The COVID-19 pandemic has kept the world on lockdown for months now. Amidst the crisis, new forms of artistic expressions have arisen. This paper explores the notion of confinement theatre within the broader phenomena of virtual theatre and its specific features in the Latin American context. Focusing on the case study of the Mexican theatre company Tercera Llamada, currently working via Zoom, we analyse the processes involved in the plays’ production, the limitations and potentialities of online platforms, the content of the scripts and the artistic and practical challenges this new format poses for creators, performers and the audience itself.
Key words: Latin America, Tercera llamada, confinement theatre, virtual theatre room (VTR), telepresence
It is happening. We turn on our computers anywhere in the world, access an online platform with a password provided via social media and suddenly enter a Virtual Theatre Room (VTR) to enjoy one of the performances by the Mexican theatre production company Tercera Llamada. A deep voice welcomes us with a description and a request: “This is a virtual room that is about to become a theatre . . . Please, stay in silence and turn off your phones.”[i] Messages can be sent while waiting to enter the room. We are on hold as if queuing before the show. For a short moment, when the organisers let everyone in, we acknowledge the presence of others through a live feed, if the camera is on, a photograph or simply a black square with a username in the middle. We are not alone. Dozens of others are interested in the same show. As we enter this digital space, our presence creates a new sense of community. The participants, muted and some with their cameras still on, choose their preferred view: speaker, grid, line . . . whatever makes them feel comfortable. It is their device, so, unlike a traditional theatre experience, they can make the calls.
The VTR now displays a flyer with the company’s name, followed by the play’s title and the credits for the writer, director and actors. Shortly after entering, we hear “thank you for logging in. At the end of the session, you can leave your comments on social media. This is the first call.” A few minutes later, the company announces the second call, asking the audience to share how they are experiencing the show by posting a picture with the hashtag #LiveOnlineNow. Just before the third call, a QR code is displayed: “follow this QR code to donate to this project so that we can keep bringing you online theatre.” At first, the company did not solicit contributions, as they were, in their own words, “responding to the immediate need of creation amidst the pandemic” (Bracho and Cortés); however, given the extension of the lockdown in Latin America, they began asking for donations to support the production process: “This is an option that we love; whoever can’t afford the show can still watch it because somebody else donated” (Bracho and Cortés). After the performance, the administrators display a black screen, thank the attendees and introduce the actors. Minutes later, the session ends, and the momentarily gathered community logs-off.
Tercera Llamada (Third Call), founded by Ana Bracho and Paula Sánchez Navarro in 2009 and based in Mexico City,quickly transitioned to the online platform Zoom in April 2020 to produce virtual live theatre. They have been using the hashtag #LiveOnlineNow, a rebranding introduced to highlight the hybrid nature of online performances. By mid-July, they had presented 15 plays within a 14-week period. They partnered with 8 directors, 9 playwrights and 26 actors reaching almost 18,000 devices. On average, over 100 people have attended each performance, which usually lasts between 10 and 20 minutes. In the following months, Tercera Llamada introduced modifications in the way in which they display the performances. By using the Zoom “webinar mode,” they increased the control over the audience’s experience, preventing them from activating their camera or microphone during the session and limiting the viewing options to only one.
The company’s success provides a fruitful case study to analyse the new phenomenon of confinement theatre: plays that have been produced and brought to life through online platforms amidst the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown as a way of summoning artists and audiences in a virtual space to celebrate theatre. In this article, we explore three main lines of inquiry to better understand limitations and potentialities of this format: the configuration of the plot and the elaboration of the script; the technical aspects involved in production; and the notions of presence and experience from the creator, actor and audience perspectives.
Scripts That Feel Real
Building on different strategies to catalyse the drive of dramatic action, #LiveOnlineNow has attempted to foster meaningful connections between the actors and the audience. Many of their online plays address the presence of the viewers directly, while others refer to an unspecified spectator on the other side of the screen: they are breaking the fourth wall. In La gente de la tablet (People in the Tablet), the character, a young kid interpreted by an adult woman, enters a “fort” in the middle of the living room and speaks directly to the camera: “Who are all of you? Are you the people who live in tablets? Just nod your head to let me know. . . . Oh! that’s such a funny name” (LGT).
