The show must go on

| May 30, 2020

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the performing arts has been felt globally, with the doors closed on theatres around the world. But musicians, dancers and live art performers have moved quickly to reimagine and adapt their creative pursuits under these challenging and uncertain conditions.

Live streaming of performances on platforms such as Zoom, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook has exploded. In theatre, the popularity of online streaming sites such as New York’s 24 Hour Plays, and the virtual monologues series Isolated But Open: Voices from Across The Shutdown have demonstrated an appetite for stories and performance during this time of isolation.

We’re witnessing the emergence of a new theatre aesthetic characterised by a “causal intimacy”, and a “low-tech, low-key, one-on-one, close-up” approach to theatre-making. Theatre-makers have taken to Zoom, incorporating sock puppets, soliloquies and miniaturised figures composed of household items to captivate audiences trapped in their homes.

For example, Shakespeare’s The Tempest recently aired on Zoom, with audiences invited to enter Prospero’s island through the portal of their phone or computer screens. Audience members were invited to click their fingers through their microphones to collectively conjure a storm (ibid).

Classic texts such as The Diary of Anne Frank have also been adapted for Zoom. Anne Frank, her father, Otto, and other cast members have taken to the online stage, reading from the pages of Anne’s diary from their isolated Zoom boxes.

All systems go

Monash’s Centre for Theatre and Performance (CTP) students have embraced this type of innovation, preparing for a new Zoom performance work, Systems People.

They’ve entered online rehearsal rooms and gathered in Zoom frames to refine and develop the process, becoming e-collaborators with theatre-makers Penny Baron, Carolyn Hanna and Nick Papas.

Baron and Hanna are the innovative duo behind Melbourne’s Born in a Taxi, and are Monash Academy of Performing Arts’ 2020 artists in residence.

It’s fitting that in the current environment, Systems People is a work exploring the business of art, and the art of business, and highlights how theatre-makers can collectively work within the limits of online platforms.

Barron and Hanna have enthusiastically embraced the challenges the current COVID climate has created when it comes to making theatre that translates from the live, physical, visceral and interactive into the digital realm. They see their work as an opportunity to “dive in and manifest new ways of working”, seeing the limits of form as a freedom.

Similarly, within the evolving restrictions regarding self-isolation and social distancing, Monash arts students are embracing these constraints as an opportunity. They’re working together to develop new languages of performance, storytelling and audience engagement, engaging in the creation of an evolving theatrical form some are calling “pandemic theatre” or “e-theatre“.

Addressing the pandemic

Zoom theatre-makers have also turned attention to the pandemic itself. Richard Nelson’s What Do We Need To Talk About?, a play that depicts a family impacted by COVID-19 who are separated yet connected through screens, has captivated quarantined audiences. Nelson argues that the work of such productions is essential.

“In times like our own, when human voices seem more disembodied than ever, where words seem pulled from their meanings and turned into rants and weapons … theatre can be a necessary home for human talk, a place where human beings talk about their worries, confusions, fears and loves. And where they also listen.”

So while some have expressed concerns about the loss of liveness and tactility that in-person performance provides, Nelson’s comments suggest that the current moment actually creates fertile ground for new theatrical forms to flourish.

Theatre and performance studies research has long considered questions of liveness, mediation and embodiment. We’re primed to investigate what it means to communicate over different locations and different times through a variety of media.

We’re interested in creatively reflecting on what our recent experiences of altered intimacy, grief, disruption and uncertainty mean for the future of the arts, and our efforts to create community in the new now.

“The work happening in theatre now will enhance and expand the future of digital and remote platforms for performance, pedagogy, and communication more generally in the future.”

Monash students’ involvement as e-collaborators in the production of Systems People provides an opportunity to ask some of these pressing questions. It’s also a chance for professional creatives and future leaders to work side-by-side as they develop a new, emergent theatre aesthetic.

Through in-depth discussions and practical work, they’re engaging in virtual rehearsal rooms to create a real-time laboratory for evolving not only theatre practice, but also showing how education, industry, healthcare and social support organisations can maintain effective engagement and active involvement of a wide range of audiences.

The work happening in theatre now will enhance and expand the future of digital and remote platforms for performance, pedagogy, and communication more generally in the future.

In these challenging times, creating spaces for industry leaders and the next generation of performing arts creatives to experiment, take risks, and play is vitally important. Collaborations between professional theatremakers and Monash University arts students, such as the Born in a Taxi artists’ residency and Systems People, are innovative initiatives in the age of Zoom.

What they develop will help chart the way for a new generation of creatives and the performing arts in Australia.

This article was co-authored with members of the Monash Centre for Theatre and Performance, including Professor Jane Montgomery Griffiths, senior lecturers Stuart Grant and Felix Nobis, lecturer Fiona Gregory, assistant lecturer Fleur Kilpatrick, and CTP producer programmer Daniel Lammin, and research assistant Rachael Stevens.  It was published by Lens.