Whether or not virtual theatre is true to the artistic form, we cannot deny that theatre artists have been challenged to adapt their work. This is what actors and writers and lighting designers do best; if the team encounters a problem, even if it is on opening night with a full house, everyone scrambles to find a solution. Now, the task is to find what is most constant in theatre and introduce it to the virtual world. For many artists, the heart of theatre is connectivity; togetherness. Some believe that the digital landscape does not bar us from this intimacy, but rather asks us to find new ways to connect.
Frankly, theatre has been inaccessible for a long time. Classes and performances on Broadway and at the West End are all grossly expensive and there has been a pervasive narrative that theatre is for the rich. Even the stories we tell are antiquated. New generations of theatre artists are committed to color-conscious casting and representation of nuanced stories. It might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has wedged a wrench in the process, and while it has done its damage, artists cannot help but find that the social distancing byproduct of the health crisis might be changing the way we look at theatre for the better. Now, it seems that the virtual world is creating something of a “bridge for…students and Broadway stars alike,” according to drama critic and teaching artist Cristina Pla-Guzman. For her own classes, she has brought in friends, colleagues, and other professionals in the field to inspire and make connections with her students. In the pre-COVID world, these kinds of intimate conversations would never have happened for so many reasons: scheduling, money, priorities. Things have changed in the theatre, yes, but the industry has not been wiped out. Artists are problem-solving and they are reconsidering what it means to hold power in their industry. According to Pla-Guzman, it is clear that “theatre can still connect us,” if we accept what connectivity in our current world actually looks like.
I am a playwright and recently wrote a piece that some actors and I staged over Zoom. Friends from all over the world were able to pop in from the comfort of their kitchens or their couches. Then, they were able to go about their evening, as if nothing profound had just happened, but in reality, we had all just tuned into a live event from wildly different time zones. At the end of the “show,” the audience turned on their cameras to chat together. Actors noted that we had found a new intimacy. One where an audience member can figuratively hold an actor’s close-up face in their hands while sitting miles apart from them. One where fifty people can experience the same fleeting performance all at once.
Senior theatre student at the School of Dramatic Arts at the University of Southern California, Casey Gardner, explains that she unexpectedly rediscovered the power of theatre in these trying times, by “connecting with people across the world through telling a story.” Isn’t that theatre? In a world where most of us can no longer safely touch, this must be theatre’s specialty: the sheer magic of togetherness.