Walking Towards a Post-theatrical Experience: Online Mediation and Digital Immediacy in Pandemic Performance

Octavian Saiu*


This article explores some of the new forms of performativity that have emerged during the pandemic. It starts with an overview of the online theatre phenomenon, which has brought together old recordings and genuine intermedial experiences. Focusing on Rimini Protokoll’s app, The Walks, it affirms the idea of post-theatricality as a possible framework for understanding some of the recent developments in the cultural vocabulary of contemporary performance. The conclusion of this piece is that the most radical transformations of the current period have occurred less in the poetics of theatre than in the patterns of its reception. The spectator becomes an actual participant in a post-theatrical venture, to the extent that the prerequisites of this ancient art form are challenged and transformed through a paradoxical mixture of mediation and immediacy. The authenticity of each performance resides in this improbable combination, typical for the sense and sensibility of a new age.

Keywords: post-theatrical, pandemic, co-presence, performativity, intermediality, liveness

The fortuitous rise of online theatricality during the recent – and by some accounts ongoing – pandemic has generated the widest-ranging cultural and social effects. No applied research has been devoted yet to the notion of audience development through such previously unsuspected experiences, but empirical information indicates that certain shows have attracted substantial spectatorship, while others have not succeeded at all in that sense.[1] What explains the sharp distinction? Is it the sheer artistic quality, however defined, of each production? Are there certain specific performative qualities that come through via the screen and/or the headphones, while others do not? Have specific digital / marketing / promotional techniques been applied in order to enhance the attractiveness of some shows? Although any tendency towards generalization is evidently hazardous, one answer seems apposite: a combination of factors ranging from pure expressiveness and raw theatrical craft to digital mastery turned performances like Simon McBurney’s The Encounter into online-hits.[2] The opposite case scenario has more simple, albeit simplistic explanations – whether they reflect rudimentary technology or irreproducible patterns of theatrical expression. The former situation is more worthy of attention, however.

The plethora of online performativity occasioned by various lockdowns is testimony for the eagerness of theatre artists to express themselves beyond the confines of their respective contexts, as much as it stands for the theatrical appetite of various audiences. State funded, well-endowed institutions immediately ceased the opportunity to showcase their repertories, uploading them onto more-or-less-inventive digital platforms, whilst independent artists had to struggle for the right means of communication.[3] On the other hand, spectators from all around the world had the invaluable chance of watching performances by artists whose works had been completely out of their reach beforehand.

Not long after the pandemic started, the internet was flooded with a theatrical offer that was at once old and new, classical and contemporary, abundant and mixed, exciting and confusing, tame and provocative. The debate over what online theatre is or whether it could exist at all started almost concurrently. With few exceptions – such as the online theatre festival event attempted previously by The Theatre Times – nothing so radically different had been experienced before. And yet, everyone accepted at least the possibility of making theatre beyond the perimeter of the traditional dynamics between the stage and the auditorium, beyond the liveness and the co-presence taken for granted until then.[4]

One massive resource of online theatricality was the archived material of well-established theatre companies, which relied on recordings to showcase their rich past. For some spectators, particularly the seasoned ones, this was a trip down the memory lane. For others, it was the chance to close the gap on aspects of recent theatre history that would have been completely inaccessible otherwise. For everyone, the issue of technical quality was evident, however: every single show recorded before the digital age – and, for that matter, a lot of those that should have benefited from its advantages too – lacked the visual appeal of an HD video. They seemed old relics of a tradition that was suddenly resurrected by a feeling of nostalgic longing. Shows created by Strehler or Gruber were presented to global audiences as quintessential moments of theatre history. Indeed, they were not only part of history. They were history.

The same can be said about the vast treasures of Youtube, where fragmentary memories of twentieth century performance can be savoured by those inclined to search for them. A small community, unrestricted by geographic boundaries, found itself drawn to such experiences that rendered not only stage history, but cultural mythology palpably available. For those who studied in school, or merely heard about the universe of Strehler, a scene from his Tempest is an advent of grace, a longed-for blessing provided by the most improbable of media. And yet, the question of authenticity – as posed by Benjamin before anything of the current scale of digital reproduction could be even remotely anticipated – rings truer than ever: is that real theatre?

