Digital Theatre Experiments in Latvia: The Case of Audio Productions
The year 2020 marks a time when theatre changed: the spread of the global pandemic forced theatres to close their doors, while, at the same time, opening various windows for new digital forms of performance. In Latvia, too, theatre-makers started to explore the various possibilities of digitalization and e-performances, from live translations of productions played in empty theatre halls to interactive digital projects, from Zoom performances to production recordings adapted for the special conditions of the pandemic. It is clear that the lockdown only speeded up the use of technology and the emergence of new digital theatre forms, such as audio-walks, and also altered the perception of spectators, who were invited to experience theatre through their mobile phones, computers, TVs and even mail boxes. In the present paper, the author addresses the topic of digital theatre experience in Latvia during the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on the cases of audio productions, from immersive phone-in productions, whereby the listener determines the outcome of the plot, to audio walks that introduce serious forms of social, political, economic or ecological discourse.
While, historically, the genre of audio production invokes images of outdated radio theatre productions, nowadays, and especially in the context of the pandemic, audio productions have evolved as a broad and complex form of theatre which reaches the spectator without any physical contact and uses a range of digital tools accessible to any modern human being. Regardless of the form chosen, in the case of audio productions the listener participates in the performance process by following simple technical commands.
The present article represents a small contribution to the ongoing discussion of audio performances and their reception in the context of the pandemic theatre experience in Latvia. The researcher uses a semiotic approach when analyzing the signs used by directors in different audio productions, as well as phenomenology when looking at the different aims and means of perceiving the audio productions.
Keywords: digital theatre, pandemic theatre, audio productions, audio walks
The year 2020 marks a time when theatre changed. The spread of COVID-19 as a global pandemic forced theatres all over the world to close their doors due to epidemiological restrictions, while, at the same time, opening windows for new possibilities and artistic strategies. Theatre makers were forced to seek other means of interacting with spectators, which led to the development of new and exciting digital art forms, thus broadening the scope of virtual theatre. In Latvia, too, theatre-makers started exploring the various possibilities of digitalization, from live translations of productions played in empty theatre halls to original digital projects; for example, Zoom performances.
All these activities can be divided in two large groups: (1) theatre productions that are adapted for the digital environment—for example, video broadcasts and productions recordings; and (2) e-productions that are designed specifically for the virtual environment. One of the most complex and original expressions of digital theatre is the audio production, from interactive phone-in productions, whereby the spectator has to make a phone call to start the performance, to audio walks that combine the traditions of both audio guides and audio stories. This paper describes instances of the audio theatre experience of Latvian theatre makers during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020–21.
Theoretical Background of the Research: Possibilities and Challenges of the Virtual Theatre
Theatre researcher Matthew Causey argues that “the theatre has always been virtual, a space of illusory immediacy” (13). However, since the beginning of the global pandemic, the relationship between digital media and theatre has changed (Birringer; Dixon). In their research paper Theatre Dispositif and the Challenge of Covid-19: Mediatisation, Liveness and Audiences, a group of Italian theatre researchers note that
from a media studies standpoint, the disruption to the performing arts has made it clear that live performance is facing an unprecedented crisis. Although the occupation of digital environments by theatre companies and organizations, as well as online theatre schemes in general, belong to the realm of possibilities explored by some twentieth century artistic experimentation, the current situation seems very different.Gemini, Brilli, Giuliani 45
The epidemiological restrictions have speeded-up the digitalization process in theatre; moreover, during the pandemic lockdown the digital technologies and media became the only available tools for communicating with the spectators. Also, in the context of virtual theatre the meaning of the term live has changed, shifting from the physical co-presence of the actor and spectator (Barker) to the awareness of the importance of connecting through the digital environment.
The virtual environment presents challenges for both the spectators and the creators of e-productions. In most cases of virtual productions, theatre makers have to become film makers, with e-productions created as theatrical movies that are developed with the tools and means of expression of the film industry. In an essay on the virtual theatre experience, researchers Fernando Valcheff García, Regina Solis Miranda and Sara Hermo Nieto stress that a video chat replaces both the specific conditions of dramaturgy and the spatio-temporal arrangements of virtual theatre productions, such as physical contact created when the spectator occupies the same space as the actors; dialogues become metatheatrical/self-referential meanings, whereby the characters must communicate through a virtual medium. In the case of home-made Zoom productions, the actors themselves become set and costume designers who choose their own clothes, props, scenery and so on (García, Miranda, Nieto).
