“As Exciting as a Movie”: How Does Streaming Change Theatre?

Katie Hawthorne | 6 March 2017

It turns out that finding a precise definition for theatre is deceptively tricky. For some theorists, theatre depends upon the live presence of an audience to witness an event. For others, it’s the live presence of a performer to tell a story. Some researchers and theatre makers hold that it’s the one-off, physical, fleeting nature of a performance which sets it apart from other art forms. For example, in 1993, performance scholar Peggy Phelan argued:

Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented […]: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. (146)

Each of these definitions relies upon an idea of liveness – the idea of a live audience and a live performer, sharing physical space and time. Cultural theorists like Phillip Auslander have grappled with what it means to be live – don’t worry, this won’t get morbid – and in 1999, he argued that we have only understood live art since we’ve had a mediated alternative, the not live, and explained that “the defining fact of the recorded is the absence of the live.” (2)

Our mediatized culture has travelled faster and further than perhaps Phelan or Auslander could have imagined at the time of publication. This article asks (but does not answer): What happens to theatre when we stream it?

In February, the Barbican hosted a short run of a German-language production called Beware of Pity (created by Berlin’s Schaubühne and London-based Complicite) which sold out almost immediately. To compensate those who missed out on tickets, the production was live streamed for free via YouTube and a recording of that stream was available online for two weeks. I watched the recording in two parts, over two days, in my pyjamas.

In January, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced The Tempest in collaboration with tech giant Intel. The performance live streamed from Stratford upon Avon to selected cinemas and theatres all over the country: I bought a £13.50 ticket for a screening at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, though had I been quicker I could have watched it from the Cameo Cinema’s padded seats. The RSC’s live streams are a franchise; intervals are filled by pre-filmed interviews with directors, and audiences are encouraged to tweet throughout, unified by specified hashtags.

Aside from the basic ingredients of a performance, a recording device, and a platform from which to broadcast, these streams have little in common. My £13.50 bought me a louder, larger screen, extra ‘back-stage’ info and the company of several hundred other audience members – but did it improve my experience?

The filming of each RSC production is highly choreographed: panning shots, zoom and multi-camera angles allow incredible, usually unattainable close-ups. These techniques help to prevent the cinema screen becoming a kind of additional fourth wall (fifth wall?), but can result in limited, prescriptive perspectives that feel closer to film than theatre.

Complicite and Schaubühne presented Beware of Pity without flashy camera work, and as a result it was easier to see their stage in its entirety – this distanced yet autonomous, formal perspective felt familiar, like sitting in a fixed seat, and it was easier to concentrate on the narrative without wondering what might be happening outside of the camera’s reach. Still, call me sentimental, but watching the stream alone without the buzz of a venue lacks ceremony, and the intimacy of feeling like the performance is being performed for me.

When a live audience and a live performer are digitally distanced, and the performance that is created in the breach is documented and saved – is this still a theatrical event? It was noticeable that Edinburgh’s distanced audience and Stratford’s in-house audience laughed at different points within The Tempest, so what was lost (or gained) in digital translation? A German newspaper reviewed the stream of Beware of Pity as “exciting as a movie”, highlighting the strangeness of experiencing supposedly live art in the context of a film, and offering a curious kind of warning for what happens to performance once it’s removed from the present.

Free streams allow unprecedented access to elusive theatre events, but could they herald a change in how we value liveness? And which theatres can afford to stream for free? Can a close-up on Benedict Cumberbatch outweigh all these concerns?

Anyway, on the night I saw it, a real, live storm blew through Edinburgh and the connection to the RSC was lost. We missed the final five minutes of The Tempest. How’s that for theatrical irony?

About Katie

I research the impact of digital culture on the relationship between theatres and audiences, using Edinburgh and Berlin as case study cities. I see lots of plays, make awkward eye contact with other audience members, and then scrutinise post-show retweets. Outside of the library, I am a freelance journalist.

Article edited by Vicki Madden and Katie Goh

Works Cited
Auslander, Philip. Liveness : Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London; New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

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