Opening the Screen on “Live Video Theatre”

“Let’s do it.” For me, shifting the planned in-person production of Madhuri Shekar’s In Love and Warcraft to an online version was an obvious decision. For my MFA acting students, who’d been training at American Conservatory Theater (ACT), there were concerns, apprehensions fueled by the conflict in our field about what is considered “theatre.” Being the associate conservatory director, the students’ teacher, and their director, I knew I had to lead them to create something meaningful and relevant to their training.

Thankfully, my experience working in online content made the process clear. What wasn’t clear until we presented the work for a live video audience was the life we were breathing into a new hybrid art form, live video theatre. An art form that builds community, provides escapism, and explores the depths of our humanity from the comfort of our own home.

With the ability to gather in person on freeze, many of us in the theatre industry collectively held our breaths, waiting to exhale. Now, we find ourselves gasping for air. While parts of the industry choke the legitimacy of digital theatre, I believe, with the community’s support, live video theatre can pump the oxygen into our respiratory systems. Not simply sustaining us through this pandemic, but growing our field into the future. The investment in this art form requires a mental shift among creators on how we define theatre, but the product and process will be strangely familiar and satisfying for artists and audiences of both theatre and film.

zoom video chat of four people playing an online game

Kitty (played by Evangeline Edwards), Evie (played by Cassandra Hunter), Ryan (played by James Mercer), and Raul (played by Hernán Angulo), gaming in the World of Warcraft Universe.

 

Acknowledging Current Difficulties and Access Limitations

First, I want to name the life-shattering impact of COVID-19 for many in the theatre industry. Countless canceled productions, early terminated contracts, and out-of-work artists. There is grief. And for many, there is a knotting anxiety, a deep hole of despair, and a bubble of sadness waiting to burst. There is depression, which is a scary place to be. I get it, I’ve been there. Many of our individual experiences are forming a collective trauma, with several people suffering in isolation. I acknowledge this can make innovating and investing in a new artistic method difficult.

As an administrator, an educator, and a director, I count my lucky stars that I am able to work from home. I have the privilege of accessing the technical requirements to do this work—a computer with a camera and microphone, internet and WiFi access—as well as a home to shelter in place. Not everyone has access to these tools, which exposes the weakness of the live video theatre format, and I applaud the other amazing forms of physically distanced theatre that is being created. But I hope the situation we’re in can bring about a partnership with the tech industry for forms like live video theatre. There are people who struggle for access and need the technology, and a partnership can provide the tech and the educational tools to use the tech, as well as create applications to specifically enhance the arts field.

Live video theatre will not replace live in-person theatre, nor will it replace television or film. Nor will it destroy any of those industries.

Live Video Theatre: What It Is, What It Is Not

Before diving into what live video theatre is, let’s start with what it is not. Firstly, clearly it’s not live in-person theatre; this coronavirus has ensured that form will be difficult to recreate in its standard fashion for an uncertain time. Secondly, it’s not film. I repeat, it is not film. Film is a medium that is prerecorded and often edited. Most commercial films utilize extensive prep time to capture seconds of material, with massive efforts to create some sort of reality. In Susan Sontag’s article “Film and Theatre” in the Tulane Drama Review, she states: “Theatre deploys artifice while cinema is committed to reality.” Often, the activation of the brain’s imagination is heightened when engaging in theatre compared to when engaging in film. Theatre begs for the suspension of disbelief; where film turns imagination into reality, theatre uses reality to activate the imagination. Thirdly, live video theatre is not theatre on video—neither an archival static camera recording nor an edited recording of a staged production created for a traditional in-person experience. These videos are not solely recordings of a production, they are recordings of a specific audiences’ response to a production. That being said, these are some of the many valid forms of digital theatre, which includes video theatre and radio plays.

