Teaching theatre online allows the students to gain a deeper understanding.
In today's beliefs of what makes true theatre, emphasis is placed upon the necessity of liveness. At its core, theatre's meant to be an of-the-moment spectacle, audience or no audience. In this case theatre is very much alive and still happening right under our noses, just not on the typical stage.
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Look instead to the “digital stage” and to the “street,” says award-winning playwright Jeremy O. Harris, and you will find theatre growing up between the sidewalk’s cracks without our asking it to. We have been performing our identities for a long time, Harris implies, through social media profiles and symbolic online debates. Speaking of symbolism, 2020 has brought an onslaught of powerful activism in the wake of mask-wearing legislation due to the global pandemic, and in response to increased racial violence and police brutality. Just as they always have, Harris reminds us, people are employing cultural symbols to communicate with the rest of the world. Masses of sign-waving protesters in the middle of a city street, call to the officials who have been ignoring them. Theatre has long been a space of rebellion, but it seems that the stage is unnecessary. This is not to say it is unwanted; most miss its power and its grace and its literal manifestation of a metaphorical world. However, just as in the theatre, protesters tell the story of their pain, raising their fists in the air to move their audience to action, without even needing to say a word. Just as in musical theatre, activists chant, asking the audience to join in. The digital world is just another stage, an Instagram profile curated to represent a “brand” or a unique message. All to say, theatrics are not foreign to most, and the financial fall of theatres globally is drawing attention to the stages we’ve created ourselves. According to Harris, “live theatre never left,” we didn’t stop telling stories, but our platform changed to protect lives. In an article with Howl Round, associate professor in music theatre at Northwestern University, Roger Ellis, notes that this breakage with the formal stage has led the theatre community to deep philosophical questions about what we’re even doing. This is not the first time theatre has overcome obstacles and cultural transformations, and like always, it is adapting. However, because this moment has stripped us of the stage, the hitherto primary symbol of theatre, artists are diving deeper into the purpose of theatre. The art form has not died; that much is clear from not only Harris’ explanation of theatre as a form of expression, but also in the myriad of Zoom performances, virtual festivals, and “staged” readings. Artists like Ellis are now asking their students and themselves, “What is performance?” and “What is teaching?” Although quarantine is far from an opportune moment to create work, seeing as we are all dealing with a global crisis and its aftershocks, playwrights have not stopped writing or imagining. Northern Public Radio reports on the Canadian Kane Repertory Theatre in St. Charles, Ontario, who started a virtual workshopping program for playwrights who would like to hear their work read aloud. The goal is to provide community and explore the realm of Zoom theatre. Many of us spend our lives engaging with other people virtually, so Kane wants to find out what it looks like to write for this medium. We do not stop speaking just because we no longer have a microphone; now begins the quest to be heard.
While Jeremy O. Harris believes we are finding ourselves online and at the truth of theatre, others think that theatre will lose its integrity to the virtual world. Yet, maybe theatre is really taking a break while something else entirely takes centerstage. Traditional theatre has been inaccessible to most people for a very long time, but with social media and organized protest, we are also becoming curators of our own stories. The sheer level of creativity suggests that a dam has just broken – when some did not know there was a dam in the first place. Daniil Krimer, the artistic director for the Kane Repertory Theatre in St. Charles explains that they came up with a plan to invite playwrights to workshop their plays over Zoom. He knows people are writing right now and are having trouble bouncing their ideas off anyone while in a vacuum. He also challenged writers to create a story meant to be told online. One might ask: why haven’t we already done this when so much of our lives exist in the virtual world anyway? Wouldn’t a story meant for the virtual world be relevant to us even before the pandemic? While we are all trudging through this pandemic, there has surely been an explosion of new work. This not the kind of polished work we might expect in pre-pandemic. This is raw work, full of purpose and turned away from glamour. This is work that reaches directly to the human in you and asks if you need help. The Public Theater in New York recently premiered an online play called The Line about nurses working on the frontline of the pandemic in New York. It is heartbreaking, yearning, utilizes the online format intentionally, and is very human.< ref name=public/> There is surely a lot to talk about in 2020. One must ask, however, what was stopping us from talking before? Perhaps virtual theatre is allowing voices to be heard that have been ignored. Perhaps virtual theatre is asking the voices we do hear to change their tune.