I propose a paradox: the novel experience of the COVID-19 induced digital spectatorship re-enforced the fundamental laws of live theatre viewing, although it proved to be utterly anti-cathartic. This experience revealed that despite its digital mode of transmission, theatre can foster affectual (co)presence of its viewers, our sense of community and our need for ritual. At the same time, watching theatre on a computer screen created a series of false expectations and beliefs: such as feeling intimate with a streamed performance (being close to the action and to the actors), an illusion of control (being able to tune in and out) and a deceitful impression of an understanding of your subject—the personal, cultural, economic or political context, in which this work has been made. What this experience really proved is that theatre—live or digital—always operates within multiple binaries and pluralities. Watching theatre on screen—participatory or immersive—brings us into emotional immediacy with strangers. For a minute, we form an imagined community anew and share a ritual: together we cross the digital threshold, create the limen of a performance and exit back into the everyday. This homecoming is emotionally traumatic. It produces the ontological loss of self and re-enforces our sense of loneliness; and thus, it is anti-climactic and anti-cathartic. To illustrate my argument, I examine chekhovOS/an experimental theatre game produced by Boston’s Arlekin Players Theatre and Zero Gravity Lab in 2021.
Keywords: Digital spectatorship, false intimacy and anti-catharsis
In this article, I argue a paradox: the novel experience of digital spectatorship, into which we were plunged in the spring of 2020, has re-enforced the fundamental laws of live theatre making and reception, although it also proved to be anti-cathartic. It revealed that despite its mode of transmission, digital theatre can foster affectual (co)presence of the participants, our sense of community and need for ritual. At the same time, watching theatre performance on a computer screen created a series of false expectations and beliefs: such as feeling intimate with a streamed performance (being close to the action and to the performers), an illusion of control (being able to tune in and out of the action) and a deceitful impression of a profound understanding of your subject—personal, cultural, economic or political context, in which this work has been made. What this experience has proved is that theatre—live or digital—often operates within multiple binaries and pluralities. Watching theatre on screen—even if it is not designed as participatory or immersive—brings us into an intimate proximity to the actors, who can “invade” our private space, and into a dense immediacy with strangers, who might be watching this performance together with us. As a result, we might feel intimately connected to these invisible and impossible to reach bodies and energies, and at the same time be estranged from them.
To speak of digital theatre, I propose, we need to re-focus our critical attention onto the work of digital audiences and seek new models of analysis to theorize their (dis)engagement with/from the action. Much like watching theatre live, when we attend theatre online, be it participatory or not, we share in making and observing a ritual. Together with the actors and other viewers, we cross over the threshold of the digital, create the limen of the experience and exit back into the everyday. However, unlike watching live theatre, in the presence of other physical bodies in a designated physical space, exiting the space of the digital can be traumatic. Instead of catharsis or emotional release, this exit into the physical realm can produce ontological loss of self and re-enforce our sense of loneliness; and thus, it can be anti-climactic. This paradox, I argue, can characterize our engagement with the action on screen both when we watch an archival video of a theatre play, which was not intended to be broadcasted, and when we follow a theatre work produced during the pandemic specifically for online streaming. This paradox can also define an interactive digital event, designed to solicit our intellectual and emotional participation. It proves that digital theatre operates within similar affectual frames of collective action and belonging as live performance.
Watching theatre online re-enforces Erika Fischer-Lichte’s argument on the performative power of theatre and its transformative aesthetics (Transformative Power, “Transformative Aesthetics”), and it stipulates audience’s autonomy similar to what they might experience when attending a durational performance. Digital theatre, I argue, evokes the viewing conditions of relational dramaturgy, the ways it solicits our engagement with and allows our disengagement from the action. In the following, I will briefly discuss how false intimacies and anti-cathartic modalities of digital theatre correspond with the frames of relational dramaturgy; my case study is chekhovOS/an experimental game/, produced by Boston’s Arlekin Players Theatre and Zero Gravity Lab. I attended several online performances of this work in the spring/summer 2021. chekhovOS was directed by Igor Golyak. It featured Jessica Hecht, Anna Baryshnikov, Anna Bortnik, Darya Denisova, Jeffrey Hayenga, Melanie Moore, Nael Nacer, Mark Nelson and Mikhail Baryshnikov as Anton Chekhov. I could also argue that the online audience of this production constituted an important element of its creative team, which helped this experiment come to life.
