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Top image: Murder at Mandai Camp (2020), an interactive Zoom theatrical production. Image courtesy of Sight Lines Entertainment.
One morning in May, right in the middle of the circuit breaker, I woke up stirring from a vivid dream about theatre – a rehearsal, to be precise. I had been walking around a low-ceilinged, slightly musty rehearsal studio with white walls and long curtains draped around the windows and set. I was watching a cast and crew of 20 people, all in masks, rehearsing together in a room, a situation which might not be that unusual a sight today, but unimaginable six weeks ago, and even more so that they were making art together, in a time when the near future for live art and performance is uncertain and bleak. What stood out to me most of all was the sight of the vivid hues and shapes of human bodies in motion – the pink-beige or rose-brown of faces, arms, bright white clothes, the viscosity of bodies in movement. Evidently, my subconscious was manifesting how much I missed watching live performance, and doing its best to recreate that experience.
Theatre-makers worldwide have been finding ways of doing the same. In light of show cancellations and the closure of entertainment venues in nearly every city around the world, performing arts companies were faced with the problem of how to stay connected with audiences and continue to draw theatre into people’s homes and lives. Archival videos of well-loved performances were uploaded, broadcast and shared widely. Cirque du Soleil started running a weekly series of YouTube performances; the Royal Opera House released performances by the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera; the Maltings Theatre presented a version of Twelfth Night entirely via Zoom. Previously, if you wanted to watch a specific cast performing a show – for example, the original Broadway cast of Les Miserables, or the Moscow Art Theatre performing Chekhov, or a South African cast performing Athol Fugard – you would have to pay for the flight on top of the theatre ticket, or wait for the company to fly to Singapore. Now that distance has disappeared – or arguably, replaced by a different sense of distance, but at least it is a lot cheaper and more convenient. All the world literally becomes a stage – albeit a mediated one – as we have the means to tune into international productions and often experience them live together with a global audience.
Closer to home, The Necessary Stage released Underclass (2018), Esplanade presented the digital theatre festival The Studios Online and companies such Nine Years Theatre and Pangdemonium began releasing regular streams of past performances. While they were largely well-received by audiences, I’ve had friends who have boycotted online theatre in general, arguing that it is a diminished experience that does disservice to the craft, and resenting the idea that theatre has to now assimilate with the domain of Netflix and YouTube, which have often been perceived as the antithesis of live performance. As for myself, I’ve remained open to watching shows online, but find that I can only really engage when I’m watching in tandem with friends, connected through on-screen messaging. It’s not so much due to a millennial predilection to multi-tasking, but it’s probably more to do with the feeling of togetherness and communality within the performance experience, even if we’re apart. This idea is invoked in Det hostas på teatern (A Cough in the Theatre), a playlet written by Singapore’s Alfian Sa’at, commissioned and presented by Sweden’s Folkteatern Göteborg on their YouTube channel: it imagines a technology that allows two or more people to sync up their headset devices with each other to create the impression that they are experiencing together not only the performance but also the intimacy of co-spectatorship. In the same way Virtual Reality headsets such as Oculus deliver immersion – that is, minimising the perceived distance between body and event – theatre-makers are similarly exploring the question of how to use technology to reimagine space.
Technology has often been seen as an adversary to live theatre – a distraction from, or obstacle to, live presence and intimacy. But if our current circumstances are to become our new status quo for the foreseeable future, performance-makers have been recognising that the way they choose to embrace technology can not only enhance but possibly birth new forms of theatre. What is the experience of theatre if it is not tied to the corporeality of a performer and a viewer sharing a physical space (although we kind of are, in a broad, global sense)? What is the essence of that experience, and can it be rekindled when our relationships with the corporeality of other bodies are so heavily mediated by technology? As performance-makers seek to distill these qualities, the process has led to some intriguing nascent experiments in form which challenge our assumptions of what theatre can look and feel like.
Some new modalities of theatre presented by recent works include incorporating platforms like Zoom, YouTube and messaging applications as necessary gears in the performative framework. The first Zoom performance I watched was Long Distance Affairby Juggerknot Theatre and PopUP Theatrics, in which the (international) audience is transported to three or four short performances taking place concurrently in New York, London, Miami, Paris, Madrid and Singapore. It was inspired by the use of video calls to connect with loved ones – could the key to powerful theatre lie in replicating this kind of connection to another person via performance? The use of the Zoom chatroom, and the ability for audiences to be visible and audible to each other and the performers, served to make the spectator included as an active part of the work, as we dropped into the homes of different characters situated around the world. Some performances used a virtual background, but most of them situated the character within the performer’s own living space. Yet these were not autobiographical performances – these were real domestic spaces transformed into theatrical sets, without the handiwork of a tech crew or stage designer, so a collaborative suspension of disbelief between audience and performer superimposed a fictive layer onto an otherwise ordinary private space. Watching Singapore Repertory Theatre’s The Coronalogues evoked a similar sense of watching characters share “their” stories, within the performer’s living space, producing a different intimacy than what one might find in a live work.
