How hypertext scripts are changing the parameters of dramatic storytelling

by Charles Deemer

Also see my essay What Is Hypertext?

What do we do when we watch a stage play?

Traditionally, we enter a building called a theater and take a seat that faces a stage. The house lights come down, which is a signal that the play is about to begin, and when the stage lights come on, actors on stage begin talking and moving, and in this way present the action of a story. We sit in the dark in our seat and watch.

We soon begin to understand what the play, the story, is about and to distinguish between major characters, who carry the story, and minor characters, who at best carry the action of a secondary, less important story called a subplot. There may be one or several utility "walk on" roles, characters inserted for practical reasons who have few or no lines.

By the end of the play, we should be able to identify a central story and one or two subplots, which in a traditionally well-crafted play have a relationship to the main story; we also should be able to identify one or two major characters.

How do we learn these things?

We know them because the playwright has made a series of choices that skews the information we receive as stage action in favor of the main plot and the main character or characters. The action we see on stage is the focus of the play; what happens off stage does not concern us as much, if at all.

In fact, when too much action of interest to us occurs out of our focus - off stage - we are disappointed, and this failure of writing becomes a traditionally valid criticism of the play.

What the playwright presents to us in traditional theater is highly personal, an artistic skewing of a story that depends on personal choices - what to emphasize here or understate there - a personal shaping of the material that is communicated to us by the linear action we watch on stage as we sit in the dark, passively taking it in. I will call this personalized communication the traditional playwright's Single Vision.

It was William Blake who warned us about Single Vision:

                May God us keep
        From Single vision and Newton's sleep!

Hyperdrama challenges Single Vision. This new kind of theater, generated from scripts written in hypertext, challenges the notion of theater as a performance that is watched by an immobile audience sitting in a dark theater in chairs that are bolted to the floor.

In hyperdrama, the traditional linear narrative line explodes into branches, multiplying the action on a "stage" into simultaneous scenes occurring throughout a performance space. The bolted chairs of the audience are uprooted to give the audience mobility, an opportunity to follow different branches of the narrative line as they unfold into different, often distant, areas of this expanded new "stage."

The result of this explosion and uprooting is that some traditional parameters of theater lose their meaning.

For example, a main character normally is on stage more often than a minor character, the better to be the primary focus. The story in which the main character is most intimately involved is called the main plot.

But what does it mean to identify a "main character" if all performers are "on stage" - that is to say, active within the performance space - all the time, from the beginning of the play to the end?

What does it mean to identify a "main plot" if each character is associated with a fully developed story, and each of these stories is told in the performance space (albeit in different areas of that space) with the same attention and focus?

The skewing of material by the playwright in traditional theater, making choices to bring a central linear action into focus at center stage, thereby relegating other actions and moving still others entirely off stage, disappears when the narrative splits into different branches. Instead we have several narratives told at the same time, all of which are developed with equal focus, none of which are primary (more "main") to another.

But hyperdrama is not in competition with traditional theater, any more than the new physics is in competition with traditional physics. In each case, we have a new model into which the old model is welcomed as a special case. In other words, we can look at traditional drama as a special case of hyperdrama.

Consider a play that is set in the interior of a house. Imagine telling this story - "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," for example - using two different theatrical approaches:

Normally, of course, the living room set of Albee's play is built upon a stage, and we take our bolted seats in the dark theater to watch the action as if through an invisible fourth wall.

But the play also could be staged in an actual house, in which the audience members stand around the room or sit among the actors, watching the action as if each was an invisible voyeur who happened upon the scene.

If these voyeurs spent the entire play in the living room, watching the action there, then they would see the play exactly as Albee wrote it. But what if some of these voyeurs chose to follow any character who left the room?

Albee, of course, puts some of the action off stage. A hyperdramatist would write this action, since in hyperdrama we are never off stage, and each audience member would choose whether or not to stay in the living room or to follow the action elsewhere whenever that alternative presented itself.

Pursuing this off-stage action, we might choose to follow Martha and Nick when they leave together, for example, and learn for ourselves exactly what kind of hanky-panky does and does not happen between them. This direct experience obviously would tweak our understanding of the play.

In both hyperdrama and traditional theater, "off stage" means out of the performance area, but the Single Vision of traditional theater expands into parallel actions branching simultaneously throughout the space.

What normally we call "the play" becomes a special case - only one selected focus of many - of a larger hyperdrama. A traditional play is a single viewing from a single perspective of a story that is far richer and denser in experience than Single Vision can ever communicate.

From this perspective, hyperdrama is an enriching expansion of the theatrical event, both for the artist and for the audience. Since this is much easier to demonstrate than to explain, I urge you to download and look at my "hypertext sampler" from Chateau de Mort, the best known of the five hyperdramas I've had produced.

Hyperdrama is changing the meaning of dramatic narrative in ways playwrights and audiences alike are still discovering. What is clear is that this new mode of theater embraces traditional theater even as it reaches into new and no doubt surprising frontiers, redefining what it means to tell a dramatic story in live performance.