When faced with trying to fill the extra time in our schedules, people around the world have turned to the arts. Many are left trying to watch enough television shows or movies to get through the day, let alone the week. At the same time many productions have been cancelled or postponed and workers have lost their jobs. There is a strange and sad kind of irony in this.
Whilst television and film have long embraced the benefits of digital technologies such as streaming platforms to share their work, theatre has never been able to achieve this kind of ubiquitous access. This is somewhat necessitated by the live nature of theatre, but also by the reliance on a need for a shared location and expensive ticket prices.
The action of recording live theatre has always been somewhat problematised. Theatre is inherently live, a lived experience that an audience undergoes alongside the performers onstage. Part of the magic is in the collective, in being in the room where it is happening amongst others together. Creators and producers often cite how recordings remove this aspect and cheapen the experience of the production, and that if audiences could access recordings they wouldn’t want to experience the real thing. As a result, professional recordings occur rarely and are publicly released in even rarer circumstances, with many ending up in archival storage. Amateur recordings of productions, also known as bootlegs, are generally illegal but have been a constant presence in theatre circles since before the advent of smartphones.
So, what happens when theatres can’t keep operating as normal?
All of the world becomes a stage.
Theatres around the world have begun to explore the technological distribution of their work, predominantly through sharing professional recordings, archival footage and live-streamed virtual productions. Professional recordings like those of large Broadway and West End productions have been increasingly made available recently. These include productions shared from the National Theatre in London, the YouTube channel The Show Must Go On and streaming service BroadwayHD among many others. Those that remain hesitant about digital sharing and virtual productions have been sharing content from past performances or photographs of old productions.
The rise of live-streamed and virtual productions has offered a way to unite creators and audiences whilst maintaining an interest in theatre. Everything from a one-man performance of a fictional play about someone working in Barbra Streisand’s basement (Buyer and Cellar) to virtual readings of plays, to a live-streamed birthday concert for Stephen Sondheim, to a twice daily live-streamed talk show with performances from theatre performers and casts of television performers (Stars in the House) is being created and shared on the internet.
Whilst some are restricted behind a paywall, many of these productions have been released free and included option fundraising to support theatres and non-profits that aid their workers, on and off stage. This allows audiences to continue to support the casts and crew who produce these amazing productions through witnessing and sharing their productions.
The transition to digital hasn’t been flawless, and I don’t think that should be the expectation. It’s often in these unintentional moments that it remains honest to its original form. There is almost a joy in witnessing the moments where things go wrong. Entire productions have been dedicated to this idea. Witnessing the earnest endeavours on and offscreen at times make these productions reminiscent of our own video calls where accidental muting or “sorry, can you me?” are all too frequent. They enhance that feeling of a unique and ephemeral experience that exists within theatrical productions.
It’s not the same. There’s no hush of the audience as the overture begins to ring through the room. There’s no ability to witness the talent of the orchestra as they begin playing.There’s no collective laughter, crying or raucous applause. But it’s not trying to be the same. In living rooms, comment sections and all across the internet, people are coming together to create and witness art with a level of accessibility that couldn’t have been previously imagined. Productions can feature performers from around the world and their audiences become increasingly diverse. For example, to ever contemplate watching a performance at the venue 54 Below, it would take a plane ticket, accomodation and everything else that a trip to New York entails. Now, it just requires me to wake up at 8.30am on a Saturday. Whilst I’ll be all too happy to buy a ticket to see a musical or a play when we can again, hopefully digital and virtual theatre, or even the accessibility that it has inspired, will find a way to continue.