Theatre, Past and Present

Before venturing into the territory of taxonomic definitions, it must be said that if any form of performance relies upon the shared ontology of the performer and the spectator, no aged footage could possibly do it justice. Not only does it alter its substance – in the same way that even the most sophisticated form of livestreaming would – but it changes its actual DNA. It turns it into a document whose liveliness is as dubious as its liveness.[5] Both these virtues are compromised, inevitably and irreversibly, by the mere fact that the fleeting moment is turned into a repeatable cycle. Such truisms are universally accepted, which makes the above questions even more disquieting by implication. The more predictable the answers are, the less satisfactory they become. Absolutely, that – and by “that” one means any recording of any show, which was executed before the digital age of humanity – is not theatre. Then, what is it? And, even more important to ponder from an intellectual perspective, why has it been largely assimilated to the field of theatricality by being categorized as such in the endless universe of the internet? Online theatre is a phenomenon that has its own terms of reference and a specific nomenclature, which can be easily discovered by using different search engines. Some “Google” results are baffling simply because they define the terms of the expression according to rather simplistic associations of ideas.

A different dimension complicates the story, and it relates to another sense of the present that is embedded in any live performance. The time of theatre is attuned to a certain sensitivity, which any performance reflects effortlessly in its fabric. Even shows that seemed at a given stage of theatre history futuristic or revolutionary appear later on to be dated, this being at once the result of a series of changes in cultural perception and the effect of the aging of the support material – even digitally recorded shows from the early 2000s look ancient in light of the most recent developments of HD technology.

The question of cultural perception is far more important, although inseparable from the filters of technological rendition. A show like Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is generally accepted as a watershed moment in twentieth century theatre history: new, daring, cutting-edge for its time. Today, its remnants recall that moment with a sense of poignancy and nostalgia, but they cannot possibly suggest its original impact. How could they? Everything that has been unfolding since that moment, the entire series of radical experimentation that started with it, every single conquest of subsequent theatrical modernity – all of these have changed the understanding of the white cube and the vertical acrobatics that back then, in the sixties, were immensely new.[6]

To watch a recording of a show like that one, even a less inventive one at the scale of theatrical innovation, is to accept that it is nothing more and nothing less than a piece of theatrical history. It belongs to a museum of performance, in which every single stage masterpiece has its section, properly introduced and circumscribed to its chronological context. So, it cannot be resurrected and suddenly turned into a form of genuine theatricality. No such attempt should be entertained – no pun intended – because it is suicidal. Alas, during the first stages of the pandemic, a surplus of recordings inundated the internet. All of them claimed that they would provide a genuine theatrical experience, not merely an insight into a history of this art form that depends on the instant it fills with the most ephemeral of emotions.[7]

The memory of theatre may last forever, and is this not the absolute solace for all those who love it? Nevertheless, to claim that an experience of a show that was once shattering for an audience of a specific time and a given place can be relived simply because it was captured by the means of mechanical or indeed digital reproduction is at best idealistic. At worst, it is a form of indulgence that has pushed theatre further from the area of general interest, rather than affirming it as a unique cultural experience. It was that uniqueness, in which all true spectators believe, that was compromised by the process of recycling imposed upon old footages of old shows, delivered as actual performances on online platforms that mixed the old and the new to the point of total confusion.

The Medium and the Message

The multiple statements against the idea that all those reruns could be called theatre have in common a distrust of the medium, but also – and even more substantively – a rejection of the repeatability of something from the past that is supposedly actualised by its mere screening in the present. Part of the same strategy of turning the stage performance into a digital venture, the process of streaming was met with equal hesitation, but more readily accepted for one simple reason: it was of our times. Even where technology failed, due to the lack of resources or the utter inaptitude of using them properly, the attempt felt more genuine. A show livestreamed gives the impression/illusion of co-presence far more intensely than anything artificially revived from the archives of a cultural institution. This phenomenon took different forms in different places, and indeed it was local or global, small scale or aimed at large audiences: a Romanian performance presented by a provincial company was watched by a handful of online spectators, whereas Schaubühne or International Theatre Amsterdam had more viewers than realistically possible in any physical circumstance.[8] In each case, the reasons behind people’s decision to watch related to the same notion of the cultural product being relatively fresh, recent, and new.

