What can we learn from online streamed theatre?

Ivor Houlker

rooftopproductions.hk
Thursday, 22 April 2021

"Arts Go Digital"

We're currently working on one of a series of online-centric shows called Arts Go Digital, in which various groups of theatre makers have been invited to adapt their skills to create works aimed at an online audience.

For theatre makers, it's nice to be invited to create online work while our primary means of expression has temporarily disappeared. It's taken us a while to come round to doing things online, and we're still trying to find the right approach. I'm writing this largely to make sense of what that is.

Online Frog

Imagine I am an expert in frogs. Demand for expertise in frogs is low, but I take the initiative and seek out a frog. I bring the frog to an excellent location, make the frog comfortable, and put it through its paces. I am the frog's curator. I put my camera on a tripod and press record on a wide shot of the frog. The frog knows what to do. The conventions of cinema are irrelevant: anyone seeing this video should have the same unfiltered experience as I am having in real life. I put an hour-long video of the frog on Youtube, and announce: "I have created an online frog!" Tickets to the online frog are cheap or even free, and you almost instantly receive a link to the (publicly available) Youtube video.

Unfortunately, the people who experience the online frog seem to find it much less engaging than I did at the time. If only there were a way to prevent them from checking facebook during their hour-long online frog experience...

Online Frog Theatre
Online Frog Theatre

As you can see, I am not in favour of the online frog. I won't deny the appeal of its simplicity to the creator, but having been on the receiving end, I feel like this is the wrong approach for me.

It's theatre, but...

It's theatre, but it's prerecorded and played back on a screen. It's theatre, but in a virtual space that you visit on your computer from home.

Film. Computer games.

Whole genres have emerged, usually driven by new technologies, that could be said to have their roots in theatre. At some point movies might have been described as theatre, but re-playable without the actors. Oh yeah, and without sound... or colour.... But forget that, you can cut between scenes, change the lens for different perspectives, get the perfect take every time. A whole new vocabulary emerged because of the form gave people expressive possibilities that didn't exist in the theatre. That vocabulary has become embedded in the way we consume anything presented to us as video.

Video games exist. Whether theatre is immersive or interactive, or taking place in a virtual space it is not a terribly original idea. Computer games excel at these things already, and if we fail to learn from computer games or acknowledge them as art, we will continue to reinvent a slightly uncomfortable set of wheels. There's already a whole successful industry which is live and interactive and online, but we seem to be very out of touch with it.

Going Digital

So what are we to do with the internet? It's been around for a while, and there's a pretty rich vocabulary already. Online vocabulary moves so quickly if I mention anything specific it will have become outdated before I even finish writing this. Except Rick Astley, who never deserts us.

If this is the form we're creating in, why are we even less innovative than the early days of cinema? If we can't execute the basics of a form, claiming to be 'challenging conventions' by doing things in a 'theatrical' way is just a lazy excuse for being unable to adapt.

And why are we being paid to rehearse something for months, only to produce something that is less technically competent than what any kid on Youtube can do?

Why is online theatre not generally very good?

We're still thinking of 'online theatre' as a temporary genre. We treat it as something to do before we get back to the 'real' work of making 'real life' theatre. This is embedded in the funding model, in which we are (gratefully) being allowed to continue preparing for live shows that probably won't happen. Many shows are 'going digital' as a last resort, after being made and rehearsed as a show that is designed to be seen in real life.

An online video is an easy way for funders to justify their investment, and it does nobody any harm. If we interpret these videos as attempts to document a theatre performance, they can be valuable and interesting to other frog experts, academics, and future researchers into this strange moment in history. Often, they are not marketed as such. The difficulty may have something to do with certain successful theatre broadcasters...

NT Live

The NT Live setup has a big crew with bunch of cameras on cranes, with a camera director calling the shots. There are several camera rehearsals, and the show is shot according to the conventions of cinema, with frequent cuts and close ups - cameras go on stage when necessary, taking priority over the live audience. There is a large crew, good audio and expensive gear that can deal with the difficulties of trying to record theatre lighting.

I'm sure it helps that the actors are good, but a large part of it is the successful application of the language of film. Frog experts like me might try to reconstruct the theatrical experience in our heads, getting slightly frustrated when we don't see how the set changes are done. But to be honest, the editing is what makes it work as some kind of art, rather than historical documentation of some art that happened but is not now present.

It isn't sensible for small companies to try and mimic this. We are not 'doing NT Live' by pointing our cameras and hoping for the best. And yet, the success of NT Live entices us into feeling that this should be a valid option. Never mind that the budget is likely to decrease rather than increase if a show is forced online.

Zoom Theatre

We intuitively feel that 'liveness' is connected to something being 'theatre.' But even NT Live is generally not live, and they're careful to market it as 'recorded live.' Fortunately, everyone has been forced to learn how to do live video conferencing this year, so we have all become aware of Zoom as a new option for reaching another person in a 'live' way, while somehow forgetting Skype ever existed.