Similarly, Del recorte al presupuesto (About the Budget Cut) presents a narrating voice that reads some of the participants’ names and welcomes them to the VTR. It then fades out giving way to the song Stuck in the middle with you (1972), by Stealers Wheel, clearly alluding to the lockdown. These interventions question the limits between reality and fiction, blur the barriers between the public and the private sphere, and problematize the relationship between sociality and intimacy.
The topic of the pandemic permeates all the screenplays, placing the current crisis in history to make it more relatable for the public. This context is repeatedly mentioned both explicitly and implicitly, either as a central aspect to the plot or as an evocation through action and discourse. Video chats replacing physical contact, and metatheatrical/self-referential dialogues in which the characters explain that they are performing through a virtual medium, remind the audience that this experience is different from watching a recording or a film. Plays set in performers’ houses—forcing them to wear their own clothes, use their own devices and produce their own props—create a lack of distinction between the public and the private sphere that characterises this virtual format. The company explains that “. . . when the show ends, unlike traditional theatre, you’re in your own house. All of that energy is there, with you” (Bracho and Cortés). Likewise, although the temporary congregation on Zoom resembles the social dimension of a traditional theatre setting, the whole experience ultimately depends on each viewer’s personal decision-making process, including where, on which device and with whom to watch.
While some similarities with traditional performances remain, technical aspects are different. Instead of an average 8x11m. stage, the size of the action space depends on the device in use: from a small mobile phone screen to a massive wall if using a projector. The performers are also limited within the possibilities of their devices; the scope of the shot is framed by the type of equipment used. If the actors are far from the camera, their facial expressions are unintelligible, whilst if too close, their bodies are barely visible. Utilising mobile devices, actors can walk around but are also subject to unstable connections causing interruptions in the performance. However, these difficulties can also become potential assets for creative production.
In Del recorte al presupuesto (About the Budget Cut), which deals with the issue of gender violence, the protagonist is anxious because she has been assaulted by her partner. She walks nervously around their flat while talking to a friend over the phone. Her movements intermittently make the screen black, resembling a “fade to black” that changes the stage without the need of turning the lights off.
This example highlights the differential use of visual aspects within the digital medium, including lighting and perspective. The actors utilise lamps, their phones or computer screens as sources of lighting, modifying the audience’s perception through different luminous intensities. Additionally, using multiple angles within the same scene creates a kaleidoscopic perspective and an atmosphere of intimacy for the spectators.
Benjamín, a play presenting a conversation between two strangers (Tovi and Diosa) through a video chat room, utilises three screens: two of them display each of the characters’ faces, and a third one points backwards or sideways (depending on the actor’s movement) towards one of them. In the beginning, the audience can see all of the views at the same time, until a lamp is turned off and Tovi’s face goes black. This action attracts the audience’s attention, adds more mystery to the performance and contributes to deepening the dark and oneiric nature of a plot centred around suicide.
Tercera Llamada has also incorporated cinematic framing strategies operated in situ by the actors. This occurs in Lo que callamos, where two screens show different characters, an employee and his boss, having a conversation, while a third camera is focused on a piece of paper representing the centre of discussion. During the meeting, the employee systematically breaks the fourth wall looking at the camera, seeking the audience’s approval. After the meeting is over, he recreates a scene from Singing in the Rain (1952), dancing in front of a red curtain illuminated by a small lamp and interacting with his shadow, before turning the lamp and music off and laying on his bed. In this case, the use of visual elements re-articulates the montage technique used for filmmaking, creating one scene through three screens.
Telepresence . . . and Interaction?
Confinement theatre represents a new way of experiencing dramatic arts. Despite the show being delivered virtually and without a proper stage, Tercera Llamada complies with one of the most important elements of theatre: live performances. Even though the process is carried out online, they argue that it’s “not as exact as operating a computer, we are humans working together to unravel the essence of a text, its humanity, the funny and the tragic aspects of it. This is a process that is full of life” (Bracho and Cortés). Despite the changes in the way artists and spectators attend a show, these are still corporeal experiences. In the VTR, attendees approach a representation of their own confined reality with references to well-known Mexican street names and artists, popular culture, myths such as the chupacabras, and daily struggles of the Mexican working-class, allowing them to engage with their context and grant it meaning.
