What a difference a month makes. In my last column I celebrated the gathering of (largely) old-time theatre critics to celebrate Michael Billington’s career. Four weeks later, the possibility of gathering 20 people in a small Pall Mall room together seems a distant dream. And let us be honest – many who gathered in that room are now ‘vulnerable’, as our new language of sickness has it.
When theatre critics get together, it isn’t always social smooth sailing. Press-night intervals are always full of people looking over their shoulders. Who’s shown up tonight who is gracious to colleagues? Who is decidedly ungracious? Why has X never acknowledged my existence after 10 years sitting next to each other? Who on earth in this time of shrinking arts sections still has a job?
In my more insecure years, I went for a long walk around the block every interval just to focus on the play and escape the social dynamics. But right now, I can’t think of a happier vision than when I next get to see the press-night regulars convene in a working theatre and I get to throw my arms around each and every one of them.
In the meantime, we get together on Twitter instead. You may have already discovered the glorious #LockdownTheatreClub, run by critic David Jays. Once a week, a gang of theatre enthusiasts of all stripes are joining David to watch a theatre-themed movie and we merrily tweet a running commentary to each other.
Our closed theatres, desperate to continue their mission and showcase their value, are tripping over each other to produce digital content. But, although I’m enjoying all this, it’s left me wondering which of these digital offerings can and can’t fill our need for theatre.
What theatre is and is not could fill 10 PhDs, and we would still not scratch the surface. But here’s my attempt in the 200 words left here. As David writes in the Sunday Times, a life watching theatre means a life “hanging out with strangers in the dark”. You can get that on Twitter – it’s that old concept of a shared experience or, more importantly, shared simultaneous experience.
What I love about live-tweeting movies – theatre-themed or not – is that a community is watching simultaneously. We can experience each other’s responses even if – unlike live theatre – the artists can’t sense us and respond. I often watch films of performances to catch up on shows I missed, but if I’m the only person watching at that moment – fully in control of the pause button – it just feels like I’m a theatre historian completing my knowledge.
Some of the best digital artists have been responding to this problem for years by developing live digital performances, with artists and audiences linked up to each other in real time. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, there’s been more. If you’re making this kind of live-responsive work, give me a shout out on Twitter and I’ll try to watch and amplify.
We’ll keep making theatre with or without our traditional buildings. But theatre is based on live-feedback loops, with audience participation shaping artists’ real-time choices. Let’s build them online.
Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic. She currently writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Guardian, as well as a range of US publications. She sits on the board of Index on Censorship and this year’s judging panel for the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/kate-maltby