Dear Theatre, Adapt or Die

When you walk into a theatre in the U.S., they all tend to look the same. You go sit in a cramped seat, swamped by people, and look up at a scene of actors. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But with a pandemic preventing this exact scenario from happening, those who play with the form of theatre are rewarded, and will continue to be rewarded when people are able to gather once again.

Theatre companies looking for ways to survive COVID-19 | Source: © CBC News: The National/YouTube

In my first few weeks as an undergrad theatre student, we were tasked to create compelling stories with limited resources. At first, it was to tell a story without any words. Then to tell a story when no one was watching. We learned quickly that creativity spikes when resources are taken away — creatives will always find a way to keep creating. And we can see the different ways theatre companies have been creative during a time when mass gatherings are not safe.

It has been heartening to see groups of actors and theatre lovers get together to read plays over Zoom but as an audience member of the new “Zoom Theatre,” I must say — it is the most boring way to watch or listen to theatre that has ever been invented. 

Here’s how a night watching Zoom Theatre goes for me:

I tune in. 
I try to find a quiet spot to listen.
It’s 7:30 — why isn’t it starting yet?
Oh, technical difficulties.
The actors are on!
E-mail notification.
One of the actors mics is so much louder than the others…
How am I supposed to know who any of these people are talking to?
Now I’m scrolling on my phone.
Ugh, I’m bored. I’m gonna go watch Netflix.

In live theatre, there’s about seven minutes to grab ahold of the audience’s attention, according to Peter Brook. In online theatre, I would argue, you have 7 seconds. Audiences are instinctive and can tell the quality of one of these pieces almost instantly. The quality is never attributed to the quality of acting – nothing even a well-trained actor can do can offset that every performance appears to be a solo performance within a beehive of Zoom squares. 

“Zoom Theatre” is not interesting unless you know how to use the form. And to be brutally honest, very few do. Many pieces of Zoom theatre aren’t meant to be good — just as something to pass the time. But a few theaters have proven to the world that they can adapt to the times and have the creativity to stick around for not only the remainder of the pandemic but the long haul.

How One Youth Shakespeare Program Is Using Zoom To Keep Their Play Alive | Sunday TODAY | Source: © TODAY/YouTube

Some Successful Productions Overcoming the Pitfalls of Online Theatre

I’ll start with the most accessible piece (it’s in English, approximately $6 per person and is a continuous piece — right now it’s only showing in the U.K. and Australia but you can access it at any part of the world, the times just might be a little funky. I experienced it in the U.S. at 1 P.M. rather than the typical 9 P.M. showtime) and that show is Double by Darkfield Radio, an online audio-immersive experience for an audience of two. You and a companion download a smartphone app. At your appointed hour, you sit opposite each other at your kitchen table (or somewhere similar) and put on headphones. Instructed to close your eyes, you have an intense 20-minute sound experience told by Christopher Brett Bailey. As I partook in this experience, I jumped, I screamed, and I questioned the nature of my reality, all without an actor present or staring into a void Zoom screen. Double is based on the scientific theory of Capgras delusion and makes you question whether your partner is really your partner or a clone of your partner. Darkfield Radio has proved to many that it is possible to turn anyone’s home into a stage, and that it is possible to bring the immediacy and intimacy of live performance to everyone’s homes — without the need for teleconferencing software.

DOUBLE Trailer on DARKFIELD RADIO – Immersive Audio Experiences at Home | Sunday TODAY | Source: © Realscape Productions/YouTube

Some productions, on the other hand, used Zoom to their advantage. Theatre students at Bard put on a fantastical and wonderful Zoom production of Mad Forest by Caryl Churchill, which was presented for free through Theatre for a New Audience. This is one of the first attempts at a full production presented via Zoom I had the pleasure of watching, and maybe the most successful attempt thus far. All of the actors were performing at remote locations but when a mother slaps her son, when a couple hugs, when two actors lie down together, I see it and I believe it. However, not everything went well. As Zoom productions go, it was glitchy. The screen froze. Sometimes, an actor’s mix cut out for a brief moment. Despite those hiccups, the show worked. In fact, the glitches of online theatre made this show even more wonderful. The trick of a successful Zoom production is finding a show that fits this style — where each twitch of the screen that cannot be avoided feel deliberate each time even when they are not. Mad Forest feels like a bad television broadcast, which is the exact sort of TV the Romanians would see in the time of the production.

If theatre wants to survive past the next decade, it will need to adapt to the times and reach a younger audience.

Capital W‘s (an LA-based theatre company focusing on immersive work) online production of Red Flags took Zoom dating to the next level. Red Flags was an original one-on-one work that was adapted for Zoom once the pandemic hit. Red Flags is an interactive experience that consists of an extended one-on-one with a performer who plays Emma, your “date” for the evening. Half of the script is scripted and half of it is improvised based on how you react to Emma, drawing elements from live-action role play. No matter which way it goes, it is a very bad date and a wonderful time.

Red Flags (Source: Capital W)

One-on-one theatre still works for me, even on Zoom. Although you lose the sense of touch with virtual theatre, the connection still feels real. You’re not simply watching something — you are interacting. It is much more interesting when the form relates to the function, rather than just a live streamed performance seen online. If people do continue to do Zoom Theatre (and I beg you not to), I’d like to see how they utilize Zoom to enhance their production, rather than just as a means to share it. My advice to anyone looking at Zoom to produce theatre is to ask yourself, “How can Zoom enhance this production?” “What features of Zoom (the chat, the screens, the ability to have your audience share the screen, etc) can make this production more immediate than if it were live and in person?” Digitally-mediated theatre has the power to be just as good and full of life as an in-person production and is more powerful than interactive TV episodes because you can improvise and interact directly with your audience. Once you find a way for the form to relate to the function, you can break the barriers of the dreaded Zoom production.

If You Want Theatre to Survive, It Needs to Adapt

Since March, theatres have had to adapt to online programming or perform in a socially-distanced safe space. However, I think that theatres will need to learn to adapt beyond the age of the pandemic. If theatre wants to survive past the next decade, it will need to adapt to the times and reach a younger audience. Right now, very few theaters are successful at gaining a following under the average age of 50. What will we do when our largest audience demographic is gone? 

Jeremy O. Harris says ‘radical theater finds a way,’ even in a pandemic | Sunday TODAY | Source: © PBS NewsHour/YouTube

The age of social media has reached a solid decade. And in this past decade, we’ve seen a growing appetite for more participatory work in theatre. The correlation is clear. The days of a passive audience will soon be behind us. The more time people spend online, using social media and texting as their main connection to friends and family, the more audiences of live art will crave a more visceral experience. There is something life-affirming about being immersed completely into a piece of art, as opposed to watching it from a distance.

It is much more interesting when the form relates to the function, rather than just a live streamed performance seen online.

As Bertolt Brecht once said, “New times need new forms of theatre.” And even when groups of people are able to gather once again, new forms of theatre will still be necessary. A year of social distancing for the entire world is going to require connection and healing – and possibly a stronger connection with people that regular theatre won’t be able to fill — that newer, more immediate, more immersive theatre will.

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