Singaporean actor Sabrina Sng, who performed in the Singapore segment of Long Distance Affair, felt that it was this sense of intimacy that set the work apart from live performance. "We could connect people from all over the world in real-time (regardless of time differences, since quarantine keeps most of us at home most of the time anyway) – just like how we would over a video call with friends and family,” she shared with me. The mediated closeness seemed to dissolve the distance, making the world seem much smaller during the whopping 80-performance, week-long run. She did admit she missed the “360-degree experience of a live immersive theatre performance.” The heightened energy one usually has as a live performer to interact with spatial detail, and the proximity to the bodies of fellow performers and audience, were inaccessible to her in this new format.
Video above: Part 1 of Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Coronalogues, under the theme "Silver Linings".
Sabah-based performance-maker Zizi Hau, revealed a similar experience when I spoke with her about her experience of the Asian Youth Theatre Festival Residency 2020, which had taken place over five days on Zoom. It was held online for the first time, and this year’s edition was a chance to attend workshops and mingle with a diversity of young regional theatre-makers at a vastly lower cost than if it were held physically in one of the Asian countries. If there were any internet lags or video glitches, as is inevitable in meetings these days, it only encouraged participants to be clearer in their messages and make collaborative decisions more efficiently. When it came to performing skits as part of the workshop process, she expressed the difficulty of not being able to “follow [the audience’s] breathing and energy flow to adjust while playing. I personally don’t get nervous perform on live, but when I am performing through the camera, I felt more tense than ever.” From Zizi’s and Sabrina’s experiences, it would seem that one of the crucial elements of live performance that is harder to replicate, or transpose, for digital platforms, is the feedback loop of audience and performer(s). Will it ever be possible to recreate this symbiosis of energy through the screen?
Other forms of theatre on digital platforms throw up still newer and more wide-ranging questions, about gamification and audience agency. Some performance-makers are looking towards video games as a model for creating immersive and engaging performative environments. Thirsty by Australia’s Griffin Theatre was a live interactive performance streamed on YouTube that required the audience to take on the role of investigators and vote on every next decision the protagonist makes in order to gather evidence to confront a criminal. Facilitated by Google Polls, it blended the “choose your own adventure” game technology that is trending on Netflix shows, and the real-time synchronicity of performance: the protagonist speaks directly to the audience, and the audience discusses the options in a live group chat. Sometimes, the characters speak lines suggested by viewers. The thrill of the experience did not stem so much from the plot itself, which was lightweight, but rather the excitement of watching actors push the plot forward under the almost complete discretion of us the audience, with sometimes outrageous consequences.
In Singapore, Murder at Mandai Camp by Sight Lines Entertainment was a Zoom-based interactive whodunit which used the messaging app Telegram to send “information” and “case updates” to the audience, who were encouraged to discuss the proceedings between ourselves. Similar to Thirsty, I felt that at the foreground of my experience was less the details of the fairly threadbare plot, but more the way the framework connected me to the rest of the audience as fellow “players”, almost like a smaller-scale MMO (massively multiplayer online game) common in the domain of video games. Are video games a source of competition for theatre, alongside Netflix and YouTube? Do video games hold seeds to possible future mutations of theatre? In any case, looking back on both these performances, I think they are first steps in a longer expedition to understand the new mediums we have available to us, and to potentially expand the language and tools of theatre.
So, are the days of theatre, as we used to know it, numbered? Where will we go from here? Judging by the attendance and reception to the new forms of theatre that have been arising during the pandemic, there is evidently an appeal for the kind of storytelling they can provide. But these new modalities are experiments at best, and certainly need much more refining to develop into coherent forms of theatre. Theatre is distinct from, and does not need to compete with either film or video games. As evidenced by the performances described in this article, the live audience is necessary component of the performance: if there’s no audience, there’s no show. Although it remains to be seen whether these nascent configurations of theatre will one day take over aspects traditional theatre-making, or render some of them obsolete, it’s comforting to remember that theatre has survived resiliently over millennia, through plagues, wars, and recessions, finding creative ways to re-spawn. As long as there is an audience, a space (virtual or physical), and a desire for connection, there will be theatre.
Akanksha Raja is an arts writer who was formerly Assistant Editor at ArtsEquator.