Virtual theatre is no longer theatre in its true form
The COVID-19 pandemic has sent theatre into a period of transformation. Traditionally it's a live, in-person experience but it has now been moved online. Some believe we can't call this theatre and that it's something else entirely, while others believe this is due change for the theatrical world.
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Theatre is not just acting but expression and virtual theatre makes it hard for proper expression in many of the arts involved in it, including singing and dancing.
In the words of theatre producer and entertainment lawyer Derrick Chua, “it’s just not the same.” For many in the theatrical community, theatre is ritual at its core, more than a demonstration. Live performance and togetherness are paramount to its integrity; in other words, theatre is about sharing a space and, in turn, energy with other people. Since music is often experienced alone, one might think that going to a virtual concert or taking online music lessons would be easier and truer to the musical form than it is for theatre. However, Maria McMillian, who is a sophomore at the Thornton School of Music, explains with fervor that music, like many art forms, is not at full capacity if musicians are listening to each other through a computer. She says her learning process “depends so heavily on…being in the same space and playing together in real time. You just can’t recreate that online or on Zoom.” This kind of synchronicity is, in fact, impossible, because online communication comes with an inevitable (albeit small) time lag and requires of us greater effort to emote and communicate. “Collaboration,” says McMillian, is a skill she is practicing, and a computer stands in the way just as it attempts to bring people together. One of the most popular video calling platforms, Zoom, even tends to cut out all voices out but one if people are talking over each other. Imagine a symphony of instruments. McMillian’s program now uses the program Acapella to practice music virtually. However, no matter the solutions we create, it seems that togetherness is not only intrinsic to both theatre and music, but it is also why artists chose their professions. Laura Collins-Hughes of the New York Times writes of the myriad ways theatre artists are diving into virtual theatre despite the time lags and the lack of applause. She commends the “vigil” the theatre community is engaging in, and has found great value in some virtual theatre she’s seen. However, Collins-Hughes also reminds us that we are paying tribute to storytelling, to performance, to the act of reaching across voids to find each other, just as theatre does. We are paying homage to theatre. We are not, in fact, engaging in theatre in its true form. Essentially, virtual theatre strips the players of their roles. According to Collins-Hughes, actors are to “put on a show” within the same “ecosystem,” and right now, we cannot even safely share breath. This means we are not picking up nonverbal cues the way we do throughout our in-person interactions and we cannot experience each other’s physical energy. The audience is asked “to gather,” which they can feign by logging onto a Zoom show, but they rarely have the chance to see each other, and they are stripped of the conscious choice to exist in the same space no matter their differences. It’s all far more passive. There is nothing wrong with “keeping the candle lit,” says Collins-Hughes, but we should not mistake and mislead our students or ourselves by implying that this is theatre. In her perspective, theatre has everything to do with accepting another human into your own space, responding to them in the moment, and inviting an audience to breathe the same atmosphere. It’s always been that way, says Pam MacKinnon, the Artistic Director for the American Conservatory Theater. This does not mean that MacKinnon believes we shouldn’t go virtual; in fact, she has done so herself with her production of Toni Stone, but she urges us to remember that the process we are engaging in is something new. There is no need to pretend we are practicing a contact sport, if you will, when contact is impossible. She asks theatre professors, artists, and students, to find a sort of new occupation with the skills we have. How can we bring people together while, this time, literally apart?
Although we may not be able to exist in the same space, we are not barred from the magic of liveness. A theatrical production over Zoom or in the style of a seminar is theatre at its most tenacious, because somehow theatre artists are still discovering ways to create new (virtual) spaces to occupy together and experience a fleeting event. Educator and writer for Austin Monthly Bryan C. Parker reminds us that if going to the grocery store poses significant threat to our health during this pandemic, then so does a theatre class where, even with social distancing, students are projecting voices and interacting with one another often in confined spaces. He believes in a commitment to education even under the pandemic and understands everyone’s worry that virtual school will mean that students are deprived of opportunities. However, he explains that according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our safety and psychological wellbeing need to come first. Without this foundation of security and prevention of illness, our students will not be able to focus on schoolwork anyway. Online theatre allows for innovation and safety at the same time, even if we will miss performing in person for the time being. Although togetherness may be non-negotiable when it comes to the virtue of theatre, it seems that its definition has changed. In a world where we are constantly virtually connected, whether chatting on the phone, on Facebook, Instagram live, or TikTok, togetherness is far more accessible. Essentially, live theatre is still possible because liveness is an element of our technological lives. Live virtual theatre is more and more common. According to The Guardian’s Susannah Clapp, “streaming and recording has been a gigantic ad for theatre writing, acting and directing.” However, Clapp says that this is really a “skeleton” of real theatre. Yet, this might not be a bad thing. If virtual theatre is its own entity, it shares a skeleton with the traditional theatre we know. Foundationally, it operates on the same principles but has to use different tools to protect the population.
[P1] Teaching and learning music lacks synchronization that you get in a classroom.
Rejecting the premises