Reflecting on the use of projected animation and biblical narrative in Water Baby.
The combined dramaturgical use of projected animation and biblical narrative in Water Baby serves its political content and its intention to provoke a critical rather than emotional response. These devices also demonstrate problematic elements of Water Baby and highlight avenues for development and improvement.
Water Baby is an artistic response to the current political debate centred on asylum seekers and their refused entry into Australia. The piece explores this debate via two key theatrical devices: the use of the biblical narrative Noah’s Ark, and a mixing of media by integrating projected two dimensional (2D) animation. The combination of traditional narrative and contemporary media to tell the refugee story is both innovative and experimental and, as argued by Jeffers, this contemporary edge aims to “expedite and enhance engagement” with the audience (149). The dramaturgical devices used in Water Baby to stimulate and guide the spectator’s reception create a distancing effect associated with Brecht’s Epic theatre. Water Baby fits within the Epic theatre structure by narrating an event on stage as opposed to embodying an event, and by encouraging a critical rather than emotional response (Mumford 80). A distancing effect is achieved though the aesthetic and gesture of the mise en scene, stylised by the use of animation, and the intentional use of fictional narrative rather than testimonial. In addition to achieving a critical response, these dramaturgies serve the political crux of the piece by exposing the negative semantics employed by the government and media in representation of the Other, and reinforcing the privilege and responsibility of the Australian self. Despite their success in achieving a distancing effect, the use of a biblical narrative is problematic in the Christian associations it carries and the use of animation in its intermedial role is underdeveloped.
Water Baby reacts to the observation of a specifically Australian stigma attached to refugees. This stigma posits them as alien, unworthy, unwelcome and incapable of integration. The Australian government and media inflate our nationalistic pride, which in turn feeds the negative associations they attach to the refugee outsider. Water Baby attempts to confront these negative tropes and stigmas and accentuate our privilege through the use of animation and narrative. Water Baby attacks the ‘Aussie pride’ associated with water: our aquatic ability and agility, our prowess in lane four, our beach culture and Great Barrier Reef, while simultaneously alluding to our ocean borders and the boats which try to cross it. Our privilege is staged through the character of Noah who is ‘a very good swimmer’, heroically makes the ark to save others from the flood and, unlike Javis the refugee, is pulled out and rescued from drowning. The attack on our aquatic privileges is thematically linked to the “perceived threat” floating on our sea girt borders (Jeffers 27). The ‘risk’ refugee’s pose on our national safety and integrity is a construction generated and perpetuated by the government and media, and their representation of refugees.
A recent article in The Age questions the “strict control of information being run from the Prime Minister’s Office” (Hall). The article exposes how the government’s secrecy and control dictates the representation of the refugee in Australia’s media. The media’s crafted and manipulated information has, since the Howard government, dehumanised the refugee, reducing their status to “animals” (Gilbert and Lo 186) and “parasites” (Jeffers 49).
Jeffers explains the labels, rhetoric’s and tropes attached to asylum seekers are consequential of the “negative semantic slide” (5), which is locatable in almost all terminology surrounding refugees. For example, in the term asylum seeker, ‘seeker’ alludes to an active agent who wants something; automatically creating a “sense of threat”, while ‘asylum’ connotes someone who is unstable and removed from society (Jeffers 6). In addition, the media has created ominous and widespread metaphor such as the apocalyptic flood and the domestic door metaphor (Jeffers 28). Wake further reminds us of the rhetoric that politicians use when trying to warn us that we are in danger of being ‘swamped’ by a ‘rising tide’ or a ‘flood’ of ‘boat people’; an ‘armada’ of ‘illegal immigrants’. This rhetoric provides a satisfying link to Water Baby’s use of the Noah’s Ark narrative and its attack of Australia’s proud and privileged water culture. Through the dramaturgical use of projected animation and biblical narrative, Water Baby recognises and reacts to the dishonest and unfair prejudices the government and media perpetuate. However, as will be set out below, a more sophisticated use of the animation could accentuate, destabilise and demolish these media generated deceits.
The digitally projected, black and white, two-dimensional animation used in Water Baby alludes to the virtual and predetermined nature of the media who disseminate the ‘fearful’ refugee. The animation is used to illustrate the hostile slamming of the door when Noah finally reaches land, and the turbulent floodwaters the ark sails across. In this way the virtual projection compliments and links the political rhetoric’s located in the water theme and the ark story, gesturing towards but not challenging the media labels and rhetoric’s. In its current state, the animation functions to support and drive the narrative through illustration and evokes a distancing effect, which aids in the dramaturgical intention of producing critical engagement with the spectator. However, if Water Baby were to embrace its intermedial nature and accentuate its hypermediality by staging contradiction between media, it could potentially develop a destabilisation of the political tropes of apocalyptic floods and the dehumanisation of the refugee.