To Erika Fischer-Lichte, making and experiencing theatre is rooted within a self-referential and ever-changing (aesthetic) feedback loop: the performers “elicit[t] response from the spectators,” who in their turn produce emotional reaction and impact on the action on stage; so, the performance itself “remains unpredictable and spontaneous” (Fischer-Lichte, Transformative Power 38). Role reversal (actor vs spectator) (40–51), creation of temporal utopian communities (51–60), and interplay between proximity and distance within a single theatre space (60–75) constitute three constants of a live theatre work and its self-referential feedback loop. Speaking of how these constants aid mobilizing transformative power of performance, Fischer-Lichte turns to Nietzsche, who in his own reading of the tragedy and the tragic, connects any “aesthetic activity to a liminal state—intoxication—and to processes of transformation triggered and performed by this state” (Fischer-Lichte, “Transformative Aesthetics” 1).
Transformative aesthetics is rooted within collectivity and simultaneity of group experience. Like Viktor Turner’s liminality, it is both a state in-between and an act of immersion and ritual. “It is liminal insofar as it presupposes a phase of separation in which the participating subjects leave behind their daily contexts, as is also the case with rituals. The participants undergo a liminal phase . . . in which they are transferred into an extraordinary state that allows for new and potentially disturbing experiences” (Fischer-Lichte, “Transformative Aesthetics” 2). These transformative processes approximate what Aristotle understood as catharsis. To Aristotle, Fischer-Lichte writes, the impact of theatre and specifically tragedy refers to the experience of “excitement,” including pity and terror, which can “transfe[r] [spectators—YM] into an exceptional affective state that is articulated physically and can transform the person concerned” (“Transformative Aesthetics” 3). Catharsis is the goal of tragedy—it functions as “cleansing of these affects,” it “brings about the actual transformation,” and it “constitutes a liminal and transformative experience” (3), which we can undergo together as a group and individually. This view of catharsis as transformation influenced many historical debates and contemporary discussions on the functions of performance, including its opponents, who warned about the dangers of theatre, potentially harmful to “spectators’ spiritual health” (“Transformative Aesthetics” 3).
Moving theatre into a digital realm makes it necessary to rethink these postulates; because, despite its insistence on our collectivity, simultaneity, (co)presence and immersion, watching theatre online often emphasizes the opposite. Because of its ability to collapse hierarchies of making and spectating live theatre, digital theatre democratizes our experiences. It provides us with many possibilities to engage with it collectively as a group but also at our individual pace and comfort. It claims no control over our actions and reactions, and thus it invites a rhizomatic co-presence and co-actions of the participants. Digital spectators can join and leave a broadcast as they wish. They can turn the sound of their computers on and off, as they need it; and they can hold exchanges with fellow spectators, without being concerned of disturbing the others. And thus, in this democratisation of our experience and modes of engagement with the work of art, digital theatre approximates durational performance and relational dramaturgy.
By inviting its spectators to freely interact with the space of the production and with each other, durational performance actively challenges a pre-set theatrical binary—stage versus audience. An interplay between “the highlighted borders” (Boenisch 227), durational performance privileges relational dramaturgy and rejects linearity, both as a mode of storytelling and as a type of our experience. It nurtures spectators’ agency and capitalizes on theatre’s ability to create communities and rituals, as well as to foster our self-awareness and self-estrangement. Relational dramaturgy is “no longer a matter of ‘from’ one end ‘to’ the other, or ‘either/or’” of storytelling (227); it relies on “playful negotiations” between the participants, “forges relations” and “calibrates a dynamic interplay” of energies (227).
