ZOOMing Theatre

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Author of the text/moderator: Ádám Fónai (HU) / Károli Gáspár University in Budapest
Moderator: Attila Szabó (HU) / Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute, Károli Gáspár University in Budapest

Tereza Dobiášová (CZ) / author, curator, director and cultural manager, author of an interactive online performance „Free Like Birds“
Patrícia Paixão (PT) / producer, creator and actress, and a member of Teatro Estúdio Fontenova, member of the staging team of online production of Karel Čapek’s play „The White Plague“
Attila Balogh (HU) / actor, writer and theatre director, author of online project „Y“
Thaddeus Phillips (US) / theatre director, author of an interactive project “ZOO MOTEL”

In this episode, we present a number of digital theatre projects. In dialogue with theatre makers from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Portugal and the USA, we unpacked a theatrical sub-genre that has expanded tremendously in the current climate, considering the possibilities it offers, the creation process for online projects and strategies for holding an online audience’s attention. Our discussion also dealt with the differences between traditional theatre techniques and digital theatre and the issue of their relationships in the future evolution of theatre.

Links to projects, organisations and initiatives mentioned in the discussion and in this episode:
Y: a play co-written and co-directed by Attila Balogh
ZOO Motel: A live cinematic theatre play by Thaddeus Phillips
Teatro Estúdio Fontenova: Patrícia Paixão’s theatre company; producers of the first Portuguese adaptation of Karel Čapek’s The White Plague
Trailer for Tereza Dobiášová’s Free Like Birds

#05_ZOOMing Theatre

Ádám Fónai

In late February, as part of The Show Must Go On/Offline webinar series and Green Thursdays, ATI organised an online discussion focussed on the possible ways theatres might approach their audiences during the coronavirus pandemic. Like previous episodes of this series, ZOOMing Theatre also focuses on how theatre can exist during the pandemic. This series aims to bring theatremakers together to share their experiences, to find common ground, and to learn from each others’ approaches, with the possibility of collaborating in the future. Questions about the use of digital devices were also raised in previous episodes of the series, and the role of theatre in forming a healthier, less obsessive relationship with online space was also analysed in the context of the webinars. Jiří Šimek brought up this issue as well: “When the pandemic first began, I found it uncomfortable to observe how easily and willingly theatres began to shift into the digital space. Now, in early 2021, the situation is of course different. Theatre-makers who had not been involved with digital forms before the pandemic are learning to work with digital space, and that willing shift is being followed by a period of sobering up and reflection. This experience confirms that theatre, unlike music, paintings or photographs, cannot have a compressed format.”

This idea might be challenged, confirmed or refuted in this episode of the podcast, as we raise the question: can digital theatre be equal to traditional, live theatre? As we’re all now very familiar with, quarantining has become one of the most significant tools used around the world to prevent the spread of the virus. This, of course, meant that going to the theatre was suddenly forbidden. However – as one of our speakers beautifully put it – theatre is like the natural elements that slowly take over abandoned cities: it adapts, it survives, it comes back. The very concept of theatre is deeply rooted in culture and its branches quickly began to grow, its flowers started to bloom in the digital environment. Theatre was able to reinvent itself during these unusual circumstances, and this has given rise to very interesting questions about the nature of the art form. What are we even talking about when we talk about theatre? Is it the building where performances take place, or is it an abstract concept that involves a larger community experience? What of its essence had to be adapted to online platforms? Is digital theatre still theatre, or is it an entirely new form of art that is rooted in classical modes of theatre, but defies traditional definitions? Theatremakers, actors, and directors of quarantine-friendly projects from around the world were invited to discuss these questions and to elaborate on their personal experiences. Patrícia Paixão, is a Portuguese actress, producer and theatremaker and a member of Teatro Estúdio Fontenova. She introduced the first Portuguese adaptation of Karel Čapek’s play The White Plague, of which she was a co-creator. Tereza Dobiášová, a Czech author, curator and cultural manager, developed the interactive performance Free Like Birds, targeting an audience of teens and pre-teens. Attila Balogh, a Hungarian actor, director and playwright from Transylvania, is the writer and director of Y, a play that premiered online and relies heavily on the possibilities technological devices and live-streaming can offer. And finally, we were joined by Thaddeus Phillips, a theatre director from the United States, and the creator of a very visual, cinematic play called ZOO Motel.

Our webinar began with our speakers introducing their projects, which were explicitly created to work in an online environment, and it soon became clear that all four of them live and breathe the process of creation. Philosophical questions arose about the nature of theatre; not even they were certain whether or not their creations could be considered theatre. However, they all seemed to agree that the essence of theatrical performance is experiencing a live event, and the sense of the present; this was one of the basic elements they felt they had to capture and transfer into the digital space. To achieve this, they had to make their audiences forget that they were sitting in their living rooms.

