This research focuses on digital adaptive experiments conducted during the COVID-19 lockdown as a remediation (Bolter and Grusin) of contemporary theatre within the online medium, generating a new medium (McLuhan) for theatre practice. In 2020, I conducted an in-depth, one-on-one interview with Kolkata theatre practitioners, including amateur as well as professional theatre practitioners, during the first phase of COVID-19 lockdowns. The research questions addressed the adaptive online experiments conducted, the applications used, and the advantages, disadvantages and overall experience of creating new works during the pandemic. The information acquired during these interviews was used to quantify and predict new avenues for this emerging style of adaptive theatre. This paper takes stock of the digital theatre form, noting the platforms used, such as Zoom, YouTube and Facebook, and articulates the efficacy of individual theatre projects developed during lockdown. The case studies in Kolkata referenced in this paper are compared with similar projects around the world, documented by newspaper articles and reviews and journal publications. The outcome of the research specifies features of this new medium of theatre which can influence the further development of the form. I identify the overall reception, significance and influence of the medium during the pandemic, and I suggest how this medium could evolve in the future.
Keywords: COVID-19 lockdown, contemporary theatre, adaptive theatre, medium, message, remediation
The COVID-19 lockdown introduced a “virtual subgenre emerging out of pandemic darkness” (Akbar) of theatre productions on online platforms such as Zoom, Facebook and YouTube, a vast departure from the non-digital foundations of production. As noted by scholars of contemporary theatre, this “online theatre is no death knell for theatre, but a prelude to our future” (Chong).
The twenty-first century is a digital era thus far and is likely to continue and intensify as time passes; the ongoing commodification of the Internet and personal communications devices suggests that these digital forays into performance are still in their infancy. While music, dance and cinema can easily be shared on the Internet as artistic productions readily adaptable to online formats, theatre necessitates a reorientation of its entire form in order to stream online as the virtual subgenre. Arifa Akbar describes these theatre productions that were shared online as the virtual subgenre.
Since the virtual subgenre has been tailored to match various software applications, it has appeared in various forms as a genre in itself. Though this mode of performance is an adaptive measure initially taken to meet quarantine and social distancing requirements, it is emerging as a new genre of theatre with observable staying power, even as lockdowns have come to an end. The theatre platform has shifted from the stage to the webpage. Today’s theatre has been viewed by some as entertainment reserved for the privileged few (Chong); post-lockdown theatre is expected to be even more reserved for the elite (Lewis).
However, this new genre of theatre may represent the next chapter in the future of theatre as democratised and bountiful, a future that is not for the privileged few or for the elite but is instead economically accessible to everyone. Thus, Wang Chong boldly proclaims that this genre does not imply death but rather hope for future theatre. The pandemic has put the purpose and value of theatre under scrutiny. Consequently, this paper draws on case studies to observe a new genre of ongoing theatre experiments; the cause of its emergence, its curation, its recognition, the value it holds and the purpose it serves are examined to determine how it can initiate a more sustainable, futuristic and people-oriented theatre practice.
This paper focuses on digital performance in Kolkata as a microcosmic, ethnographic representation of India. As these experiments have occurred globally since the onset of the pandemic, I also compare the case studies in India with similar projects from around the globe.
This paper uses Marshall McLuhan’s theories of the new medium, message and content (11) and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s theory of remediation (45) to understand the emerging online theatre genre.
Marshall McLuhan defines the new medium as an extension of mankind, which is essentially technology and its advancements. The features of the technology are viewed as the content and the final output as the message.
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin define remediation as the central characteristic of new media; that is to say, “the representation of one medium in another” (45). Thus, the online theatre adaptations are a representation of contemporary theatre in the online media. Remediation involves not only the mere representation of a medium but also initiates the formation of something new which absorbs completely the older medium to reduce incoherence (47). So, online theatre experiments are developing as a new genre; their parent media are contemporary theatre and the online media, respectively.