Drawing on Eugenio Barba’s dramaturgy of spectator as a process of interweaving actions and narratives, Peter Boenisch names three leading characteristics of relational dramaturgy: 1) its focus on spectators’ ability to engage with a theatre work physically and (syn)aesthetically: that is, our freedom to “move around, away and through the performance without disturbing it” (229); 2) its power to “incite interaction between the audience members not between them and the work of art” (232); and 3) its gift to make it possible for the audience to pay more attention to their physical, emotional and psychological reactions and needs (236). Following Ranciere, Boenisch reminds us that durational performance can change the role of a spectator not by breaking the fourth wall, suspending the disbelief or making us physically active (234), but by speaking to each of us individually, helping us transpose the emotional stimuli we receive during the action into the working of the intellect (235). Relational dramaturgy focuses on the I of the spectator, on our ability to create situations when the formal encounter between I as myself and I as other can take place. It “require[s] from the spectator a relation to the (re)presented drama that is different from the standard mode of engagement, which is based on identification with whom and what we see” (237). Within the frames of relational dramaturgy, we are no longer just the “recipients” of the action, the ultimate “other” to which this action is addressed; we are its active makers, whose identity is variously split between doing and observing the action at the same time. Relational dramaturgy “opens up and prominently highlights a certain ‘gap’ within the spectator which puts us in an ambiguous distance towards our own ‘acting’ as spectators” (237).
Boenisch traces this idea back to “Lacan’s account of the logic of signification” based on our realization of the
ever gaping hole, the distance between the subject of the enounced and the subject of enunciation: between the ‘speaking I’ and the ‘I being spoken.’ The symbolic order requires us to ignore, erase, and disavow this gap. In a most interesting way, the medium of theatre makes this fundamental structure of signification palpable in an even more highlighted manner. There always remains an irreducible, necessary distance between the ‘spectating I’ and the ‘I of the spectator.’ We are offered ways of relating, modes of sensing, spectating and engaging. It is this double experience of spectating that blurs the clear separation between representation, presentation and the very presence and present, between materiality and semioticity. This is exactly where we find the seeds of the (political) ‘act’ of spectating, and/or of spectating as an act.”237
This gap is made visible when a theatre production does not attempt to bridge it and does not aim to synchronize energies between the stage and the audience (238).
These are precisely the characteristics of a digital theatre: digital theatre redefines the work of the audience—it “leaves us alone” to either follow the action or disengage from it. This way, although somewhat paradoxically, it underscores our “own spectatorial agency and ‘response-ability’” (Boensich 239). In a digital world, the balance between role reversal (actor versus spectator), creation of temporal utopian communities and interplay between proximity and distance is shifted toward the work of the audience. The question of audience’s position vis-à-vis other viewers and the space of a digital event drives it forward. Whether we consent to it or not, digital theatre brings us into a new proximity to strangers; its spatial dimensions expand and contract at the same time. Even if we do not see those watching the action together with us, we feel intimately connected to these impossible to reach or touch bodies and energies.
These new conditions of communication foster our agency and our desire to interact with the action. They also reenforce “the very gap between the spectating ‘I’ which the performance addresses and the perceiving I (or maybe better: ‘eye’) of the spectator” (Boenisch 240). This rhizomatic structure of audience’s engagement becomes even more evident within an interactive digital performance, when both the actors and the spectators become the makers and the recipients of the action. To illustrate my arguments, I now turn to chekhovOS/an experimental game/.