Water Baby’s current inter-connection of media serves the narrative through illustration and generates the intended critical response by creating a Brechtian distancing effect. The performer’s actions in Water Baby are dictated by a rehearsed and precise choreography as opposed to a script. This produces a gestural rather than naturalistic style of acting, similar to that proposed by Brecht who agues against the “detached state” (187) naturalism produces in its audiences, and vouches instead for a style which produces a distanced but engaged and critical response. The performer’s negotiation of the animation and transformable object (sheet/screen) produces a separation of these elements associated with the Brechtian “act of ‘showing that you are showing’” (Mumford 59). For example, the hanging of the sheet and the choreography of working with the animation are made explicit through the performer’s gesture, the lighting, and the time allocated to show these elements so they are not “hidden behind a veil” (Brecht 194). Separating and emphasising the theatrical devices exposes theatre as theatre and creates a “critical distance and awareness of the mediums coming together” (Nelson 20). The critical distance typical to Epic theatre is achieved in Water Baby by the gestural performance style required from using diverse media on stage, and showing the mechanics of their use. Emphasising the awareness of these media through an increased hypermediacy would maintain the desired distancing effect and further develop the politics of the piece by accentuating the truth/myth binary surrounding refugees.
Hypermediacy relates to the way that media in intermedial performance refer to and are “seen in relation to one another”; as Kilch and Scheer argue hypermediacy is unavoidable where a virtual/real binary exists, such as that between the performer and projected animation (76). Parker-Starbuck describes how emphasising the staged dichotomy between live body and technology can be developed to “destabilise” binaries (6). Accentuating the performer/animation relationship by introducing contradiction, so that the mediums are juxtaposing rather than supporting, would be an expansion of the hypermediacy and what Brecht calls the “gest of showing” (Brecht 203). A staged contradiction in what is digitally represented and what is ontologically shown could be used to dramaturgically represent and destabilise the truth/myth binary regarding the government’s imposed value of refugees. Making this developmental change also fits with what Kilch and Scheer recognise as the suitability of intermedial theatre in commenting on the way that media affects our everyday attitudes (208).
In its current stage Water Baby uses mixed media appropriately to support its narrative and engage a critical response, but it does not fully accept intermedial theatre’s invitation for the spectator to navigate the real/virtual contradictions on stage and “become aware of precisely this instability in the reality we live in” (Groot Nibbelink and Merx, 220). It could therefore be argued that Water Baby falls short of fully encompassing what Brecht advocates as theatre’s responsibility “to speak up decisively for the interests of its own time” (201). Further more, the staging of contradictions is at the heart of Brecht’s dialectical thinking, which posits contradictions as the source of change and progressive development (Mumford 85). Brecht’s dialectics, which recognises the “political significance of contradictions” (Mumford 85) and encourages a critical response, could also be explored through an increased juxtaposition between the live and virtual representations in Water Baby. Kattenbelt explains that a dialectical approach is eminent where hypermedia occurs since the “framed” or “staged” performativity of the media generates an “aesthetic orientation” independent to the external world (31), this implicates and involves the audience’s internal logic as thinkers and critics (36). A proposed direction for development would therefore be that Water Baby embrace and embody its hypermediality by staging contrasting semiotics in its virtual and ontological presentations. This could be achieved through a degeneration of the media (animation), which would support the ontology in the beginning of the piece and slowly begin to take on opposition and contradictions. This suggestion relates to the intermedial dramaturgy of Water Baby, additional room for improvement also exists in the dramaturgical choice of using Noah’s Ark as a valid but problematic vehicle for exploring the piece’s politics.
Water Baby participates in the larger artistic response as a counter to the “pernicious dehumanisation of asylum seekers in government and media discourse” (Gilbert and Lo 191). Rather than re-humanising the refugee through a testimonial approach, Water Baby attempts to lay bare the media’s modes of de-humanisation through using a fictional, canonical narrative which positions a privileged Australian (Noah) as protagonist rather than victimised refugee. As argued above, the attack on refugee’s dehumanisation is underachieved through the intermedial dramaturgy, however, it is realized in the diegetic dramaturgy of Noah’s story. In its refusal of a testimonial approach Water Baby also achieves its objective of provoking a critical rather than emotional response. However the biblical nature of the ark story poses difficulties.
In comparing the story Noah’s Ark to the present political representation and condition of asylum seekers, ironic and coincidental links become visible. These connections occur on a level deeper than the shared water theme discussed earlier. That God defies the vehemence of mankind and His apocalyptic response is to wipe out their violence with a flood and save the innocent via boat, is reflective of the flood rhetoric employed by media to negate the refugee victims who flee the violence of their country by boat. The ‘salvation by boat’ element of the story is ironically glorified in The Bible’s story, while the actual ‘boat people’ are negated and dehumanised by the current media. This ironic contrast is exposed in the representation of the ark and its metonymic reference to ‘boat people’ (see figure 1). In this scene irony exists in the juxtaposition of the glorified ark from the biblical tale and the threatening, negated ‘boat’ in political discourse. The subtlety of this juxtaposition provides an example of the potential for further contractions to be staged which more acutely reflect the deception behind the constructed negative semantics. Through the connections between the Ark narrative and current political discourse, Water Baby alludes to the violent and hostile actions of the Australian government. This violence is initially demonstrated by the story in the ‘making of the ark’ scene (figure 2) and then further exemplified by use of the projected animation through the slamming of the door and the bird shit.
