by Eric Rae
There is a lot of talk about the “new normal”, and while our current situation may be temporary, we won’t be going back to the way things were any time soon. In a lot of ways, that might be a good thing, and I think during these difficult times it is important, as difficult at it may be, to think about what the other side of this might look like and how to get there. Theatre, as an institution is in a not entirely unfamiliar position: adapt or die. Well, maybe not die, but be pushed further into the niche it inhabits. When movies came along, theatre took a hit. The same thing happened when televisions became ubiquitous. Theatre as a form has some inherent difficulties competing with these other media and has been slow to adapt. This may turn out to be the kick we need to catch up. There have been many companies pushing the boundaries of what theatre is and can be, but the majority of what is called theatre today still happens the same way it has for hundreds of years: audience members gather in a theatre (named and built for that purpose) and passively watch actors tell a story. There have been innovations in how we tell that story: what technology we use, the structure of the story itself, and even how we interact with the audience, but these can be rare and for the most part don’t really shake anything up.
So how can we, as artists, adapt to this newest blow to our industry? If social distancing is something that is going to go on for more than a few months (and many experts and news sources say it’s likely), how does theatre stay relevant when people can’t gather? There are some streamed play readings and events being organized (thank you Red Lips Productions for gathering them all in one place and keeping people up to date), but these serve more as short term measures. They give us a sense of connection within our insular little theatre world and I believe are more for artists than they are for audiences. Who, other than those who have a vested interest in the continuation of the theatre community, is going to choose to watch actors sit and read a script when services like Netflix and Disney+ have hours upon hours of full production value content to watch and both are available at the touch of a button? So if this is short term, what does the long term look like?
If we in the theatre are going to compete with the likes of the streaming giants and the YouTube stars, we need to offer something they don’t, something that keeps theatre theatre, rather than having it become film, television, a vlog or a YouTube channel. Live-streamed readings of plays, or even full productions, won’t do it long term. They basically take us back to the days before streaming services when, if you wanted to watch something, you tuned in when it was on or you missed it. They aren’t even really theatre. Through a screen, the experience of watching a play is no different than that of watching a movie unless we innovate. I want to be clear, there isn’t anything wrong with these interim measures, but they are just that. But enough about what theatre won’t look like, let’s talk about what it will look like. Or might, I’m not psychic.
There are some theatre companies (Punchdrunk out of the UK and Impel Theatre out of Toronto, though I’m sure there are others) that have created work that has a place in this new world, with recordings that take the audience through an experience. A single audience member listens a recording while walking a predetermined path through a city, neighbourhood or building. The Rimini Protokoll created a similar experience back in 2016 using video as well as audio (Situation Rooms). Future creations could involve actors in the real world on their journey, or not. This technique could even be used to take audience members on a tour of their own home through a new lens.
These experiences all have one thing in common, they ask something of the audience. Audience members are involved in the project in a way beyond being passive spectators. I believe that this is one of the key elements (if not THE key element) that helps set theatre apart, that can help it keep its liveness and immediacy when it can be neither truly live nor immediate. Theatre in a theatre asks the audience, at the very least, to travel to the theatre. That no longer being possible, it’s time to talk about what else we can ask of people.
Eric is an actor, director and sometimes teacher. He has a BAh from the University of Winnipeg and an MA from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis. Eric sees this trying time as an opportunity for innovation, look for exciting new forms of theatre from him in the coming months.