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Ask Lyn: Is Online Theatre Really Theatre?

Ask Lyn: Is Online Theatre Really Theatre?

Ask Lyn: Is Online Theatre Really Theatre? cover photo on Stagedoor
"Dear Lyn, is online theatre really theatre?" - Not quite sure, Tooting

Dear Not quite sure,

I think the best way to answer this question is with another question: what is it that theatre could and might be? Theatre changes and evolves all the same, and if it didn’t it would be deader than my great aunt Cecily’s stuffed parrot.

When I have written about some of my theatre experiences, such as sitting on a woman’s knee and having baby food spooned into my mouth, or communing with a pig, or climbing through a wardrobe and finding myself in a maze offering a series of Alice in Wonderland-ish one on one encounters, the self-appointed culture police (and I’m very sorry to say, some arts editors) have shaken their heads sorrowfully and said: “oh, but Lyn, that’s just not theatre.” Please guys, use a little imagination. Theatre is not all just sitting in rows in plush red velvet seats watching people pretending to be other people and shouting in the dark. It can be that, and that can be a total joy, but it can be so much more too.

Can a show with no actors but only a playing audience still be called theatre? Of course it can, if we think of theatre not as something fixed but ever-expanding like the universe itself. Theatre is not one thing, it is infinite possibilities. It is people sitting around a fire telling stories to ward away the dark and it is the great tragedies of Greek theatre and it is playing an on-line adventure such as Coney’s The Delegation or being creeped out by Darkfield Double [pictured above].

Now, of course, watching Hamilton on-line is not the same as watching Hamilton in the theatre, and its futile to pretend that it is. But that doesn’t mean that Hamilton on-line is a lesser experience than Hamilton in the theatre. It is just different. I sometimes think about it as being like the difference between fresh peaches and tinned peaches. Similar but not the same, but both delicious in their own ways. I don’t think that if you’ve seen Hamilton on-line you feel any less desire to see it live when it eventually returns to the West End. In fact I rather suspect it fuels desire.

I agree that in the current circumstances when we are starved of live theatre, it can sometimes feel as if digital theatre is just a substitute until we can all get safely back inside theatres. But if, during the early days of the pandemic, it sometimes felt a bit like a free for all theatrical jumble sale in which theatres and companies cleared their dusty shelves of all the things that they had filmed at same point in 2002 and the erased from their memories, more recent months have seen many theatre makers exploring the possibilities (both creative and financial) of new mediums in which to make theatre and new platforms on which to distribute it.

Had you thought that theatre could be delivered to you by post? Down the telephone? Via text message or Instagram? Me neither, but new writing companies such as Paines Plough and New Perspectives are experimenting with doing just that, and the results are often intriguing, and they provide much-needed employment to the many freelance theatre-makers who have been living on thin air since theatres shut down.

So, Not Quite Sure, the short answer to your question about whether on-line theatre is really theatre is: forget the labels, poke around Stagedoor App’s Streamdoor section and the live event listings and take a chance on something which you may not categorise as theatre but which may just blow your mind.

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Written by

Lyn Gardner

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