The playwright Thornton Wilder once called theatre “the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being”. Or in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda: for many audiences it’s being “in the room where it happens”, together, that lends performance its unique pleasure. So what role can theatre play at a time when we’re forced to be apart?
In my book The Reasonable Audience I explored the ‘theatre etiquette’ campaigns for better audience behaviour. From a list that includes eating, armrest-hogging, nylon coats and man-buns, I found that glowing screens are the most hated theatrical no-no of all. For audiences, it seems, theatre is often special precisely because it’s one of the last places in society where we’re still able to unplug.
It has therefore been surprising to see how quickly the theatre industry shifted, post-Covid-19 shutdown, to calling for shows to be accessible online. But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised?
‘Digital technologies have the power to make live performances more accessible’
Arts organisations have made brilliant advancements in the technological and legal frameworks necessary to screen performances to millions around the world. What’s clear, though, is that many audiences are still catching up.
Much new research is demonstrating that digital technology helps us stay more connected to each other than ever before, with the ability to watch and discuss events together in real-time offering precisely the physically distanced sociability we need.
My own research found watching a YouTube video of a spectacular musical performance can feel as intimate as a one-on-one experience. In 2013, Martin Barker’s book Live to Your Local Cinema found that people experiencing National Theatre Live for the first time often came out shocked at how live a live-streamed performance can seem.
In her chapter in my forthcoming book on theatre fandom, Rachael Nicholas explains that audiences today struggle with their own ambivalence about experiencing theatre that is temporally live but spatially distant: torn between joy at how sociable it feels to watch along with friends on the other side of the world, and the nagging worry about whether those experiences ‘count’ as theatre at all?
So let’s lay this worry to rest: media-tised theatre absolutely counts as theatre. It’s not an inferior copy, but neither is it in competition with the original event. Instead, we need to accept that these experiences offer different kinds of connection.
On the plus side, digital technologies have the power to make live performances more accessible, affordable, and available for people across the globe who otherwise won’t be able to see them. The downside, though, is that with five million Brits never having used the internet, digital-only spaces can also be exclusionary.
We’re officially in lockdown. What we need now is to embrace the connective power of the virtual, at the same time as finding new ways to reach those who can’t join us online: whether that means chatting to each other across the street, posting letters through doors, or offering practical help for those who need it. Just because we can’t be together in person, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t feel like we are.
Kirsty Sedgman is lecturer in theatre at the University of Bristol and the author of The Reasonable Audience – Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing and the Live Performance Experience