Drama on the Screen, Not the Page or Stage
How will online drama affect theatre in a post-pandemic world?
Pen paused over paper
March 12th marked the one-year anniversary since Broadway went ‘dark’, and theatres shut their doors in light of the burgeoning coronavirus pandemic. To mark the occasion, more than 90 performers took to the streets of New York’s performance district in Times Square, dancing and singing beneath their protective face masks to watching crowds.
As lockdown was embraced and endured on a global scale, the theatre began to feel like a distant relic of a past existence. But it became clear that creators and performers were determined not to let their craft wither and die. Playwrights, theatremakers and directors have adapted and successfully transferred live and recorded theatre to various digital streaming platforms.
In this new epoch of creating and publishing theatrical work in an online realm, and as theatre and the internet are becoming increasingly entangled and inseparable, we must ask:
Does the future of theatre lie primarily in digital media?
Paper to screen: an online era rises
Without a doubt, the pandemic hasn’t stopped writers putting pen to paper. Or to screen. The internet in the time of COVID has exploded with new writing and performances, written and delivered for an audience stuck in front of computer screens and unable to sit in a theatre auditorium.
On home soil, Dear Australia – Postcards to the Nation was launched by Playwriting Australia as an initiative to bring the playwriting community and theatregoers together: 25 small and medium theatre organisations nominated two playwrights, and PWA then commissioned all 50 to write a monologue to be filmed by 50 actors from their own homes. The Dear Australia monologues were published by Australian Plays after they streamed on Facebook in July last year. In a similar vein Malthouse Theatre produced The Lockdown Monologues, telling stories of Australians living through the pandemic, and streamed live in a three-part series. The monologues were subsequently published in electronic form and are now available for purchase.
Additionally, live theatre has entered the sphere of streaming services and digital platforms.
And who are we to complain?
Most of us can’t afford to purchase a USD 350 ticket to Hamilton, but we can afford the AUD 8.99 monthly subscription to Disney+ to watch the original Broadway cast perform it on our TV screens. Many of us are unable to purchase a subscription to London’s National Theatre Season, but we can watch their most celebrated productions as they stream on the ‘NT at Home’ channel, freely accessed via the app or on any internet browser. Streaming main-stage, or internationally acclaimed theatre in this way has become a major step in the fight for theatre’s accessibility and weakening its synonymity with economic and socio-cultural elitism.
The price of theatre on the screen
Just as any professional industry must contend with introduced technology, theatre has been forced to reckon with the infiltration of the internet into cultural consumption.
The Australian theatre-making community ought to be proud of its innovation in adapting to the screen: from online theatre festivals like Unsung Heroes from the Black Swan State Theatre Company, to the live readings of contemporary plays with Play Club (Queensland Theatre, Urban Theatre Projects Sydney) and virtual theatre ‘channels’ (Sydney Theatre Company), a new ‘hybridity of form’, was birthed through performances on Zoom, YouTube and other digital platforms.
But I worry about the impact this has, and will continue to have, on a craft built upon the centuries-old tradition of fostering a livewire actor-audience energy, and whether the transferral of theatre to online will cost us a genre of writing that harbours this precious connection.
The issue here is not the electronic publication of plays – this was a phenomenon that far preceded the coronavirus, and in fact has contributed to a ‘virtual subgenre’ by which theatre and writing has been made accessible to wider global audiences who might not otherwise have access to printed scripts. Drama Online houses hundreds of canonical British playwrights and their works, while the New Play Exchange is a leading, US-based digital library for scripts by emerging writers, as well as composers, devisers, adaptors and translators.
But writers and audiences have historically served the theatres as an intertwined entity: the playwright writes with an awareness of their live audience, and an intent to ensure their understanding of the play’s meanings and messages. Susan Bennett rightly reminds us that the very premise of the Greek Chorus was intermediary, a tool in the playwright’s arsenal to guide the viewer through major plot developments that took place off stage (as was typical of Greek theatre), and to clarify the characters’ motives.
Peering into the theatrical future
To an actor or writer, a live audience gives vital life and vibrancy to their performance. An audible reaction, such as a laugh or an intake of breath, is highly indicative of the successful reception of a line or action. The audience’s reactions encourage writers to continue honing the style of their dialogue and gives actors scope to verbally or gesturally experiment with timing and delivery, a form of feedback unique to live performance. Surely, we will publish plays for the stage again, rather than the screen. But is the screen our only path forward? Will the plays we pluck off our bookstore shelves (or order online, as is more likely) contain stage directions like ‘Zoom connection fails’ or ‘Character x walks through living room while talking directly to screen’? I don’t think so. Playwrights were never destined to confine their works to a small screen format. Their words deserve to be sung out to stadiums.
 Bennett, Susan BA, MA. The Role of the Theatre Audience: A Theory of Production and Reception. 1988. McMaster University, Doctor of Philosophy dissertation.