Mimesis & Realness in Media Contexts


A review of Acting Real: Mimesis and Media in Performance, by Lindsay Brandon Hunter.

In a culture where humans are surrounded with different forms of media, how does one distinguish the real from its replicated, rehearsed, or represented form? In her dissertation Acting Real: Mimesis and Media in Performance, Lindsay Brandon Hunter provides the tools to understand authenticity and realness in mediatized contexts. Her dissertation is divided into three chapters, each focusing on one site of investigation: intermedial theater, reality television, and alternative reality games. Her analyses of these performances call for a reconsideration between honest representations of reality and others that are staged or fake.

It is a common belief that authenticity is the defining characteristic that makes theatre different from cinema or television. An actor’s onstage performance—with its vulnerability to failure—appears more real and honest than if presented through film or video. Therefore, how does mediatized performance interact with the ontology of theater? Hunter answers this question in her first chapter by looking at three instances of the 1964 Broadway performance of Hamlet (the original play directed by John Gieguld and starring Richard Burton), the “Theatrofilm” version made possible by the then-new technology of “Electronovision,” and the Wooster Group’s 2007 re-staging of the Theatrofilm recording. Using media, film, and performance studies scholarship from Walter Benjamin to Philip Auslander and Donna Haraway to Peggy Phelan, Hunter challenges the conventional dichotomy between live and recorded performance. In accordance to realist acting theories developed by Constantin Stanislavski and Sanford Meisner, a good actor/actress is one that can be “in the moment,” which makes each performance true and unique. On the other hand, mediatized performances lack the authenticity and spontaneity of live acting. Gieguld’s 1964 direction of Hamlet excluded elaborate stage settings and costume in order to place emphasis on the authenticity of Burton’s acting. The Electronovision technology aimed at preserving authenticity and vulnerability in live theater by allowing the performance to be recorded in one single take. However, over 40 years later, when the Wooster Group’s actors re-enacted the Theatrofilm performance, a reversal of traditional understandings of performance was presented. The live performance was reproducible while the film—now grainy and fading—became vulnerable and subject to failure or disappearance. Through her analysis, Hunter uncovers continuity between live and media performances that previous theatre critics and scholars failed to discuss. She also questions the very possibility of true, honest, and authentic performance, an idea that relies on the humanist conception of a stable self—a topic she develops further in her discussion of reality television.

Reality television highly differs from theatre-based performance and often claims to present individuals as real and authentic. Viewers and critics alike, however, easily challenge the “reality” claim of reality TV. Such shows typically stage their participants in situations that share no similarity to “real life,” and they poorly hide the elaborate production work that goes into the final product presented to audiences. But does that mean the concept of reality is something that media cannot present? Hunter tackles this question in her analysis of different reality TV shows, mainly The Hills, referencing media studies scholars like Randall Rose, Stacy Wood, Joshua Gamson, and Nicholas Ridout. The Hills stood apart from other reality TV programming because of its highly produced cinematic qualities; the elaborate camera work and lighting made its “reality” status questionable. Although it claimed to present the real life of young California women, several production “mistakes” revealed that many scenes were scripted or shot multiple times. However, according to the cast these rehearsed representations of their life did not confirm that the events shown were any less real. Hunter suggests that this circumstance reads as a post-modern “acceptance of the real as massageable, tweakable, even rehearsable, betraying a lack of meaningful distinction between the event and its reproduction and allowing for the co-presence of realness and fakeness” (p. 129). Although reality TV stars are expected to truly be themselves, the manner in which these shows facilitate a performance of authenticity confirms that the true self is not something that exists outside of its performance. Moments when reality TV shows rupture the real often involve programming that audiences find most exciting, thereby displaying a fascination with the inability to discern truth from fiction. In the following chapter, Hunter furthers discusses the blurred boundaries between reality and fiction through an analysis of gaming.

As individuals increasingly use the same media platforms for social interaction or playing games, how does one differentiate between the fictional world of play and reality? Hunter continues a similar investigation about the real in media and performance by turning to alternate reality games (ARG), a genre that particularly blurs the boundaries between players’ in- and out‑of‑game experiences. Her analysis focuses on the ARG World Without Oil, which transports gamers into a fictional world quickly running out of oil. The game invites players to react to this simulation before their characters experience it, thus emphasizing the eventual reality of their fictional context. Several players changed their lifestyles and consumption habits after playing the game, thereby showing the “real-life” impact of the ARG. Hunter grounds her analysis of ARGs in an extensive genealogy of game studies which resonates with theatre and performance studies (in itself a significant contribution of this chapter). If, as Johan Huizinga proposed, games require the “magic circle of play” (a stepping outside of the real to contain gameplay), ARG are forms of games that blur this boundary. In the case of ARGs, it becomes difficult to conclude if one is playing or not, similarly to how it is unclear when a reality TV star is being true or fake. This constant drive to discover the degree to which a performer or gamer is true/real of fake/fictional highlights complexity with understanding reality in our highly mediatized world.

Hunter’s dissertation makes connections with scholarly literature from a wide range of disciplines (media, film, and cultural studies; theatre and performance studies; game studies) and significantly contributes to all of them. The continual development of new media forces users/consumers to adapt to new ways of looking, consuming, and understanding reality. Hunter’s work provides contemporary audiences with a “how-to” guide to mediated performances such as intermedial theater, reality TV, and alternate reality games. Her understanding of the mediated performances in her dissertation extends to other genres; indeed, a study of how people perform in social media or online multi-player role-playing games seems like an obvious extension of her framework. As such, scholars of any field interested in identity and the media will find her contribution beneficial to these academic discourses.

Étienne Meunier
Department of Sociology
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Primary Sources

Three instances of Hamlet: the 1964 Broadway show, its filmed version, and the Wooster Group’s 2007 show.
Press coverage about the above performances.
Reality TV shows The Hills and The Bachelor, and reviews and online forum messages about them.
Alternative reality game World Without Oil, and reviews and online forum messages about it.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2013. 264 pp. Primary Advisor: Sue-Ellen Case.

Image: Video viewfinder. Wikimedia Commons Image.

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