With the pandemic restrictions came the impossibility of seeing live theatre together in a physical space. As a result, recorded theatre became extremely popular, with theatres all over the world broadcasting their shows online. This change attracted a lot of debate around whether filmed theatre is “real” theatre, and if it is theatre at all. It is not, however, a new form. Some of the early cinema experiments, such as Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), made substantial use of theatrical elements, resembling stage plays. Over the years, as technology developed, cinema evolved and became prominent, along with television. When theatre started appearing on television, Edward Wright wrote in his book A Primer for Playgoers (1958) that watching theatre at home:
[…] involves a greater degree of physical comfort than to come home weary from the day’s work, wash, dress, hurry, drive through heavy traffic, find a place to park, walk to the theatre, pay an ever-increasing admission, sit on the same seat for two hours, then fight traffic and arrive home very late. (Wright 1958: 222–3)
One could argue that the effort makes the experience more special or worthy. It could just as easily make it a waste of time, energy, and money, if the production is not up to the audience member’s standard or expectation. The inconvenience of the trip, along with ever-increasing ticket prices, has caused a decline in theatre attendance. Today there are many more people watching Netflix on their sofas than going to the theatre. Remaining theatregoers may be seeking escapism from screens but, at the same time, live performance has become more mediatized. The use of microphones is now common and many productions incorporate video projection. Theatre productions are being broadcast again, although they were already filmed for archive purposes.
My understanding of the importance of archives has been informed by an online course I attended in April/May 2020. Led by the Brazilian theatre critic, curator, and researcher Daniele Avila Small, the course centred on theatre critique and archive. The texts and group discussions helped me structure my arguments and knowledge on the subject. Along with the (perhaps obvious) reason that artists should be interested in preserving their work, there is also the recognition of the great value in allowing people access to that work. Archives are necessary for pieces of work to remain available for critique and dialogue: a sustenance that is not provided in theatre. A critic has to write about a performance shortly after seeing it, to keep memories reliable. The fading of memory removes artists’ work from the dialogue, burying it. Archives, on the other hand, are relation objects, alive and active. They also allow for re-enactments, such as Marina Abramović’s 2005 series Seven Easy Pieces, where she reproduces seminal performance pieces from the 1960s and 70s, and her later exhibition The Artist is Present, at MoMA in 2010, where young artists perform some of her own previous works. These accomplishments would not have been possible without archival records. Theatre relies heavily on playtexts for documentation, but such records do not transmit enough details of a specific production.
Many people, including art historians, maintain that performance should only be live as that is part of its essence or definition. Peggy Phelan explains that “Performance’s being becomes itself through disappearance” (Phelan 1993a: 146), and adds: “Performance honors the idea that a limited number of people in a specific time/space frame can have an experience of value which leaves no visible trace afterward.” (Phelan 1993a: 149). The romanticised idea that theatre should be ephemeral and only live in people’s memories is short-sighted. Memory will dissolve, the work will be forgotten, and dialogue will stop. On documentation, Herbert Molderings writes: “Whatever survives of a performance in the form of a photograph or videotape is no more than a fragmentary; petrified vestige of a lively process that took place at a different time in a different place.” (Molderings 1984: 172–3).
Undeniably, watching a recording is different from seeing the work “live” (in a physical theatre). Art and performance historian Amelia Jones, who studies performance and body art entirely through documentation, argues: “[…] while the experience of viewing a photograph and reading a text is clearly different from that of sitting in a small room watching an artist perform, neither has a privileged relationship to the historical “truth” of the performance […]”. Through archives and documentation, we can transcend time and space, and write about performances without having physically witnessed them. Indeed, we can write about performances that happened before we were even born. Recordings allow for a “Potentially infinite audience” as opposed to a “limited number of spectators” (Pavis 1992: 101). Filming theatre does not take away the value of seeing it live. On the contrary, it may add symbolic value if those watching it wish they were there.