It is possible that the noble project of making typically archived video footage available backfired not only because of the anachronistic feel of the productions presented or simply because so many of them looked old, but rather because they were… not new. Theatre cannot be for all time. Drama, perhaps. Theatre itself has an unseen “expiry date” or at least an unwritten “best before” tag. Those who stubbornly and passionately thought it possible to overlook this aspect subverted the premises of online performativity and made all its other flaws more striking than they might have been otherwise. After watching a show from the last century, although remarkable back then, any discerning spectator would notice its outmoded means of expression and would become apprehensive about anything else in the vast category of online theatre. This is the unsurprising negative consequence of exposure to cultural messages unsuitable for the medium in which they are presented. Whether the result of ineptness or the effect of too much enthusiasm or both, the online programmes of certain companies that chose to merge the old and the new generated a form of unreceptiveness towards what could have been, and in some cases truly was, online theatre: a mode of creativity shaped by the medium and geared towards a different profile of spectator.[9] That spectator may be the same, exactly the same as the one occupying the elegant seats of the classical auditoriums or it may well be a totally inexperienced one. Yet, in either case, what they deserve(d) is not a culturally recycled product, but the experience of the present framed in new theatrical/communicational parameters.

Virtual Co-presence

This latter path was chosen by certain artists, who believed in the virtues of theatre and invested them in new media. The results were varied, as it is known: from delicate ballerinas dancing in their own kitchens in front of a static camera to interactive performances generated through online channels of communication.[10] Everything was born out of a strange mixture of passion and despair, and its general energy gave theatre lovers from everywhere the feeling that this art form could survive even when so many companies had to effectively shut down. However, what everyone accepted was the genetic change that had occurred, the major mutation between aesthetic formulations that had existed for millennia and new patterns of encounter between the performer and the spectator. Some of these patterns had been tried before, in places where televised theatre represented a tradition.[11] Some of them defied all expectations. Most of them were somewhere in between – not completely classical and predictable, but not exactly new-fangled, either. Throughout a practice of trial and error, something seems to have occurred or, rather, become clear: an appetite of various spectators for possibilities of performance that were considered merely marginal before.

It is probably too early for such conclusions, but the most significant transformation, the real sense of evolution has occurred in the reception of theatre more than in its processes of production. The vocabulary of pandemic performance, even in the case of some digital experiments seemingly unattempted before, was not actually new – with few, noticeable, exceptions. It had been tried in theatre or it was already a staple of other creative languages from which it was now borrowed.[12] The theatre spectator, on the other hand, was largely used to a certain realm of cultural experience. Its main principles had stayed the same from the days before the Greek amphitheatre to 2020: a shared space and a given time, both understood in the most literal possible sense. Everything else that was part of the territory of performativity was accepted as an unusual deviation from its main core, never truthfully embraced as a viable alternative or even as a possible complement to existing forms of expression and communication.[13] Now, all of a sudden, even the most hard-core traditionalist of spectators accepted that theatre can happen when the actors are not in the same space, that the “here and now” of a given show are relative notions, that a simple screen and a pair of headphones may be able to provide an immersion into otherness. Even at the end of the twentieth century, any such experiment was marginal, and the total amount of trans-theatricality accounted for only a small percentage of what theatre and performance were considered to be.[14] This type of acceptance was the true turning point during the pandemic, and its cognitive implications are likely to last and determine the course of theatricality for the times to come. Indeed, everyone has longed for the return to the auditorium, but the conquests of new media and social media cannot and should not be forgotten, regarded as constraints of a historical period when theatre was exiled to the vastness of the internet and struggled for its own survival. A new cultural phenomenon was born, partly out of necessity, and it is undoubtedly here to stay.

A collection of audio walks by Rimini Protokoll. Each walk is a short audio experience covering specific locations in your city and an invitation to rediscover and interact with your environment.
The Walks as a Post-theatrical Adventure

This phenomenon may be termed – despite all the precautions that should inhibit sweeping generalisations and risky umbrella-terms – post-theatrical performance. It is not that it goes beyond what theatre has been for hundreds of years. It is certainly not that theatre, as known for hundreds of years, is all of sudden rendered passé. It is not even that the fabric of these new forms of creativity is necessarily new. It is simply that the history of this art form will be divided into before and after the pandemic in a way that has unexpectedly opened up new possibilities for understanding both eras in terms of (dis)continuity rather than contiguity.