Live video theatre, though, focuses on visuals, the liveness of both audiences and performing artists in shared time, virtual convergence in digital space, and the subconscious awareness of limitation, which activates the imagination. This is regardless of if the actors, technicians, or audiences are sharing physical space or not. The performance can be broadcast from a shared space where a is set built to accommodate cameras or streamed from each individual performers’ home. This fulfils my definition of theatre: a coming together of artists and audiences to share an experience of unique live moments in time.

Live video theatre will not replace live in-person theatre, nor will it replace television or film. Nor will it destroy any of those industries. Centuries of photographs have coexisted with paintings, decades of music captured on vinyl/cassettes/MP3s have coexisted with live concerts. In a world with Netflix and YouTube, people still attend the cinema. The live broadcast of the Superbowl does not stop seventy thousand fans from attending in person. And, much like these mediums, live video theatre has the potential to be a more inclusive and accessible art form that can develop an appreciation and excitement for in-person theatre.

The belief that live in-person theatre is the only valid form of theatre is incredibly elitist.

The Abilities of Live Video Theatre

What makes live video theatre distinct from film? The live element. Much like in-person theatre, the audience watching subconsciously activates their imagination. A live video theatre experience lets the audience view the characters’ tension and beats as the actor is experiencing them. The costume changes are both noticeable and not, because while they happen in real time, ideally they occur seamlessly, while the audience is swept up in their engagement of the story. There is no ability to rewind to review the slight of hand or fast forward to skip discomfort.

There is also still the notion that anything can happen, but that the show must go on. An actor can drop a line, miss an entrance, or lose a prop—or there could be a dropped connection, a technical glitch, or a loss of power. That’s when adrenaline kicks in for artists and audience. And, in those cases, how does the play stay alive? In the production of In Love and Warcraft done with the MFA students at ACT, we had that exact thing happen: an actor’s internet connection suddenly dropped them from Zoom, but the other actors had rehearsed the scene so often, they were able to seamlessly carry the dialogue until the actor rejoined. The audience didn’t even notice.

I want to dispel the belief that intimacy can not be created through screens. Nearly a decade ago, I had my own YouTube channel, where I made sketch comedy videos of me talking essentially with myself. I nurtured a community of nearly five thousand subscribers and, if released on schedule, my videos would garner approximately fifteen hundred views in twenty-four hours of their release. The audience members and fellow content creators became a community of friends from around the world, and we would Tinychat (the Zoom before Zoom) late into the night. To this day, I annually vacation in person with these friends. The millennial generation learned how to build relationships, intimacy, and community through video and live chats. It’s about time everyone else got on board.

One thing that’s helpful in unifying the audience during a live video theatre experience is the live chat. During the livestreaming of In Love and Warcraft, it was important to me to have a live chat function. The audience of 440 viewers was lively at the two in-house live video performances. Though laughter could not be heard in the chat function, the audience members were engaged, with messages streaming every one to ten seconds. Through a hashtag, attendees began choosing sides of who they wanted the central character to end up with (#TeamRyan or #TeamRaul). At one point the chat fell dead silent for nearly two minutes. And while at first I thought we had lost the audience, one attendee soon broke the silence, saying: “I like how no one is talking because this conversation is so gripping.” Another audience member responded thirty seconds later: “We are riveted.” I had witnessed an online collective holding of breath by the audience, uncertain of what would happen to the characters’ relationship.

There is a widely referenced study from the University College London that states that audience members’ heartbeats sync when watching live events. One of the leaders in our field recently claimed this reaction just doesn't happen when audiences are watching theatre virtually, but there is no study of that. I would wager the future of our field that the audience of 440 attendees had synced in heart beats. Laughter was shared, tears were shed, and, to quote the audience, minds were blown.

