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.