Ahead of any clear definition, it must be said that the mere use of the particle, post, designates a chronological separation that has proved problematic with regard to modernism and postmodernism, and even more so in reference to the dramatic and the postdramatic – the term credited to the late Hans-Thies Lehmann has been vehemently contested more because of that than for any specific points in his argumentation.  Something about the sonority of “post” has the inhibitive effect of precluding the very conceptual distinctions it tries to indicate. The endless debates about its appositeness cannot be part of this article’s scope, yet one of the questions derived from them is worth considering: can a cultural phenomenon and its “post” manifestations coexist? Although broadly speaking a paradox, even a contradiction in terms, this is not an impossibility either theoretically or practically. In the field of culture – as Borges once said about literature – time is reversible and the chronological order inherently relative. No radical separation is possible, and the theory of “reverse influence” once predicated by Richard Ellmann is another proof: one reads an old literary work through the lenses provided by a most recent one, and no old cultural item is separable from the effect of those that followed it, in any trans-historical appraisal.[15] In the same way that the shortcutting avant-garde movements proved unable to cancel the existence of the traditions against which they rebelled, nothing being shaped by the environment of cultural fluidity from our times could annihilate the forms of so many other old or new traditions. The laws of transformation are more powerful than the impetus for change, so elements of modernity are as strikingly present in the so-called postmodern vibes of the late twentieth century as the pure dramatic theatre in the mix of contemporary performativity.

So, to put this immediate concern aside, it can be affirmed without hesitation that the theoretical prospect of a post-theatrical system of expression does not postulate the end of all things known as theatrical. On the contrary, it highlights – albeit too empathically, by virtue of the term “post” – that certain novel forms of performance can only be understood in relation to the unanimously accepted definition of that which is theatrical.

The post-theatrical is not simply an aftermath of an already existent content, but a redefinition of it. If theatre has always been based on shared presence, this new form of performance brings the dynamics between the artist and the spectator into the digital realm of interaction, taking it to another level of intimacy through means considered not long ago to be unworthy of such attempts.

In The Walks, Rimini Protokoll creates a feeling of shared presence exactly where none seems / is possible.[16] Every single one of its scenes – for want of a better and more suitable term – defy all the known prerequisites of performative time and space: they can happen anywhere, anytime. The supermarket in which one of those scenes is set does not become a theatrical milieu, nor does the park or the city itself. Yet, everything about The Walks inspires a sense of participation that is rooted in the old style of theatre, the one originating in the agora, the one that flourished in the eighteenth-century auditorium, the one that appears now to be an old shrine of tradition as much as it remains a perpetual institution of culture. No one can truly appreciate The Walks without at least some previous exposure, albeit even selective and transient, to that tradition and to that culture. This is the paradox of all post-theatrical performance, which qualifies it better and more convincingly than any stand-alone nomenclature.

Rimini Protokoll, The Walks. Photo: Bogdan Botofei

Whether or not this type of artistic experience could have occurred without the ancestry of real theatre is less relevant than the fact – the term “fact” is justified, although no factual absolutes can be claimed in the land of pure subjectivity – that its perception is an epiphenomenon of something that predates it and will also continue to live alongside it. Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel, the three artists of Rimini Protokoll, might not have immersed themselves in the rich and dense treasure of German theatre. In fact, their apprenticeship with Heiner Goebbels was perhaps more significant for their craft and vision than anything they might have learned from the masters of the German stage. However, no audience from any place could claim to understand Rimini Protokoll’s explorations of digital art without starting from their own previous theatrical adventures into traditional spectatorship. To appreciate the post-theatrical for what it is, even for its anti-theatrical stimulus, one needs to have been to the theatre before. This is not to say that its value is derivative. On the contrary, it is highly original, but if and only if it is regarded on the background of what has been known, accepted, and embraced as actual theatre. Otherwise, in relation to other genres and modalities – from experimental contemporary music to any digital form of expression – The Walks and any other experiment of this sort fades into banality. Nothing from this spectrum of aesthetic possibilities can hold its ground against the intensity of what artists like Cai Guo-Qiang or Yayoi Kusama can do. It simply becomes ineffective and even tame. Yet, hypothesised within the broad dominion of theatre, it comes to be strong.[17]

