This will do for now, but streaming cannot replicate live theater
At first it was all live. We sat around the fire, banged pieces of bone together and howled aloud at the merciless moon. Then a bright spark picked up a charred stick and used it to draw the first rudimentary picture on a cave wall. Fast forward 40 Millennia, 2001: A Space Odyssey Style, and we continue to distinguish between the thrilling evanescence of live performance and the profoundly different experience of recorded art, whether this record was made of burnt wood or in 4K video.
Covid made us rethink the different values we apply to the live experience and the recorded one. Most of the focus during the pandemic has been on how we miss being in the crowd at live events, but there is also the emotional charge of watching or hearing something in the real moment. , even if you are not physically present. Call it immediacy or authenticity, unpredictability or uniqueness, but that’s part of the reason people pay more to attend a single concert than to buy all of the recorded works by the same musician. . And that’s why online audiences are always far more excited about live events than recorded events.
Theater as a live online proposition is trickier than music or direct speech
This week, Twitter launched its new Spaces feature, which allows users to have real-time audio conversations with others while the public (or the portion of the public that is on Twitter) is listening. Meanwhile, as it continues to diversify from its origins as a music service, Spotify is experimenting with live-streamed sports chat. And the Hot start-up Clubhouse also offers live chat as a selling point. This may all come to naught, but it seems possible that online audio is moving away from its current model of podcasts and purely on-demand music playlists for something more dynamic, immediate, or chaotic. In other words, live.
In Covid-era Ireland, there has been an upsurge in online performances, some live, some not, since the Abbey Theater launched its Dear Ireland series of direct-to-camera monologues last summer. . These, of course, were pre-recorded by the performers, usually in their homes during the first and hardest lockdown.
Since then, we have witnessed a wave of live music and spoken word events, many supported by the Arts Council and other state agencies.
Theater as a live online proposition is trickier than music or direct speech, but there have been a few attempts, notably from Druid, who broadcast Sonya Kelly’s Once Upon a Bridge live from the Mick Lally Theater. Galway in February, and Boland: Journey of a Poet. from the same place two weeks ago.
While this livestream was going on, Frank McGuinness’s new play, The Visiting Hour, was “playing from the Gate Auditorium.” There is no indication that The Gate represented The Visiting Hour as anything other than what it was, the online broadcast in a fixed time slot of a recorded production, although some of the promotional language used – the last night of the race has been described as “the final performance” – may have caused confusion and, judging by some online comments, including several Tourism Ireland social media accounts describing the first night as a “live world premiere” , that’s exactly what he did. (Visiting time will be available on request from May 10 to 23.)
So what, you might ask. Live streaming adds an additional layer of technical complexity and cost, but doesn’t necessarily improve the audience’s experience of the play itself. Pre-recording makes it possible to refine the various elements of the production in advance – editing, sound, etc. But then why not go all the way and just release a real movie?
To understand what might be happening, think about television, which still strives for the condition of life, even when it is clearly recorded. Some of television’s most popular formats, such as sitcoms, soap operas, and chat rooms, still adhere to conventions established in an era when everything had to be broadcast live. The few who still claim to be live, like The Late Late Show, use a clumsy sleight of hand to slip into recorded segments.
Traditional linear television clings to life as its last best hope for survival in a multiplatform world. This is why broadcasters attach such importance to drama series like the BBC’s Line of Duty, which is obviously not live, but which is heavily promoted as a live community experience. Something similar may have happened at The Visiting Hour two weeks ago, with loyal theatergoers greeting their socially distant friends on their way into the virtual auditorium and exchanging reactions afterwards on Facebook or (for unvarnished opinions) WhatsApp.
Will online theater thrive after the pandemic? The manager of Old Vic in London said on Thursday that live streaming will now be “toughened up” on how the industry will operate in the future. Maybe, but the ultimate arbiter will be the audience and, judging by the chatter online on The Gate’s first night, he can’t wait to return to a real live theater.