(Natasha Tripney’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/7.)
Undeterred by Covid, theatre-makers are beaming innovative plays into people’s homes via Zoom, WhatsApp and Minecraft
Since mid-March, theatre-makers have been faced with a dilemma: how do you continue to make art when conventional theatre, the performing of stories to audiences in dark rooms, is not pandemic-compatible? Some were quick to embrace the shift to digital, while others resisted. A few suggested that maybe it was best to just stop making theatre at all for the time being, until things returned to normal. This, though, did not take into account the fact that artists still need to eat, and that retraining as a coder isn’t an option for many, despite what Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives might believe.
New work started to appear. In the beginning there were a lot of monologues; short, self-filmed pieces in the main. Then, as video-conferencing became the primary tool for talking to colleagues and friends, the Zoom play took off. US playwright Richard Nelson wrote a series of new pieces for his pre-existing characters, the Apple family, with the siblings sharing snippets of their Covid-19 existence; while the innovative Belarus Free Theatre – whose politically exiled co-founders are a step ahead of most, having been creating work remotely for years – produced an ambitious live Zoom adaptation of the Russian novel A School for Fools, featuring props from their apartments, drone footage and accidental cat cameos.
However, as it became apparent that conventional performance would not be possible for some time to come, it turned out that Zoom plays were just the beginning. Theatre-makers have had to become more inventive, to explore different platforms and new forms of storytelling. Over the past months, we have seen audio theatre, video theatre, phone theatre, WhatsApp theatre and even, in the case of recent Derry performance Playcraft Live, Minecraft theatre.
tration: Phil Hackett
Terry O’Donovan and Daphna Attias’s theatre company Dante or Die repurposed its site-specific 2018 Edinburgh fringe show, User Not Found, as an “immersive video podcast”. Designed to be experienced on your phone and listened to via headphones, the new version uses a mix of dreamy soundscape and intimate narration to tell a story about grief and our digital afterlife. Making work in this way has the capacity to reach more people. While the live version of the production, performed in a cafe, was seen by a maximum of 50 people a night, the video podcast has been experienced by more than 5,500.
But is it theatre? For Attias, this moment has created “an opportunity to start telling stories in new ways using the digital”. It is possible, she says, for a work “to be theatre and an installation and a piece of art. The mainstream theatre sector has been quite rigid for a long time but the fringes have always been playing around with form, experimenting with audio, digital, live art, journeys that don’t conform to what ‘theatre’ is for many people.” One person watching User Not Found reported the impulse to pick up her phone and comfort it during one particularly emotive moment. “Some friends pressed ‘play’ at the same time as each other and enjoyed feeling like they were connected,” says Attias.
Phones are also central to the French director Samuel Sené’s show C-o-n-t-a-c-t, already something of an international hit, performed at locations around London and Europe. Audience members download an app that allows them to listen in, via headphones, on a group of actors as they move through the city’s streets, telling a story about urban isolation and guardian angels. It feels like digital eavesdropping: you can hear the performers’ every breath and thought, while watching from a safe distance.
Visitors, the new audio experience by Darkfield’s Glen Neath and David Rosenberg, is designed for two people to experience together in their own home. Neath and Rosenberg have been experimenting with making work outside auditoriums for 25 years, most recently via their often terrifying shipping container experiences Flight and Séance, 15-minute events that use a mix of binaural sound and blanketing darkness to capture the terror of being on a plane on the verge of crashing, or the sense of being trapped in close quarters with a malevolent spirit. This made them better placed than most to adapt.