OPINION: Watching theatre online? Not for me.

Theatre, fundamentally, is to be experienced live, in the moment.

Six months ago the world ground to a halt. The streets became silent, cars were abandoned on driveways and the only connection we had with those outside of our households was through the prism of rectangular screens on phones and computers.

I wont lie, initially it was all a bit gas as in between bouts of existential anxiety, we discovered the existence of Zoom, the joys/pains of the virtual pub quiz and the constant surprise of finding your wine bottle suddenly empty during virtual gatherings.  I can’t have been the only one hoping the neighbours weren’t looking at my recycling…

As we all struggled with our ‘new normal’ in the midst of this pandemic, there is no denying that one of the most keenly – felt absences was that of theatre. For many of you reading this, live theatre isn’t just our bread and butter, it’s our passion, what gives us life, what we have chosen (wisely or not) to do with our lives. Theatre is story – telling at its finest and, some could argue, most primal.

A Zoom Social

In the rush to fill the void, many theatre companies and venues have released shows online. These appear to fall into two distinct categories:

Those which were purposefully filmed to be viewed on a screen and those who have released shows which were filmed primarily for archival purposes or for trailers/marketing and weren’t intended to be viewed in full on a screen. The quality of filming is variable.

As you will have guessed from my headline there, I have discovered I am not a fan. At least, I am not enjoying it. Let me be clear: I think it’s absolutely wonderful in a broad sense that this is happening. It is undoubtedly giving people who would never have had the chance to see these shows an opportunity to do so, and for those who are showing productions and seeking a small payment or donation, it is giving them a chance to get some money in the pot to keep themselves going.

To be fair, I have gone to NT Live and other similar screenings in a cinema (feels like years ago now, though it’s only months) and I did enjoy them. Not as much as I do when I would see a show live, but at least at a cinema, there is an event-like atmosphere. You share your experience with strangers. The lights go down. The screen is huge, and the hush descends as we strangers silently conspire to enter into another world together.

I would be lying if I said I have not watched any of these shows online, because I have. I watched and enjoyed NT Live’s Frankenstein, for example. I was in London when it was on, but couldn’t get tickets for gold dust and I was raging as it was all anyone talked about for months. I was curious, and I was not disappointed. The performances were spectacular, and I loved the set. I have also been sending links to shows and excerpts to many of my drama students who would never have had the opportunity to see these shows before.

To address the giant corporation with all of the money – I enjoyed Hamilton when it was released on Disney+. I even had two entire friends over to watch it with me. Having been unable to get tickets for the West End or Broadway, I was so excited to actually see it. (One plus of watching it my living room – no disapproving looks as you sing along with the cast). It was, in my opinion, one of the more successful transitions of a stage show to screen, but I believe that goes back to intention. This was filmed specifically to be screened and was further edited with the Disney+ release in mind. Lin-Manuel Miranda and his team worked very closely with Disney to ensure their vision for the show translated well for screen and it was, in my opinion, successful.

Nonetheless, I did not lose myself in the show as I would had I seen it in the theatre. My attention kept pinging to studying the production, the design, the choices made by the creative team and cast. As I watched, my brain insisted on keeping up a steady flow of mental notes.

No matter the quality or intention behind the filming, it is not, nor can it ever be theatre. It is interesting, certainly. Filling a void, perhaps. But it is not the same.

Theatre, fundamentally, is to be experienced live, in the moment. It is a shared experience, in real time, between you, the actors, and the rest of the audience. It is a mode of story-telling which captures all the senses (for good or bad…sometimes cooking food onstage just makes your audience hungry). There is a thrill, being in that shared space, where a show is different every night because of that all-important ‘extra character’, the audience. We have all been to those shows where a performance is so engrossing you practically feel like you’re onstage with the characters, where you’re so lost in the world the production has created, you completely forget yourself and everyone else until the curtain comes down and the lights go up and you, and the rest of the audience look at each other, an unspoken understanding that you have been on a journey together.

Once, at a show alone, I cried and cried, and the lady next to me held my hand when the lights came up; “That really was something, wasn’t it?” she said gently. She was crying too, and then we both laughed and made a joke about getting a strong Gin and Tonic. We did not become best friends, we didn’t even exchange names, but in that moment, we were humans, together.

This simply does not translate to screen. Of course, you can achieve similar things with cinema and television, but those are created specifically for that medium and have a slew of different techniques and skills at their disposal to thrill us and take us on whatever journey they intend.

So yes, having these shows online is useful. It’s interesting. It’s educational. It satiates my professional curiosity about shows I heard of, but never got to see.

But do I enjoy them as I would if I were seeing them in person? Do I feel moved or inspired to sit down and watch them rather than lose myself in a book or film or TV show?

No, I don’t. I find myself taking notes. I observe and study the production. It becomes work. There is a filter, a distance created by the screen which cannot be breached.

Online theatre has a purpose. It is certainly useful, and it certainly fills the blackhole created by this pandemic. However, there are things that, all these months later, as we try to ‘live with Covid’, concern me deeply. I am concerned that it is perpetuating a culture of ‘free shows’. It concerns me that there is an expectation and even pressure for artists and venues to create digital and online content which not only adds another layer of cost but also may be outside the remit of many people. It concerns me that when we are able to once again create live events, many of our incredible stage managers, crews, technicians, front of house and even theatres themselves, will be gone.

Online theatre is not the same as real live theatre, and, for me, never will be.

How do you feel? Let me know in the comments.

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