Live theatre: has it found a footing on a platform instead of a stage in Zoom-laden times?

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare By The Bow, Hit & Myth, Theatre Calgary. Screen shot.

By Liz Nicholls,

A lifetime ago (March 25, 2020 to be precise), Malachite Theatre’s resourceful artistic director Benjamin Blyth explained to me that the company had borrowed an interactive online platform from the business world for a new venture.

On Shakespeare Sundays, an international assortment of artists and audience members would gather for a Zoom reading and discussion of a Shakespeare play, starting with Richard II.  Zoom was a word we were destined to hear over and over, noun and verb. 

Two weeks earlier, live theatre here and everywhere had shut down completely — with bone-rattling immediacy, sometimes mid-run, even mid-rehearsal. Along with its traditional raison d’être as a kinetic interaction of real people occupying a real space together, theatre artists (actors, directors, writers, designers, artisans, backstage crew) lost their jobs and their livelihood to the pandemic. Productions, festivals, whole seasons got cancelled, or punted into the distant future. 

Faced with this (continuing) industry-wide devastation, our theatre practitioners, ever-resourceful, were amazingly quick to wrap their wits around the challenges of exile from their usual shared habitat.

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As the Fringe and an ever-expanding coterie of site-specific artists have always demonstrated, live theatre can flourish in all kinds of spaces, from specially designed theatre venues to public streets, parks, parkades, church halls, clubs, hotel rooms…. Who knew, though, that live theatre would find itself trying to find its footing on a platform instead of a stage? Or that the video screen would be a theatre venue, and not just a design element or a prop in a production? 

Since that fateful moment in March, like you I’ve seen all kinds of video-ed performances, staged readings, rehearsal shots, workshops, seminars, out-takes, cast reunions, highlight excerpts, sing-alongs, chat-rooms, interviews — all online. You have to admire the questing spirit in every case; theatre artists have had to learn as they go. But some, I have to say (under the cone of understatement), are considerably more engaging than others, and more inventive at using digital platforms. And, increasingly, as theatre gets the hang of working on unfamiliar terrain and grapples with the un-theatrical  concept of distancing, more are playful, ingenious, provocative.   

As the weird prospect of a Fringe-less August approaches, it’s a moment to reflect on some of Edmonton theatre’s most intriguing experiments in tapping the shared imagination of artists and their audiences in new and unfamiliar ways.

The most successful, I think, find some resonance in using the online platform (in all its fits and starts) to explore the alienating effects in modern culture. Mac Brock’s Tracks, which ran in May, was one. Specially created for an interactive digital platform, it was live-streamed each night of the run. So: nine young artists, in home “theatres” rehearsing alone on Zoom, filming themselves in solo scenes of their own device, casting light at a variety of oblique angles on what it means to make art.

A home set-up for Tracks. Photo supplied.

As its title suggests, the show, put together by director Beth Dart, was an audience adventure in choosing a route, and putting the pieces together into a sort of group portrait. Fascinating — not least since the play actually was in synch with the constraints of the platform: the isolation of artists, solitary in their individual habitats, was part of the point. 

 The ongoing Citadel’s [esc] Series is an invitation to E-town theatre artists to explore online storytelling. Pitch, Please, in June, was set by its collaborators Paul Blinov, Christine Lesiak, Suzie Martin and Andrew Paul in the pandemic world, constructed of a hilarious series of panicky brainstorming phone calls between two pals. They’re struggling madly to come up with the digital performance piece they had blithely pitched as “a multi-disciplinary synthesis of harmony and discord that dramatizes comedy and finds dark humour in grave stoicism, bringing together parodic reimaginings of both precise order and careful chaos as it separates its permanence from the concept of impermanence itself.” Very funny. Their rejects are a hoot.  

Double-Bubble, a three-part rom-com (from Amiel Gladstone, Rachel Peake and Amy Lynn Strilchuk) was set in, and about, the pandemic age of online wine and dinner dates. It followed the awkward romantic fortunes of two mid-period people whose lives are complicated not only by distancing but by the intrusion of other generations. The quartet of actors, incidentally, included two stellar theatre family pairings, George Szilagyi and his daughter Rain Matkin Szilagyi, and Kate Ryan and her mother Maralyn Ryan.   

Girl Brain. Photo by Brianne Jang, BB Collective Photography.

Via the fractured-screen landscape of Zoom, Die-Nasty re-worked its ‘golden age of vaudeville’ season as an online radio show for all its episodes, from mid-March on. The online world was both the playground and the frequent target for the queer comedy duo Gender? I Hardly Know Them in their recent online sketch show httpeepee. The new series of Girl Brain YouTube videos are comedy sketches about, and set in, dating and relationships in the tech-fraught socially-distanced Age of Zoom. Since online dating has always been a prime target of their sassy humour, adding another frame so that we watch them onscreen watching their cellphone dating apps, is a natural (have a peek at Plenty of Men With Fish on their YouTube channel.

