Ceci n’est pas un théâtre: Theatre in the Age of COVID

Mark Brown*

Abstract

The response of many theatremakers to the crisis ushered in by the coronavirus pandemic has been to turn to making work on the internet. Some have seen online theatre simply as a necessity, a lifeboat in which theatre can survive until conditions allow for a return to the liveness of the performer and the presence of the audience member. However, some theatremakers and commentators believe that the turn, en masse, to online work will prove to have altered theatre profoundly. This paper insists on the seminal liveness of theatre as an art form and challenges some of the grander claims being made for online theatre. The paper also acknowledges that a small minority of theatre artists, motivated by artistic concerns (including an emphasis on liveness), rather than a global health crisis, have created innovative theatre works on the internet.
Keywords: liveness, presence, online theatre, internet, broadcast theatre, COVID, coronavirus, pandemic

It is, perhaps, both the good fortune and the misfortune of the theatre that the COVID-19 pandemic has occurred in the era of the internet. Much has already been said and written (including, no doubt, in the current edition of this journal) about the importance of online technologies in enabling theatremakers to continue to create their work, albeit in considerably attenuated forms.

Indeed, some people have even claimed that the pandemic has changed theatre for the better. Live drama, they say, will, in future, always use the power of the internet to reach a far wider audience. Moreover, they suggest, the experience of making online work during the pandemic will be seen to have altered fundamentally the way that theatre is created. To listen to some enthusiasts of “online theatre,” one might be forgiven for thinking that COVID has almost been a blessing in disguise for the theatre.

In this paper, I will set out my profound antipathy to this outlook. I will also explain why I consider “online theatre” to be, in most cases, essentially a “shadow product”; as the maker of one witty online meme says of the internet: ceci n’est pas un theatre.  I will also argue that, long before the nightmare of the coronavirus, a minority of theatre artists were pioneering a fruitful relationship between live drama and the internet, not as a response to crisis, but in the spirit of artistic innovation.

Firstly, however, we must acknowledge that the theatre work that has been broadcast online during the pandemic has played an important role. As in so many areas of human activity, from education and business to political activism, the internet has enabled theatremakers to fill what would otherwise have been, if not an absolute void, then certainly a massively diminished space. Online productions have offered a form of dramatic expression to artists, presented performances to audiences who would otherwise have been starved of live work and, not insignificantly, sometimes provided remunerated employment to at least some theatre workers. None of this is insignificant, and it should not be undervalued. Even if, like me, one is sceptical of the most enthusiastic claims for online theatre, it would be churlish to deny that the internet has helped considerably in sustaining theatre culture through the pandemic.

That said, it is one thing to applaud online theatre’s role as, effectively, a lifeboat that is keeping live drama afloat until it can return to its natural habitats (whether they be theatre auditoria, the streets or a panoply of other spaces). It is quite another to make a virtue out of a necessity and proclaim the online theatre of the pandemic as the harbinger of a new era for live drama.

For the most part, what is called “online theatre” is nothing of the sort. It is largely comprised of work that is broadcast live on one occasion (and a recording re-broadcast subsequently) or simply recorded for broadcast. Such work is barely distinguishable, in the first instance, from early television drama (which was broadcast live) or, in the second instance, from contemporary TV and cinematic drama. Insofar as it can be distinguished from those art forms, it is, usually, in its relative lack of resources. In this sense, most online theatre is inferior, at least in technical terms, to the established forms of broadcast and cinematic drama.

The debate over the veracity of broadcast stage works as an art form is far from a new one; it has merely been intensified by the pandemic. For example, long before the COVID crisis, a number of large stage arts companies (including, notably, Britain’s National Theatre) began simultaneous broadcast of live performances in cinemas. Some theatre enthusiasts welcomed this development, as it offered people who would otherwise be unable to see the show (whether for reasons of finance or distance, or both) the chance to experience the work. Others were more critical, arguing that, by offering screenings of its work in local cinemas, at prices below those of a typical theatre ticket, the National Theatre was drawing audiences away from their local theatres, and, thereby, damaging theatre economies around the U.K. 

These disagreements aside, there was an implicit acceptance by everyone in this debate that, whatever the technical and artistic virtues of the broadcasts, they were, in essence, an inferior product (what I call a “shadow product”) in relation to the experience of being present at a live theatre performance. Indeed, the simple fact that tickets for the cinema screenings were significantly cheaper than those for the live theatre performance was a tacit acknowledgement of the inferiority of the “broadcast theatre” experience.

The pandemic has created a paradigm shift for broadcast theatre. Rather than being a commercial choice made by big name companies, it has become an existential necessity for theatre artists of all kinds. What the online broadcast of dramatic works does not represent, however, is an epochal change for theatre. No matter how extraordinary the innovations and diversity of live drama, its rootedness in the liveness of the performance and the presence of the audience ensures that the apple never falls far from the tree. That is to say that, in spite of socio-medical and socio-political catastrophes (such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1918–19 and two World Wars), and in the face of the seemingly existential crises represented by technological developments (like the inventions of the movie camera and the television), theatre has survived and, indeed, thrived on the basis of humanity’s seminal need of drama and performance that is predicated on liveness and presence. As Phyllis Hartnoll writes in the opening line of her famous book The Theatre: A Concise History, “The origins of the theatre go back far into the past, to the religious rites of the earliest communities” (7); in other words, when the ancient Greeks created the theatrical cult of Dionysus, they were building upon a long-established human tradition of live performance and present audience that continues to be the essence of theatre today.

