“Imagine we are in a room together.”
Of all the admirable achievements we’ve seen in theatreland in lockdown, staging the entirety of GIFT (Gateshead International Festival of Theatre) online has to be one of the most impressive. Under the guiding hand of Festival Director Kate Craddock, GIFT 2020 – its tenth anniversary – was a rich confection of performances, workshops, discussions and online hangouts. From lo-fi ‘filmed at home’ Zoom artists’ performances to using archived material, and from 6-minute radio plays to all-day installations, Twitter Q&As and virtual cocktail bars, GIFT crammed an awful lot into its Friday-Sunday runtime.
Now: full disclosure, I’m personally ambivalent about online theatre. While my feeds are full of people live-tweeting Frankenstein or raving about Polish Macbeth, I have mostly avoided watching anything. That’s not to devalue what people are doing, which I recognise objectively is mostly A Very Good Thing – it’s just that I have generally felt it isn’t for me. It’s not performance I miss; it’s the ritual and social aspects of going to the theatre. It’s being in a room full of people and watching the audience as much as the play, the atavistic response to communal reactions. It’s also, if I’m honest, being forced to pay attention to something. I’m an inveterate multi-screener – it’s rare that I watch anything at home without at least one other screen open – and being in a setting where that isn’t allowed is good for me. How can that experience be replicated online? Is it foolish to even attempt it?
This is a question that Icelandic artist Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir addresses in her piece Elision (from which comes that opening quote.) Broadcast live from her living room, she asks us to imagine we are together, but also raises the question not just of what is lost but also what is gained when we consume communal art separately. With no one to prompt us, she asks, do we know when to laugh? But with no one to see us – to judge us – do we more easily allow ourselves to cry?
In this meditation on national and personal identity, Sigurdardottir attempts to restage this communal experience through Zoom (I admit much of this was lost on me, since I couldn’t get the right settings on my laptop – if the future of theatre criticism requires any form of technical competence, I’m screwed). In doing so – moving from the physical proximity of sitting next to someone in an audience to a digital invitation into our fellow watchers’ homes – she transforms the piece from its original form into something different, both more distant and more intimate.
gobscure international’s ships-ov-fool has a similar set up, albeit with even more audience involvement (the final segment of the broadcast is a Zoom chat with the audience). Its Newcastle-based writer/performer uses everything from poetry to puppets to explore modern attitudes to mental health and historical depictions of madness, inspired by Hieronymus Bosch.
As well as shows that repaid focused attention, GIFT offered much for those who have found the current crisis a drain on concentration. Greg Wohead’s Crack of Dawn is a durational piece featuring ongoing discussions between Wohead, Amelia Stubberfield, Tim Bromage, and Catriona James. Stemming from a conversation between Wohead and his partner and an Amish couple in rural Illinois, this sunrise-to-sunset piece allows people to drop in and drop out throughout the day, giving it a slow-burn, meditative quality.
On the other end of the scale, The North Sea: A (radio) play in three pints offers three bite-sized pieces of drama, delivered one a day over the festival. A collaboration between Norwegian writer Nick Hegreberg and local North East creatives, this sharply written piece is performed by Brian Lonsdale and Karen Traynor, and directed by Northern Stage Associate Director Mark Calvert (with sound design by Nick John Williams).
My personal highlights of the festival were two very different productions, both of which pleasingly challenged my own ingrained beliefs about online art and my enjoyment of it.
It Don’t Worry Me was a collaboration between Catalan company Atresbandes and Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas. Streaming a previously filmed performance, this slyly funny interrogation of art, politics and criticism was a meta delight where both performers and audience become commentators and commented-on. Witty and unexpected, it’s a show that works perfectly online, where the discomfort of watching an (initially) empty stage is magnified, so used are we to seeing busyness on our screens.
In terms of unexpected pleasures, though, the most surprising for me was Oliver Zahn’s In Praise of Forgetting: Part 2. Watching someone basically type stuff onscreen for an hour isn’t the most convincing of sales pitches, but from such stripped back basics Zahn creates something that feels truly special.
Although a sequel to a previous stage piece, this is a standalone work in which Zahn examines the concept of social forgetting. Using little more than onscreen text boxes and an old recording of a folk song by post-WWII German refugees, Zahn crafts a compelling and thought-provoking piece that tackles everything from national identity to personal history to social and political policy, and considers how both the preservation of memories and the processes of forgetting are affected by digital technology. If the internet remembers everything, what happens when some things are best forgotten? Can wounds ever heal if the digital world renders them eternally fresh?
With such an abundant programme (offered on a pay-what-you-feel basis), it’s inevitable that I missed some gems. Tania El Khoury and Basel Zaraa’s As Far As Isolation Goes, Jamal Gerald’s Instagram performance Idol, Action Hero’s RadiOh Europa and Sophie Woolley’s Augmented all stood out on the line-up, but I didn’t manage to see them. But perhaps a bit of FOMO is the sign of a good festival – and evidence of GIFT’s success.
GIFT Festival was streamed online from 1-3rd May 2020. More info here.