Such instances of home-made theatre can also be found in Latvia. To mention just one, in 2020, the Latvian theatre company PERFOrācija created a Zoom production, Vol. 1. Antiņš, using motifs from the children’s play The Golden Horse, by the classic Latvian playwright Rainis. In a Zoom broadcast, the spectators could watch the actor Rihards Zelezņevs in his apartment, as he inspired children to think imaginatively and transform mundane objects inside the apartment to fantastic fairy tale objects.
Likewise, the rules of experiencing a theatre production also change for the spectators: the traditional ritual of dressing up, going to the venue of the theatre event and sitting with other spectators (Bogart 71) is replaced by choosing a screen and sitting down on the sofa with a bag of popcorn. Therefore, it can be concluded that the reality of the global pandemic has turned the experiencing of theatre into a private, rather than a public process. The whole experience ultimately depends on each viewer’s personal decision-making process, including where, on which device and with whom to watch the performance (García, Miranda, Nieto).
Moreover, in the context of digitalization, the quality of the theatre production depends not only on such elements as acting, stage directing and set design, but also on the standard of technological support. The experiencing of e-performances is influenced by such categories as the quality of the video broadcast, the angles of the camera and the quality of the internet connection on the side of the receiver during the broadcast.
With respect to technological progress and the challenges presented by restrictions of the global pandemic, one of the most interesting forms of e-production is the audio production. Theatre semiotician Patrice Pavis states that the necessary sequence of all theatre communication is “a text (or an action), an actor’s body, a stage, a spectator” (Pavis 388). Meanwhile, audio productions broaden the concept of theatre by merging the tools of expression of both radio and theatre.
By 1927, German theatre reformer Bertolt Brecht promoted radio as a tool of communication; he suggested that
Radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him.2
Alongside audio productions in which the listener is merely a recipient, during the pandemic, theatre makers have also sought forms of immersive audio production whereby the listener can also respond and thus participate in the theatrical event. The present research focuses on some innovative audio productions in Latvian theatre, including forms such as audio walks and phone-in productions. In the following discussion, audio productions of Latvian theatre artists are analyzed in terms of aesthetics and perception by utilizing both semiotics and phenomenology as methodologies.
Audio Walks as Theatrical Events
In 2012, Simon Bradley, researcher in architectural history, stated that “Audiowalks are becoming an increasingly popular way of experiencing history and heritage of all kinds, and oral history is uniquely placed to produce very powerful presentations linking spoken memory with specific places.” Since then, the rapid development of smartphones, mobile applications, GPS maps, audio-streaming services and other technological tools, along with the ever-evolving context of the global pandemic, have expanded the technological and artistic possibilities for audio walks. The format of arranged walks through an urban or natural setting has also inspired theatre makers; as Rimini Protokoll has stated, “Walking in public gained new meaning with the pandemic. An ancient and every-day ritual became an integral part of the new normality. People meet, walk, stroll through districts, play in landscapes, and perceive their environment anew with every stride.” Inspired by audio guides used to promote local touristic attractions, audio walks have also become one of the most popular forms of digital theatre in Latvia.
While most audio productions can be experienced in a variety of settings—for example, in a relaxing bath—audio-walks feature physical movement through a specific environment; therefore, the audio content is connected to the physical experience of the journey, as well as the visual panorama surrounding the listener during the journey experience. Depending on the type of performance, the voice heard by the listener can function as a storyteller or a tour guide, drawing attention to objects or details visible to the listener at a specific moment. Therefore, theatre makers not only have to plan the audio content presented to the listener, but they also need to choose a particular environment and generate a specific route to go with it. At the same time, even in non-interactive performances, certain tasks have to be completed by the listener in order to start the audio walk—for example, charging a mobile phone before the start of the walk, reading a QR code or downloading a mobile application or an audio file.
In recent Latvian theatre experience, audio walks have been created for two reasons: firstly, to draw attention to important historical facts, personalities, cultural heritage or architectural objects, and secondly, to organize the action of a performance in the absence of physical contact with actors and spectators. In the following discussion, a representative sample of audio walks is presented in order to highlight the range of artistic strategies and philosophical discourses currently used by Latvian theatre artists.
