Features Published 14 May 2020

What could socially distanced theatre look like?

We could have celebrity monologues in half-empty auditoriums. Or, we could look to the experimental theatremakers who’ve made space for new forms.

Alice Saville

‘The Believers are but Brothers’, which made inventive use of WhatsApp

Cameron Mackintosh has said that the West End won’t reopen until 2021. And an American Theatre article suggests that people will be reluctant to come back to crowded auditoriums, even when they can. There’s been speculation that theatre will soothe its audience’s fears with a socially-distanced ‘new normal’; creating a landscape made up solely of sure-fire hits or celebrity monologues, playing to social distancing audiences that fill only a third of the auditorium. Shoot me first. I don’t mind a monologue, but not when it’s a sad, cautious compromise rather than an all-in creative choice.

But what if theatre makes this a time for fringe to the front? Experimentation first? Bigger platforms for the live artists and experimental theatremakers who’ve been trialling new forms for decades? Here are some alternative visions for what theatre might look like over the next few months and years. Ones that probably won’t bring in the huge revenues that struggling buildings need to plug the gaps in their finances, but could show future audiences that theatre is something worth saving at all costs; something forward-looking, local, subversive and immediate.

Drive-in theatre, but without cars
In Germany and in Ireland people are already trying that out, and best of luck to them. ENO has even launched a whole series of Drive & Live mini operas. That said, a reduction of traffic on the roads is one of those vanishingly rare plus sides to lockdown, and younger, urban audiences are unlikely to have cars. So why not an open air theatre that’s ready to welcome cyclists, wheelchair and powerchair users, with bubble-like perspex compartments for each audience member?

Theatre in abandoned carparks, wastelands, fields, natural spaces
Yeah, I get it, everything that involves portioning out space with see-thru plastic is a bit dystopian. So what about spreading out? Theatre often involves cramming the audience so tightly together. But headphones can easily do the work of making sure people can hear what’s going on – like they did in Slung Low’s  ambitious harbour-side performance The White Whale. You could chalk out huge spots for people to sit or stand in, and give them headphones so they could hear the action from a bigger-than-normal distance. Maybe you could have gig-style big screens to visually amplify the action too. Or you could go deeper into the wilds, with…

Theatre that leads audience members to very precise, far-apart spots on a moor, then gives them binoculars to see a performance on a rocky outcrop
The film PINA pays homage to Pina Bausch’s nature-inspired choreography by staging incredible dance performances that respond to rugged natural landscapes – a lone dancer’s fragile but furiously animated body set against endless rocks. Maybe it’s time for a live recreation, where audiences are given compasses and maps and told to navigate their way to far-off spots where they can glimpse a dancer on a high crag, as the thick clouds part – as they watch, they can listen to birdsong, and rustle their kendall mint cake wrappers as loud as they like.

Durational performances (with time slots)
2020’s LIFT Festival was originally going to feature Ruth Wilson performing The Second Woman – she’d repeat the same scene over and over again, for 24 hours, building cumulative weight alongside an ever-changing cast of male opposite numbers. At LIFT, audiences could stay for the whole thing, or pick a single time slot – a model that feels like it would work well for the era of social distancing. There’d be no crush of crowds, and there’s something comforting and defiant about a show that just continuously exists, whether you’re there or not – like Hester Chillingworth’s The Caretaker, an always-on installation/livestream of the Royal Court’s auditorium.

Promenade and site-specific theatre
I don’t want to think about what kind of global disaster it would take to destroy Shakespeare-in-gardens, the most resilient of all theatrical genres, and one that only stands to benefit from the government’s insistence that you can’t catch the virus in a park. But site-specific and promenade theatre lends itself both to social distancing, and to grimier, more challenging approaches. Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, at Shoreditch Town Hall, split the audience into small groups and let them rove around the theatre’s underground spaces, using each as the backdrop for an unsettling snippet of fairytale brutality.

Theatre that blurs the boundaries with installation
There’s so much potential for space and sound design to create a theatrical experience, without live performers. Enda Walsh’s Rooms is a quixotic, mushrooming project that turns the interiors of shipping containers into drab kitchens or glistening bathrooms – the audience are free to explore each space in a group of four, as a pre-recorded monologue helps bring their unseen occupants to life – from the cadence of their voice, right down to the smell of their perfume or the imprint of their feet.

Theatre that comes to you
In Regency times, ‘strolling players’ would walk for miles to perform in village after village. People today have tenderer feet, but you could probably do something similar with a van of actors, that pulls up outside a block of flats. Everyone opens their curtains at exactly 7.30pm (except the resident’s association member who didn’t sign up for this shit) to see and hear a play by performers whose radio mics magically link up with your home radio.

