Livestream is not the dream

8 April 2020

Virtual theatre is not real theatre, argues Alexander Cohen


In the face of existential threat that is COVID-19, artists and theatrephiles have forged a way to stay entertained: virtual theatre. Companies across the country have released old shows available to stream, from Northern Stage to the National Theatre. There is just about everyone you could want without the discomfort of stuffy theatre seats, overpriced cocktails, and a crowded train home. 

But will virtual theatre stay, leaving an indelible mark on the industry? We have seen how online streaming services have slowly killed the cinema industry, forcing it to evolve it to a place that nobody could forsee twenty years ago, when if you wanted to watch a film you either had to wait to see it on television or rent it from Blockbusters. Could a similar evolution occur in the world of theatre? 

Probably not. And here’s why: 

Theatre is unique as an art form in that the relationship between audience and performer is tantamount to the medium as one that is about story telling. While books and films can tell stories, they do not rely on the active engagement of their audience; the stories they tell are not direct in the sense that they are mediated experiences perceived through the mechanism of the screen or page. Virtual reproduction can never capture the mystical aura that comes with the theatrical experience. It’s just not the same experience watching King Lear on a screen.

It is worth considering Walter Benjamin’s essay Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It might be around eighty years old and written for the context of the fine arts, but it nonetheless contains ideas that can be applied to theatre today. The German Jewish philosopher argued that the entire meaning of art would change given the ease of reproducibility and loss of uniqueness of an image. The same can be said with virtual theatre: just as a poster of a Picasso does not possess the aura that comes with the socio-historical context of the original, a recording does not possess the unique atmosphere of a live performance.

Theatre by definition directly presents its story unmediated. Because of this there will always be a uniquely active engagement on the audience’s part. There is a sense, when watching live theatre, that it is special – that the temporality of the particular performance exists for you and you only, and whilst there may be a whole run of other similar performances, no two will be the same. Experiencing the story through another medium, on the other hand, forces the audience to watch from a distance, forcing them to work harder to enjoy or to engage in the performance.

The evolution of film as a medium supports this idea. Early films were little more than recorded plays, with a fixed camera resulting in a fixed perspective. It took a while for the idea of the ‘cinematic’ to come about after filmmakers realised that recordings of plays just could not act as a substitute for the real thing. Audiences simply weren’t interested in sacrificing the theatrical experience for cheaper tickets or a more comfortable environment. Only in the 1920s, when Eisentein and Vertov pioneered ideas of montage did cinema become a medium in its own right, one that could tell stories in its own way.

The uniqueness of theatre as a medium also manifests in the performer’s experience and perspective. It is all too common for actors to finish a performance and say ‘that was a good audience tonight’ or to feel that they are unable to achieve their true potential without a full house of eyes gazing upon them. The relationship between audience and performer is distinctly symbiotic. A reactive audience will help the discerning actor to push themselves and strive for a greater quality of performance. Playing to a room of real people is very different to performing in front of what Benjamin would call a “mechanical eye.” 

So, while virtual theatre may be a solution for those desperate for their theatre kicks, it will remain a temporary one. It cannot replace the real thing.

In a hyper-technological age of smart phones, social media and instant gratification, we need an antithesis in the form of experiences that are phenomenologically real. I should like to think this is the reason why theatre is becoming increasingly popular: last year saw record numbers of theatre-goers in the UK, with London’s West End theatres drawing in audiences totalling over 15.5m and the Edinburgh Fringe also drawing in record numbers.

Let virtual theatre remain temporary, otherwise we risk losing the uniqueness of the medium that unites us. 

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photograph: Beatrice Debney, Rotterdam performed by the Nottingham New Theatre at NSDF 19