An in-depth, one-on-one interview method was chosen for studying online theatre experimentations in Kolkata, since printed and online resources were scarce. Local theatre practitioners interviewed included the following: Aratrick Bhadra (director of Udbhab), Supratim Dey (actor at 4th Bell Theatres), Sumit Lai Roy (director of The Red Curtain), Rupa Deb (actor in Bagajatin Alaap), Abhrajit Sen (founder of Whole9yards). They were asked about their perspective, approach, application and presentation of the online mode of theatre during the first phase of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Genesis: Why did this New Medium of Theatre Emerge?
The remediation of theatre in the online medium emerged as a new genre of theatre largely as a reactive adaptation to the COVID-19 lockdown. COVID-19 is “an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus” (World Health Organisation), first discovered in late 2019. This unannounced and unwelcome visitor established dominion worldwide and governmental lockdowns were declared around the world. The New National Theatre of Tokyo had to close its doors on 28 February 2020. Theatre closures in India and on Broadway, as well as the Metropolitan Opera, were declared on 12 March 2020. For the West End in London, closure occurred on 16 March 2020. This caused performing artists to go bankrupt, and they were left without jobs, sufficient income or savings. Unable to dethrone COVID-19 and eradicate its dictatorial rules, artists held protests and started the #WeMakeEvents, #LetMusicLive, and #HereForCulture movement, hoping for governmental funds. For the theatre, “the cost of ‘going dark’ is significant” (Lewis).
Helen Lewis, in a post titled When Will We Want to Be in A Room Full of Strangers Again? estimated the financial loss of theatres, but the real cost of going dark was the doubt in purpose and essence of the theatre among today’s generation. In his video presentation of 19 June 2020, Wang Chong, director ofThéâtre du Rêve Expérimental in China, reported that “theatres have been shut down since early February. The vice-president of a big cinema chain just committed suicide . . . the authorities do not see cinema and theatre as an essential part of society anymore” (Chong 00:00:30–57). Chong posted his Online Manifesto, a declaration of action to save theatre. However, due to the personal economic crises spurred by COVID-19, financial concerns were more pressing to individual practitioners than their hopes to save the theatre.
In the grand scheme of being, however, human suffering takes precedence over the demise of the theatre, and news reports of heavy economic loss cannot be disregarded. In the U.K., Helen Lewis noted that though the government had provided state funding of £160 million ($200 million USD) to theatres, in “April the National Theatre claimed that some organizations were filling for bankruptcy, Nimax would suffer a loss of £2.5 million over three months.” Lewis also reported that “May 6, Nuffield Southampton Theatres, in the south of England, announced that it had run out of cash,” but she feared that the novice and regional theatre companies would suffer the most harm. In the U.K., on 6 October 2020, “400 musicians staged . . . a mini-concert to highlight the impact of coronavirus calling for financial support from the government” (Doyle). For months on end, despite the protests, governmental support and funding, theatres were still experiencing extreme financial hardship due to continued lockdowns and restrictions on large gatherings.
Prior to COVID-19 lockdowns, Kolkata’s theatres were led primarily by small companies. Supratim Dey, a full-time actor at 4th Bell Theatres, complained that the pandemic lockdown left him unemployed. Aratrick Bhadra’s (director of Udbhab) actors had other jobs to rely on, but the team that worked on lighting and stage design lost their jobs, a full-time employment for them prior to the pandemic. Udbhab tried to support the technicians by collecting donations in a campaign called “Natok Tomar Jonno,” but they barely recovered the losses. Rupa Deb, an actor atBagajatin Alaap,complained that by November of 2020 “there was absolutely no income. Everyone, actors, technicians, backstage artists, all suffered a huge financial loss with zero income.” Considering the expenses for their last staged performance, Samparka, for which they spent “₹40-50,00 for the hall, lights, props, actors etc.,” he concluded that they “cannot afford to put up any theatre shows because only a few people will be allowed inside the auditorium with a lot of restrictions. Very few will be interested in attending considering the risks and precautions. On the other hand, we will have to invest a huge amount which cannot be met as an income.” Full-time theatre employees, such as actors, stage managers, lighting and sound designers, were unemployed without any alternative source of income. When the government finally allowed theatres to reopen, mandates to ensure adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols allowed only 50% capacity seating, with scrupulous checks for vaccines, medical reports and sanitization after each show. These measures all involved additional expense. Unlike other cities around the world, however, Kolkata did not take notice of theatre practitioners’ difficulties.