Experiencing History and Culture Through Audio Walks
In 2021, the project Never-disappearing Pārdaugavas (“Nekad nezūdošās Pārdaugavas”), created by Jānis Balodis, Viesturs Balodis and Diāna Kondraša, featured a slow walk through the Pārdaugava district, the most melancholic part of Rīga, while projecting the narrator’s voice through the labyrinth of underground music. The audio performance narrated the Pārdaugava underground electronic music movement of the 1970s, simultaneously creating a novel time and space in the mind of the listener. Thus, the impact of the audio content created a deeper understanding within the community of key spaces located in the Pārdaugava district.
A similar project, The Steps of Ojārs (Ojāra soļi, 2020), created by Jānis Kronis, Ieva Niedre and Ieva Ķīse, guided the listeners as they walked through places known to and loved by the well-known Latvian poet Ojārs Vācietis. Following the narrator’s instructions as they strolled around Māra Pond and Arkadia Park, listening to the poetry of Ojārs Vācietis, the participants of the audio walk could experience the poetry of Ojārs Vācietis from an alternative, more personal point of view. The combination of poetry, drama and music composed by Jēkabs Nīmanis and Edgars Raginskis evoked a particular range of moods and feelings for each participant, thus creating an individual poetic experience for each member of the audience.
Audio Walks as a Tool for Social or Political Discourse
In the frame of a modern audio production, the listener is not treated as a passive figure but, rather, as an active participant in a theatre adventure, whether moving from one place to another, as in the case of audio walks, or pressing a button on the smart phone and thereby choosing the scenario of the plot. The immersive forms of audio production as a category also require the listener to make a choice and to think about the questions raised by the creators of the performance.
One of the artists who introduced and explored the possibilities of the performance walk as a genre in Latvian theatre, long before the restrictions of the pandemic were imposed, is stage director, playwright and artist Krista Burāne (1971). Having created many productions, both in collaboration with her husband, theatre director Mārtiņš Eihe, and individually, Krista Burāne is a documentary theatre and film maker whose work is socially and politically engaging, as she invites the audience to participate and co-create.
In Burāne’s productions, the spectator/listener is never just a passive figure; instead, all spectators must participate actively in the performance event by thinking about serious questions, defining their social/political opinions and/or taking actions. The technique of moving the spectator from one space to another has enabled original theatre events in which the spectator can experience a journey through different spaces or situations. Such was the production Battle by… (Kauja pie…, together with Mārtiņš Eihe, 2009, Liepāja Theatre) that focused on fights among school children which actually took place in a school in Liepāja city. More recently, the musical site-specific and participatory performance, My Neighbour Jew (Mans kaimiņš ebrejs, together with Mārtiņš Eihe, 2021, Rēzekne Theatre Joriks) was staged in Rēzekne (Latgale district), near the Green Synagogue, featuring eleven scenes, each of which focused on a particular aspect of Jewish history in Latvia.
During the pandemic restrictions, Burāne created three productions that included audio content. In 2020, the independent Latvian theatre Dirty Deal Teatro invited artists, playwrights and directors to participate in the project “Performances-instructions.” While most of the so-called instructions were intended for the home environment, Burāne created an audio walking production 2020 Steps (2020 soļi). All the participant needed to know was the direction in which s/he would walk for the 2020 steps representing the number of years of human existence since the birth of Christ. The audio content of the production includes historical facts about extinct species and volcanic eruptions, endangered flora and fauna and the deeply traumatized worlds of humankind and other living beings. Some of the information is clearly audible, while other facts are obscured in a blur of words as the text, spoken by the theatre director herself, begins to describe the present.
