Online Theatre in the Time of Covid With Implications for the Future of Live Performance
This blog was written to reflect on a session conducted under the Serendipity Arts Foundation course 'The Time is Now', delivered by Erin B. Mee.
There’s never been a moment of reckoning for theatre and live performance as the one it's going through right now. While one might argue that the theatrical medium has been in a constant state of flux for the past 2,500 years and has had to adapt to the times it found itself in – absurdist theatre in Europe found its feet in the post-war 40s and 50s while street theatre in India grew as a tool of political protest against the state – there is something markedly different about what’s happening now. When COVID-19 came to the fore in 2020, there was a singular (and yet global trigger) for theatre-makers to stop, take a step back and figure things out.
From new dramaturgical structures, innovative modes of engagement and conversations about what is theatre (and what is not) in the post-COVID era, to new digital vocabulary and experience-driven storytelling, we’re witnessing a shift in how theatre is conceived, created and consumed. This is perhaps why theatre director and scholar Erin B Mee characterises the current ‘digital theatre’ movement as a significant development where “truly experimental theatre is happening after a long time”.
Two years in the making
As part of Serendipity Arts Foundation’s course on live art The Time is Now, Mee delivered a talk titled ‘Digital Performance Before, During and After COVID’ which contextualized the emerging trends and developments in performance-making through a series of case studies from the United States, United Kingdom, Russia and Argentina. Furthermore, the presentation explored questions around liveness, participation, access and engagement, among others, that have emerged in the aftermath of this two-year-long-and-counting spree of digital performances. Mee reminds us that much of what we’re witnessing in digital performances now isn’t entirely new, as there’s been a presence of ‘digital elements’ in theatre since the late 20th century. Yet performances incorporating such multimedia, projections, screens and related technologies in their design and scenography were still experienced in a live space (“IRL as opposed to on URLs” she says) – and that’s precisely where we are offered a starting point for comparative commentary.
(Web)sites of performance
The space where the audience is now gathering to witness digital performance is fundamentally different – live streams, Zoom calls, websites, mobile apps, podcasts, games, one-on-one chats, phone calls, mystery boxes – and as such, has no obligation to follow the rules of the stage. Performances made for specific platforms adopt and integrate its technical features into the performance environment: applause gives way to likes, the spotlight becomes a single-camera-view and the comment box manifests the call and response. Mee emphasizes this by recognizing digital performances as being inherently site-specific, ie specific to the (plat)form where the audience gathers to engage with the work. Theatre-makers are not only adapting their work to be simply accessed on the digital medium, but are actively seeking new software and platforms whose technical user experience aligns deeply with the performance environment they wish to cultivate for their audience.
The audience-performance relationship
Then there’s the relationship between the performer(s) and the audience in this new playground that rejects the conventional role of the viewer. Attention is no longer assumed, it must be earned and negotiated. Growing digital fatigue and screen lethargy has led to a renewed focus on engagement and participation of the audience. Performances built around interactive elements – such as chat box, whiteboard, polls, and choose-your-own-adventure structures – are altering the audience-performer dynamic as compared to in-person performances, where it's enough to be a viewer at distance. The audience has a bigger stake in digital performance, for now, they equally rely on themselves to set the stage (log in), find their seat (tweak user settings) and participate in the world-building (listen and interact).
As a theatre-maker whose artistic practice lies at the intersection of performance, technology and interactive experiences, I have grappled with these questions myself. From the early ‘experiments’ of (re)framing the stage for the screen to now designing bespoke theatrical experiences created for the digital medium, I am glad that we are now able to look back and examine these attempts with a more critical eye. What felt like a defiant (and a bit frantic) response to theatre closures and lockdown restrictions then has gradually transitioned into a global movement of resilience, curiosity and exploration, one that has thrown the theatrical ‘rulebook’ out of the (virtual) window.
What awaits us on the other side is still… loading.
Image Credits: Luz Negra, Kaivalya Plays
You can read more about 'The Time is Now' on the Serendipity Arts Foundation website HERE. The course was conducted between May to July 2022. It was led by Amitesh Grover and assisted by Tanvi Shah. You can read more about the different sessions HERE.