The organic relationship between experimental digital art, on the one hand, and theatre as such, on the other, is essential to acknowledge before any further commentary on the hybrid, mixed, technology-infused language of new performativity. This is, in a sense, the opposite of what performance art has been or, rather, was: a response to theatre, meant to shake its deep convictions and challenge its pre-established conventions. Performance art tried so hard to be the opposite of theatre – though seemingly similar at first sight, through the use of the human body and the same time-space unity. The post-theatrical performance has the appearance of nontheatre – through the rejection of the predefined notion of co-presence – but it stakes everything on the spectator’s awareness of the same age-old theatricality. In the terms once put forward by Hans Robert Jauss, this form of artistic experience depends upon the “horizon of expectations” shaped by theatre in order to provide the surprise of something that chooses a very different ethos of expression.[18] This paradox does not deem it insidious, nor does it take away any of its merits. It simply places it in a cultural context that is not as radically new as it is made to appear.

The fact that some of the voices used in The Walks are those of seasoned actors is, in itself, a theatrical reference. It becomes a metonymy, in a sense. No spectator-participant can ignore the significant detail that they are invited to join an experience with a certain degree of playfulness, being drawn into it, lured, enchanted by the single element that remains as dramatic as the body itself: the human voice. Different from its use in ars acustica, radio drama or conventional apps, the voice in The Walks is a constant reminder of a specific form of communication, the aural imprint of performativity, inextricably linked and surviving in the digital universe that celebrates both the old and the new. In the uninviting context of a busy street or in the tranquillity of a park, the voice becomes the personal guide while – or, rather, because – it remains a clearly dramaturgical device. Had it been a simple message-carrier and not an artistic means of communication, it would instantly turn into the cold, mechanic tune of an ordinary channel.[19] However, what makes it far more than that is not merely the talent or the technique of those speaking through the earphones, but the spectator’s incontrovertible perception of that level of theatricality imbedded in it by default.

Rimini Protokoll, The Walks. Photo: Bogdan Botofei

The spectator is no longer a spectator, thanks to a fictional agreement with the voice to which they listen. In every context, they are invited to use not only their gaze, but their imagination and sometimes even their body, in order to complete the cycle of what each story tries to convey. Political messages are subtly alluded to. Gestures are suggested. Buildings and surroundings are turned into theatrical sets. All these performative instalations are possible thanks to the ways in which the spectator-cum-actant unleashes their own creativity in order to complement that of the artists. Everything is based on a shared understanding of a theatrical vocabulary that is at once integrated into, and transcended by each scenario. In order to be blurred, boundaries must exist in the first place.

Beyond Value Judgement

The value judgment becomes therefore almost an impossibility, an exercise in intellectual elaboration: dramatic, post-dramatic and non-dramatic at once, the post-theatrical performance precludes any clear axiology. It can be enjoyed or rejected, but hardly ever evaluated properly for what it is. It can be regarded as original or imitative, but it cannot truly be scrutinised for its substance, which is often completely lacking or thinly present in the form of an experience without much in the way of either message or meaning. What has been said so many times about performance art – i.e. that it is the “death of subject” and the apocalypse of sense – translates even less favourably with regard to the digitally minded shows that envelop themselves in the mist of technological effects.[20] Very often, perhaps too often, the use of one technology or another is implied to be more important that any possible meaning attached to it. On stage, after so much experimentation in the post-dramatic era brought to a climax by the likes of Rodrigo Garcia and Romeo Castellucci, the rejection of meaning is more than a form of dissent, as it once was in the case of the so-called theatre of the absurd. Not even this stance is new, per se. What is new is the medium through which the message of purposeful meaninglessness is conveyed.

