Stage on Screen: the remote relationship between theatre and audience

Róisín Finnegan discovers the tenacity of theatre performance

Of the many areas of life slowed or stopped entirely in the wake of Covid-19, live theatre was perhaps one of the most constrained. Midsummer, when social restrictions relaxed and Dublin city centre seemed to begin its tentative steps back to bustling normality, the doors of the city’s iconic theatres remained firmly shut, uncomfortably still in a world that was beginning to move again. The Globe began to release recordings of plays the public were previously required to pay for early on in the pandemic, and the National Theatre soon followed suit, live streaming plays with their National Theatre at Home endeavour.

These releases were impermanent, no longer available for public viewing after a certain time, perhaps in an attempt to emulate the once-off feel of a theatre visit. There were even alternatives to festivals, such as theSpaceUK’s online theatre festival, featuring groups like the brand new Irish company anseo|anois. All of these events were certainly a great way to keep the faith of theatre lovers, but they raised several questions: what changes when what was meant to be a live performance is translated to the screen? Could the uniqueness of live theatre ever really be recreated by digital media, distanced and away from the setting it was intended to be experienced in? And crucially, does viewing theatre through a digital lense change an audience’s appreciation of it?

“As the New York Times wrote: ‘Digital theatre isn’t theatre. It’s a way to mourn its absence.’”

“I think that it does,” said James Hickson, Adjunct Teaching Fellow from the Trinity drama department and the Lir Academy. “I think that we read or respond instinctually to the labour and craft of a performance when we witness it in a shared space and time. It seems that the awe which people can have, say, for the way an actor remembers their lines is not necessarily as enthusiastic when re-takes or edits are, even seemingly, involved. I think that the virtuosity of a performance becomes less visible.” Oonagh Wall, producer of anseo|anois theatre, seems to agree. Describing themselves as “a new theatre company on a mission to tell stories for the here and now”, anseo|anois is a new Irish theatre company composed of three TCD and Lir Academy alumni: Oonagh Wall, Amy Kidd and Éanna Grogan. “Online theatre keeps us warm in a time when live theatre is on hold; it is a worthy endeavour but is by no means a viable replacement,” Wall stated. “As the New York Times wrote: ‘Digital theatre isn’t theatre. It’s a way to mourn its absence.’”

The perception of the virtuosity of a live performance when translated from its original setting into one that is remote is certainly a challenging one. On-screen performances as we have come to know them are the products of several takes, digital editing, and perhaps even manipulation of the image with CGI. Inevitably something in our mind shifts when the performance we are watching, and perhaps subconsciously judging, is moved to a screen. “The effort behind or within the performance is perceived differently by the viewer as it becomes kind of flattened or smoothened out by the screen,” Hickson added.

When asked whether these new adaptations theatre has made for the post-Covid world will endure when the virus is no longer impacting us as it is today, Hickson seemed to think it a very possible, but not necessarily negative, prospect. “I think so. Not least because in the history of theatre most major innovations and adaptations have tended to persist. The new methods and devices of Ancient Greek drama endured…The move from al fresco to indoor performance became the standard,” he adds. “Whenever it was that the ‘fourth wall’ was first broken, it’s been impossible to ever really put it back together again. Such fundamental changes…leading to new dynamics, new technologies, new forms and new expressions will likely follow the historical pattern and become part of the standard theatrical language.”

“That hard-to-define “buzz” that permeates the memory of live theatre seems to be where digital recreations fall short.”

With that being said, the question remains whether or not the experience of live theatre can ever be replicated. “The experience of having a piece of work go from development to seeing it come alive on stage on opening night is one of the best parts of theatre as a theatre maker,” said Wall. “In comparison, sitting in front of a screen and waiting for a show to go live is very different. The buzz and excitement as the lights come up on stage at a live performance cannot be substituted.” That hard-to-define “buzz” that permeates the memory of live theatre seems to be where digital recreations fall short. “I think that the impression of live theatre can be captured with great fidelity and shared with audiences through digital media, but the experience of live theatre that’s a trickier one,” Hickson stated. “Mostly because it’s difficult to pin down exactly what the live experience is. We tend to speak of it in elusive terms as a kind of magic or energy. It definitely creates an active state in the audience member, but too often…the digital viewing experience is a more passive one.” The danger of this passivity and how it affects the connection of an audience to a play that was written to be seen live may well be an obstacle that future playwrights view as a challenge as opposed to an unshakeable obstacle. If the fourth wall has already been toppled by theatre creatives, perhaps this new digital one may well be toppled in turn.

Many artists, especially those who worked in theatre, were hit hard by the restrictions from the very beginning, with many having no way to move their work online. “One adaptation I’ve observed since lockdown is the tendency to make work available free of charge. While incredible in terms of democratising access to theatre, it’s not necessarily a sustainable strategy under current funding models,” Hickson noted. Were the funds sufficient, however, better access seems to be a strong bonus of a shift to the digital. “One advantage of online theatre is that it engages with an audience who may not go to see live theatre on a regular basis,” Wall notes. “The nature of isolation meant that people were generally starved for entertainment and we were all more open to seeking out alternative ways to fill our evenings…Digital theatre is a brilliant way to engage with rural audiences who often, unfortunately, do not get the same opportunity to visit the theatre as regularly as theatre-goers in Dublin.” 

As endless as it may seem at times, the onslaught of restrictions will eventually ease and live theatre as it was known before will be allowed to return. It remains to be seen what will come of this time of constriction for the theatre; will the digital be adopted, or be seen as a last resort for times when there is no other option available? “In many ways, digital theatre could be considered a genre in its own right,” Wall points out. This time of restriction may well see the genre expand and become an art that moves alongside live theatre into the future. Having come to be known in modern times as a medium that embraces expanding the definition and supposed limitations of its form, theatre may go on to be stronger in the wake of these challenges and perhaps even bring something never seen before to the scene.