Features Published 1 December 2020

Does online theatre really need to be live?

‘Liveness’ is central to theatre’s identity. But how can you create it online? And do you need to? Alice Saville explores the tangled set of questions facing 2020’s artists and producers.

Alice Saville

Lungs, livestreaming from the Old Vic in 2020. Photo: Old Vic

When artists talk about what makes theatre and performance special, the word ‘liveness’ reverberates through the air. It has so many exciting associations – a whiff of danger and sweat and romance and religion all stewed together. Artists like to compare live performances to other emotionally charged communal experiences, like church services (presumably not of the CofE variety) or protests or raves. In the past, ‘liveness’ in performance has usually been synonymous with another favoured concept, ‘being in a room together’. But how can you carry those ideas through to the realm of online theatre – and do you need to?

Once, this would have been an abstract question, but tight pandemic restrictions on in-person theatre have raised the stakes. Theatremakers of every kind, at every scale, are filming new performances for online distribution. And that means they have to grapple with questions of liveness – what it means, how you capture it – while taking on the responsibility for convincing audiences (and themselves) that what they’re making sits under the umbrella of ‘theatre’. Musical theatre director and producer Adam Lenson has responded to Covid-19 by running a series of live online musical theatre events. He argues that by making pre-recorded theatre available online, “We’re just giving people more excuses to argue that digital theatre is just crap film because let’s be honest, if I’m filming and repeating something and editing something, but I’m doing it with five grand instead of five million, it is a crap film. So what’s special? What’s unique? Like, what are we fighting for?”

Putting aside difficult questions of genre for a moment, what does online performance gain by being live? What is so special about it? And is it worth the expense, the potentially-higher-ticket-prices, and the necessary impositions on audience members who might want to (for example) put their kids to bed before they watch the show, or tune in from another time zone? Here are some of the things that the makers of live online theatre promise us:

A sense of wonder that this thing is really happening, right now
Simon Baker, Wise Children’s technical director, told me that after working on Old Vic In Camera on Lungs, “We found that it was really moving – that there are a group of people collectively making something happen for you, in the way that TV used to be live. There was something really amazing about it having Matt Smith and Claire literally on stage seven, up the road in London.”

The power of assembly
Adam Lenson argues vigorously for live theatre as offering a spiritual kind of togetherness, a meeting point in time: “We go to a theatre so that the performers and the story and the audience can all be in communion with one another, and philosophically, no matter how pernickety I’m being, that is not happening with a video.”

A necessary commitment on the part of an audience member
Baker also argues that a performance being live “creates that appointment to view, as a family group or social group. Theatre is about coming together at a certain time to do something.” Still, this definition is a bit elastic – until the arrival of view-on-demand television, the same was true of watching The Generation Game.

Ephemerality is the notion that a live performance is unrepeatable, unique, because that group of people will never be together again in a single space. Talking about Signal, Lenson explains that “At each of the shows is the cinematography is different, the performances are different, and the music is mixed live, so some of the choices are different. There’s a sense of adrenaline and ephemerality and liveness.” That quality of ephemerality brings the freedom to experiment, to make mistakes, to be subversive, and to respond to the current moment and audience without worrying about universality or legacy (although few artists are so attached to it that they don’t also make some kind of archive version of their work).

The possibility of interactivity
On the most basic level, interactivity doesn’t have to be direct audience participation; it can be the way a performer responds to an audience’s laughter, sighs, and indefinable energy. But theatre’s move online has put new emphasis on audience participation and co-creation as a way of making the performance’s liveness visible and tangible. Tassos Stevens, creator of online performance Telephone, says that “I feel more like a passenger than an author: it’s about what happens from the other people in the [virtual] room, and the stories that get shared”.

An opportunity to display virtuoso skill in live performance
As soon as people started to film actors, those same actors started to assert the superiority of the skills needed to perform on stage versus to camera – both in practical aspects like stamina and exercise of memory, and in more abstract senses. Adam Lenson argues that once you film a performance, there’s an irresistible temptation to splice multiple versions together, like the filmed version of Hamilton did; “So instead of  the humanity of saying ‘Oh, his voice cracked up there’, it’ll lead to this kind of perfectionism and this kind of assembly thing which completely changes the mode of the making”. A live performance lets an actor have a single cohesive vision for a role that evolves and responds to the audience over a performance’s span, and gives a sense of jeopardy and excitement – they must adapt and respond to unexpected events, knowing they won’t be left on the cutting room floor.

