Dramatists, directors, actors all will tell you the same thing about it: theatre is when strangers come together to share a common experience. What is so unique is the connection between artists and audience. The same could be said of all the performing arts in pre-pandemic times.
What about streaming theatre? The various ways the arts are being presented now that this disease has shut down nearly all the venues for “live” performance? Are the artists just making the best of a bad situation? Will these “theaters” be tossed aside as soon as the public can safely gather again? Maybe the answer is yes, and no.
Virtual performance for the most part doesn’t pay the bills. All the artists who work in the performing arts will be thrilled when theaters and concert halls open, when seasons can be confidently scheduled, their performances thoroughly rehearsed, and audiences gathered for the show. It will be great to be back on the boards again.
But new ways of presenting the artists’ work have been developed and explored. New connections have been made. The results have been uneven, the technology is still being mastered. Meanwhile, linkages have been created that may persist long after the pandemic is just an ugly memory and life is trending toward normal again.
In the process, performances have been presented and strangers have gathered together in the ethers to share a common experience. More oblique is the connection between artists and audience. Maybe that is still to be unpacked.
The point, though, is that not every venture commands a big budget, an all star cast, packed houses, and the full monty. Art is a messy business. Some would say it’s at its best before business ever enters the picture. Having a place – many places, in fact – where artists can test the waters is something we should celebrate.
Zoom and all the other permutations of virtual expression are a low cost, fast access, relatively painless way to present an artist’s work. It’s pop up art, if you will. Easy to produce, easy to promote, easy to develop further if it merits it, and easy to forget if that’s the decent thing to do.
Every playwright can tell you how important it is to get the writing off the page and hear the work performed. When Play4Keeps produced 30 new plays as audio readings for Ashland New Plays Festival beginning two years ago, several people, including an artistic director and one of the country’s well known actors, were quick to say, “This isn’t theatre. Theatre is …blah, blah.” See the first paragraph above
The playwrights thought about it differently, though. All of them noted how valuable it was to listen to their words, rather than just reading them. And having them available on tape, rather than trying to remember how it sounded at rehearsal or performance.
Several of them mentioned they found the experience more valuable than a “live” reading or production. They could hear a pure version of the play, it’s pace, rhythm, the way the words flowed from the mouths of the characters, the linkage between the scenes. There were no distractions, nothing to see, just the actors performing the play as a verbal experience.
The point may be that all these different types of virtual performance are not classic theatre but rather new ways to present theatre that need to be explored, understood, improved, and appreciated. Not as an exception to theatre but as an expansion of it.
Every performing artist wants to play Broadway, the Old Vic, the big time theaters that are the stuff of dreams. Not everybody gets the chance. One of the greatest gifts we can give our artists is a venue where they can perform.
We’ve seen very sophisticated presentations online from the National Theatre Company here in New York and excellent but much more modest performances from Spooky Action Theatre Company here in Washington, D.C. Ashland New Plays Festival here presented its entire fall festival online featuring actors from all over the country.
They are among legions of theatre companies that have gone online during the pandemic. The question is whether they will continue to explore virtual performance when their doors finally open again and audiences are seated.
Virtual theatre can greatly expand opportunities for playwrights, directors, and actors to reach an audience. It likewise can make much more theatre available to audiences at reduced or no cost. Perhaps it doesn’t make for a glamorous night on the town, but it doesn’t take a bankroll to afford it. And the price of admission makes it accessible to artists at every stage of their development.