The Rise Of Digital Theatre Is A Chance To Remove Access Barriers
This was originally published in The Stage - article here: https://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/opinion/the-rise-of-digital-theatre-is-a-chance-to-remove-access-barriers-
I badly miss analogue theatre. At its best, the feeling of finding your seat before a show is like sitting down on a roller coaster - feeling the belt snap in and the machine lurch to life, that little burst of enjoyable panic, of not knowing what's about to hit you.
Lovers of analogue theatre, me included, often describe its unique power in terms of intimacy, collectivity, liveness - the sense that anything can happen once the performance begins, and that this is not true of film or TV. There is a habitual rhetorical opposition between screens and liveness, which persists no matter how many renowned directors use live video feeds, no matter how long-running nights like Beta Public (formerly at Camden People’s Theatre) complicate the boundaries between games, digital art, and analogue theatre.
The useful distinction, for me, is in how the work is designed. Was it built to be a piece of digital theatre, or is it something more makeshift, a screening of something that was never meant to be seen onscreen? The spontaneity of Coney’s new piece of Zoom theatre, Telephone, puts the lie to the idea that theatre onscreen is necessarily less live than other theatrical forms. Telephone is an interactive show built on a recurring set of images of love at a distance, and is sufficiently well-designed that the audience itself often contributes the most outlandish stories which are then woven into the show’s core. What could be more intimate?
I am also proud to say that my play Midnight Movie, about the internet and chronic pain, broke new ground for access at the Royal Court last year. It had a spectral component, which we called a digital body, which appeared for free during the last nights of the year in the inboxes of anyone who wanted, whether they’d seen the show or not. We wanted to create a version of the show without any access barriers, not even the barrier of having to be in the same room or having to make it to the theatre at a particular time. We are currently working on a follow-up digital body - watch this space.
The formal and political possibilities of mainstream theatre embracing the digital space are thrilling. How could you not be thrilled by live tweet-a-longs of major works of theatre meeting international audiences for the first time? The digital presentation of theatre that was only intended to be seen fleetingly, in the lonely singularity of one theatre, one room in one city, can feel like a vast levelling. The National Theatre has announced that their shows have been screened more than 12 million times since lockdown. That is an astonishing figure, worthy of celebration by anyone who loves this art form. And by the same token, it means there are so many people that theatre is waiting for, is meant for, is funded by, who for one reason and another cannot get into the room.