29 October 2020

Thursday, 05:30



Experts discuss whether theatres are able to survive online during the pandemic



It is not easy to live in the pandemic. It is especially hard for those whose professions are associated with live momentary actions, that is – theatres. Theatre has always been a living art. And now a new – virtual – stage in theatrical life begins. Are we ready to accept this new kind of theatre art? Experts are trying to figure out the theatres’ potential to preserve the ideological, philosophical and artistic impact on spectators through the Internet. Do we really need a virtual theatre?


Theatre Online 2020

International Theatre Critics Association (ITCA) was founded in 2019 in Tbilisi. The members of the organisation are trying to realise the existing reality. As the first step, the representatives of the organisation committee from three countries, that is – Assoc. Professor, PhD in Arts History Anara Erkebai (Kazakhstan), Prof. Dr. Lasha Chkhartishvili (Georgia) and PhD Elchin Jafarov (Azerbaijan),  held a virtual international scientific conference Theatre Online 2020 to discuss a wide range of topics, including the influence of quarantine on theatres, pros and cons of online performances, distance training, the interaction of the theatre and audience in real and virtual spaces, ‘theatre on the couch’ as a new or intermediate form of communication with the audience. The interest to these topics is huge. The conference was attended by fifty people from Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Poland, Ukraine, France and other countries, including theorists (theatre experts, critics, culture experts, journalists), practitioners (directors, actors, playwrights, managers, stage designers and theatre leaders), as well as teachers of theatrical universities.


Theatre: a place for spectacles

So, what is the Theatre, born more than 2500 years ago in Ancient Greece, today? The word is of Greek origin and literally means a place for spectacles, meaning a space for those who are sitting in the hall and watching, that is the audience. The main performer of action on the orchestra (a place in front of stage in Greek) is the actor. Today the theatre is a synthetic art combining literature, music, choreography, vocals, visual arts, video, new light and sound technologies and a large group of people involved in the art and other technical professions contributing to the release of the play on stage. However, the centre or the focal points that make everything and everyone, including playwrights and directors, revolve around itself are the actor-character and the spectator. Only in real time can that unique and magical blend of feelings, emotions and thoughts emerge. Theatre will need lively and momentary actions as long as a person remains a person with a soul, feelings and emotions that can raise him to the level of catharsis. No screen can become an ideal intermediary or conductor of feelings and emotions. ‘Theatre on the couch’ cannot give the sensations any real theatre can. A virtual space can be used as an educational tool to enlighten wide audiences with information about the achievements of various theatres in the world, as well as with the new technological capabilities that make stage art perfect and more expressive, more spectacular, as in the Barbican Theatre (London), or more technically equipped, as in the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre (Moscow).


Theatre in crisis

All participants of the conference discussed the effectiveness of using new technologies in the structure of the performance (drama, opera, ballet, pantomime) before and after pandemics. What will be the lessons learned after self-isolation? How effective are the applied technological developments such as Zoom for conducting online rehearsals with actors and classes at universities? As it turned out, such applications are good for conferences and plenary sessions, for theoretical lectures and seminars. For theatrical rehearsals, which still implies direct interaction of actors in real space and time, such a verbal interaction is possible only for a short period of 7-14 days. In the theatre, this period is called a ‘mensal period’, because the director and actors determine the structure of theatrical performance, genre, characters, etc. behind a table. Then the process requires access to the stage, where the very interaction of actors with each other and the audience takes place. Unfortunately and obviously, rehearsing online did not work. As for online training sessions, they also were ineffective.


Dubious outcome

Why? Firstly, a two-way contact between a teacher and a student must if not excellent but at least a relevant technical base: computer-computer or computer-tablet communication, as well as a stable Internet connection. If the teacher has a computer, and the student has a telephone and a weak web connection, it is impossible to acquire satisfactory knowledge at a distance. The opposite situation, when the teacher uses his phone while the student uses his computer or tablet, doesn’t prove effective either. In any case, we have a poor result. During the pandemic and self-isolation, theorists and practitioners realised that the introduction of technology can be an auxiliary rather than a dominant link in the development chain of the modern world. It is clear that progress cannot be stopped, but progress should not be destructive, but creative.

Secondly, we must ask ourselves what is the ultimate goal that we transfer live theatre action into virtual space for? What are the ideals and the level of comfort for the children isolated from adults in the virtual space? After all, what is the virtual space? In Ray Bradbury’s short story The Veldt, the children received as a gift a computerised room (veldt) in an automated smart house called The Happylife Home and filled with machines that do everything for people. The finale of the story is tragic...

Experts, analysing the existing situation with the pandemic, came to the conclusion that it is impossible to replace the live human involvement in any artistically creative process even with the most high-tech software or appliances.

As for the conference, it went very well and really exceeded all the expectations. Both the speakers and the students really missed professional communication. And most importantly, it was very pleasant that the geographical coverage of the conference was so wide. Famous theatre scholars, historians and critics of the theatre, directors and theatre leaders, teachers of creative universities gathered to exchange professional experience, creative ideas, discuss current problems of the theatre. A theatre that remains isolated. That’s where they learned how the locked down life of theatres lives in different countries of the world, how actors try to communicate with their viewers from home. The other problems raised during the conference were how to return the viewers after the quarantine, how to improve the quality of video performances and the future of stage art in general.


What's next?

So, what is a virtual theatre: fantasy or reality? There is no definite answer. There is an understanding that technological processes progress rapidly over the world. They threaten human beings with expulsion beyond the limits of their usual habitat. Fantasy? Yes. Say hello to the characters of Ray Bradbury, Stanislaw Lem, Herbert Wells and George Orwell! But what's next? The confused mankind, entangled in conflicting information flows, froze like a computer that turned off in search of answers to all the same questions of Who is to blame? and What to do? No answer. But there is a hunch that this is no longer a fantasy, but the beginning of another reality...