In The Performativity of Performance Documentation, Philip Auslander gives the example of music as a form of art that can be both live and recorded. Listening to recorded music or going to a live concert are two different experiences, but is one of them in any way a “lesser” one? Perhaps exploring the question of “What is theatre?” may help us. Peter Brooks notably wrote that all that is needed for an act of theatre to happen is “a man who walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him” (Brooks, 1968: 7). If, in a recorded piece of theatre, the camera could be considered an audience, then what makes a piece of theatre and what makes a film? Why is Lars Von Trier’s film Dogville (2003), which takes place on a stage with minimal set, a film? Could the answer lie on the number of takes? We could argue that performing a show on a stage every night is similar to performing a number of “takes”. Besides, filmed pieces of theatre can be edited using different performances of the same show: different “takes”. Alternatively, we could ask what makes The Wooster Group or Katie Mitchell’s theatre productions, which incorporate film elements, theatre. Must there be a live audience for a work to be considered theatre? New performances that are filmed without a physical audience present appeared during the pandemic. Many complain that recorded theatre does not allow for interaction with an at-home audience but shows with a live audience often were already discarding that interaction. A phone rings, a baby cries, someone speaks to their friend obnoxiously loud; depending on the genre and type of production, some actors will carry on playing no matter what happens in the audience.
Another of the arguments against recorded theatre is the idea that it is boring. This is a valid reason, considering a lot of people are fed up with looking at screens and get easily distracted. It has been reported that watching a recording in the dark and using headphones helps with concentration and makes for the “best” experience. Nevertheless, I believe boredom is more related to the content than the medium. Lack of interest is a frequent state, even in a theatre room. Other people dislike having their focus directed, and thus argue that filmed theatre is limiting. In a Theatre Arts article, Mary Hunter defends that the spectator’s eye is always directed in theatre, equivalent to camera views (Hunter 1949: 47). Nevertheless, theatre in a physical space allows audience members the freedom to choose to go “against” the direction of focus. In 2020 there was a great deal of experimentation in this regard, especially in European theatre, with different camera angles and more than one view at the same time. Although experimentation is only beginning, it is relevant to note that filmed theatre is certainly not film; it does not wish to be film and does not use the cinematic language. The problem lies with audiences seeking the same experience of watching theatre “live” when watching a recorded piece, and thus ending up disappointed.
Like music, film can be experienced in different ways. The experience of watching a film at home is not the same as that of being in a cinema room. Thus, many people do both. Film was once a one-time event, taking place in cinemas or live on TV. Later, videotapes came along, then DVDs appeared, and now streaming services prevail. In his acclaimed book Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, Auslander writes: “Whereas film was once experienced as evanescence, it is now experienced as repetition. The crucial point is that this transition was not caused by any substantive change in the film medium itself.” (Auslander, 1999: 46). Can theatre also evolve in this way, without losing integrity? In reality, we could say that theatre already exists in different forms, in its relationship to published plays and dramatic texts. These records are not only a form of documentation, as mentioned above, but also hold value as literature.
With many theatres in the UK now offering an on-demand service, it is worth listing the benefits of watching theatre through a screen instead of directly on a stage. Firstly, there is no visible seat hierarchy. Theatres exacerbate the disparity between those who can afford to see the whole stage and be close to the action, and those who cannot. We often hear about the “shared experience” of being together in a physical space watching a live piece of theatre. Yet, where is that shared experience, when some can barely see the actors’ faces, and miss any action that does not take place centre stage? And even when watching the same play, on the same night, from a similar seat, can two different people ever share the same experience anyway? We may also ponder whether it is better to watch a recording of a show in the comfort of our own homes, or to do so on a theatre seat from which we have to bend our necks to barely see the stage. Furthermore, we may consider the quality of experience and ask whether it is better to see a worthwhile play on screen, one that moves us and stays with us long after, or one we regret going to in person.