As its promotional material stipulates, chekhovOS/an experimental game/:
fuses film, theatre, and video game technology to create a new medium where viewers are able to interact with the performers. Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and drawing from recordings of Chekhov’s letters and dreams, this interactive online theatre experience accesses the operating system behind both Chekhov’s computer and the world in which his characters live, searching for happiness.Arlekin Players Theatre
To encourage a participatory element of the action and to generate a sense of a newly forming digital community of viewers if not conspirators, prior each showing, the company contacted every ticketholder with the following message:
SECRET MESSAGE. COLLECTIVE ACTION AGAINST A. P. CHEKHOV:June 24, 2021, personal email to the author
Dear People of the Future,
We, the undersigned, urgently request your assistance in the following matter: Our creator, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, has built an Operating System from which there has previously been no escape. We have been existing inside that system, without happiness and without hope, for over 100 years. We, the characters, reject the Chekhov Operating System. We beseech you, people of the future. We are tired of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s plays being performed, and we are tired of being perpetually unhappy in his world. We are counting on you to make the right choices, proving that humanity has finally learned how to be happy, and the Chekhov Operating System has become obsolete. We implore you–help us escape so that we can stop performances of these plays once and for all. If you are asked whether Lyuba Ranevskaya should sell The Cherry Orchard; if you are asked whether the Three Sisters should move to Moscow (we have saved enough money for a train ticket); if you are asked whether Uncle Vanya should quit working for Serebryakov; if you are asked whether Konstantin from the Seagull should give up on the theatre . . . say YES! We beg of you . . . let us move on.
Characters of A. P. Chekhov
Building on Pirandello’s views of a dramatic world as something imposing, finite and contradictory to a character’s everchanging self, chekhovOS/an experimental game/ acknowledges a newly discovered potential of digital performance, which thanks to its relational nature can offer to characters and their audiences a chance to escape fixed and exclusive parameters of a fictional world, as it has been pre-determined by a specific dramatic text. Borrowing from the game theory, chekhovOS aspires to foster our agency. It invites the viewers to create new actions and possibilities for the well-known Chekhov’s characters; and so, its major objective is to convert the singularity of Chekhov’s dramatic world into a multiverse experience of a digital encounter.
However, as it frequently happens with participatory works, to control the action and its duration, the company needs to pre-set a clearly designed dramaturgical path for the action to unfold and for the audiences to follow. To challenge the linearity of Chekhov’s narrative, chekhovOS employed strategies of non-hierarchical dramaturgy, which included breaking up the plot sequences, enacting only parts of the scenes and dialogue and inserting textual additions from other plays and letters by Chekhov into this newly sketched dramatic canvas. To solicit more active participation from online viewers and to engage us to actively follow through our mission to destroy Chekhov’s Operating System, Golyak and his team used a variety of participatory online activities, supported by the Zoom system. The audience was prompted to respond to questions, partake in collective and individual voting, and interact with a digital hostess. Thus, although the company aimed for shifting the responsibility of making the action into the hands of the viewers and promised to give control of the narrative to the audience, chekhovOS/an experimental game/ forced many critics to question its major premise and objective: to give us agency (Aucoin, 2021); whereas to others, it turned to be the best virtual theatre they have attended during the pandemic (Kulhawik, Stewart).
As we enter a Zoom space of the production, we are greeted by Charlotta, the AI agent, who empowers the chekhovOS, and asked to turn our cameras on:
When the actual performance [begins], Natasha—one of Chekhov’s characters—appear[s] in the Zoom against a greenscreen background depicting the innards of an old-timey computer. She [instructs] players on what to expect, laying out the rules for interaction, and when players might be called upon to engage.Hauter
While Natasha praises Chekhov on the screen, we receive “increasingly frantic messages via the Zoom chat to make decisions that would ‘break the OS’ and change the course of Chekhov’s plays” (Hauter). After this prologue, the action unfolds from one pre-recorded scene from The Cherry Orchard to another, jumping across the plot toward the inevitable. The production includes several cameo appearances of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who reads Chekhov’s letters in Russian, adding one more layer of multiversity to this digital experience.
