7 April 2020
Shanaé Chisholm delivers a call to arms for theatre critics in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic
Writing about theatre is the hardest part about writing about theatre. At least, it was until the outbreak of coronavirus. It took me a while to realise that another obstacle in my writing process was about to make itself known, alongside the original obstacles of procrastination and writer’s block. Restructuring your thoughts and making them coherent for public consumption is a hard task. Does it make sense? Is this really what I think? Am I being fair to the play and the creatives? Throw in a tablespoon of self-doubt and you’re staring at a blank Word document a week and a bit after seeing the show. But what happens when the first ingredient is missing? What happens when there is no theatre to watch?
What I enjoy about theatre is its immediacy. The audience are active participants in an emotive experience that is unique, despite how many times it is performed. Theatre can be made by anyone and it doesn’t need to be extravagant or ground-breaking to have an impact. There are many moving parts to a theatre production and as a critic or a blogger, it is both a privilege and a responsibility that you earn when you decide to write about it. Your perspective provides insight into something that only ticket holders can access, an opportunity to share a story that might not be told again. So, when I write about theatre, I feel like I have a purpose, like I am completing an important mission. Finding a show to watch and physically going to watch it gets me out of the house, keeps me busy and aids my mental health. Now that the theatre industry has had to shut its doors and turn off its lights, what role do theatre critics play? How do we contribute?
Amazingly, but not surprisingly, theatres have begun to share content online as a means of combating the temporary loss of live theatre, and it’s great. The relationship building between audiences and theatres as a result is a step in the right direction, especially in a time when being isolated is both a blessing and a curse. Getting free access to shows that you may have missed due to lack of awareness, cost or timing, is a priceless offering that is keeping theatre lovers engaged and hopeful. As a critic, it gives me new writing opportunities, but it also makes me think about the future of theatre and whether there is a greater need for online streaming services. Once we're past the need for social distancing, is there a world where live theatre has a permanent home online? What do we lose, and what can we gain, in this eventuality?
Not only does streaming theatre online give theatregoers something to watch during this time, it also opens theatre up to those who might never have been able to attend it before the outbreak. Streaming content or at least having an online archive for it, makes live theatre more accessible for those who need captioned performances or BSL interpreters. Moving theatre online, also enables those who cannot travel to a theatre, a way of engaging with the work, without having to compromise their health. In turn, theatres which may not be able to provide the equivalent amount of captioned or BSL performances would have a means of doing so without the cost of providing this level of access for every performance. With this in mind it’s plausible and exciting to imagine a future in streaming theatre online post-Covid 19.
We would then have to take into consideration where the funding for captions, BSL translators, videographers and editors would come from and whether theatre online is sustainable financially. Would it be free or would you need to register as someone who requires this service? Would it deter people from physically going to the theatre? Would we lose the essence of what makes theatre one of the most human ways of communicating with audiences?
At the very least, moving to online theatre starts a conversation about increasing access. It highlights that there is a potential gap in the market that isn’t being tapped into, one which will still be in high demand once we get through this period of uncertainty. The prevalence of online theatre in times like today shows that there is a community behind the plays that are being produced, regardless of how long ago the show was performed. Online content has uncovered an international theatre community that wants to thrive and stay connected.
So what does this mean for theatre critics? Coronavirus has shown us that we crave a sense of being heard and being seen, we want to feel like we are part of something.
If you write about theatre at a time when theatre isn’t as readily available, your voice on the matter holds even more value than you think. If you’re feeling something, someone else probably feels the same way. As a critic or reviewer, you are able to put emotions and experiences into words, you are a translator of all things lighting and sound, cast and creative. You put pen to paper in situations when people leave their seats speechless. The reason why you write about theatre is bigger than the stage, what you have to say, how you say it and why you say it, is the driving force behind your desire to write. Theatre is a mix of the replication, reinvention and representation of stories that have been lived and continue to be lived today. Tap into that. Re-engage. Your voice still has a purpose. What can theatre tell us about the now?
Photograph: Beatrice Debney