ONLINE THEATRE! WHAT EVEN IS THAT?

It is quite something that an amateur drama group in a small town in County Cavan, Ireland, have recently created The Pilgrims of Slieve, one of the very, very few full-length Zoom Dramas ever made in the long history of the world! 

So – apart from the obvious ….. switch on the laptop and click on the link …. how exactly should the viewer watch such an event?  Well, the general advice for watching any online theatre event applied to this collaborative community production which I was privileged to direct for Aisteoirí Muinchille (Cootehill Payers) in March 2021.

My friend Paul Hayes, Director of An Táin Arts Centre in Dundalk, says that when he and his actor wife Leah Rossiter sit down to watch theatre online, they make certain preparations.  “We might rearrange the furniture; dim the lighting to create a more theatre-type environment; have drinks prepared in advance.  Above all, we switch off mobile phones, just as we would in a real theatre.”

And that is the key: “Just like in a real theatre!”  You would not bring a barking dog with you to the Abbey.  Is there somewhere the dog could go for 90 minutes while you watch your play online at home?

But then, why should you go to these lengths to watch a play when you often sit comfortably through a feature film on Netflix without any such fuss?  That is what this article sets out to explore.

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As someone who not only works in theatre, but loves attending plays, I can say two things with absolute conviction.

  • Firstly, in any situation and in any normal time, going to the theatre is different to taking in a movie or going to a concert.
  • Secondly, there is really no such thing as “online theatre”!  Like theatre itself, the whole thing is a pretence, and it require the audience to take part in the pretence. 

When I assert that theatre is different to taking in a film, I’m not saying it’s any better than cinema or live gigs, (although personally I prefer theatre).  But in obvious ways, it is different. 

You arrive in good time; you do not eat popcorn; there are no ads or trailers; you sit among your neighbours or complete strangers pre-curtain and sense the unique communal anticipation; you absolutely turn off your mobile phone!  In short, even for a light, local comedy, you prepare to zone in and concentrate.  When the first actor finally takes the stage you lean forward to listen.  If (as is usually the case) the actor is talented and trained, you embark with her or him upon a journey that takes place partly in front of you but partly in your own imagination. 

Great theatre leaves a lot to the imagination – largely because, unlike film, it cannot show you everything. We rely on the power of the text and the physicality of the actors mainly to create the sense of place, time and context.

What is the online equivalent of that unique contract of the imagination?  Well, quite simply, there is NO equivalent on your laptop!  It does not exist.  The audience is at home, not in a darkened auditorium.  The dog is barking; there are people coming and going…. the actors are not at all impressive in their physicality, existing only on a small, very flat, two-dimensional screen.  …. Unless…

Unless a different “contract” is negotiated, suited to the time and circumstances of this odd period in world history. 

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When Aisteoirí Muinchille contacted me last November and asked if I might lead some kind of drama process with them online during the pandemic, I agreed, but on condition that they would travel with me on a mutual learning journey.  With extraordinary courage and enthusiasm they said, “Yes!”.  Every Monday night Zoom workshop after that was an experiment (16 weeks in total!).  Not only would the usual values of community-engaged devising apply: inclusiveness; good humour; gender equality and so on – but we would dedicate time to road-testing totally new ideas.  How could we create a new play that might engage the audience’s imagination on little computers?

You cannot have choreography in the normal sense of the actor’s physical presence, but what is the effect of ten heads all turning simultaneously to look up at an aeroplane?  What is the effect of having eleven actors in black tops speak verse against a virtual black background?  When is enough and when is too much of poetic speaking or of black t-shirts against black backdrops? And so on.

In the 16 weeks of rehearsals, 20 hours of filming and one intensive week of editing to whittle it all down to a 90 minute drama, it was my instinct as a theatre director – not a film-maker; not a film-editor – that guided my choices.  We were very clear that we had made a piece of theatre!  Although I have only ever met one of the actors face to face; although the play was performed by the actors sitting at their laptops in their 12 separate, isolated home locations, we had created a community play not a Zoom conference.  It looks like theatre; it almost smells like theatre….

But to complete the arc of the journey, we needed the audience to agree to take part with us in a final imaginative process.  We needed them to pretend they were at a theatre of some kind!

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Theatre is often described as “the willing suspension of disbelief”. Like children playing in the garden, the audience undertakes to believe the deception of theatre: the man in the wire mask is a great horse; the Greek woman describing a massacre is actually seeing it, and so on.  The design of the auditorium facilitates this: the curtain rises; the house lights go down; the stage lights come up.  Silence falls.  The actor moves or speaks.  We move with her.

But now, in a new, emergency situation for theatre, we ask that the “online theatre” audience undertakes this “suspension of disbelief without the aid of the dimming lights, the community in the room, the physical presence of the actors. 

In short, we ask that the audience comes at the work prepared

At home we do not often prepare.  We flop down in front of the telly; we grab lunch as we move around the house; we flick through Whatsapp messages almost unconsciously.  But we do prepare for some things!  We prepare to go out for a special occasion, with make up and perfumes or a clean shave and a fresh shirt.  We prepare for the arrival of visitors by digging out the good crystal, laying the table, cleaning up the place a bit.

So we unashamedly asked the audience to prepare!  While they might well enjoy “The Pilgrims of Slieve” on your mobile phone as they shuffled around tidying the kitchen, it was unlikely!  Having paid good money to have us in their homes., we wanted them to get full value from us: to think of us as visitors, arriving, bearing gifts. 

Get your house and your head ready, we said!  Prepare to relax!  Prepare to travel with us on a journey of the imagination.

Precisely what might this involve? A list of simple, practical tips to achieve it was published on a resource page accompanying the show.  It applies to most online theatre experiences.  You can read it here.

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