The only message that theatre as a medium offered during this time was economic, for example that “Theatre is tourism; theatre is consumerism; theatre is capitalism. Theatre is non-essential . . .” (Chong).
This view of theatre in strictly economic terms is echoed in Helen Lewis’s argument: “Theat[re] matters to Britain in purely economic terms; the West End is a significant driver of tourism. And although many see commercially-run theat[res] and the subsidized sector as distinct, theat[re]’s ecology is complicated and interconnected.” The economic crisis created by COVID-19 in the market of theatre productions was seemingly endless, so practitioners sought an alternative. The alternative was the Internet, where people could still gather without fear of contracting the virus. The message of the theatre was projected via the new genre of theatre: the new medium.
Forms of the New Medium of Theatre
The new medium of theatre is a remediation of contemporary theatre through an online medium. As has been noted, such a media form “can remediate by trying to absorb the older medium entirely, so that the discontinuities between the two are minimized” (Bolter and Grusin 47). This means that the message and content of the online medium fuses with that of contemporary theatre.
The Zoom Form
In the initial phase of lockdown, a theatre group could easily transfer their production, engineered for physical theatre space, wholly onto the Zoom platform. Zoom, a video conferencing program structured for business conferences, video chatting and social networking, began trending. Directors took note of the new approach, as they adapted to and experimented with the possibilities of Zoom technology (Rodriguez et al.). Zoom became the popular stage for a new medium of theatre, allowing for flexibility with virtual backgrounds, breakout rooms, gallery view, active speaker view, screen sharing, audio-muting and administrator control.
In Kolkata, director Sumit Lay Roy’s The Red Curtain configured the new medium of theatre to include digital art and cinema. This implies that the new medium could absorb content of other media present within the older media, thus prompting the process of remediation. Explaining details of the process, Roy notes, “So, for example, in the first scene of Three Men in a Boat, there are three people in the same room, so each of the actors used virtual background that looked like the walls of one particular room.” The content of digital art borrowed from the online medium simulated a sense of action in a shared space. Figure 1 is an image of their flyer that used digital art to customise the background. Zoom performers and their camera are essentially still, but a “notable instance of replicating action across the medium is the passing of a letter from one Zoom box to another” (Sharon Wiseman 126). Thus, content from the old medium is refashioned to suit the new medium, “therefore maintaining a sense of multiplicity or hypermediacy” (Bolter and Grusin 46).
Hypermediacy of images as the virtual background in the new medium facilitated the technique of “changing scenes rapidly by simply changing the background” (Roy). In the Whole9yards Zoom production of The Post-Office, the virtual background projected an image of a street in Kolkata. Figure 2.1 and 2.2 are screenshots from their production.
The multiplicity of this new medium of theatre also facilitated global monetary exchange by accessing e-transactional applications from the online medium. For the new medium theatre productions of Sumit Lay Roy (director of The Red Curtain), the “payment was global so some of the funds were not getting transacted” (Roy). According to Roy, the company registered “as a non-profit organization with the headquarters in Georgia,” and all payment was submitted through online transactions. The company charged $100 USD per person, and all their plays received a full house (100 participants), so each production earned $10,000 USD. As Roy noted, this was “three times more than the money we have earned in total during the last three years of performing on the physical stage.” The same online platform which brought about remediation of theatre offered the additional benefits of global networking and ease of access, which the new medium of theatre integrated as its own.
Abhrajit Sen’s Zoom production The Post-Office interfused Zoom and Facebook applications, thereby utilising the new medium’s ability to remediate. Their Zoom production was live-streamed in “a closed group through a third-party platform” (that is, Facebook). This approach was chosen by Sen because Zoom participant numbers were “limited to only a hundred” and their “performers, partners, and teammates itself were twenty to thirty” (Sen).