The post-theatrical performance relies on new media in an organic way, therefore. It is very far from the stage shows that – all of a sudden, at the beginning of the 2000’s – were all using screens and video projections as gimmicks, without any justification, to tell the same old tales in the same old style and to the same old audiences. It does search for something new, something that the digital technology readily provides. Its lack of meaning, if true, is not a consequence of this process of hybridisation. Not necessarily. It is a staple upshot of a creative mentality oriented towards form rather than substance, geared towards audiences who resonate with that principle.[21] This type of cultural product is seldom profound and complex because it does not aim for either merit. It disregards both profoundness and complexity. Conversely, the audiences attracted by it are not in search of any particular meaning or message. They want an experience. That experience takes many theatrical precedents into account, recalls some previous exposure to the classical stage, but merely because it tries to make its own statement: “theatre can be different”! “Does it have to be?” – an epicurean spectator may genuinely inquire. “Why?” – a sceptical one might ask. “So what?” – a cynical one might venture to reply. However, the participant transfixed by listening to an unknown person telling them what to look for in the supermarket or what to gaze at in the street will not feel inclined to ask any such questions. They will embrace the experience. They will cherish the new adventure. They will be pleased that theatre can indeed be different and never wonder if anything is left of its old definition. This process of reception is largely made possible by a combination of curiosity and indifference, which constitutes the most peculiar contradiction of the profile of the post-theatrical performance consumer. The appetite for cultural stimulation overlaps with an utter rejection of intellectual processing, as if accepting the digital medium annuls the symbolic interpretation of a connotative discourse. Everything is experienced, and not much is critiqued.

Rimini Protokoll, The Walks. Photo: Expander Film
The Contradictions of Individual Perception

Within the realm of this uncanny theatricality generated by the digital technology, the question of authenticity becomes even more complicated than that of aesthetic/cultural value. In the age of digital reproductions, the uniqueness of the work of art seems to be paradoxically replaced by its reproducibility, without any sense of explosive contradiction. In fact, the perception of its serialism guarantees the feeling of consumerist satisfaction: should The Walks be a live adventure, with a slight possibility of interaction between the actor behind an unseen microphone and the spectator listening to them through their own gadget, everything would change.[22] The ritual would be confined by certain parameters of time and even space. The context of each performance would be regulated accordingly. The change of a spontaneous “pause” after the highly symbolic “play” would be eliminated from the outset. In its pre-recorded downloadable form, this series offers the unsuspected possibility of a personal and personalised experience, which every single spectator/participant/consumer may tailor the way they respectively see fit. The lack of immediacy and the manifestation of intense mediation do not preclude the pleasure of aural immersion. In fact, they may altogether charge it with a different type of intensity and – alas – authenticity. The aura of the theatrical work, as it has been assumed to exist for centuries, is now altered and shifted, nuanced and recomposed, but not quite abandoned.[23]

What could possibly account for this oxymoron? No answer is easy, in the absence of applied research on the phenomenon of post-theatrical performance reception. Based on simple, empirical observation, one might surmise that the explanation resides in the experience as such, between the artist’s intentionality and spectator’s response. Released from the pressure of belonging to an audience, able to choose a time and a space for the performance that is not dictated by others, the participant in The Walks has the feeling of what may be termed performative appropriation. This is the opposite of the possibly oppressive feeling of being trapped in a group, having to laugh, sigh and applaud together with them.[24] It is liberating, because it is – strictly speaking – individual. Not only Benjamin could be evoked in reference to this phenomenon, but Brecht himself: on the face of it, at least, this new framing of the cultural dynamics between the artist and the spectator favours a sense of empowerment. Yet this understanding, accepted by those fervently in support of the notion of theatrical app, is highly problematic. Can the mere individuality of reception be regarded as a guarantee for the spectator’s freedom of choice? In reality, the exact opposite could be argued, since everything is dictated to them by the mysterious voice they listen to. Not everything is chosen for them, but the array of choices is already formed, shaped by an artistic consciousness connecting with their own, in a mixture of complicity and complacency that is truly intricate in ethical terms.

The Paradox of Immediacy

One other paradox must be addressed, as its role can be instrumental in at least partially decoding the above-mentioned ones. That is, the overlap between immediacy and mediation. This is more than a paradox, in the case of anything theatrical – or indeed post-theatrical – since it questions the very nature of intermedial performance.[25] It goes beyond the ramifications of liveness and co-presence, since it brings everything closer to the notion of receptive individuality. If the role of the digital medium is so determinant that it forms the very basis of the experience, which in the case of The Walks is hardly deniable, then by consequence the entire venture is mediated. Yet, its sense of immediacy cannot be repudiated, since the reality of the context is an absolute prerequisite: The Walks: The Park could not properly come into being without a walk in an actual park. The participant’s subjective relation with the objective nature of that context becomes as significant to the wholeness of the performative undertaking as the voice suggesting a certain escapade there.