Despite the satisfying links locatable in Noah’s story and current political discourse, it is important to identify that using this story is problematic. Any Biblical tale carries with it inescapable cultural baggage and this was not acknowledged in the recent production, which could be identified as (confusingly) Christian. Jeffers explores the use of canonical works in refugee theatre and argues that the power of these works lies in their “reframing through the meta-theatrical activities which surround them…and which further dislodges them from their canonical roots”, bringing home the current political issues they are used to convey (72). The examples Jeffers uses for his argument are adaptations of Shakespeare and Euripides texts, traditional works which do not carry the same cultural and religious connotations attached to a biblical story. We can therefore not assume that by appropriating Noah’s Ark to the current political debate on asylum seekers its Christian and cultural references will be ‘dislodged’. A development of Water Baby would therefore need to address this problem. However, since the links between the story and our politics are satisfying it would be a shame not to use it as a vehicle.
The connections between Noah’s Ark and Australia’s treatment of refugees are centred on the water themes and violence of both situations. The media’s identification of refugees as “physical and moral threats” makes Australia’s rejection and hostility of them “ethically acceptable”, despite it being a violation of international human rights law (Gilbert and Lo 190). The dehumanisation and threat attached to refugees justifies the violent and unethical treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia. The ‘making of the ark’ scene in Water Baby is symbolic of God’s violent response in the narrative and Australia’s cruel necropolitics “the states arrogation of the right to determine under what political conditions Other(ed) human beings become disposable, allowed to live or exposed to death at the behest of sovereign power” (Mbembe qtd. in Gilbert and Lo 203). In order to achieve safety Noah must make and Ark and this process requires chopping down and killing a, importantly talking and feeling, tree. The command of a higher authority and the justification that the death of the tree will provide safety and shelter to Noah and others, overrides Noah’s sense of moral humanitarian responsibility. The violence exposed through the story of Noah’s Ark in this scene is later repeated in the projected animation which illustrates the ‘slamming of the door’ and the bird shitting on the seeker of refuge. These symbolic moments: the making of the ark, the closing of the door, the bird’s shit, allude to the violence inflicted on asylum seekers in Australia’s necropolitical and hostile response to their arrival. The dramaturgical devices used to show this violence aim towards a critical rather than emotional response.
This critical response is achieved in the animations distancing effect explained earlier and is further developed by the use of the fictional ark tale, which avoids the testimonial approach common to refugee theatre. The narrative focuses on the character Noah, represented in Water Baby by a privileged, white Australian. In this way Water Baby avoids the verbatim or testimonial approach to refugee theatre, which is ethically problematic and creates a cathartic response. Water Baby’s refusal of catharsis is an attempt to provoke critical thought and an engaged spectator.
A testimonial approach to refugee theatre “reproduces configurations of hegemonic power by identifying the oppressed as victims” (Gilbert and Lo 192). A true-story narrative often involves mimetic re-enactments and verbatim text that aim to excite empathy and catharsis. This type of theatre is ethically problematic and is often accused of “romanticising” (Bailey) the “traumatised refugee as an object of spectacle” (Gilbert and Lo, 192). Rather than the victimisation of the refuge, Water Baby focuses on the privileges of the white Australian by exploring water awareness and the nationalistic pride attached to it. This focus on the self represents the Other through difference as opposed to mimesis. The testimony in Water Baby is that of Noah: Biblical hero and lucky Australian.
Water Baby avoids positioning the refugee as a subject of victimisation and object of pity, “incapacitated by their ‘sadness’ or ‘trauma’” aimed to affect our sympathies and empathy (Jeffers 56). An empathetic response short lived because the spectators imagined trauma and suffering of the refugee is temporal to their witnessing of the performance, after which they inevitably return to the safety of their privileged lives. In this way it reinforces social roles rather than challenging them (Jeffers 66). A testimonial or verbatim response is also ethically problematic. Rather than attempting to use white, privileged actors to convey a refugee’s own story, Water Baby emphasises the unfair and misconstrued privilege of the white performers and consequently implicates the spectators who traditionally fall into this category. By connecting to the audience and showing the cruelty of their privilege, Water Baby asks the spectator to consider their responsibility as ordinary, theatre going, media absorbing citizens. In a testimonial performance, the staged relationship between the observer and the refugee stops at the moment that the play ends (Jeffers 161), but the reflexive relationship generated through an illustration of the self (Noah/spectator); a demonstration of our privileges, responsibilities and role, is lasting.
Water Baby’s attempt at engaging the spectator in a reflective, critical process is achieved through its intermedial use of animation and employment of the fictional narrative Noah’s Ark. These dramaturgical devices also support the political agenda of the piece. However, in its current state, the biblical narrative proves confusing and problematic as it unavoidably ties Christian and religious connotations to the play. Future development would need to address and attempt to dislodge or dismiss this these cultural extras. Additional development could also occur in the intermedial dramaturgy. By accentuating the binary between virtual animation and ontological performer, and exploring a portrayal of contradictions in the information communicated by the two media, Water Baby could better illustrate and attack the myth/reality binary created through the media’s representation of refugees and their actual humanity.
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