Most endeavours worth doing have some trial and error. This is evident in the current attempts at salvaging some form of theatre during the pandemic. Necessity is the mother of invention, and certainly, necessity has never been felt more strongly for the performing arts communities. But not all inventions meet the mark. So what exactly are theatre companies doing in the ongoing pandemic, and what’s actually working?
The most abundant efforts across the board seem to be adapting to a digital medium. We were treated to gorgeous archival footage from the National Theatre throughout the beginning of the pandemic, but those performances are no longer being streamed. Other companies have been putting in the leg work to establish a means of digital distribution, such as Nova Scotia’s Neptune Theatre who recently launched their Neptune At Home platform. While still in its infancy, it offers both older and newly created content with the aims of continuing to create more for it. Time will tell how it pans out, but this focus on putting out new content scratches an itch that archival footage simply can’t.
For non-regional theatres and companies, their resources and capabilities are inherently less during this time. Not everyone can afford to craft a new platform that can wow audiences in the same way. But this hasn’t stopped indie theatre practitioners from getting their cameras and laptops together for streamed readings as well as plays specifically made for avenues like Zoom. There’s certainly a novelty to it, and perhaps the connection felt by audiences to these performances is enhanced by the sheer lack of usual opportunities for it. But it feels these methods won’t have great longevity. While it certainly doesn’t need to be argued that what is being done is still theatre, the content has been so informed by this context and the execution has oft been so patchy that it is hard to see these methods holding their place.
With the pandemic’s presence varying so greatly from region to region, some areas have been able to see a return to live performances. National Theatre is slated to return to performances on October 21st with Death of England: Delroy for limited group seating. Centaur Theatre in Montreal held a miniature theatre festival on their steps with the Portico Project but unfortunately was ended early as the city returned to a dangerously high number of cases. And countless other theatre companies have been able to use outdoor performing spaces and social distancing measures to make live theatre during the pandemic still possible. It is certainly a case-by-case basis, and it may not be the traditional experience, but we are seeing some careful return of the theatre experience we’ve been missing.
While all of these approaches have their own merits and downsides, and certainly not all options are accessible to all practitioners in all areas, one thing seems to unite theatre during the pandemic- the stories being told. This year has absolutely had insurmountable grief and decades of social injustice boiling over, all on top of a frightening global event. But this has highlighted what has mattered most to storytellers, and that is human connection. In the vast majority of pared-down theatrical content being presented today, it is the human endurance of hardship and the common need of speaking truths, understanding, and togetherness that has been shining through. And in that way, we have never been closer to the true seed of theatre.