Why would I have a problem with innovation? Well, I don’t. But when it comes to theatre and live performance I think tradition is where it’s at.
Innovation. This is a highly sought after thing in just about every aspect of life. To be innovative is to be forward thinking, creative, ahead of the curve, proactive. And as someone who taught classes in creativity in university and has created theatre from scratch since 1998, I am a big proponent of lateral thinking, creativity and innovation.
But sometimes tradition trumps technology, and we’re about see an example of this play out in the theatre sphere over the next few years.
In 2020, with theatres all over the globe shut down, creative solutions are already well underway to ‘replace’ live events. Companies are rehearsing via Skype and Zoom, livestream theatre is springing up, and plays are being written specifically for that medium, there is even a PhD student in Texas creating an entire theatre degree to be taken online. And while I see a place for some of these things in the theatrical space, (like online classes, for example), I don’t think that they will or can replace live theatre.
Simply put, they aren’t theatre.
Theatre only requires two things: one performer and one observer. You can do it on a street corner, you do it in a burlap sack, you can do it lit by the sun or by moonlight. You can even do it, partially, in the dark, as demonstrated by Peter Shaffer’s one act play, Black Comedy, that takes place during a power failure. You only need one performer and one observer, and they must be live.
Okay Barbra, what’s the big deal with being live? Why can’t the observer watch through a screen?
Theatre via livestreams, Skype, Zoom, video and film all have unique qualities, and perhaps even their own specialized sub-genre . But they also have a variety of filters that separate their audience from the play. There’s:
-the filter of place (it’s not actually happening here),
-the filter of time (it’s not actually happening now),
-the filter of senses (it’s not happening in a way we can fully sense). Our peripheral vision is cut out, there’s no sense of smell, we can’t see what we choose to look at because all we get are the camera’s views.
-there’s the filter of space (30 ft wide faces, zoom outs, drone shots, split screens. These techniques stretch, cut up and change space, and people, in unnatural ways that we innately understand are not possible)
-then there’s the filter of reality. With CGI and anime, we know that it’s not actually ‘happening’ at all.
Now, not all of these filters apply to Skype and Zoom and livestreams.
But each one of them puts us one step back from the events happening on stage. You can watch a taped version of a performance that WAS theatre when it happened, but you’re not getting the full experience. If you think back to any time you’ve watched a filmed version of live music concert or a play that you really liked, you probably thought “Oh, I wish I’d been there” And the reason you felt that way is because you weren’t experiencing live performance.
For actors, this means that if you’re acting without an audience, well, you’re rehearsing. It might be a full dress rehearsal, with all the lights and sound and costumes, but if there isn’t an audience in the house, it’s not live theatre.
Stage actors need to connect with their audience, they need to experience that exchange of energy that we talked about in the first episode, that constant reading of the feedback and the little adjustments that are made to deepen the experience for everyone. Like music, we’re improvising and coming up with melody and harmonies together with our audience. Without an audience, performances would be flat, uninspiring and lackluster. The audience is what gives theatre life.
Now, the argument goes something like this: film actors have the crew as audience, is that theatre? Technically, maybe? But it’s not the same thing, and actors know it. Imagine that you’re playing to a house with all the designers, set painters, producers, stage management, marketing people, your director, the front of house people…let’s say there’s 25 people involved with the production sitting in the house watching.
Would that be a real, honest audience, do you think? Crew audiences are great for supporting the show right you open, because it’s good to get that boost and support, but that’s really why we do this, is it? If it were only approval we were seeking, we would act in our homes in front of our family and friends.
No, we want the risk and reward that comes with a live audience. That energy exchange, that wave of laughter that we ride like a surf board, that ability to sense when we’ve gone too far and have to reel it in, those moments where something becomes completely unglued, and random, totally unexpected, things happen and we have to improvise to save the day. That’s what we love about theatre.
Stage acting happens on the high wire, not on the exercise mat, where you safely get to do it over and over again until it’s perfect. Well, it’s never perfect. Critics write reviews after open night, and no matter what they tell people in the entire city, actors will bravely go back on that stage the next night, and the next, and the next. Because theatre actors, frankly, are daredevils, whether they know it or not, and they love the risk that comes with live performance.
They also get the rewards. Theatre is created with a relatively long rehearsal period, and the scripts don’t usually change, so artists have time to explore and play, and that is so much fun. Stage actors get to tweak their performance every night, improving as they go, garnering even more appreciation. And while a film crew may clap and cheer for a moment or two, that is nothing compared to 100, 200, or even 300 people up on their feet applauding for multiple curtain calls. There are rewards aplenty to balance out the risks.
Some of my favourite moments were when the lights all went out during an outdoor performance, and we did the rest of the show by kerosene lamp, or when an member of the audience decided to try acting for himself and got up on stage in the middle of our show, and one of my actors ran out to ‘correct’ his decision. Totally in character, of course. We never know what the night will bring, and audiences love those crazy little moment, too. That’s the brilliance and beauty of live theatre. It’s the sharing, the connection, the human experience.
While I applaud all the innovative ideas and work-arounds that people are creating now to keep the artfrom alive, I don’t look at some of them as actual theatre. Now, that may put me on the traditional side, but performing in front of a live audience is, for me, what theatre is: no filters, no do overs, and a true, live, personal connection with the audience. That’s the only way to make the magic of theatre really work.
So, here’s to seeing live performance return soon, and until next week, I’m Barbra French. And thanks for listening.
This is a highly thought after thing in just about every aspect…what did I just say?