Lottery theatre
The thing I hate most about theatre is the quasi-medieval class system whereby the rich get a good view and legroom and the peasants have to sit on a sharp spike in the rafters. In this deliberately democratic model, everyone buys a ticket. Most get emailed a link to a livestream. But one lucky household will spot actors chaining up their bikes and performing on the pavement outside their window, carefully navigating the ‘scenery’ of bins, begonias and confused joggers.

Theatre that makes the audience the performer
A cluster of recent-ish shows has used instructions in envelopes to dare or cajole the audience into performing – like Jamal Harewood’s The Privileged, or Christopher Green’s No Show – and it’s incredible how quickly people leap down onto the stage, ready to steer the evening or struggle against the structure unseen hands have laid out for them. It feels like this format could work so well in a socially distanced context – where people might want to experiment with performing at home, without staging a full amdram Pirates of Penzance in their flooded bathroom.

Escape games
Maybe being trapped in a small place with someone, post-lockdown, will be terrifying – or maybe it will be comfortingly familiar, a kind of Goodbye Lenin throwback to a more restrictive but more predictable way of life. Either way, I feel readier for an escape game than I have in my abstract-reasoning-fearing life.

Theatre that leads you on an adventure
As people start to emerge from indoors, there’ll be a new fascination with the city’s stories and history. Coney’s excellent, app-led Adventure 1 took over an unpromising patch of corporate London and guided the audience to discover its secret history and inequality-ridden present using audio prompts, before an interactive climax. Punchdrunk’s more recent Kabeiroi followed a similar approach, letting sound and treasure-hunt style clues transform Bloomsbury into a mythical land – at points, it felt like being kidnapped, but social distancing would put paid to the random grabs by performers-concealed-as-pedestrians.

Theatre that explores the possibilities of touch
With care, touch in theatre can be so powerful: Verity Standen’s HUG let each audience member feel the vibrations of an individual singer’s ribcage, with an intimacy that feels unimaginable at the moment. Lockdown is starving people of the kind of tactile experiences that experimental theatre is so able to explore, either in one-on-one performances, or in other kinds of sensory interactions. Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari’s The Body gave each person plastic babies to hold, ones which gradually became warm and started to vibrate. Frozen Light Theatre, which makes interactive performances for people for profound and multiple possibilities, shaved ice onto audience members’ outstretched hands in The Isle of Brimsker and created a space that filled with breeze, hanging ribbons and dancing light.

Virtual Reality
Lynette Wallworth’s Collisions, which toured to the Barbican last year, put a small audience on swivelling stools, so you could look around and explore its narrative of nuclear testing in Western Australia. It also played Sundance – pointing to the blurriness of the lines around the emerging genre of VR storytelling. But instead of asking “but it is it theatre?”, this feels like a good time for artists to make work that explores the intersections between cinema, performance, and gaming.

Theatre that pushes the possibilities of livestreaming a little further 
It’s similarly generically complicated – but streamed theatre offer underexplored new opportunities for liveness, as well as limitations. Javaad Alipoor’s The Believers Are But Brothers adds the audience to a WhatsApp group, and fills their pockets with memes that illustrate his narrative of online radicalisation – something that would translate even better to a home environment, where multiscreening is the norm. There’s also so much room for new strategies for accessibility; audio descriptions could make use of The Encounter-style binaural sound, and captions could take cues from the National Theatre’s Smart Caption Glasses by becoming adaptable, flexible, and responsive to the action on screen.

Phobiarama at LIFT 2018.

Phobiarama at LIFT 2018. Photo: Willem Popelier.

Repurposed fairground rides
Someone told me early in my reviewing life that plays should never be compared to meals or fairground rides, and yes, fair enough. But there is a narrative trajectory to a good rollercoaster that can be exploited and echoed; at LIFT Festival, Dries Verhoeven’s Phobiarama constructed an indoor ride that explored fearmongering, and the menace of the unknown, using figures in bear costumes that appeared in your peripheral vision. And at Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival, a cheesy waterboat tourist ride was broken apart, invaded by inflatable eyeballs and lasers that turned waxwork villains into space-age queer icons.

Queue theatre
At first, you think that you’re queuing (two metres apart, of course) to get to the show. Then you realise the queue is going deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of narrow corridors. Is it a theatrical comment on the endless uncertainty of mid and post-corona life? Did you go through the wrong door and send yourself halfway to the lighting rig? You’ll never be sure, but you certainly won’t be crushed in a bar queue, or rubbing up against shoulders shaken by coughs and laughter. Even if you wish, a little, that you were.

For more gazing into theatre’s unknowable future, read Selina Thompson’s list of Post-Pandemic Work.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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