Thus, though the Zoom form of the new medium has few drawbacks, the new medium theatre provides easy solutions since its key feature is remediation.
New Medium Theatre and Live Performance
An essential characteristic of traditional theatre practise mentioned in interviews is live performance (Golyak and Chong 00:19:08–20:00, 00:27:33–29:29), such that the audience are collaborators who contribute to the essence and success of the new medium theatre productions. Indeed, in numerous seminars, symposiums and academic studies of 2021, such as Staging Virtual Theatre (1 July), Teaching Theatre and Performance Design in Pandemic (21 July), Unrehearsed Futures (23 September) and Changing Perspectives (8 and 9 October), the most discussed feature of contemporary theatre was live performance. The new medium of theatre transcends this limitation.
Pascale Aebischer et al. characterize as follows, three types of adapted theatre productions that were performed during lockdown:
- “Live” theatre broadcast that are live mixed during the capture and distributed simultaneously on television, in cinema or online, these may be accessed as “delayed live” or “as live” screening to account for different time zones, or as an “Encore” days, months or even years later.
- Theatre broadcast that is captured with multi-camera set-up usually during two or more performances in the presence of a live audience, edited together in post-modern productions, and then broadcast to the cinemas/ television/online stream.
- Recorded theatre/edited theatrical film, captured live, in more than one performance, mixed in post-production and then released later on DVD or as web-based stream or download rather than broadcast in cinema or television. (4)
With respect to the above typology, Whole9Yard’s The Post-Office, The Red Curtain’s Three Men in a Boat and Monti the Dog fall under the first category of “live” theatre, as these performances were made available to viewers via live streaming on Zoom.
Pre-filmed production, the second category of new medium theatre, was used when the U.K. National Theatre screened seventeen productions free of charge via YouTube after a widespread closure of theatre halls in the U.K. due to lockdown. According to reports, these productions “garnered more than 15m views from audiences in more than 170 countries” (Akbar). British pride in a cultural tradition of quality theatre combined with the ease of accessibility offered by the new medium were key to the success of this endeavor.
Supratim Dey (actor at 4th Bell Theatres) and Rupa Deb (actor at Bagajatin Alaap) made YouTube compilations, these versions constitute the third category of Aebischer’s digital theatre experiments. Deb invited international participants to record videos which he then compiled, edited and shared on YouTube, a core component of the new digital medium of theatre. As Dey explained, “We used to practice our parts on Zoom meetings or Skype conferences and then individually we did recordings that our editing team put together and shared on YouTube.”
New Medium Theatre Is Not Cinema
The immediacy of live performance of the theatre as opposed to the pre-recorded broadcasts of the cinema led Aratrick Bhadra (director of Udbhab) to view new medium theatre as an experimental fallacy. In an interview of 7 October 2020, he stated:
Theatre and cinema are completely different genres and using an online mode would mean using the camera. This would mean creating films. Films have visual effects and photographic methods which are very modern and advanced. If we try to convert the theatre into film, a compromise will have to be made.Bhadra
In the new medium theatre presentation, the medium used is the online platform rather than the camera. It has been claimed that “[t]heatre on film and theatre on television or video or DVD is, in its mediatized form, no longer theatre but respectively film, television, video or DVD, and, as such, at most a representation of theatre” (Kattenbelt 23). However, the media-adapted theatre referenced above does not constitute an instance of remediation, as no new medium has been generated. Rather, the statement describes a mere screening of a theatre performance through the medium of cinema. As others have noted, “The student of media soon comes to expect the new media of any period whatever to be classed as pseudo by those who have acquired the patterns of earlier media, whatever they may happen to be” (220). As a student of media, Aratrick Bhadra observed what he viewed as a compromise within the new medium theatre: the new medium theatre production, whether streamed in Zoom, YouTube, Facebook or any other application used a camera for recording and sharing, for instance, the front camera of a modern laptop, a handy camera or a camcorder. Cinematic features like close-up shots, mise-en-scène and even video or photo collages are applicable in the new medium theatre, precisely because they are the pre-existent content of the older medium, the online medium.
