Cambridge Revisited?: Simulation, Methodology, and Phenomenology in the Study of Theatre History
This essay proposes that in addition to the pursuit of affordances, the development of digital tools for early modern theatre historical research would benefit from an explicit taxonomy of limitations. The Simulated Environment for Theatre (SET) was originally designed to simulate the defining conditions of theatricality at a time when the research team understood theatricality to be methodological, something that is enacted or done. The conditions of methodological theatricality are that performance elements have unexpected functions, participants have individual agency, and performance takes place in specific social contexts. We simulated these conditions with limited success. In the process of reconstructing the temporary stage used at Queens’ College, Cambridge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we were necessarily more engaged in a phenomenological understanding of theatricality as something that is experienced. The conditions of phenomenological theatricality are arguably even more difficult to simulate, since they include the materiality of the people and things that make meaning in performance, the semiotics by which material elements are interpretable, and the reception of performance by individually situated human beings. Our conclusion is that it may not possible to simulate theatricality from either conceptual approach at all. Nonetheless, digital tools might instead offer affordances arising out of their limitations. The SET system, for example, has made our theatre historical research more efficient, transparent, and vividly illustrated; it has opened up theoretical discourses and design rhetorics for the creation and critique of other tools and methods; and the collaborative work it has necessitated has fostered a generative intellectual community.