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Kate: Hi, Kelly. See any good plays this summer?
Sorry if that sounds sarcastic. I just had trouble getting excited about online pandemic theatre these past months and figured you might have some thoughts.
Kelly: Hi, Kate. Not to sound too much like a politician, but it depends on what the meaning of the word “plays” is. Summer’s usually my busiest time, with the Shaw Festival, the Stratford Festival and all the other festivals. But I still saw a lot of what I’ve been calling the “theatre-adjacent” from home.
Some of it has been exciting, actually. What is unexciting about online pandemic theatre to you?
Kate: I guess I meant any kind of pandemic-replacement for live performance. What I’ve seen falls into two categories. One is the archival material from big companies such as the Stratford Festival or the National Theatre in the U.K, and there, I feel I am watching a record rather than an actual performance.
The other is the more ad hoc stuff, genuinely live-streamed from somebody’s living room. There are some clever gestures, but I do find the novelty of the unusual intimacy and the low production values wears off.
My larger problem is that I find it difficult to make a commitment to online performance. It’s so easy to flip the switch if it’s not instantly entertaining, or to watch with one eye on one’s phone. Maybe that’s just me. If it’s more than just me, pandemic theatre has a problem.
Kelly: I’d question that description of Stratford’s film series as “archival material.” It’s very well-shot and, in fact, one of my concerns as a theatre critic is that I fear many of the Shakespeare productions at Stratford are now being created with filming in mind.
But I can’t deny it is a different energy and experience watching recorded theatre. My best experiences came tuning in to “live viewing parties” to restore the feeling of watching along with others. These are online appointment viewings where you can chat with other viewers in the comments.
The one for Stratford’s Macbeth, for instance, was fun because I could read what folks watching in Winnipeg, Montreal and Cleveland had to say in real time. A recent immigrant from Syria living in Toronto even chimed in to say it was the first time he’d seen the play.
Many actors who had been in the show watched as well, and shared backstage anecdotes. A chatting audience and meta-theatrical asides may sound ghastly to some Shakespeare purists, but I actually thought this was probably more like what the boisterous original outdoor audience was like in Shakespeare’s time.
Kate: I can see how live-chatting during a show might replicate that missing sense of community. (Although, to me, it does feel a bit like texting while driving.) I usually find that good theatre gives me a social experience, a sense of belonging to the audience, even if I attend on my own and don’t speak to anyone. And it’s that we have really been missing: the sense of community.
Kelly: I remember well the sense of connection I felt at the very last show I saw before theatres were shut down in March, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. When one of actresses playing Summer came on at one point, I heard hooting and yelling “Donna! Donna!”
I later learned this chanting and cheering was actually part of the show’s sneaky sound design – though the recorded disembodied shouts then did lead to real cheering. (The sound designer Gareth Owen told me he sometimes also places microphones around a theatre so that an audience’s audible responses can be amplified at certain moments.)
All of which is to say that technology can help foster a feeling of belonging, at the theatre as much as at home.
Kate: The sneaky sound designer reminds me of the stories that were told about theatre design when the Princess of Wales first opened in Toronto. Those theatres of the 1990s mega-musical days revived balconies, which had been democratized out of existence in the 1960s and 1970s with flattened halls like the O’Keefe Centre, which is now Meridian Hall. The ornate balcony fronts are apparently good for acoustics – they offer lots of surfaces to bounce sound off – but the theory was also that the people in the first balconies get a sneak peak into the wings. Their excitement about what is about to come on stage then feeds the rest of the crowd’s response. So there are many ways to groom your audience.
Kelly: Many people see live theatre as some kind of an unmediated art form, but technology is involved in theatre even at that basic level of architecture.
I guess what I’ve tried to figure out at home this summer is what about a performance viewed through a screen is truly artistically different to one watched in person. Because, of course, if you go to a pop concert, you might be watching a singer up on a big screen most of the time anyway – and maybe some of the time through the small screen on your phone.
What I fear is most different about physically going to the theatre is the cultural capital, the bragging rights to say, “I was there.” I’m wondering how much the missing magic of theatre is really just the scarcity of it, the fact you can only pack so many humans into a room. The conversation about Hamilton on Disney+ has been more critical (and more complex) because viewers didn’t pay hundreds of dollars to see it.
Kate: I used to say the most important moment in The Phantom of the Opera was when the chandelier came crashing through the audience, jolting you into a recognition that the action was taking place in your physical space. Conversely, film projections in live theatre can seem gimmicky and melodramatic – or, on the other side of the equation, there are those movie theatres where your seat rocks and they spray water at you. In any medium, there’s apparently no shortage of producers lacking confidence in their own art form.
So, you’re really challenging me to explain why live performances, with the audience’s and the actors’ minds and bodies occupying the same space and time, are special and important.
It’s odd, but the pandemic has made me recognize the weight of theatrical rituals that I used to dismiss: booking the date, dressing up, applauding all performances. One artist told me that your ticket is a contract with the performer, both literally and figuratively. I will show up; you will show up. There will be a transaction. Somehow, I don’t think that happens when you watch something on a screen. I don’t feel I have entered into a transaction with Brad Pitt or even Greta Gerwig.
Kelly: Online theatre is trying to develop new rituals - with some success. I’ve already had a dinner delivered to my home to accompany an evening of recorded theatre and livestreams from Crow’s Theatre here in Toronto.
Much of what has excited me watching from home, truthfully, has been the belated discovery of forms of digital performance I simply hadn’t paid that much attention to before. The best summer festival I “attended” was the three-year-old Festival of Live Digital Art (based out of Kingston), where an artist named Miwa Matreyek who interacts with animations with her silhouette amazed me with magical livestreams. Matreyek probably normally falls more on your beat now: visual arts. While artists all already seemed to be billing themselves as “interdisciplinary” before the pandemic, I feel like these last months have been the tipping point for critics becoming interdisciplinary.
One other thing that may be obviously appealing about stay-at-home theatre, but which I should probably note: It’s safe. I used to argue that the unique selling point of live, in-person performing arts was the element of risk – the thrill of knowing that anything could happen on stage or even in the audience. However, now that anything has happened, and gathering with strangers is undeniably dangerous, the romance of that idea has evaporated.
Kate: Artists take risks for audiences, both intellectual and physical, (and the best audiences return the compliment) – but obviously, contracting COVID-19 shouldn’t be one of them.
I hope you’re right that yet more multidisciplinary inventions and live-digital hybrids will continue to rise from the ashes of the pandemic.
Still, in recent weeks, I have taken huge pleasure in returning to good old-fashioned museums.
Kelly: I can’t deny it was great to finally go to see a play again in person last week in a park in Toronto. It fed my soul in a way I had missed, even if I still can’t quite put my finger on what.