New medium theatre may use all forms of media and content available from contemporary theatre practice and the online medium; its message and content are also adapted accordingly. Clearly, new medium theatre is not cinema, video collages or mixed media, and it is not necessarily a live stream; rather, it is a new phenomenon with its own distinctive characteristics.
No News on New Medium Theatre in Kolkata
The Calcutta Times and Times of India newspapers provided little information on the new medium theatre experiments conducted during the lockdown. A Times of India newspaper post of September 2021 expressed the opinion that “while going virtual was a compromise in terms of the magnitude of the performance, it kept artists’ confidence alive, to an extent.” This and other reviews reflect an implicit fear of losing or repositioning the older contemporary theatre since, according to McLuhan, the new medium “never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them” (McLuhan 278).
These posts and comments reflect a desperate attempt to protect and preserve the contemporary form of theatre practice. The option of an alternative or, rather, an advancement of the form is seen as a failure of contemporary theatre. Calcutta Times published news of a full house (fig. 3) on the 25th of February 2021, which signals the successful persistence of the older media despite developments in new media. Newspaper posts throughout the year 2021 describe the physical spatial conditions of contemporary versions of theatre performances. On the 3rd of July, The Theatre Review reported on Azadi Mera Brand, “a solo act” staged at DumDum on April 19 (Bhowmick). On the 10th of July, it describes Theatre Zones performance (Sen). On the 24th of July, Kojagori, a play “at the Academy of Fine Arts on the 3rd of March” (Bhowmick) is reviewed, and the 31st of July mentions “Uttarpara-based” traditional Bengali performance. These performances belong to the older form of media, and the new form of media staged on an online platform was not recognized.
Only one mention of the new medium genre appeared in The Calcutta Times on the 3rd of August (Samaddar). A full page was dedicated to describe the Zoom-theatre experiments in Bangalore for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), provided by the U.K.-based Kelly Hunter (fig. 4). The drawbacks of the Zoom form of the new medium theatre had discouraged Kolkata directors from experimenting online. They were willing to use hypermedia but unwilling to remediate theatre with the online medium. This was made clear in The Calcutta Times post of August 7, a review written by Bhowmick, of a multicultural-multimedial production staged on July 3rd, in which Japanese literature, Bengali performance, video projection and stage acting were interfused (fig. 5). The new medium’s potential for “multiplicity or hypermediacy” (Bolter and Grusin 46) was not accepted or given any serious consideration.
The Calcutta Times theatre posts on 14 August by Bhowmick (fig. 6), 21 August by Sen (fig. 7), 28 August by Bhowmick (fig. 8) and 30 August by Majumdar (fig. 9) each described traditional stage practices and themes; no mention is made of new medium theatre. The omission of reports on new medium theatre is part of a recurring pattern of resistance to change; artists and spectators alike are largely unaware of new medium theatre and its potential as a model for future theatrical productions.
Though Kolkata press has not yet recognized nor been briefed about the new medium theatre, the tendency for new medium theatre to “create a new myth for itself” (McLuhan 278) may soon begin to shape local reality and thus merge with communal thinking and cultural awareness.
There is clearly a need for both academic research as well as popular writing that explores and promotes the ongoing experiments in new medium theatre. Supratim Dey (actor at 4th Bell Theatres), Sumit Lai Roy (director of The Red Curtain), Rupa Deb (actor in Bagajatin Alaap) and Abhrajit Sen (founder of Whole9yards) are but a few of the many pioneers of the new medium theatre experiment in Kolkata featured in this article. These practitioners, however, did not use the medium and its features of hypermediacy, multiplicity or content to the fullest capacity; rather, they continued to assign content-related values of contemporary theatre to the new medium theatre, rather than allowing the message and potential of new medium theatre to express itself most fully. Ease of accessibility, global networking and sharing, hypermediacy and multiplicity of various media are key aspects of the new medium theatre. Thus, the new medium can easily involve and accommodate other art forms such as music, dance and dialogue, and it clearly excels in its potential to involve both the audience and the public.