Thaddeus Phillip’s approach was to turn his own studio into an online motel that can be visited by a smaller audience, giving them a chance to interact and improvise. His project can be understood as similar to the concept of an escape room, as audience members were provided with maps that they could use to get out of the motel, while Thaddeus acted his role on camera, giving the audience the sense of an interactive play. He experimented with camera movements improvised in real time to create a hybrid of theatre and cinema. In addition to discussing the concept as a whole, he also spoke about the title: “I needed a cinematic, realistic location. And my studio has a bathroom and a window, and it looked like a motel. So with the idea of Zoom, I found the word Zoom-motel, but that sounded really stupid, so then we divided it into Zoo Motel as a metaphor for planet Earth being like a motel, a place where we’re on this planet for a very short time, and it’s like a zoo. Then we just started an improvisation process with the camera in the centre of the room that allows it to track.”

So Zoo Motel already demonstrates the opportunities offered by digital theatre, with the camera being its new central element. Thaddeus was able to manipulate what the audience could see, and he took full advantage of the device. Despite the cinematic nature of this experience, Thaddeus also maintains that it still contains elements of traditional theatre: “What we did was: the room where the Zoo Motel is – it’s room #18 in the show – its own theatre. So the door opens onto the off-stage. The minute I come in the door to begin the show, I stay on-stage for 63 minutes, and I’m acting the show in real-time in front of the audience as if I am on stage, with one tracking shot, and the manipulation of the objects and all the things, and we have people running the sound, to mute the mic on zoom and to add sound.”

Tereza Dobiášová’s main tool was also interaction. Free Like Birds existed before the pandemic, but even then it was an interactive project. For this reason, she argues that Free Like Birds differs from the classical definition of a theatrical production because she wanted to involve her audience much more actively: “So Free Like Birds was originally actually a theatre project for me, but really interactive theatre. It was originally for teenagers, and it was dealing with teenage topics: shame, becoming adults. We were developing it for quite a long time, we also performed it for quite a long time, and we were supposed to perform in Prague at the National Theatre, and in Milan when covid came in, and of course everything was cancelled.”

When the outbreak happened, she was offered the opportunity to create an online version of Free Like Birds. “At first I was thinking that it was completely impossible,” she explained, “but then I actually realised that many of the interactive techniques we were using were really very simple.”

She wrote a new script for the online version of the project, and worked with two dancers and the audience members, who began the performance by applying makeup to their faces, as if they were really about to go on stage. Then, the dancers started to dance.

Tereza relies on the use of the unexpected in the virtual space: she uses scripted connection failures, where everything stops working, and the dancers respond by expressing their desire to keep performing in these uncertain circumstances. So they ask the audience to do something with them. This unstoppable willingness to keep performing transformed Free Like Birds into a voyage, liberating the participants, and giving them a sense of freedom and flying through spontaneously dancing together. Tereza not only aimed to help the viewers escape quarantine, but also wanted to create a very peaceful environment that helps young people experience something other than the violence that the media and mainstream entertainment seem to provide.

Tereza’s intention led to a clash of opinions with Attila Balogh, whose play Y did the exact opposite. He used a GoPro and a 5G transmitter, so that the audience could see the whole play from the perspective of the protagonist, a closeted lesbian, attempting to come out to her family through her graduate film project. With this technique, unlike the other speakers, he was actually able to live-stream the performance from the theatre, but cinematic elements played a larger and more significant role than would be expected in a theatrical production. “We wrote a play about a Generation Z girl who has a mid-life crisis in her life,” he explained. “It’s about not knowing what’s real and what’s not, and it’s also about being in love, and the whole thing is also about gaps between generations, and the isolation of a human being.”

Taking advantage of this approach to point of view, Y used elements of first-person shooter video games. Attila explained that the intention behind this was to speak the language of younger audiences; by doing so, he aimed to approach them more easily. He also said that he did everything he could to capture and keep the attention of the audiences, as recognised that paying attention could be much more difficult in an online environment. Y used very bright and colourful visuals, music, action movie references, and experimental live-streaming techniques. Attila even admitted that they might have gone too far with these elements, leading to overstimulation.

Y had also originally been developed by the time the outbreak happened, and Attila recalled that he and his crew found themselves isolated, just like the protagonist in their play. To overcome this, they wanted to create something truly special, which could become more than a simple recording of a theatrical performance. Hence the idea of portraying the event from the point of view of an isolated, desperate young woman.