The Art of Online Theatre

As I suggest above, prior to the COVID pandemic, in advance of the global elevation of online theatre as a lifeboat for live drama in a time of plague, there were pioneers who combined live theatre with simultaneous internet broadcast in ways that were both aesthetically innovative and rooted in the seminal liveness of theatrical performance. The finest example I have experienced was the second incarnation of Slope, a collaboration between the celebrated, Scottish auteur theatre director and designer Stewart Laing and the acclaimed playwright Pamela Carter.

Slope by Stewart Laing and Pamela Carter. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Slope was originally written by Carter for a production by Laing’s company Untitled Projects at the Tramway arts venue in Glasgow, in 2006. It was commissioned as a response to a design concept created by Laing, which involved the audience climbing a sixty-metre slope to have a bird’s eye view of the play through an aperture where the roof should have been. A dramatisation of the love triangle between the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, and the latter’s wife Mathilde, it was revived as a more conventional studio play at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, in 2014. Less conventionally, however, every performance was video edited live by Laing, who designed the stage set (including cameras in various locations) to serve the purposes of two versions of the piece; a live theatre show and a simultaneous online production. The outcome was two very distinct, and distinctly excellent, art works, both of which were carefully attuned to the possibilities of their respective platforms (the studio theatre and the internet) and, crucially, to the unrepeatable liveness of the performance.

As a theatre lover, I insist on the primacy of the theatrical version of the second incarnation of Slope. However, I also remember the online production as a work of brilliance. Six years on, with simultaneous cinema broadcasts by companies such as the National Theatre (of Britain) very much an established fact, and online theatre a ubiquitous consequence of the pandemic, the technical and artistic accomplishments of Laing’s online piece remain uniquely impressive to me. If the current necessity of theatre on the internet leads to more, similarly masterful, distinct and simultaneous works of live drama, world theatre will be the richer for it.

Conclusion: A Live Recovery

The fact remains, however, that theatre, theatremakers and theatre lovers throughout much of the world are, in this moment, in the autumn of 2020, in the midst of the plague, yearning for live theatre to clamber out of the lifeboat of online broadcast and back into its natural, theatrical habitats.

Agnes Mateus in Rebound Rebound and Your Face Explodes, which played at Festival de Almada 2020. Photo: Quim Terrida

I had the very good fortune, in July 2020, to attend Festival de Almada in Portugal, which, it is thought, was the first of Europe’s summer theatre festivals to go ahead despite the coronavirus pandemic. The Festival was able to be staged (albeit in a reduced form, with smaller, physically distanced audiences and a programme comprised largely of monodramas) for three principal reasons:

  1. the determination of Festival director Rodrigo Francisco and his team to continue preparations for the 2020 programme, in case circumstances should allow it to proceed in some form;
  2. the relative success of Portugal’s national response to the COVID outbreak;[1]
  3. the high-level political support for the Festival’s decision to proceed.[2]

The success of Festival de Almada in attracting audiences just a few months into the pandemic was testament not only to the commitment and enthusiasm of Portuguese theatre lovers, but also to the powerful desire, which, I suggest, borders on a visceral need, among many people to experience live theatre and performance.[3]

Even in the U.K., which has, thanks to the palpable failure of the “four nations action plan” of the governments of the constituent nations,[4] one of the most catastrophic COVID impacts in the world, the desire to stage and experience live work has led to a tentative revival.

Scottish Opera’s outdoor production of La bohème. Photo: James Glossop

For example, in my position as a performing arts critic for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, I was, in early September, pleased to join a small, physically distanced audience for a superb, truncated, outdoor version of Puccini’s frighteningly relevant 1896 opera La bohème, which was staged by Scottish Opera in the company’s car park in Glasgow. In late October, I travelled to Leeds to review Iconic Classics, an excellent collection of excerpts from classical ballets presented, in full costume, but on a naked stage at the Leeds Playhouse by the Northern Ballet company. In both cases, the delight of the audience members at being able to experience live performances was tangible. Proof, if it were needed, that, whatever theatre artists do online, the recovery of the theatre arts from the pandemic will, first-and-foremost, be a live, and therefore living, thing.


Endnotes

[1] In early August 2020, for instance, Portugal’s death toll per thousand people stood at 0.34, as compared with the U.K.’s one per thousand (Source: Financial Times analysis of excess deaths data).

[2] The Portuguese government announced that theatres could reopen (with appropriate COVID measures in place) in late-April. Francisco’s decision to go ahead with the Festival de Almada programme was welcomed widely within the political class. The opening night of the Festival was attended by the President of the Republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Prime Minister Antonio Costa and State Secretary for Culture Nuno Artur Silva.

[3]For more on Festival de Almada 2020 read my feature article for the Sunday National here.

[4] The United Kingdom government in London (which has jurisdiction over health matters in England, but has primary fiscal powers for the entire U.K.), the Scottish government in Edinburgh, the Welsh government in Cardiff and the Northern Irish government in Belfast.


Bibliography

Hartnoll, Phyllis. The Theatre: A Concise History, 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 1998. 


*Mark Brown is theatre critic of the Scottish national newspapers The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National, and a critic for the U.K. national title the Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the book Modernism and Scottish Theatre since 1969: A Revolution on Stage (Palgrave Macmillan), and editor of Howard Barker Interviews 1980-2010: Conversations in Catastrophe (Intellect Books) and Oily Cart: all sorts of theatre for all sorts of kids (Trentham Books). He holds a PhD in Theatre Studies from the University of Dundee and is a regular lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and various other universities.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email