In light of all the benefits of recordings, why do people still choose to go to the theatre to see live performances? Auslander notes “This is an important question usually addressed by resource to clichés and mystification concerning aura, presence, the “magic of live theatre”, etc.” (Auslander, 1999: 55). According to the author and professor, the answer lies in mediatization and symbolic value (to be able to say you were there). On the purpose of performance art documentation, he writes:
[Its purpose] is to make the artist’s work available to a larger audience, not to capture the performance as an “interactional accomplishment” to which a specific audience and a specific set of performers coming together in specific circumstances make equally significant contributions. […] I submit that the presence of that initial audience has no real importance to the performance as an entity whose continued life is through its documentation because our usual concern as consumers of such documentation is with recreating the artist’s work, not the total interaction. (Auslander, 2006: 6)
I disagree and suggest that there is something interesting about the relationship between the presence of a live audience in the recording and the spectators watching that recording. When there is an omission of the end applause and bows in a filmed show, I feel a sense of lacking. It poses an immense void, but why? Could it be that theatre, as an art form, exists in the final recognition of a present audience (physically or virtually)? Or in the celebration by the audience of the people that made possible the work they have just seen on stage? In my experience, hearing the audience’s laughs and gasps throughout the recording, and the claps and woos at the end, makes a notable difference. These expressions of emotions are heightened when in a room together, where the actors may feed off the audience’s energy. Perhaps the uniqueness of the experience lies in the closeness to the rest of the audience, creating a sense of community. A group of people having not a shared experience, but “an” experience, together and simultaneously. The curtain call is also an acknowledgement of that “togetherness”.
With the appearance of livestreams and Zoom performances, we have seen the potential for a different kind of “liveness” and audience interaction. At the end of Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, Auslander predicts a diminution of the value of live events due to mediatization. I argue that there are more prominent factors contributing to the withdrawal of audience members, the most significant being the increase in ticket prices. We may see the surge of new audiences, who watched a recording and would like to experience theatre “in real life”. It is likely that broadcasts will continue after the pandemic, although there is a necessary discussion to be had around paying royalties to artists. In this piece, I aimed to raise some questions on the value of recorded theatre as a medium going forward. There is something almost inexplicably special about being in a room together, and I hope we can soon return to physical theatres. But recorded theatre is certainly theatre, of its own form. Theatre is live, then becomes memory and is accessed through archive. There is no hierarchy in watching theatre: there are different, equally valid experiences that make theatre the “art of encounter”.
A Trip to the Moon (1902), directed by Georges Méliès.
Auslander, Philip (1999) Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. Routledge, Oxon.
Auslander, Philip (2006) “The Performativity of Performance Documentation”, in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, PAJ 84 (Volume 28, Number 3). Published by The MIT Press.
Brooks, Peter (1968) The Empty Space. Touchstone, New York.
Dogville (2003), directed by Lars Von Trier.
Hunter, Mary (1949) “The stage director in television”, in Theatre Arts.
Jones, Amelia (1997) ““Presence” in absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation”, in Art Journal. Vol. 56, №4. Published by CAA.
Jones, Amelia (2011) “The Artist is Present: Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence”, in TDR: The Drama Review 55:1 (T209). Published by The MIT Press.
Katie Mitchell: www.theagency.co.uk/the-clients/katie-mitchell
Marina Abramović: www.mai.art
Molderings, Herbert (1984) “Life is No Performance: performance by Jochen Gerz”, in The Art of Performance: A Critical Anthology. Gregory Battcock and Robert Nickas (eds). New York: E. P. Dutton.
Pavis, Patrice (1992) “Theatre and the media: specificity and interference”, in Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture. Loren Kruger (trans.). London, New York: Routledge.
Phelan, Peggy (1993a) Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London, New York: Routledge.
Seven Easy Pieces (2005), by Marina Abramović. Guggenheim Museum, New York City.
The Artist is Present (2010), by Marina Abramović. The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
The Wooster Group: www.thewoostergroup.org
Wright, Edward A. (1958) A Primer for Playgoers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.