But this has led to shows being recorded on a platform known for liveness, or even edited to look like a platform known for liveness, and then... played back from a computer onto another 'live' platform.

Your show is on Zoom? Yup. So it's live, right? Yup. So it's just like live theatre? That makes sense to me. Then why are you showing it on youtube? We recorded it on zoom.
I'm sorry, I made this meme

Pros of this form:

  • Performers/other artists get to develop and rehearse their piece following the same model as traditional theatre; spending months perfecting things so they can be done in one space, in one take.

Cons of this form:

  • Nobody cares.

This results in an experience that is almost like theatre for the creative team, and almost entirely unlike theatre for the audience. Failing to make this distinction is what led our frog expert to confuse his own experience with the experience of his youtube viewers.

Before we abandon this genre, here are my favourite theatre company doing exactly the thing that I just described, and doing an excellent job of it:

Forced Entertainment's End Meeting For All, using zoom to record

This is prerecorded on zoom and played back for an audience on youtube. If we relax and think of it as a video piece playing with the familiar 'vocabulary' of its platform, Zoom, it's successful. I wouldn't call it a theatre piece, even though it's made by theatre people. It is not a theatre piece that has gone online, but rather its content emerges from the limitations of the form it's performed in.

Liveness

Elements of liveness that the audience experiences in the theatre might include:

  • Risk: there is a sense that anything can happen because we are all at the same point in time, like a sports event.
  • Shared timeliness: like a radio broadcast or live news programme, we have a sense of connection to others experiencing it along with us.
  • Interaction. Even in traditional theatre, the audience applauds and the performers acknowledge it. An audience member takes a photo with the flash on, and even a Shakespearean actor might pause the show to shout at them. Of course a lot of contemporary theatre takes it further than this.  Plus, you can stand up and walk out, and people will know.

A lot of this could be replicated online, although perhaps the form would have to change. Even if the performance takes place live on Zoom, with a live audience, traditional forms without actively designed interaction between audience and performers will not feel ‘alive’ in the same way as they would in a shared physical space. Interactiveness is somehow tied to more to the sense of liveness, in the absence of physical space.

Zecura Ura's 'Plague Round', a good example of the potentials for using types of interaction that emerge from online platforms.
Zecura Ura's 'Plague Round', a good example of the potentials for using types of interaction that emerge from online platforms.

ZUUK's Plague Round works well because its structure allows for more active interaction, acknowledging the online platforms it exists across, and the different spaces its participants exist in, learning from conventions of online liveness like referring to the chat.

Twitch

Most of this is already present on Twitch, a massively established live platform that isn't mentioned much in theatre circles.  Twitch's live chat allows interaction (both among the audience, as well as with the performer), and we all experience the same slightly unpredictable event together - which is mainly people playing online games. It implements the audience-oriented parts of liveness very successfully.

I've seen one other 'online theatre' show on Twitch, which did well to play with the specifics of the platform, but the performer was very caught up in making excuses for not knowing what she was doing. Just as our frog expert is not subverting the conventions of cinema by putting the camera on a tripod, we aren't going to subvert the conventions of live streaming if we can't implement them successfully in the first place. I'm not saying this because I think we should stay away from doing it ourselves and looking silly, rather we need to at least make an effort to learn from what exists in the space already, and perhaps even work with the people who are already here.

New things

I’m not entirely sure this is the right conclusion, but it’s the approach I’ve been taking so far. I’ve got this idea where I should take this time to learn new things, rather than repeating the old ones in the hope of being able to somehow practice the art of theatre without testing it in front of an audience.  

From around the start of the pandemic I decided to focus on programming.  This is not because I thought my next job 'could be in cyber.' I’ve been kind of trying to program apps for theatre performance since 2014, but I’ve never had so much time to take a structured approach to learning. Usually I decide to create something difficult and just keep doing it until it works. It turns out that this is actually quite a good approach, but doing it with a deadline for an actual working app for a paying audience to use is terrifying. For my first app I really didn’t understand most of the fundamentals until I’d almost finished it. Now, I realise how little I knew and how much of a miracle it was that anything worked.

This has led to several projects this year that involve programming for online theatre-inspired events, some of which will inevitably be billed as ‘online theatre.’ I’m not sure that’s what we’re doing, but we’re still theatre people making things online.

I won’t argue that the things I’m making now are more ‘theatre-like’ than NT Live or Zoom or anything, because that's not the point, or even something that I think is worth aiming at. Rather the whole thing has given me a chance to think about which parts of theatre are the most interesting. For me, that is more about the audience/participant experience of liveness.

What do I need to do to be able to apply them outside the theatre? 

And when theatres are open, what new things can we bring back? Are they a gimmick or will we end up changing our approach entirely? We'll see, I guess.

Related show: Presence