The ability to employ actors and technicians for a longer period of time
By replicating the conditions of in-person theatre performances, you’re able to preserve theatre’s existing financial model – you can justify charging comparable ticket prices, and in a time when there’s little work around for performers, you’re giving people a steady period of employment.

These arguments feel incredibly persuasive. They’re also laden with emotion and theory and ideas that cut to the core of why theatremakers make theatre. But what about audiences for online theatre? Do they have the same attachment to liveness? I did a very unscientific Twitter poll:

Screenshot taken on November 27th 2020

Even people who follow me on Twitter (who I’d guess are pretty into theatre, whether or not they work in it) declare themselves to have relatively weak preferences – only 22% strongly prefer live online performance.

Perhaps this lack of passion about liveness suggests that people aren’t always sure whether what they’re watching IS live – and that communicating the value of liveness (something so central to people’s conception of what theatre is) isn’t currently something that’s central for many theatres and artists.

Scour theatre websites and it’s often pretty unclear what exactly you’re getting. Jermyn Street Theatre’s ambitious 15 Heroines project offered a series of pre-recorded monologues – but they are performed with minimal set and design, and streamed on only a handful of occasions, creating a sense that they might be live (while holding the audience to a faintly-gruelling week’s schedule of viewing). Rent, currently streaming via Hope Mill Theatre, similarly offers a pre-recorded performance at set times which mirror the performance pattern of the live dates, sold through a website that seems to be in denial that this production is online at all – when booking a ticket, I was prompted to collect the ‘collect ticket from box office’ option.

On the other hand, Wise Children’s live online productions (Romantics Anonymous and Flying Lovers of Vitebsk) are both of shows that premiered in the last decade; it might be reasonable for an audience member to presume they were getting an archive recording. Wise Children fight against this potential confusion by offering an introduction from Emma Rice, and retro digital framing which styles the show as an old-school live TV broadcast.

This artful framing reveals another awkward aspect of live online theatre: to value a performance being live, you have to know it’s live, and to continuously feel that it’s live too – something that’s very hard to achieve in online performances that keep the (digital) fourth wall up.

A small-but-significant group of artists have responded to lockdown by making online work that feels like it’s in direct conversation with liveness. Some create ways for audience members to contribute to what they’re watching; whether it’s reading the play’s text themselves (work.txt), making comments in the chat section (A Suffocating Choking Feeling), or sharing stories in break-out rooms (Telephone). Others let the audience steer the narrative almost entirely – like Swamp Motel’s interactive mystery Plymouth Point – creating something which sits right on the boundaries of gaming, theatre, and escape rooms.

Another approach to creating liveness is to make durational work; to spend a leisurely chunk of time with the audience, patterning through their daily routines and taking them on a journey to somewhere strange and new. Punchdrunk’s The Third Day was performed in real time over the course of 12 hours. Every step of its story took time; from the slow trudge down a gravel causeway to Osea Island, to Jude Law painstakingly digging a grave, to the gradual arrival of sunset as the folk-horror ritual it documented gained pace. Rain spattered the camera lens, and was imperceptibly wiped away – both ordinary and strange.

A still from Punchdrunk’s The Third Day

Where The Third Day felt cinematic, using the same strategies as experimental films like Russian Ark, Gob Squad’s Show Me A Good Time reminded me of old-school live TV. Four performers take you on a chaotic journey round the city, each livestreaming their progress. Sometimes, they come together to express something (mourning, protest, breastfeeding) using a hilarious set of props from their own homes or the streets. Sometimes, they chat to passers-by and create livestreamed performances just for them. When I watched it, they found a group of teenagers to perform to – they requested ‘sex!’ and then ran away from the cameras laughing, back into the Berlin night.

