What does the future of theatre hold?
The global crisis of 2020 has spawned a new invention to pass the time at home: digital theatre. It is my new favourite hobby, and it might be yours too. Theatre companies have been releasing their plays for free on the internet as a treat for all of us stuck inside. I didn’t know about this until my friend found a YouTube channel called The Shows Must Go On, and now I spend hours of my time on voice calls, where we can all stream a show and watch together. I have just spent two hours watching Shrek the Musical on a Discord voice call (which I have never used until now) and I plan to do the same thing every Monday for an indefinite period of time.
I wasn’t a huge theatre fan during normal times: it’s quite an expensive pastime, and I’m more of a film-goer myself. However, I find many reasons to love digital theatre. In a theatre, you can’t be annoying and comment on the play while it’s happening, but online, I can unmute myself to say something without ruining someone else’s evening. My favourite part of digital theatre, to be really frank, is that you can make your own snacks. There is no need to pay extortionate fees for a small bag of popcorn or spend the price of a weekly train ticket on a glass of wine. Best of all, I very much appreciate my new ability to go back to my seat without stepping on anyone’s toes.
On to the actual quality of the performance: it is mostly the same, if not better, than live theatre. Cameras mean that I can see the facial expressions of the cast members, something I was deprived of in live theatre. The best I could hope for pre-Covid was to sit behind a tall person blocking my view and ask someone else what was happening on stage. This brings me onto my next point: will we venture back to that cramped lifestyle, post-pandemic? I don’t know how well people will adjust to spending upwards of two hours next to strangers after being inside for eternity. To be blunt, I think digital performance eliminates many of the downsides that we all hate about the physical theatre experience, and it’s totally free. It is hard to imagine how live theatre could compete with this normality.
But I still think there is something missing from the digital experience. Yes, I have become accustomed to reclining on the sofa on a Monday evening, watching Lord Farquaad’s monologue while I catch up with my friends in distant places. However, I’m not sure whether this is actually better than live theatre, or if I’ve just become lazy. Perhaps when I venture into a theatre again, I will appreciate what theatre is supposed to be like, and forget about the digital streaming lifestyle. To me, what makes a play a play, and not a film, is the ability to interact with the actors on stage, and applaud their performance. There is something about getting dressed up and actually going to a show that makes it worth paying for. In terms of the performance, watching a play on stage as part of a live audience certainly beats the digital stream, when I often miss out on key moments because the internet is bad. To put it plainly, if this were to be the norm, and actors and actresses had to perform online, I don’t think it would match up to being in the room where it happens. It’s similar to seeing artists perform on YouTube, on stage, to an empty room with no audience. Although we’re technically watching the performance through the screen, there is something about it that feels eerie and incomplete. I think that digital theatre is a fun thing for people to watch - for now. I’m really grateful people are taking the trouble to put shows online for free, solely for our enjoyment. But it is very different and certainly not as good as watching something live. It is far more exciting to watch a show in real-time, especially if you are in the same room as the performers. One of the best parts of live theatre is that the actors can hear the audience, and it is difficult to imagine how this could be done online. Digital theatre reminds me of Zoom pub quizzes: it is something to do for now, but I can’t imagine doing this once I am able to go outside again.
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