• Jo Gaffney

is digital theatre possible?

The way we consume physical media is altering our pathways as we walk.

In all of the history of theatre, it remained on the outskirts of the digital world, but as a result of COVID-19, it has been pulled into the digital world. There have been many advances in technology in the last few years that have influenced designs and theatrics (such as advancements in lighting, SFX, and costume changes) but there is still a stigma toward recording productions. Many people consider recordings as disrespectful towards the actors and the companies who receive no revenue from these bootleg copies. Not to mention how certain elements of performance are completely lost as audience interaction can’t happen through a screen. Now, a result of COVID-19, sitting in a confined space with hundreds of people to watch a performance is not logical or feasible. Schools across the world are suspended, resulting in the cancellation of all theatre courses and practices. So, how are theatres responding? How will this impact the way theatre is performed long term?

It is clearly well known that 2020 grades are not having the most ordinary senior year. For me, this meant the last year of the performing arts program at my school. When we found out that school was canceled, it was a devastating blow, as we have spent the year up until this point writing, composing, and choreographing our anticipated show. We were so used to being physically close together, and now we are limited to FaceTime and Google Docs as a means of communication. Running lines is the closest thing that we can do to work, even if it doesn’t feel like work. We definitely aren’t the only ones affected by the chaos. Broadway, The Globe Theater, and all major theatre companies are closing their doors. Everyone is having to deal with the wake of this crisis, no matter how successful their company is. Now, these companies have to make a significant shift in the way their art is shown.

Normally, bootleg videos of plays get removed from YouTube or any streaming site rather quickly by these companies, but now approved original recordings are being put online by the same companies. The Globe theatre is putting out a Shakespearean play every fortnight, and The National Theatre is putting out plays every week as well. This is encouraging and widening the net of who gets to see certain plays and opening the door to people who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance. Being able to see new shows on a regular basis isn’t usually something that many people get the chance to do, which makes the consumption of new theatre a privilege. For theatre students who can’t afford these kinds of luxuries, there remains a divide there are those who can afford to see all new productions and advancements and those who have to sift through bootleg versions to get a look inside. With digital theatre becoming commonplace, we begin to close this classist divide. To break down these barriers creates a more accessible world to step into when this is all done. In a time of waiting and pausing, all we can do is look forward to the conclusion.

So many people will have had their eyes opened to things they wouldn’t have been able to see in person. It is said that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine, though it isn’t even his most famous piece. The point wasn’t how Shakespeare wrote one earth-shattering piece of work, but rather how he was able to hone his skills into what made him such an influential writer. He wasn’t able to work with anyone but himself. Though we may not be able to work together physically, we can continue to learn and pursue by taking advantage of these playhouses streaming plays and all the theatre companies taking their work/tours online (like Frantic Assembly, or these tours of 11 stages). Through exploring all of these resources, learning from the working professionals and the longstanding history of theatre is how we can make digital theatre a reality.

There are ways to incorporate theatre into the digital world. My school is working on a radio play version of our show, The Little Mermaid, and we have been holding script readings over Google Meets. The musicians in the program have been sharing music digitally. We are hoping to put together a cohesive auditory story, as well as including a visual component (such as cut together pictures, or short videos to supplement the story). We will be doing a 180 in what we would normally be focusing on, to focus instead on scripting and working characters purely on voice. While we may not be able to physically work together, now we can globally watch some incredible bodies of work together. Being able to witness these and learn from them, we can apply as much as we possibly can to our own (now socially-distanced) work. Theatre will never be the same after this. We can learn from each other in order to grow from each other. All we can do is learn from what exists already, and in this crisis, we can find what comes after. ✰



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