A passer by is treated to a live performance in Gob Squad’s Show Me A Good Time

There’s a bit of a paradox here; the performances that are most interested in creating a sense of ‘liveness’ are often the ones that feel the least like ‘theatre’ as we know it – they borrow from film and TV and gaming. And the strategies they use for liveness can’t easily be mapped onto more conventional kinds of performance, in the same way that ‘immersive’ trappings at West End shows just feel tacked-on, like themed cocktails at the bar. Show Me A Good Time hammers home its happening-right-now-ness with a time stamp constantly rolling at the bottom of the screen. For a traditional livestreamed theatre production of, say, Uncle Vanya, that strategy would feel ridiculous. And Chichester Festival Theatre’s performance of Sarah Kane’s Crave almost certainly wouldn’t be enhanced by mid-run audience suggestions.

When you’re watching a livestream of a performance that isn’t interested in experimenting with online-theatre-as-a-form (and it’s entirely valid to choose not to), you’re in a slightly strange space as an audience member. What you’re watching is live, but at arm’s length, and the distinction between live and prerecorded feels a little intellectual, a little abstract.

But then, the distinction between ‘live’ and ‘not-live’ isn’t the binary one I first thought of it as, either. Philip Auslander argues, in his controversial, invigorating book Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, that there’s a continuum between the two, as well as a constant conversation that goes back to the earliest days of cinema. He argues that if you are filming a live performance (as early cinematographers were very interested in doing) you’re capturing and hence suggesting the value of the state of liveness – even if it is frozen in a moment in time. Television producers go to great lengths to make pre-recorded programmes feel ‘live’; for example, by creating the sense of a communal experience by having a studio audience, or by the feeding hype and online discourse around the release of a new series on Netflix. And similarly, streams of theatre productions can create a sense of a live community by encouraging people to tweet along, or hold watch parties, or take part in post-show discussion groups.

Encounter’s performance The Kids Are Alright is pre-recorded; but it feels live, because it’s filmed in a single hour-long burst as dusk falls. The use of ‘real’ locations lends liveness, too, because this is an unpredictable environment, unlike the more controlled testing chamber of a theatre’s auditorium. Yes, some of the key ‘tests’ of liveness don’t really work when applied to a pre-recorded theatre performance: for example, you don’t have the ability to influence what happens on stage, and there’s no risk of things going wrong. But is that so materially different to watching a West End musical that operates like a well-oiled machine? Do minute variations in a performance carry such huge weight, when an audience member will only ever see one version?

Perhaps the key distinction between film and theatre isn’t liveness. Perhaps it’s something more complicated, something that it’s easiest to peg to the creative training and influences of the people who made the work you’re watching – and the modes of making they subscribe to, and their relationship with theatricality. And perhaps, in similarly unglamorous, un-theoretically-advanced fashion, it’s the case that liveness isn’t purely the theoretical or artistic question I first started imagining it as. Maybe it’s also an industrial and economic one.

As well as being a cherished ideal, liveness is also easily commodified. In the past, it has been theatre’s USP, the thing that justifies prices that are much higher than, say, cinema tickets. Liveness creates exclusivity by limiting audiences to a select few – a temporary community, bound in time and space. And in doing so, it shuts out another wider potential community, one that could connect in ways that don’t involve ‘being in a room together’ – by discussing what they’ve seen on social media, with friends, by becoming fans.

As he revised his book in 2007, wrongfooted by the internet overtaking TV as society’s dominant form of media, Auslander ruefully wrote that “liveness is a moving target, a historically contingent concept whose meaning changes over time and is keyed to technological development”. Theatre is currently going through a painful moment that television, film and music have already gone through; the one where technology suddenly makes previous pricing structures obsolete. At the moment, many theatres are clinging to old models of disseminating performance like a life-raft, because it means they can charge the same prices that they always have. But what if they let go?

The value we place on liveness will be critical to what happens next in online theatre. It will shape who gets to work, and in what ways, and whose art is seen as most valuable. It will be a weapon wielded by people on all sides of the debate over what theatre is; some people will argue that recorded theatre is not-theatre (and is film instead), and others will argue that live theatre that’s working in conversation with liveness is not-theatre (and is gaming, or storytelling instead). But maybe what we need is to be both open-minded about what can constitute liveness – and crystal clear in our thinking about what audiences are getting, how it’s been made, and whether it’s being distributed with an eye to accessibility, as well as theatrical tradition. That way, theatre can move into the future, reach newer wider audiences – and find brand new ways to ‘be in the room together’.


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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