Screening Theatre

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Becka McFadden, photo: AP Wilding

Author of the text/moderator: Becka McFadden (US/CZ) / performer, translator, director and performance maker based in Prague
Joana Nuckowska (PL) / Nowy Teatr
Vijay Mathew (US) / Howlroand
Martin Zavadil (CZ) / Dramox
Gert Naessens (BE) / Perform Europe, IETM

Over a year and a half into the pandemic, theatre producers, cultural managers and a creative entrepreneur sit down to reflect on their recent experiences of theatre on screen. What new insights have the pandemic and the resulting explosion of digitisation offered and what issues do the guests find most pressing now? Despite the ongoing uncertainty, can they help us find any reasons to be cheerful? Guests from HowlRound Theatre Commons, the European Festivals Association, Warsaw’s Nowy Teatre and the Czech Republic’s Dramox streaming platform dive into the complexities and contradictions of theatre’s shift into the virtual space, with topics rationing from digital distribution’s contribution to greater accessibility to the hidden carbon footprint of streaming.

Links to projects, organisations and initiatives mentioned in the discussion and in this episode:
HowlRound Theatre Commons
Nowy Teatr
European Festivals Association
Culture for Climate’s Guide for the Performing Arts

#08_Screening Theatre

Becka McFadden

“Drama, in its unique way, always mirrors what is essential in its time.” Playwright and former Czech President Václav Havel made this observation in an extended interview with Karel Hvížďala, published in English as Disturbing the Peace. 18 months into a period of time that has disturbed the peace and wholly disrupted theatrical business as normal, I sat down with four guests from Europe and North America to discuss the insights these recent months have offered and think together about where theatre might be headed next. Our conversation took place as part of Rehearsal For Truth, a New York festival of Central European theatre honouring Havel and his legacy and was titled “Streaming Theatre,” but, unsurprisingly, our conversation ranged much further, taking in issues of social justice and representation, geographic inequality, environmental sustainability and more. 

I asked each of my four guests to begin our conversation by responding to the following two questions: 

  1. How have the past 18 months impacted your work? (ie, has the pandemic led to the creation of new initiatives, or has it changed, intensified or re-focused things you were already doing)
  2. In the context of your work and recent experience and thinking about streaming theatre and issues of accessibility and environmental sustainability – what feels most urgent to you NOW?

In this written summary of our talk, I’ll begin with these four points of departure and then share further complexities and ways forward that emerged.

/// Insights and Urgencies: Opening Contributions

We kicked off the discussion with a response from Vijay Mathew, co-founder and cultural strategist at HowlRound Theatre Commons. Based at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, HowlRound is a practitioner-focused media publishing platform. Founded ten years ago, HowlRound predates the pandemic, but was created to respond to the types of inequities that it brought to the fore, including questions of inclusion, access and representation. HowlRound operates as a digital commons, with proposals for content coming from the global community of practitioners that engage with it: “We’re asking the theatre field itself to propose ideas for essays or live streams that are disruptive to the status quo in some way, or that wish to share or expand on a progressive idea, progressive being defined as advancing social justice,” Vijay explained. As a platform already committed to disruption, how did the chaos of the pandemic impact HowlRound? Vijay estimates that five to six times the usual content was produced, with over 500 events hosted by 400 organisations taking place on the platform. As the pandemic grounded planes and brought conventional artist mobility to a standstill, he was struck by the opportunity digital events brought to participants from the Global South: “there were many more artists coming to the platform from the African continent, coming from the Caribbean, and who previously would have had limited access, because of the way our field is set up to privilege cultural mobility based on air travel.” He also noted a heightened collective awareness of accessibility for people with disabilities, with an increase in live captioning and sign language interpretation. 

A move to the digital space can increase accessibility and address geographic inequalities, but it’s not a problem-free solution. Speaking to what he considers most urgent now, Vijay emphasised the need to decarbonise immediately, including in digital spaces: “Just transferring everything to the virtual space is not the answer at all, because this [too] is highly polluting… […] We have to start to create these norms of using much, much, much less.” To do this, it will be necessary for the field to embrace new concepts of mobility and collaboration; Vijay suggests the digital space might serve as a temporary incubator where we can discover new ways of moving forward as a global community of performing arts practitioners even as artists focus more closely on local or regional activities. 