During the annual international theatre festival Homo Novus 2020, Burāne staged a performance-walk entitled Trees Have Stopped Talking Since Then (no tā laika koki vairs nerunā) which also featured an audio version. The audio walk, also available to individuals, consisted of 11 episodes, each of which featured a curated walk through Riga. The aim was to draw attention to the parks and gardens in the centre of the city from both a historical and a modern perspective. Burāne offered the participants a socially engaging journey by imagining the thoughts of 27-year-old Georg Kuphaldt, director of Riga parks and gardens in the late nineteenth century, who planted linden trees in 1880 along the Riga Boulevard Ring. The presentation focused on both young trees as they were growing and empty abandoned places overgrown with grass. The listener was invited to evaluate the importance of trees while walking through the city of Riga, where more trees are cut down than planted, thereby leaving people on the streets with no refuge, no green space to seek out for a breath of fresh air on a hot summer day. As noted by Latvian theatre critic Kitija Balcare, “the director coexists with people and trees, trying to see what they have in common, that is, living in them, and turning the indicator of anthropocentric values towards ecocentrism.”
The production The End of the World and Other Nonsense (Pasaules gals un citas blēņas, 2021), directed by Krista Burāne, was created during the Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival. During the performance, which was staged in an actual school, spectators were each given a music player and headphones, and each became an agent with a mission to save the World from extinction. Together with a partner or a fellow agent, spectators walked from one room to another following easy commands and collecting various objects that could help to save the world. Meanwhile, the main audio track consisted of stories with different scenarios of the end of the World that were written and narrated by young students. The texts straddled the boundary of fantasy and harsh reality, highlighting the current ecological crisis and foregrounding the voices and opinions of the younger generation, as theatre participants moved through the school setting.
Audio Walk as a Component of Mainstream Theatre
While most of the audio productions in Latvia are created as freelance projects or features of theatre festivals, during the pandemic, attitudes towards audio productions of both theatre managers as well as spectators have shifted, and attempts have been made to introduce digital theatre forms in repertoire theatres. Such was the case of audio walks The City and The Forest (2020), both created by Latvian stage director Valters Sīlis at Latvian National Theatre. Sīlis (1985) is a well-known award-winning Latvian stage director who has experimented with various nontraditional theatre forms—for example, performances-lectures and performances-walks, among others—and has drawn inspiration from political as well as psychological theatre.
In the autumn of 2020, in collaboration with the young playwright Linda Rudene, Sīlis created two theatrical walks around the city and forest with the theme man in nature and nature in man. Each performance was limited to a relatively small number of participants, who received headphones and were accompanied by actors who both performed and walked with the spectators.
While The City was organized as a walk through the districts of Riga, the changing scenery symbolically represented a journey through the nature of a man. As noted by the director, “We have moved to the city, we have organized a generally comfortable life for ourselves, but we wonder where on our way to comfort we have lost happiness. It turns out that things are not always compatible” (qtd. in Kaukule, “We Have Found a Good Way to Fight”). Meanwhile, the audio walk The Forest originated in Mežaparks, one of the greenest districts of Riga away from the center, and evolved as a political discourse that stressed the importance of preserving the forests of Latvia. As Sīlis states,
We want to be the greenest country in the world, but at the same time forestry is also our source of livelihood. I have been interested in this discourse for a long time. I see a conversation in a level of a tragedy. There are high-level specialists and scientists on both sides, but what happens in nature is interpreted differently from various points-of-view.qtd. in Kaukule, “We Have Found a Good Way to Fight”
During the second lockdown, the independent theatre Dirty Deal Teatro organized a collaboration of various artists in the form of an outdoor exhibition-walk. The author of the idea of The Walk Through the Triumph Arcade (Pastaiga pa triumfa arkādi, 2021)was Latvian scenographer Reinis Suhanovs, and the project consisted of eight environmental art objects—triumphal arcs made by different artists reflecting on topics such as political and personal struggles, victories and defeats. Taking inspiration from the French Arc de Triomphe, the art objects were placed in the Victory Park in the district of Pārdaugava, which is just next to The Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders. However, the context of the project was not as much political as it was universal, emphasizing that humanity longs only for one common victory; that is, the victory over the virus (Kaukule, “We, All the People of the World”).
Immersive Audio Theatre Forms
A slightly different form of audio performance born in the context of the pandemic is the phone-in-performance, experienced by means of a phone call. In this case, when listeners receive their tickets, they are also provided with detailed instructions and a phone number to call in order to start the performance.
The audio production Eavesdrop (Noklausies, 2020), created by director Valters Sīlis, allowed the listener to enter the mindset of a KGB agent eavesdropping on peoples’ private telephone calls. At the beginning, the listener, after receiving a short set of instructions about particular phone lines to be monitored, could choose which phone line to follow. Each of the parallel phone calls offered different characters and different information needed, from simple family or romantic matters to suspicious meeting arrangements. At the end of the production, the listener was asked to fill out a form and report any suspicious activities, thereby questioning the ethics of working as a KGB agent and betraying other people.
