Stuff that occurs to me

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Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

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Science in London: The 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Monday, 7 December 2020

Things I like about online theatre, via Zoom (there isn't anything I don't like!)

Last Sunday I was in a Zoom audience with 7,000 others (!) attending Lockdown Theatre's 'For One Knight Only', in aid of charity (Acting For Others). There were five thousand on the Zoom itself and 2,000 in the overflow room. They raised a lot of money. It was fantastic - here's a nice review in The Guardian.

This was the second Zoom theatre 'thing' I've been to during lockdown and I've really enjoyed them. In more usual circumstances I tend to go to the cinema more than theatre so am not really a 'theatre person', so bear that in mind when considering my points below (I can well imagine a theatre-goer or cast/crew person finding it a bit too different from what they prefer, and not 'real' enough.)

While online theatre could never entirely replace real life theatre I hope that some of the online infrastructure can remain once everything is back to normal.

Here's what I like about it -

  • Accessibility - people don't have to leave their house (or even get dressed) to see a theatrical performance from their living room. I can see this making things much easier for those who are less able to get out.

  • Accessibility - everyone has same experience - it doesn't matter where you sit, you can see and hear everyone clearly, on one screen (yours).

  • Bigger, wider audiences - time zones permitting you get to be in an audience simultaneously with people in other cities and even countries, this has been rather exciting actually! It seems like a potential way to reach more people, and engage a different audience.

  • Cost - while the ones I've been to haven't been particularly cheap (for charity) they are still considerably cheaper than London West End prices. I don't know how much the operating costs are (cameras, internet connections, ticketing).

  • Comfort - the seats are comfy with lots of legroom! Perhaps Deliveroo etc can adapt their 'Big Night In' snack bundles for theatre ;)

  • Comfort - you're muted so you can rustle your Maltesers as much as you like, eat boiled sweets noisily or nip to the loo without disturbing anyone other than your immediate household.

  • Differently social (audience) - you can chat with other attendees via the Chat function though this is perhaps a mixed blessing if you've not worked out how to hide it and don't want it scrolling like a Geek Chorus in the background.|

  • Differently social (actors) - the actors can also see each other on-screen (normally they'd be in their dressing room for chunks of the play or event so would miss stuff, though they can switch off their own video while waiting) 

Possibly some of these are disadvantages too. 

Perhaps the actors are quite delighted at a muted audience but also miss the normal audience responses (laughter, applause etc). It must be difficult to judge how anything is landing. 

Pros and cons are also mixed in terms of accessibility - it's cheaper and doesn't involve travel but I'm not sure how well it works for people who are Deaf, though live-captioning is coming along in leaps and bounds. Or perhaps if recorded then a watch-again-with-subtitles facility might work (though there's the risk that people wouldn't bother turning up at the allotted time and just watch it at leisure on YouTube). 

I've previously attended a performance of The Madness of George III which was performed live on stage at the Nottingham playhouse with footage beamed into a cinema screen in London. It combined cinema and theatre brilliantly, via the NT Live platform. That was quite a different set-up from Zoom though, with the actors performing the play as usual and cameras set up to point at the stage. With Zoom each performer talks directly to their laptop camera.

While I rather like the idea of future theatrical performances being performed live for the in-theatre audience and also live-streamed for an online-audience at home perhaps actors might not be so keen. You're not allowed to make recordings while you're in the theatre meaning that there's no record of the performance.

Also (as with watching things later on YouTube where a Zoom is recorded) I wonder if theatres might become emptier if too many people decide to stay at home and watch it later? Possibly it's not even that practical (and it would be different from Zoom as the actors would be acting on stage, and not to a laptop camera). The technology is already there and in use for the NT Live arrangements but I don't know if actors generally welcome having cameras pointed at them during the performance, though this certainly seemed to work well for the Madness of King George III.

Thanks to an excellent decision to follow Sanjeev Bhaskar on Twitter I discovered that he was taking part in a table-read performance of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound back in October. That led me to discover the existence of Lockdown Theatre which has been putting on a series of performances and events during lockdown to raise funds for theatrical charities.

I really enjoyed last Sunday evening's "For One Knight Only" which was a panel chat among Sir Kenneth Branagh (compere), Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith and Sir Ian McKellen.

As you can imagine it was a delightful and amiable hour and a half with a bunch of incredibly talented people who evidently enjoyed each other's company as much as we did. I suspect the chances of seeing them all together in one theatre, or even one TV chat show, are probably quite low during non-Covid times as they'll all be off doing their own thing, so this has been one advantage of everyone's life being paused.

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