Rimini Protokoll, The Walks. Photo: Expander Film

In order to even attempt to clarify this contradiction in terms, one may ask a question: does theatre, in its most simple and classical definition, presuppose an immediate ontological relationship between the performer and the spectator? According to Artaud, the answer is necessarily an emphatic “yes.” Consistent with Brechtian ideology, things become more difficult, since the Verfremdungseffekt requires different filters of mediation. Between these two polarities, between Artaud and Brecht, all other options seem to find their place. However, the question refuses to go away, particularly in times of imposed physical isolation. For anyone who thinks immersive theatre is the ultimate form of intimate performance, since it dwells on the sense-making/making-sense ambiguity, even Artaud’s theory is insufficient. Absolute immediacy in immersive performance presupposes a total permeability of the medium, something that does not involve any external device. The empty space in which two human beings can hear, touch, and feel each other is the ideal territory of concrete immediacy and abstract intimacy: it disposes of external media and renounces the manufactured artefacts of the typical convention.

If theatre can aspire to be truly immediate and intimate, the post-theatrical performance seems to go in the exact opposite direction. Yet, this is only at one level. Because through the use of filters and the various layers of media, artists like Rimini Protokoll create a feeling of emotional permeability that defeats the merely sensorial. Hence, their deliberate rejection of liveness, the preference for non-liveness, the construct of beyond-liveness in The Walks. The voice in the headphones is integrated into the realm of physical reality through the energy of the spectator-participant, materialised by the interplay between them and that reality. Story-telling becomes story-making. If every physiological sense has its centre in the brain, then nothing could be more immersive than to appeal to the brain itself in order to create a non-dramatic illusion of immediacy, more powerful than the unfiltered assault on the spectator’s external perception. This may be the performative logic of late humanism: a post-theatrical strategy for the survival and reconfiguration of that which we know as theatre in the times of Artificial Intelligence and beyond.


[1] The possibility of verifying the number of “viewers” and “views” has allowed for absolute transparency in that sense, although any such quantification remains vague and unreliable.

[2] The number of “views” during its YouTube run soared above 250000.

[3] One interesting example is “The Digital Stage,” a project of National Theatre of Sibiu.

[4] For the redefinition of “liveness,” see Kendra Claire Capece  and Patrick Scorese (2022).

[5] The term, liveness, is used in the context of this article as a tribute the conceptualisation provided by Philip Auslander in his well-known volume, Liveness.

[6] For a clear appraisal of the production’s original impact, see: Donald Richie (1971).

[7] The incongruity between past and present as theatrical tenses became most apparent in the case of theatre schools that chose to present their archives online, as established actors could be seen in performances recorded at the time of their graduation.

[8] Details about the online success of the two companies were provided by their respective Artistic Directors, Thomas Ostermeier and Ivo Van Hove, in the context of this dialogue held at Festival Tokyo.

[9] A great example of online performativity is Thaddeus Philipps’s Zoo Motel, an explosion of creativity delivered via Zoom in an interactive, inspiring fashion. Philipps remains one of the few artists who made theatre online, not merely online theatre.

[10] This array of possibilities was explored in the Conference organized by Sibiu International Theatre Festival in June 2020: From Real to Virtual: the Human Condition, Between Global Crisis and Digital Experience.

[11] In Eastern Europe, for example, the tradition of recordings or even live broadcasts of theatre shows on television was particularly strong before the fall of the Iron Curtain.

[12] See Matthew Causey (2009) and Steve Dixon  (2007).

[13] This is a topic worthy of a separate article. However, in this context, it must be said that even hyper-technologised theatrical productions – such as The Tempest directed by Gregory Doran at Royal Shakespeare Company in 2016 – remained faithful to the principles of co-presence and immediacy upon which theatre relied since the times of Sophocles.

[14] See Birringer, Johannes (1991, 1999).

[15] See Elmann’s well known essay, Four Dubliners (1987).

[16] See here.

