I’ve often wondered whether the audience in front of me would have got a better show if I’d pressed play on a particularly good studio take, and bobbed my head to my email inbox instead. My thing is a kind of improvised film, but anybody who has used a laptop on stage must have felt something similar at some point. My instinct is to better that GUI, or turn that software into something legible for the audience. As a designer I’d need a way of reasoning about the situation… and not being able to reason about live events was the thread that kept on pulling.

That thread led to a place on the Media and Arts Technology programme at Queen Mary University of London, and some years later, a PhD dissertation.

Live performances involve complex interactions between a large number of co-present people. Performance has been defined in terms of these performer–audience dynamics, but little is known about how they work. A series of live performance experiments investigate these dynamics, through teaching a humanoid robot some stagecraft, contrasting live and recorded performance, and spotlighting the audience. This requires the development of methods capable of capturing the fleeting responses of people within an audience and making sense of the resulting massed multi-modal data.

The results show that in live events interaction matters. Extending the idea that our experience of performance is shaped by interactions with others, namely by talking with people afterwards, analogous social patterns are identified within the event. Specifically, some of the interactional dynamics well established for close, dyadic encounters extend to performers and audience members, despite the somewhat anonymised nature of massed audiences. While individual performer–audience effects were identified, the primary axis of social interaction is shown to be between audience members. This emphasises how it is being in an audience – common across diverse performance genres – that shapes the experience of live events.

This work argues that the term liveness is ill-defined, but need not be. These interactional dynamics have a functional basis and depend solely on what is externally manifest. Understanding liveness in this way allows a perspicuous account – relating the perceptual environment within the event to the social contingency of experience – and can provide a systematic basis for design.

Also: About the live in live cinema, which in many ways is everything I had to cut out in the early days of the PhD. There’s an academic essay as part of it.