He stated that he wanted to deliver a story that would make audiences use their imaginations to fill in the gaps; he considered this approach a device to make them pay attention and care and understands imagination as another key element of theatre: “There has to be space for the viewer’s fantasy, that’s my opinion. I mean, if you show them ready-made everything, I think it’s not engaging because then you can sit there like a zombie just consuming the product. You don’t need to think, you don’t need to ask questions, you don’t need to use your fantasy to imagine. For example, in the Tom and Jerry cartoons – you know the character of the African American woman? – only her feet are shown. I don’t know if you know what I’m talking about. So the missing part is filled in by your imagination. In this aesthetic, I think it’s very important to not show more than her feet and her voice. That is a middle-way, a good way. It needs you to complete the whole picture.” 

Both Patrícia Paixão and Thaddeus Phillips agreed about the role of imagination. As a matter of fact, both of them discussed using grotesque, surreal elements to provoke the imagination of their audiences. For Thaddeus, it was also one of the keys to creating the atmosphere his production offers. His interactive theatrical project relies on strong imagery that is sometimes scarily surreal, and, at other times, funny. It engulfs the participants, takes them away from their living rooms and helps them to be truly present in this digital motel. Furthermore, each performance of ZOO Motel limits the number of  participants to 21, giving them a stronger sense of a close community experience.

Patrícia Paixão used  elements of the grotesque to deliver a play that is both funny and serious. Her project was the very first Portuguese production of the 1937 play The White Plague

[18:35-18:49]: “The White Plague – for some of you who might not know it – is a play written by Karel Čapek, that talks about a world pandemic that is born in China. It has many similarities to what we are living now.”

She worked with an international and diverse cast. It was a spontaneous but seemingly fitting reaction to the virus and the new situation in which the world suddenly found itself. The play has elements that will be very familiar to everyone nowadays, such as questions about healthcare systems, or the issue of politicians taking advantage of the crisis.

Even though The White Plague depicts these events and issues that are very similar to the current situation, Patrícia noted that she did not feel a duty to reflect and comment on the coronavirus pandemic. The other speakers agreed with her, and the conclusion that emerged from their opinions seemed to be that theatre is here to provide a platform to express personal visions that can, but do not have to, reflect current and enduring social issues. Still, Patrícia argued that solidarity with the audiences should be a significant factor during these performances.

Surprisingly, as the conversation went on, the speakers mentioned more positive aspects of these very unfortunate times than negative ones. They reflected on the accessibility of the internet, and its potential to reach more people, since those who do not live close to a theatre can more easily see plays and performances online. They even discussed the nature of the webinar itself, which also took place on Zoom, drawing parallels with online performances, and observing that people can still come together, even if they are physically very distant, just as we did. They considered whether or not these enormous distances are bridged by online presence, and the answer seemed to be yes. They thus viewed the opportunities provided by rapidly evolving digital technology in a very positive light.

This led to a conversation about the future of theatre, which was once again rooted in philosophical questions about the nature of the art form. The general question was: does going digital – particularly in the context of these sudden and unusual circumstances – represent the future of theatre, or will going to theatre buildings remain the chief appeal of the art form? Even though the speakers felt that digital theatre has its own future and is here to stay, even once the pandemic is over, they admitted they are keen to get back into theatres. Asked to compare these two forms – particularly in terms of the intensity of audience connection – they countered that these two types of audience connection are distinct and cannot be compared; the call for comparison turned out to be a futile request. This response suggests that both of these art forms can exist alongside one another, as each has its unique benefits and advantages. 

Based on the conversation, the following conclusions can be drawn about digital theatre:

Digital theatre is deeply rooted in more traditional models of theatre, with which it seems to share a common essence. Still, at this time it remains unclear if it is a distinct art form or not. However, elements of in-person theatre that should be captured in the online space include the live nature of the experience, the sense of a shared community event, and engagement with the spectator’s imagination. To achieve these effects, the viewers have to be involved, and the performance must hold their attention. In other words, they need to be zoomed in, which suggests that interaction might play a more significant role in the digital space than it does in a physical auditorium.

Despite its uncertain nature, digital theatre is unlikely to disappear when social distancing and quarantine are a thing of the past. In fact, it is the exact opposite: digital theatre is one of the positive products that emerged during the coronavirus pandemic, and it will probably lead to more experimental projects that can pave the way for the future of this new art form. Even though both theatremakers and audiences are patiently waiting to get back into theatre buildings, the webinar participants expressed their enthusiasm and willingness to create projects in the online space and are truly optimistic about the possibilities to reach and connect with audiences. They are doing their best to create a strong bond. In the end, these factors appear to be the most essential elements of these experiences; whether we call it theatre or not feels like an extremely trivial question when compared to this achievement. Especially when they all agreed that theatre can exist in several different forms: on the stage, in a casual conversation as a vivid retelling of one’s dream, and in the online space as well.