Skilled actors working onstage render ‘liveness’ even through digital channels, across miles, professor says

In the United States and large parts of the world, theatre has disappeared. Here at Norwich, theatre projects in the works for more than a year were shut down before finishing rehearsals. It was dispiriting and even disorienting to see our work evaporate, but, rather than dwell on what is lost, we should also consider what remains of theatre.

As live theatre goes on hiatus, streaming theatre is growing at an unprecedented rate. A trickle, not a flood, of archival recordings have become available in recent weeks, in many instances for the first time online and for free. Internationally established institutions and new streaming companies have been experimenting with theatre video content for some time. Broadway HD provides streaming content by subscription. The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe Theatre sold DVD recordings of performances, while the National Theatre of London has for more than a decade released broadcasts of selected plays to local cinemas on limited release. Until recently, the most desirable collections have been rather stingily held, but the coronavirus pandemic has compelled (for perhaps self-serving reasons) many institutions to release performances online for free. 

After our flourishing theatre season turned into a desert, I welcomed this digital content as a way to connect my students with high-quality theatre at a time when they were spread out across the country.

After our flourishing theatre season turned into a desert, I welcomed this digital content as a way to connect my students with high-quality theatre at a time when they were spread out across the country. We recently watched the National Theatre in London’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” an elegant but lavish and dazzling production starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller and directed by Danny Boyle. I saw it in a cinema years ago in Wisconsin and lamented that the National Theatre refused to release it on DVD. We watched the video independently and then met online to discuss it. About seven students and two faculty logged into our meeting and avidly conversed for an hour and a half. Given that all of this was done virtually, it is worth asking what’s left of the traditional theatregoing experience?

Critics, scholars and lay theatregoers have long contended that the liveness, immediacy, and interactivity of theatre is crucial to its essence and value and is what sets it apart from film and television. Beyond these historical and theoretical arguments, the fixation on liveness is suspect for geographic and class reasons. Unlike most Western European nations, the U.S. does little to make the arts accessible to its citizens. I grew up in a small west Texas town, where the nearest “theatre” was at least an hour away and the nearest professional theatre was more than three hours away. Video was one of the few ways I could access theatre, and, consequently, I have little patience for the elitist dismissal of recorded theatre as an inferior experience.

Dr. Jeffry Casey

Nevertheless, not all theatre on video provides the same quality or kind of experience. For a long time, the easiest to access versions of classic drama were film adaptations, not video recordings of theatre performances. The 1984 film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which featured Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, is probably the version that most Americans know, but this version offers none of the technical wizardry of the original Broadway run designed by Jo Mielziner. Likewise, whatever we may think of Kenneth Branagh famed adaptations of Shakespeare, one thing they fail to provide is the texture of theatre as a craft. Branagh makes Shakespeare films; he doesn’t record Shakespeare in performance. Consequently, theatre scholars, students, actors, directors or scenic designers can learn only a limited amount from these film adaptations, whereas the Globe Theatre’s DVD releases of Shakespeare were invaluable to my production team this spring as we prepared for our production of “Shakespeare at War/Shakespeare at Peace.”

The difference between an adaptation — which transforms a play into a film — and a video recording of a performance—which records a single night from a theatrical run — is that the latter can capture what is essential to theatre and what distinguishes it from other media: the simple craft of doing theatre onstage. OK, I know this may not seem very profound, but I think it is important, particularly for theatre education.

Stagecraft transferred

When my students and I talked about “Frankenstein,” we weren’t talking about it as a movie, but as a play. The vocabulary we used was not of “editing” and “cinematography” but of theatre design and stage acting. We talked about the budget and the logistics of stage management. Branagh’s sumptuous 1996 adaptation of “Hamlet” has comparatively little to show us in this respect, and it does not inspire excitement in theatre folk the way “Frankenstein” does. We recognize a fellowship between “Frankenstein” and our own work, no matter how distant it is from us in scale and prestige. Part of the thrill was seeing our people, theatre people, using the tools of theatre to achieve such a great artistic feat.

“Community” is another oft-referenced aspect theatre. In film studies, scholars tend to talk about “audiences,” while in theatre we tend to talk about “community,” a strategically ambiguous word that evokes an authentic sense of togetherness, suggesting that the theatre, the place and the art form, brings people together as a public. To be sure, theatre can be uniquely local and speak to a specific population. LGBTQ+ theatre has often served this purpose, allowing a diverse community of marginalized peoples to come together and see themselves

Yet, commercial and even “community theatre” cannot guarantee an experience of community, or, to put it another way, they cannot guarantee this for all audience members. So, while I think any sense of community afforded to a theatre audience is highly contingent, community among theatre practitioners is more robust. An esoteric discipline, full of ritual and jargon, theatre has a high bar for entry, but once inducted into this coven your membership is lifelong.

In my short time as the theatre director at Norwich, one thing that’s become clear is how theatre provides an essential community for our students. They feel a sense of ownership over and belonging within the auditorium, the scene shop, and the control booth. For some, it is the only place on campus they feel completely comfortable. This is the main reason I have continued to organize theatre viewings and meetings online. The theatre students are a tight-knit group who depend on one another for stability, support, and belonging. Maybe this isn’t the essence of theatre as an art form, but it is a crucial aspect of what theatre offers and is all the more necessary in this crisis.

Dr. Jeffry Casey is an assistant professor of theatre at Norwich University. His scholarly research interests include gender and sexuality in modern and contemporary American theatre, performance and media.

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