Joining us from Warsaw, Joanna Nuckowska of Nowy Teatr spoke next. Novi Teatr is an established company with its own building and a strong track record of participation in festivals. Unable to travel and with its local audiences locked out by pandemic regulations, the theatre was forced to reassess. “It was a very strange and difficult time at the beginning of the pandemic,” she explained. “We had to rethink the way we act and the way we function every day, from day to day.” Initially unsure how they would be received, Novi Theatre began to offer streamed productions, which met with a huge response from an increased audience. Joanna also felt the pandemic catalysed a change of mood, as individuals and organisations started to think about better ways of relating to each other. If society felt atomised and individualistic before the pandemic, the events of March 2020 initiated a process of coming together: “Because of the lockdowns, we had to start […] to think about collaboration and start to think about how to care for each other and be tender with each other, and about solidarity, which was super important at the time.” Culture had an important role to play and it was necessary to get theatre to audiences: “our role was to entertain people in this very strange and difficult time and also [to offer a] sense of togetherness.” Joanna is curious to see how this experience of solidarity and unity – both of which are still very much alive for Novi Teatr’s staff and artists – will impact the company’s future work. 

In addition to her work with Novi Teatr, Joanna is a founding member of Culture for Climate Change, a grassroots initiative aimed at greening the cultural sector. As she turned her attention to what feels most urgent now, she echoed Vijay’s call to interrogate our use of the internet: “I am afraid we’re unaware what a big carbon footprint it has and I think it’s very urgent for us to now rethink how we use the internet. During lockdown, it was important to have contact and to be online and to be with people, but on the other hand, I think we should think about it in a more sustainable way.” Culture for Climate Change has recently produced a guide on more sustainable practices for organisations and institutions, hoping to show a perpetually under-resourced sector that greener doesn’t have to mean more expensive. The guide is available here

Our third guest was Martin Zavadil, the founder and CEO of theatre streaming and distribution platform Dramox – think Netflix for the performing arts. Martin’s aim is simple: to increase the amount of time people spend engaging with theatre through streamed performances that help overcome barriers of time and distance. While the majority of Dramox’s performances come from central Europe, they also distribute performances from Australia and the United States. At this stage in the pandemic, as live performances resume, Martin expressed concerns about the feasibility of presenting digital work at the same time. “It’s hard for theatres to do both,” he explained. “I can see that they are already losing the technical skills they gained during the pandemic.” Dramox can help alleviate this problem, offering support and financial models that can help theatres maintain a digital presence even as live performances resume. Martin thinks Dramox has a role to play in artist development, citing examples of spectators who have gone on to attend in-person performances at theatres they first encountered online. The impact on rural audiences, including schools, is particularly significant. As for the range of work performed, Martin argues that Dramox’s single subscription model actually supports spectators to take risks and experience works by experimental or lesser-known artists, in the same way that Netflix subscribers might watch an art film one night and a blockbuster the next. 

Speaking last and rounding our opening statements was Gert Naessens, joining us from Brussels as a representative of the European Festivals Association (EFA). EFA is a main partner in PerformEurope, an EU-funded 18-month pilot project with a mandate to rethink cross-border touring “in a more inclusive, sustainable and balanced way.” Speaking about the pandemic experience from the EFA’s perspective, he felt the pandemic had intensified, but did not fundamentally change the network’s activities. At the level of individual festivals, he saw some ambivalence about digital presentation. Some festivals rushed to move their activities online, while others found the digital space anathema to their values as live events. Gert drew our attention to the relationship between funding and support structures and the kind of art that gets made, noting that government policies have the potential to prescribe formats and influence artistic decisions: “Governments are switching their budgets from physical to digital presentation, so that now these elements most both exist, and this is not the idea, I think. We have to be careful that we’re not switching from the physical to the digital.” Gert also spoke to the existence of digital art, which has existed as a distinct discipline for over 50 years and risks getting lost in the discussion of 3D live events shifting into 2D digital spaces. 

Like Joanna, Gert saw festivals responding to a social demand caused by the pandemic: “There was a need to bring artistic works to the audiences. We had to play a role.” Still, he wonders how the audience experience of digital events compares to the live experience. “What do they experience exactly? […] For me personally, it was not the same as going to a performance. There was a big, big difference. There was no social aspect, no proximity to the artists, the vibrations are not there.” Echoing other panellists, he also expressed concerns for the environmental sustainability of digital platforms, highlighting the need for greener web design, such as that used to create EFA’s festival finder site, which consciously tries to limit the carbon footprint of an initial visit to the website. He highlighted the scale of the problem, noting research that ranks the internet as the second-largest consumer of electricity in the world. He also reminded us of the limits of accessibility through digital formats in a world where access to a computer and an internet connection cannot be taken for granted. 

