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Is it possible to teach theatre online?
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Theatre is a direct response to the world we live in

Virtual theatre has shaken the artistic community at its core. Some believe theatre has been stripped of its most fundamental element of sharing energy, while others believe this is an opportunity for innovation and looks to the future of theatre.


Theatre is constantly evolving to the world we live in and the way it's expressed and how evolves too.

The Argument

It is impossible to make theatre that does not somehow speak to the world in which it was created. Even if the piece intentionally ignores its context, that decision in and of itself is a nod to its time. In an opinion piece for Austin Monthly, writer and educator Bryan C. Parker wrote of his intentions to plan for online learning, the best option. He acknowledges that people are worried online learning without a physical return to school will negatively impact students; they cite a lack of socialization and hands-on learning in science an arts courses alike. However, Parker notes that while these are appropriate concerns, the world we are currently living in would not allow for the same kind of engagement even if students go back to their schools. They will need to socially distance and have minimal social engagement even if they can see each other. They will likely be barred from group projects in order to ensure safety anyway. Parker does not advocate school cancellation; he just believes that school should continue online in order to reduce the most profound risk of losing a student to the virus or asking them to endure losing someone else. Following Parker’s thought process, it seems that theatre, as physical and active as it typically is, would do better to protect its students and engage with an adapted form of theatre online. Just as Parker is asking that education reflect the reality we are living in, so to should theatre respond to the current global state. Broadway is not onstage, because they are protecting their patrons and artists from medical and financial chaos. Many believe theatre cannot be theatre if it is not in person; but, nothing is in person at the moment, and this must mean something.[1] Roger Ellis, a music theatre assistant professor at Northwestern University, explains that the reason he loves to teach improv lies with the core of its intrigue: preparation for the unknown and “the courage it takes to remain present when one cannot control the outcome.” If anyone could adapt to the trepidation inherent in this moment, it would be theatre artists, who are trained to produce greatness when the pressure is on. This, of course, does not mean adaptation to a virtual format without the sanctity of a stage, will be at all easy. This is a call to action, says Ellis, for the theatre to once again build a space for artistic expression and rebellion when we have been stripped of one. For example, teaching students to act through a screen, is not remiss.[2] For a while, but especially now, screens are part of our lives. So are lack of access to WiFi, the frustration of shared devices, and virtual friendships. So, why not tell these stories? The Kane Repertory Theatre in Ontario is asking for playwrights to submit their work for readings and they prefer writing that could be performed over Zoom. This conversation feels important to them and ripe for innovation.[3] Award-winning playwright Jeremy O. Harris explains that we are drawn to “spectacle” these days; , the kind that is “necessary for us to get to catharsis.” We are protesting in the street, on social media, through conversation, and we are engaging with cultural symbolism. It is all “live,” all simultaneously planned and spur-of-the-moment. Theatre is very much alive and well, and Harris recommends we listen to our own theatrics when they arrive unexpectedly.[4] The best thing we can teach students is to protect their communities, use their voices, and live in the moment.

Counter arguments

While theatre is absolutely influenced by and responsive to current events, it is also an escape and a space for imagining a world that we do not yet have. To restrict the artform to what already exists would be barring artists from the chance to speak to what could be. Inevitably we all have different perspectives of what exists and what is true of the world; two people can experience the same event very differently and it will likely shape their worldview in unique ways. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris urges us to look deeper, to look beyond the apparent sanctity of the traditional theatre. He asks us to look to protests, to look to the work people are doing every day that rests on powerful symbolism. He asks us to think further into our shared cultural languages – all of this is theatre, and all of it is looking to a brighter future. Theatre, at its best, is forward-thinking. Rather than reflecting society as it is today, we should allow it to reflect that which we yearn for. That is why we make art: to connect and to heal our present wounds.[4] According to Emerson College’s HowlRound, assistant professor of music theatre Roger Ellis, believes this is a time of innovation: “We as educators have an opportunity to contextualize this moment as an insurmountable interruption or as a chance to deconstruct and reify the nature of what we do.” He describes this moment as an opportunity to take on a “phenomenological study” of what theatre is and what it could be. Now, not only our stories are looking towards the future, but so is the very practice of this art form. How can we anticipate in which ways we might need theatre to serve us by examining what we have lost and what we have gained from this virtual transition?[2] So, really, teaching theatre virtually is possible not because it reflects this moment in time but rather because it is a protest to the trauma of this year. Among many things, virtual theatre says that artistic expression cannot die, that we will not stop talking about that which we want to change, which the theatre is known for, and that we have hope for the future.



[P1] Even if students are allowed to return to school physically there will still be social distancing keeping them apart anyways.

Rejecting the premises

[PR1] Theatre expresses the times and while this pandemic is affecting everyone it'll pass, along with the need for virtual theatre.


This page was last edited on Friday, 25 Sep 2020 at 19:58 UTC

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