Although theatre is confined to a screen, the performances still have a ritualistic nature. All the participants gather in a VTR at a specific date and time, under the premise that they need to be physically and consciously present. They engage in a face-to-face activity that is now carried out through the use of telepresence mechanisms supported by the technologies at hand. However, interactions are limited. Conventional theatre’s atmosphere is processed through all five senses; mediated by a screen, performances are experienced mainly through vision and hearing. Despite being a physical experience, confinement theatre spectators do not have the chance to bump into an acquaintance in the room, to feel the velvet seats, or smell the perfume of the person next to them. The artists are deprived of building up their energies from people’s reactions, like hearing the audience clapping, laughing or whispering in the theatre before and during the performance. When the actors deliver a line looking directly into their cameras, it is impossible for them to obtain feedback from the audience’s reaction. During the performance, the attendees can mute the application, go somewhere else, have conversations with other people, or even turn off their devices. Moreover, their presence remains conditional to the quality and/or interruptions of internet connection. They can somehow disappear, which implies that, unlike traditional performances, the artists are the ones who need to be truly committed to the artistic ritual. In sum,the current landscape provides resources that offer telepresence and a sense of community, but not interaction.
Digital technologies have extensively modified the way in which we understand, make and engage with art. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated what some have seen as an inevitable outcome of the developments taking place during the last decades. Apart from what lies ahead, and even if social distancing restrictions are lifted, we believe the practice of virtual theatre has come to stay and will probably expand in the next few years. This will inevitably raise more questions than answers: Is this form of virtual artistic performance still theatre? How does it connect to traditional theatre?
Some would argue this new format pushes towards a democratization of the arts, both in terms of access and production. Others would say that, even if the VTRs carry the possibility of reaching larger population segments, the access to financial means and technology remain a privilege in the Latin American context. Following the rapid changes and adaptations the arts are experiencing, one thing seems to remain certain: even if it is online, the show must go on.
Benjamín. By Antón Araiza, directed by Quetzalli Cortés, performance by Ana Valeria Becerril and Ricardo Leguízamo, Jun 2020, Zoom, Ciudad de México.
Bracho, Ana, and Cortés, Quetzalli. “Theatre in Times of the Pandemic. Interview with the Mexican Company Tercera Llamada.” Interview by Regina Solis, Fernando Valcheff and Sara Hermo. 20 July 2020. telondefondo. Revista de Teoría y Crítica Teatral, vol. 16, no. 32, Dec. 2020.
Del recorte al presupuesto. By Benjamín Cann, directed by Katina Medina Mora, performance by Daniela Schmidt, May/Jun 2020, Zoom, Ciudad de México.
La gente de la tablet. By Oz Jiménez, directed by Geralldy Nájera, performance by María Penella, Jun. 2020, Zoom, Ciudad de México.
Lo que callamos en cuarentena. Directed and performed by Fernando Córdova and Ricardo Esquerra, May/Jun 2020, Zoom, Ciudad de México.
[i] All the quotations in the article, originally in Spanish, were translated to English by the authors.
*Fernando Valcheff García is pursuing an Erasmus MLitt. Crossways in Cultural Narratives. He holds a BA in Spanish Literature from the National University of Mar del Plata, Argentina, where he researched the poet Amelia Biagioni. His current project focuses on intermediality and artistic reimaginings of Van Gogh’s life and work. Contact: email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
**Regina Solis Miranda is a Guatemalan anthropologist deeply interested in identity negotiations through cultural artefacts. She holds an Erasmus MA in Literature from the Crossways in Cultural Narratives programme. Her current research is aimed at exploring how latinidades are portrayed in music, and how the new generations of Latin American origins signify these representations. Contact: email@example.com
***Sara Hermo is a graduate in History from the University of Santiago de Compostela currently finishing an MA in Literature and Culture. She has performed in amateur and college theatre companies that won a few awards at Galician (Spain) level. Her field of study is the remediation of fiction in 21st-century literature. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org