/// Ways Forward

These opening remarks established the parameters and set out the central contradiction of our conversation. On one hand, digitality in the performing arts is an agent of democratisation. Digital distribution allows artists to bypass gatekeeping structures and appeal directly to audiences – Green Thursdays and the ShowOff podcasts are prime examples of this. Digital formats increase accessibility, reducing the need for travel and opening opportunities to artists from the Global South, or people with disabilities. The digital space seems to offer a greener, more inclusive alternative to older ideas of artistic mobility based on international travel, often by plane. While these issues – as evidenced by HowlRound’s ten years of work – are nothing new, the pandemic accelerated and intensified the process of rethinking how we make and distribute work and collaborate as a global community of practitioners. At the same time, however, digital distribution is far from a perfect solution. Work in the digital space must be accompanied by a keen understanding of the carbon footprint of a Zoom meeting or streamed performance. The intersection of these issues is complex, with implications for everything from how global and local dimensions sit alongside one another in performing arts practices, to how we balance the greater access afforded by digital distribution with the need to protect the liveness of in-person events. What roles do policies and funding platforms need to play and how can they respond to, or encourage, more equitable, sustainable ways of working? 

There is an extent to which this problem feels overwhelming, a gordian knot of interconnected issues and assumptions crying out for redefinition. It’s also the case that the conversations around issues of environmental sustainability and accessibility (for both artists and audiences) are at different stages in different local, regional, national and international contexts. Still, we in the performing arts are adept at creating from a state of chaos, so let’s see what paths forward seem to be emerging here. 

Ways Forward

  • we can cultivate an openness to interrogating, rethinking and redesigning everything we do, from theatre buildings, to infrastructures, employment models and definitions of mobility and success. 
  • we can embrace hybridity, allowing the skills and approaches that the pandemic has forced us to learn to evolve with changing conditions, and to intersect with and support our live work where it makes sense.
  • we can foster a culture that is artist-led, with artists supported to work in the media and format(s) of their choice.
  • should we find ourselves in another lockdown, we can support all artists to get through the disruption, without demanding a particular type or performance of productivity.
  • we can interrogate our funding models, advocating for funding and payment structures that can rapidly adapt to a changing landscape without dictating the future.
  • we can think about what is necessary to make a living from the performing arts and develop strategies for addressing the disparity between freelance artists and those on permanent contracts.
  • we can share our resources, whether they exist IRL or online, to support freelance artists. 
  • we can rethink touring to encourage slow travel, with many presentations in different locations on the same trip, or longer stays in one place. 
  • we can interrogate mobility in a way that acknowledges economic and infrastructural disparities between countries and regions.
  • we can think outside or beyond capitalist values and behaviours. 

At times, our conversation felt like one of the brain teaser puzzles you find in Christmas crackers – the kind where you have to separate two interlocking metal triangles, or free a circle from a spring. There were no simple solutions. Sometimes there were long pauses to think and reflect. There are no straightforward answers to these questions and no issue can be viewed in isolation. The depth of consideration these issues demand – at the intersection of accessibility, social justice and care for the planet and for each other – is itself encouraging, because it speaks to both the gravity and the opportunity inherent in this moment, now. 

Amidst the challenges, there are green shoots. Our conversation ended with a survey of developments that feel hopeful and encouraging. It’s an inspiring list. It’s also a complex one, that conveys the knottiness of the problems we – by which I mean all of us in the field, not just my guests – are trying to solve. The set of topics raised in this discussion – mobility, environmentally sustainable practices, digital streaming – are so closely interconnected that it feels impossible to move one without moving all of them. Still, green shoots. 

Gains and Good Developments

  • The pandemic has made digital spaces more accessible for people with disabilities. These gains aren’t going anywhere. 
  • Sector-wide learning has taken place. The digital skills and strategies that the pandemic has forced us to learn aren’t going anywhere either. They can be harnessed and redirected to support whatever comes next.
  • The digital strategies we’ve employed during the pandemic have grown our audiences in demonstrable ways and increased our reach, particularly into economically disadvantaged and/or geographically isolated communities. In some instances, digital distribution has emerged as another income stream for theatres.
  • We’ve had a clear and inspiring reminder of the role theatre and the performing arts can play in challenging circumstances. Digital streaming and online events fostered a sense of community during the pandemic and early evidence suggests that audiences are keen to return to theatres. 
  • We are in the midst of change. Change presents an opportunity. Let’s change things.