As online media are public, new medium theatre, in its remediation via online formats, can democratise the theatre by making it widely accessible to the public at large; indeed, the new medium can absorb (Bolter and Grusin 47) the online medium entirely. Contemporary theatre is founded upon cultural traditions, history and creativity, and it is further enriched by the immediacy of live performance; it is also economically self-sustaining, yet these and other dimensions of contemporary theatre are superseded by the new medium theatre. Current experiments in new medium theatre suggests that it may provide a new creative format for the next generation of theatre artists, lovers, and collaborators.
“A Conversation with Igor Golyak and Wang Chong (ASL-interpreted).” YouTube, uploaded by HowlRound Theatre Commons, 19 Aug. 2019.
Aebischer, Greenhalgh, et al. Shakespeare and the ‘Live’ Theatre Broadcast Experience. Bloomsbury, 2018.
Bhadra, Aratrick. Personal interview. 7 Oct. 2020.
Bhowmick, Anshuman. “Break Free.” The Calcutta Times, 3 July 2021.
—. “Across Time.” The Calcutta Times, 28 Aug. 2021.
—. “Harsh Reality.” The Calcutta Times, 14 Aug. 2021.
—. “Justice Denied.” The Calcutta Times, 24 July 2021.
—. “Surreal Mood.” The Calcutta Times, 7 Aug. 2021.
—. “Voices from the Past.” The Calcutta Times, 31 July 2021.
Bolter, David Jay, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 2000.
Chong, Wang. Online Theatre Manifesto.20 Apr. 2020.
Deb, Rupa. Personal interview. 31 Nov. 2020.
Dey, Supratim. Personal interview. 8 Oct. 2020.
Doyle, Alan. “A Moving Musical Protest in Parliament Square: News.” London Theatre Reviews, 6 Oct. 2020.
Kattenbelt, Chiel. “Intermediality in Theatre and Performance: Definitions, Perceptions and Medial Relationships.” Cultural Studies Journal of University Jaume, Culture, Language and Representation, vol. 6, no. 1, 2008, pp. 21–25.
Lewis, Helen. “When Will We Want to Be in a Room Full of Strangers Again?” The Atlantic,12 May 2020.
Majumdar, Saikat. “The Final Curtain: Calcutta’s Cobwebbed Circular Stages.” The Calcutta Times, 30 Aug. 2021.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. MIT Press, 1964.
Rodriguez, Miquelon, et al. Audio commentary, post rebroadcast of Acts of Faith, Factory Theatre, 22 Oct. 2021.
Roy, Sumit Lai. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2020.
Samaddar, Ninad. “Flute Theatre is a Unique Experience for Children on the Autism Spectrum, Writes Ninad Samaddar.” The Calcutta Times, 3 Aug. 2021.
Sen, Abhrajit. Personal interview. 2Nov. 2020.
Sen, Dipankar. “Into the Light.” The Calcutta Times, 10 July 2021.
—. “Broken Pieces.” The Calcutta Times, 21 Aug. 2021.
Sharon, Wiseman. “Production Review: From Page to Zoom with Love and Masks.” Theory and Practice in English Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 2021, p. 216.
*Hazael Gomes completed her MA from St Xavier’s College-Kolkata, India (August 2021) and her BA from The Heritage College-Kolkata, in English Honours. In 2017, she did minuting for the international conference meeting Shifting Paradigms from the Shakespearean Human to the Post-human. She has been acting and elocuting since she was seven years old. She has performed and won many intercollege drama competitions. She has also scripted and directed an intercultural play called Maushi for a social service event on 19 December 2019. She is currently preparing to apply for her PhD, to study cultural theatre and digital culture.
Copyright © 2022 Hazael Gomes
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411
This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.