre is constituted by performance and not drama and she quotes him: “drama is the textual creation of an individual, theatre is the achievement of the audience and its servants” (30).
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*Maya Arad Yasur is a PhD candidate at Tel-Aviv University. In her research, supervised by Prof. Gad Kaynar Kissinger and Prof. Kati Röttger, she is formulating a theory of theatre narratology where she applies concepts from classical and postclassical narratology on theatre performances. Her MA thesis Focalizing Bodies: Visual Narratology in the Post-Dramatic Theatre was published by Tectum Verlag in 2011. Maya is also a playwright known for her knotty and complex fractured narratives. Her plays (among others: Amsterdam, Suspended, God Waits at the Station) are published and staged worldwide. She is the recipient of the Berliner Theatertreffen Stückemarkt award, the Habima award and the playwriting prize of the International Theatre Institute (ITI).
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