You have to be resolute to ignore the possible oxymoron in the term ‘online festival’. Nextfest, the influential celebration of emerging artists at Theatre Network, moved its entire 25th anniversary edition online, with mainstage shows that (mostly) favoured the monologue over dramatization).

The mighty Edmonton Fringe, prototype for all the North American fringes, pulled the plug mid-April on its no-longer-upcoming 39th annual edition. To console us they’re producing a monthly (then quarterly) series of Fringe Revues, variety/talk shows featuring assorted Fringe artists in performance and conversation (episode 2, a blend of live and pre-recorded segments, opens Saturday night).

Rapid Fire players, rehearsing on Zoom from their own homes.

Matt Schuurman, artistic director of Rapid Fire Theatre (a notable video designer himself),  long our most online-savvy company, mused to 12thnight in April that success in the pandemic theatre world won’t come by trying, however valiantly, to reproduce traditional stage plays on screen — even if you could figure out how to rehearse them at a safe distance. It’ll come by playing with and enjoying the things that video-conferencing does make possible — close-ups, magical entrances and exits, changes in setting. There is fun to be had, he argued. And RFT has the archive of experiments to prove it.

Watching an hour-long online Romeo and Juliet (Theatre Calgary, Shakespeare by the Bow, Hit & Myth) last night, (the actors are distanced, in Edmonton and Calgary) I was reminded of Schuurman’s advice. Haysam Kadri’s modern-dress emerging artist production starts with the thought that R&J is a tragedy of crossed wires. Shakespeare’s lovers are not just star-cross’d, but message-cross’d and screen-cross’d, in a plague-riddled world of mixed signals and distanced communications gone awry. And the show plays with a whole arsenal of technology to match — texting shorthand and emojis,  Facetime, Zoom-like split screens of Romeo and his buddies Benvolio and Mercurio in their respective bathrooms getting spruced up for a night out. “Where are you?? Dude? At your father’s house?” @benvoli_bro wants to know, via text. The eight-actor cast (there’s a cameo by Mayor Nenshi, and Hawksley Workman does the Prologue) are  distanced, in Edmonton and Calgary.

The Capulets’ masked ball is … masked. And the removal of masks (after hand-sanitizing) for a real kiss (the excellent Zach Running Coyote and Anna Dalgleish are real-life partners) becomes that rare thing in R&J productions, genuinely monumental, irreversible, fateful.

The fight scenes are virtual-reality cartoons. There’s detailed work in connecting gestures across screens, so a ring tossed in one is caught in another. The plague and quarantine, not “ancient feud,” provide the stakes. But the trouble with cellphone technology in any Romeo and Juliet is, of course, that it fatally breaks down the storytelling. In a culture of messaging, why on earth is there a tragic problem in relaying the crucial info about Juliet’s sleeping potion? What, are all cellular networks down in Mantua? Why is someone delivering print info? Anyhow, apart from that the production is inventive, entertaining, and savvy.   

As you’ll doubtless have discovered by now, full-bodied screen versions of productions, large or small, that actually capture live theatre energy and dimensionality aren’t a dime a dozen. Dimes have nothing to do with such starry, big-budget multi-camera affairs as the free offerings from the vaults of London’s National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, or in this country the Stratford Festival. Here, that kind of money (or prescience) for multi-camera fully-directed productions hasn’t been available. Without it, filmed versions of stage productions can look awfully flat, inert, stop-gap, a bit like vegan cheese, so to speak.

The Old Vic, incidentally, has opted for a different kind of solution. Witness a recent revival of Lungs, a two-hander performed by stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith on its bare stage in the empty theatre. The distancing of the two actors onstage was a perfectly judged reflection of the emotional distances of two people in a flawed world. 

Anyhow, four months (and counting) into this strange Zoom-laden time, the appetite for live theatre can’t quite be satisfied in onscreen transplantations. And theatre artists, our specialists in creative solutions, are devising platform hybrids, and welcome live antidotes to screen fatigue.

Nicole St. Martin, Michael Bradley and son Luc in Chamber Obscura, Found Festival 2020. Photo supplied.

Can you be homesick for going out? At the Found Festival, always a repository of bright ideas, Chamber Obscura had a theatre family trio (Michael Bradley, Nicole St. Martin and their son Luc) performing a 15-minute gothic folk tale for you live as a drive-in — for and your COVID vehicle-mates, one car at a time.

Lodestar Theatre will deliver a production from their menu direct to your backyard (they started with A Midsummer Night’s Dream in July, and are adding a double bill every two weeks). Similarly, in Road Trip, the Citadel will bring you and your distanced friends, live, a 40-minute set from one of three pairs of Edmonton musical stars (Farren Timoteo and Jennifer McMillan, Oscar Derkx and Jameela McNeil, or Chariz Faulmino and Steven Greenfield).

It takes thinking big to make theatre small. When live theatre returns, those lessons in distanced intimacy (an oxymoron for our time) won’t be lost. 


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