As the action progresses, however, the characters and the audiences seem to drift further and further apart, with our attention steadily shifting away from the play, its conflicts and characters:
Zoom chat “slowly came to life, with audience members discussing various aspects of the experience. . . . As people realized that they could speak unabated, more and more joined in, bombarding each other with questions and opinions. Were the “play” portions pre-recorded? Where the votes accurately tabulated? What would have happened if the audience had made different choices? Could people come back to another production en masse, fix the vote, and change the outcome? Did the audience actually have any agency in this experience at all?”Hauter
As soon as we hit the subject of agency, the roaring criticism unleashes—“the quality of performances was discussed. Surveys were taken to determine whether votes were accurate. The structure of the experience was discussed and critiqued”; and at some point, it
seemed that all 160 audience members were chiming in on what was happening. An entire audience was live-blogging the play in real time, interacting with each other, the characters in the play, and the play’s creators in what seemed like an unprecedented exchange. Before long, the play was being commented on nonstop, resembling a Twitter chat with the rapidity and variety of comments.Hauter
Zahary Stewart of TheaterMania noticed that at some point the chat commentary turned to politics, which ignited the audience’s engagement even further:
I initially disliked the running commentary in the side chat, which made the play feel too much like a reality TV viewing party—The Real Housewives of Yalta. But then, following the disappointing second vote, a kindred spirit Zooming in from Moscow wrote, ‘Looks like Russian voting system,’ and that got a side conversation going about Chekhovian themes in contemporary politics.Stewart
When the company realized that they somewhat lost control over our agency, and the conversation drifted well off the themes of loneliness and being trapped in Chekhov’s universe, the omnipresent Charlotte disabled our Zoom chat. The action returned to the actors on screen, who, by the way, were delivering very strong performances:
The show’s master stroke is that the scenes from the play are a lot better than they needed to be. Anna Baryshnikov (Mikhail [Baryshnikov’s] daughter, and currently in the Apple TV+ series “Dickinson”) is a revelation as the young Varya, but the main draw is Jessica Hecht as the impoverished orchard owner, Ranevskaya. Hecht, who is simply unable to give a conventional performance in anything, often looks up in space; the character is distracted, dreamy, maybe not entirely there. Whether you are new to The Cherry Orchard or have seen it a half-dozen times, this take is intriguing, absorbing. It left me wanting more, preferably live.Vincentelli
In this instance, I claim, the chekhovOS failed. By letting the audience to take over the chat and to create a separate communicative space and channel, away from the predetermined set of actions, the company found itself at crossroads—it did give us agency, but it also turned us away from the action. The chat took over Chekhov: i.e. the relational dramaturgy that drives internet and specifically Zoom experiences forward took over the pre-set variables offered by chekhovOS. Specifically, the interactions in the chat—often unrelated to the play or to the dramaturgical designs of the project—proved to be the most engaging for the viewers. When the company disabled these unstructured although solicited interactions, it made us to realize the power of unpredictability which the relational dramaturgy of the digital performance can sustain. As one critic wrote,
It was unclear whether the producers of chekhovOS quite expected the outcome they got. By giving the audience access to a voice, they inspired a level of interaction far beyond what they may have planned. By giving the audience the means to discuss the art as it unfolded, the creators of chekhovOS may have very well pioneered a new form of interactive entertainment.Hauter
What this example also demonstrates that the self-referential and ever-changing feedback loop of theatre can be created and maintained in a digital world only when the audience’s attention and interactions are heavily controlled by theatre makers, the same way it happens in making and watching a film, in which a filmgoer undergoes an emotional, intellectual and sensorial manipulation. In the chekhovOS, this kind of manipulation was centered in the hands of Charlotta, who continuously interrupted our experience. Those interruptions not only re-enforced our sense of a digital fatigue, but they also created feelings of alienation from both Chekhov’s original material and the designs created by the company. The interruptions invited the audience to exercise their wits and humor, an activity that eventually took over the Chekhovian action and thus brought the system to its crash.