An alternative to the phone-in performance was staged by the young theatre artists troupe KVADRIFRONS, who created an interactive lo-fi audioplay, The Song of Roland (Rolanda dziesma, 2020). The play was based on themedieval epos of the same name, which describes the destruction of the French military leader Roland and his army in a battle against the Basques. The original epic poem consists almost entirely of battle scenes; however, the audio adaptation was set in modern-day Latvia and portrayed the battle between two provincial Latvian choirs who were trying to outdo each other in terms of talent and cunning in order to go to Riga and perform in the final concert of the Latvian Song and Dance Festival. The audio production was organized as an interactive quest: the listener had to choose which character to follow and what action sequence would follow, and the choices made determined the length of the production, ranging from one to two hours.
Conclusions: Audio Productions—a “Product” of the Pandemic?
While, historically, the genre of audio production is connected with stereotypes of outdated radio theatre productions, nowadays, and especially in the context of the pandemic, audio productions have emerged as a broad and complex form of theatre which reaches out spectators without any physical contact and uses a range of digital tools accessible to most people in the modern era. It is clear that the lockdown only speeded up the use of technology and the emergence of new digital theatre forms, such as audio-walks, and altered the perception of spectators, who were invited to experience theatre through their mobile phones, computers, TVs and even mail boxes.
During the pandemic, mobile phones have become more important than ever. The use of a smart phone has also become a necessity in the theatre, especially in the case of audio productions. More and more productions, both on-line and live, require the spectator to interact by reading QR codes, using mobile applications and downloading audio files. For example, whether arranging a walk outdoors or within the premises of a building, audio performances require the listener to use a personal mobile phone or other device provided by the organizers, as well as headphones. Therefore, regardless of the form chosen, in the case of audio productions the listener has to take part in the performance process by following simple technical commands. In the context of the pandemic, the traditional ritual of theatre-going, which includes activities such as dressing up, presenting a ticket, buying a program and finding one’s seat in the theatre hall, is replaced by charging a mobile phone, finding headphones and opening a mobile application.
Most of the audio productions discussed in this article have been created by young or middle generation theatre artists who used the form of audio theatre to address the listeners directly. For example, in the case of audio productions created by Krista Burāne, the director herself spoke to the listeners, thus creating a personal and direct line of communication with the audience. Audio productions clearly enable a deconstruction of traditional boundaries both between the stage and the spectator and between the creators of the performance and the viewers, thus creating a more direct and personal theatrical experience.
Meanwhile, most theatre critics emphasize that the screen or audio performance experience cannot replace or even come close to a live performance. Since the re-opening of theatres in Latvia after the first two waves of COVID-19, the creation of digital theatre productions has come to a halt, primarily because so many spectators crave a so-called real theatre experience and prefer traditional as opposed to digital forms of performance. However, many critics also predict that digital theatre is here to stay and recognize that a generation nurtured on computers and smart phones might even prefer it. Indeed, as the theatre is ever evolving, it would seem that theatre has already become part of the culture of the digital era.
 The independent theatre company PERFOrācija was founded in 2019 by artists Beatrise Zaķe and Pamela Butāne.
 The Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival is a Latvian theatre event that explores the possibilities of environmental theatre by inviting theatre artists to stage productions in various venues in the city of Valmiera (100 km outside of Riga, the capital of Latvia).
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*Ieva Rodiņa (PhD) is a theatre critic and researcher. In 2020, Ieva Rodiņa finished her PhD thesis dedicated to Latvian modernist theatre director Eduards Smiļģis. She is the Editor-in-chief of the Latvian theatre website www.kroders.lv and the Manager of Ogre Theatre, a regional theatre in Ogre city, Latvia. She is also a former lecturer (2012–20) at the University of Latvia and former research assistant (2015–21) at the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art (University of Latvia). Currently, Ieva Rodiņa is an independent researcher working on several individual projects on Latvian theatre history, and her research interests also include contemporary theatre.
Copyright © 2022 Ieva Rodiņa
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