[17] This precondition may resemble the phenomenological dimension of experience that predates perception, as formulated by Merleau-Ponty, but it is not at all the same. See the Merleau-Ponty Reader (2007, 89),

[18] Jauss postulated the notion, having borrowed it from Karl Popper. In reception studies, it is a virtually indispensable element for any cultural experience. See Towards an Aesthetic of Reception (2005).

[19] For a detailed analysis of the similarities between traditional radio drama and internet audio performance before the explosion of the digital culture, see the chapter “A Culturalist Approach to Internet Audio Drama” in Tim Crook (1999).

[20] Josette Feral’s statement sounds prophetic: “Performance is the absence of meaning. […] Performance is the death of subject” (1982, 209)

[21] For the transition to an “experience economy” in general, different from the product-oriented one, see Joseph Pine  and James Gilmore (2011).

[22] It should not be forgotten that Rimini Protokoll experimented with that before, in very original ways.

[23] For a detailed conversation about The Walks with the artists of Rimini Protokoll, see here.

[24] A solid intellectual exploration of the question of intimacy and false intimacy in online performativity with specific regard to spectatorship is provided by Yana Meerzon in her article, On False Intimacies and Anti-Cathartic Modalities of Being in the Digital Performances of Crisis. Meerzon’s in-depth analysis of the anti-cathartic impact of chekhovOS/an experimental game/ relies upon various cultural frameworks, and reaches the heartening conclusion that digitalised experiences may actually enhance the direct rediscovery of theatricality in its universal parameters. See here.

[25] See Areias Oliveira, Fernanda, Marta Isaacsson, and Maria Cristina Biasuz (2017).


Areias Oliveira, Fernanda, Marta Isaacsson, and Maria Cristina Biasuz. “Diluted Presence in Rouge Mékong: a Proposition for the Intermedial Scene.” Brazilian Journal on Presence Studies, Porto Alegre, v. 7, n. 3, Sept./Dec. 2017, pp. 601-23.

Auslander, Philip. Liveness. Routledge, 1999.

Birringer, Johannes. Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism. Indiana UP, 1991.

——.  “Contemporary Performance/Technology.” Theatre Journal, vol. 51, no 4, 1999, pp. 361-81.

Capece, Kendra Claire and Patrick Socrese, eds. Pandemic Performance: Resilience, Liveness, and Protest in Quarantine Times. Routledge, 2022.

Crook, Tim. Radio Drama: Theory and Practice. Routledge, 1999.

Causey, Matthew. Theatre and Performance in Digital Culture. Routledge, 2009.

Dixon, Steve. Digital Performance. MIT Press, 2007.

Ellman, Richard. Four Dubliners, Hamish Hamilton London, 1987.

Feral, Josett. “Performance and Theatricality. The Subject Demystified.” Modern Drama vol..25, no 1, 1982, pp. 170-81.

Jauss, Hans Robert. Towards an Aesthetic of Reception. U of Minnesota P, 2005.

Meerzon, Yana. “On False Intimacies and Anti-Cathartic Modalities of Being in the Digital Performances of Crisis.” Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, no. 24, 2021.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, The Merleau-Ponty Reader, Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2007.

Pine, Joseph and James Gilmore. The Experience Economy. Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.

Richie, Donald. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.TDR, vol. 15, no. 2, Spring, 1971, pp.330-34. 

*Professor Octavian Saiu from School of Arts and Social Sciences, Hong Kong Metropolitan University is a scholar as well as a professional cultural and academic consultant. He is the President of the International Association of Theatre Leaders (IATL), a global alliance that gathers prominent figures in the field of performing arts (https://theatreleaders.org). He is also a PhD Research Professor in the Doctoral School of Sibiu University, and has been Visiting Professor at universities in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing and Lisbon. He was twice a Visiting Fellow at the University of London (SOAS) and he has offered Master Classes and Workshops at academic institutions in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.. He has published academic articles in several international journals, as well as fourteen books on theatre. He serves on the editorial boards of various journals and publishing houses. His most recent book publication is Phèdre. D’Euripide à Racine, de Sénèque à Sarah Kane (Lansman Editeur, Bruxelles). He received the Critics’ Award in 2010 and the Award of the Union of Theatre Artists (UNITER) in 2013. In 2020, on the National Day of Culture, the President of Romania awarded him the Order of Cultural Merit.

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