Some of the magic of our production came from pushing live video theatre to its limits with our given circumstances. During this time of COVID-19, sheltering in place and physical distancing is the norm, which everyone is aware of. So when audience members for In Love and Warcraft began to question if we had broken the law to create our work, that’s when I knew their imagination had taken over. Each actor worked with their individual cameras in their individual homes in different cities and, at one time in rehearsal, in different timezones. But by utilizing actor blocking, camera blocking, and screen blocking, we were able to create the illusion of actors being in the same room. A mix of carefully staged eye contact, shared props and set design, as well as timed physical acting gave the illusion of a make-out scene between two characters, a transportation to the interior of a movie theatre, and a comedic throwing of props in a shared space. Through the performance, the audience was brought to the magic of theatre’s liveness, community building, and joint humanity.

Live video theatre can create excitement for the artistry and storytelling, which can lead audiences to be interested in experiencing the in-person version.

The Accessibility of Live Video Theatre

Live video theatre can stimulate the economy of our field during this pandemic. Many artists and practitioners can be employed—set designers, costume designers, prop designers, stage managers, house management, and more are all necessary to set up the shots, manage the technology and house, and bring the right amount of detail to anchor the audience in the space, which will allow them to let their imaginations fly. The experience of watching a live show is unlike any other, and the feat of the artistry is valued. This is already proven as raw talent is harnessed and showcased on similar platforms that require many of the same skills, such as YouTube, Instagram, Twitch, and TikTok. A younger generation is already used to consuming storytelling through video. Let’s invite them in to a live theatrical experience.

The belief that live in-person theatre is the only valid form of theatre is incredibly elitist. And the fact that many theatre institutions are dependent heavily on donors is proof of that. The structure is built to cater to those who pay great amounts of money to keep their classist notions of theatre alive. So it’s been a real struggle for our field to welcome those who don’t live near large regional theatres; young audiences; people of color; and individuals with disabilities, who have often been shamed by common theatregoers. But the potential for inclusion is there. Live video theatre provides safe access to those who may not have felt welcome in historically inaccessible spaces. The playwright of In Love and Warcraft had friends and family from India who had never seen her work before, and one of the actors had family in Brazil who experienced his artistry for the first time. Asexual individuals felt safe to share ideas around asexuality with others in the chat, a topic that popped up in response to the show. Similar to listening to a pop artist’s music album or watching a televised sporting event from the safety of one’s own home, live video theatre can create excitement for the artistry and storytelling, which can lead audiences to be interested in experiencing the in-person version.

This new art form can also be more inclusive to artists as well. Minoritized artist communities have long had a lack of representation and access to physical theatre spaces. If we begin partnering with tech companies to get the technology, internet access, and tech literacy to those without it, more artists can contribute to live video theatre, breathing a diverse life of perspectives into our industry in addition to bringing the humanity of storytelling to more communities.

zoom video chat of two people

Evie, played by Cassandra Hunter, and Kitty, played by Evangeline Edwards, at a "cafe" set in the actor's respective homes.

Reversing the Message

I champion live video theatre for two reasons: to give our community of artists and audiences hope, recognizing that our talents can still be utilized to spread storytelling and empathy across the world, and to challenge some of the leaders of our field who are spreading the message of our industry being on pause.

I challenge the conflating of live video theatre and live in-person theatre, which generates fear that one will replace the other. While the two share many similarities, the art forms and audiences’ experiences of them are different—much like how pizza and spaghetti share common flavor profiles but are delivered in different way. I ask artists and our field’s leaders to stop pooh-poohing digital content creation. Especially those who have the privilege (like myself) of having a steady paycheck from an administrative job while artists go unemployed.

For those with the fortune to still be employed in this industry, instead of bunkering in and asking donors to fortify your bunker with donations while you wait out this pandemic, innovate, build opportunities, give your artists the ability to create, and give your audiences the ability to connect. Slandering live video theatre builds greater barriers for artists and audiences to trust the art form. We must rally behind live video theatre to unify our community and amplify our industry into the future. After all, haven’t we’ve lost enough as it is?

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Thank you, Peter, for the wonderful article! I've been trying to succinctly explain to someone why live media and theater are important to explore and train in, especially now considering everything going on. This article perfectly sums it up.