Put simply, Intermedial Play is the process of negotiating the hierarchy between different media types or forms of art within a single work. I developed the concept while observing the creation and performance of a new show by Monica Bill Barnes & Company and Ira Glass called Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host as part of my Master's thesis research at New York Univeristy.
The live show is a mix of radio stories and dance tied together with a delicate overlay of technology. Let's all watch the trailer together before we go any further:
One of the challenges when creating intermedial works is the tendency for one of the media types to take over, obstructing or even obliterating the others. For example, an action-adventure movie where the CGI effects eclipse the acting. The opposite occurs, too, where an extra "thing" that serves no purpose is tossed in; for example, a dance performance with a superfluous video projection behind it. The projection seems to be there for its own sake, adds nothing to the performance, and could be removed with little impact.
Figuring out the hierarchy between all these media types is the process of Intermedial Play. Getting it "right" is entirely subjective, and has to do with the creator's intent and the spectator's interpretation. It is one of those "we know it when we see it" feelings.
In Three Acts, the challenge had a lot to do with Glass' tendency to pull the focus from the dancers. First, he is actually speaking to the audience; his performance is presentational, to pull in some theater aesthetic terminology. The dancers, on the other hand, have for the most part a representational relationship with the audience. They communicate the words spoken or played back by Glass in an indirect manner. The result of this was that parts of early performances often came across as "Ira Glass and His Backup Dancers."
Another challenge was that Glass himself is a well-known public radio personality, which pre-figured the orientation of the audience toward him and away from the lesser-known dancers. And on top of that, Glass, through the ingenious use of his iPad and some backstage technology, was in total control of the pacing of each show.
Barnes and Glass were able to solve these challenges through Intermedial Play. A simple, but profound change stands out:
The opening number of the show features Glass coming on stage and setting up his podium. As he does this, the dancers perform a raucous opening number using the Mini-Met (the tiny, portable proscenium you see in trailer). The end of the opening number originally had Glass standing downstage center with the dancers kneeling on either side, gesturing up to him. That blatant tableau of patriarchal hierarchy is bound to resonate with an audience and sets up a hierarchy that was hard to shift during the rest of the show.
The fix for this was for all three of them to kneel at the end of the opening number, thus putting Glass and the dancers on an equal level. Simple, but profound, and there are many more examples of intermedial play happening throughout their continued rehearsal process.
The question for me is where to take this next. I've identified and named the concept, I see it happening all around me, and I think it has value as a critical process for analyzing and creating the kind of interdisciplinary works that have become so commonplace.
I'd welcome any thoughts you have below, and watch this space as I explore where I can take Intermedial Play next.
Photo by David Bazemore.