“The Post-pandemic theatre has to reexamine and reimagine itself,” said Igor Golyak in the Press Release for chekhovOS issued by the company:
Through this experiment we are finding out how humankind can find each other in the virtual while continuing to treasure the in person encounter, which makes for a new kind of site-specific theatre. . . . I find myself in constant dialogue with The Cherry Orchard—during a time of loss and recovery, it helps us explore connection, transition, loss, and the human yearning for happiness. . . . chekhovOS/an experimental game/ is a work-in-progress created during the pandemic, a way for artists to work through the themes of the play, the encroaching virus, and a moment of change in the world around us.Press Release
A seasoned theatregoer, I indeed found myself glued to my computer screen watching and trying to participate in chekhovOS. I devoured this sense of false intimacy the experiment created, falling deeper and deeper into an illusion of being party of the game, of finding new acquaintances and of being able to cross the threshold of the physical. The illusion collapsed, however, as soon as the chat was disabled, and as soon as the show came to its end. By a click of a computer mouse, I was brought back into the bitter reality of the COVID enhanced feelings of disconnect and ultimate loss: suddenly, the physical distance between my place and chekhovOS became too real and too impossible to cross, with me still sitting in my bedroom, alone, in front of a dark screen and feeling no emotional release or sense of a community.
Today, the journey back to the in-person or live experiences of theatre is about to begin, with theatre companies re-opening and re-inviting their live and online spectators and followers back to the physical space of action. What is clear is that the pre-COVID type of theatre work and interactions is facing a new challenge—whether we agree on this or not, but the returning and the new theatregoers will be looking at the realm of the physical through the lens of the digital, realizing that the experience we once shared will be impossible to forget or cancel out. I am certain that my next live encounter with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard will be marked by the sensations, feelings and thoughts I had when watching and participating in chekhovOS/an experimental game/.
Arlekin Players Theatre and Zero Gravity Lab. Past Experiments: chekhovOS/an experimental game/, www.zerogravity.art/chekhovos.
Aucoin, Don. “A Game of Fate in Arlekin’s Spellbinding ‘chekhovOS.’” Boston Globe, 24 May 2021.
Boenisch, Peter M. “Acts of Spectating: The Dramaturgy of the Audience’s Experiences in Contemporary Theatre.” New Dramaturgy: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice, edited by Katalin Trencsényi and Bernadette Cochrane, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014, pp. 225–43.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika. “Transformative Aesthetics—Reflections on the Metamorphic Power of Art.” Transformative Aesthetics, edited by Erika Fischer-Lichte and Benjamin Wihstutz. Taylor and Francis, 2018, pp. 1–25.
—. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. Translated by Saskya Iris, Jain Routledge, 2008.
Hauter, Eric. “Chekhov OS—An Experiment in Gaming and Theatre.” GAMING NEXUS, 18 May 2021.
Kulhawik, Joyce. “THEATRE: chekhovOS/an experimental game/.” Joyce’sChoices, 2 June 2021.
Press Release. “Arlekin Players Theatre Announces Spring Dates for chekhovOS/an experimental game/: A Live and Interactive Virtual Theatre Experience Hosted on ZeroGravity.ART through a New Partnership with .ART” 29 April 2021.
Stewart, Zachary. “Mikhail Baryshnikov Plays the Steve Jobs of Modern Drama in chekhovOS/an experimental game.” TheaterMania, 28 May 2021.
Vincentelli, Elizabeth. “Life on a Merry-Go-Round.” The New York Times, 31 May 2021.
*Yana Meerzon is Professor at the Department of Theatre, University of Ottawa. In June 2020, she was appointed President of Canadian Association for Theatre and Research. Yana’s research interests are theatre of migration, cultural and interdisciplinary studies. She is the author of three books, with the latest volume Performance, Subjectivity, Cosmopolitanism published by Palgrave in August 2020. She co-edited seven collections, including Migration and Stereotypes in Performance and Culture with Dr. David Dean and Dr. Daniel McNeil (Palgrave 2020). She started editing the section “Essays” of the journal Critical Stages/Scènes critiques (The IATC journal/Revue de l’AICT) in the summer 2019.
Copyright © 2021 Yana Meerzon
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