Tiny Bricks’ As One demonstrates that live-streaming theatre is a whole new ballgame, says Ben Brooker
Note: spoilers within
I may as well start with a confession: I haven’t watched a lot of streamed theatre since the coronavirus lockdown began. I meant to. I was planning to watch Complicite’s much-lauded The Encounter, which I missed at the Adelaide Festival in 2017. Then there was the National Theatre’s Frankenstein, in both role-flipped versions and, closer to home, Griffin’s Lock-In, featuring five new Australian works “made for livestream”. Each time I was thwarted: by busyness or forgetfulness, by video conferencing fatigue and a housemate – an actor under ordinary circumstances – who regarded the prospect of settling in for a live-streamed play as marginally less appealing than poking his eyes out with hot sticks.
Ultimately, what has most often defeated my attempts to engage with streamed theatre is a kind of ambivalence (that, and finally getting around to watching Succession). It’s not that I don’t think the form is uninteresting or unworthy of experimentation. After all, I’ve participated in it myself as a writer and theatre-maker, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It’s more that, with nothing to mark the experience, and with only a formative framework of the demotic around it, these plays and performances seem to drift away, expendable, into a strange netherworld of COVID-19 time and internet space.
One of the more ironic features of all of this “innovation” is that with live-streamed performance we have to sit around and wait until the appointed moment for it to happen, as we did in the days of terrestrial TV. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan wrote that “movies hold a place in our life that’s different from that of books or television or music, because the act of leaving home and going into a theatre marks them in some way”. The same, I think, is true of plays. Without the ritual of relocating to a different physical space, or a clear contract for how to be in the space once we’re there, it’s hard to feel significant as a viewer of streamed theatre, like our remote presence has any bearing at all on what we’re watching.
My overwhelming experience of the streamed theatre I have watched so far is one of distraction and attention wandering. Unlike in the theatre, we can’t truly submit ourselves to the experience, not when email notifications keep popping up, or that tab we’ve had open for a month finally bites down on our attention. We haven’t trained ourselves to stare at a single thing on our computer screens for long periods of time – The Encounter, for example, runs for two hours – but to flit between one window and another, shallowly processing email after article after Twitter thread after Facebook message. With no real exchange happening between performer and audience, few if any of the flashy production values we are used to seeing in our screen media and none of social media’s ensnaring dopamine hits, there is nothing much to anchor us there except – for me at least – curiosity and a sense of obligation.
I’ve never thought there was as bright a line between “immersive” or “interactive” performance and other theatre as some critics maintain. I’ve seen those labels appended to plays that felt remote and uninvolving, and experienced “conventional” theatre that has overwhelmed me mentally and bodily. We know, too, that being in the same physical space as other people has observable physiological effects, such as the synchronisation of heartbeats.
Digital theatre-makers, of course, are aware of all this, and gesture at the losses that come with streaming. At its best, these gestures – like the by now familiar invitation for viewers to share the Indigenous name of the lands they are on via Zoom’s chat function – feel like genuine, and very welcome, innovations. At other times they seem tokenistic or like afterthoughts, as though establishing a connection with the audience were not one of theatre’s few imperatives. It seems to me that the breaking of the fourth wall is not an optional extra for theatre’s online counterpart, but critical to at least partly making up for the absence of a shared physical space. The broadcast model of streamed theatre, pioneered by Britain’s National Theatre and now replicated everywhere, can only ever give us an idea of what it might have been like to see a play in the flesh: it is not, and cannot be, the idea itself.
It’s a question, as much as anything else, of dramaturgy. Shakespeare’s plays are, in part, the way that they are because they were first performed in the highly specific context of England’s early 17th century theatres in which “groundlings”, paying one penny, got standing room only entry to “the pit” or “yard” immediately below the stage. It wasn’t uncommon for these audiences to vocalise their displeasure or boredom, or to react loudly to characters they did or didn’t like. For playwright or actor, pretending that the audience was not there – or that they did not come with their own physical and mental limits – was simply not an option.
Which brings me to the question: under the limitations of social distancing, how are we making theatre for online spaces, not just within them? In the rush to put content online – which, to be fair, has been substantially driven by the need to get money into the hands of artists who have lost gigs – the question has often felt secondary. The attitude of many theatre companies seems to have been “publish and be damned”, the work appearing, more than anything else, as part of the machinery of public relations, the maintenance of brand awareness a higher priority than artistic innovation or integrity. The controversial fact that much of this content has been made available for free has, I think, given something of a false sense of its benevolence. Yet interesting experiments in digital performance are happening and, unsurprisingly, most often on the fringes.
Last weekend – on a Sunday no less, and at 10.30 in the morning – I sat down to watch the third and final livestream of As One, a comedy “written for the theatre, directed for Zoom” by the writer-director team of Phillip Kavanagh and Nescha Jelk (known as Tiny Bricks). The play predates COVID-19 but was retrofitted to Facebook Live via Zoom once it became clear it wouldn’t be able to be produced IRL. (By the time I watched it on Zoom, the Facebook Live part had been abandoned, as apparently it kept scrambling the play’s carefully choreographed video layout.)
It felt like the kind of experiment I’d been waiting for, one that might make interesting dramaturgical play of Zoom’s features – so often flattened by their functional use in work meetings – and, perhaps, reveal its potential as a medium for performance. In my mind I’d imagined something like a 21st century Rear Window, audience members able to voyeuristically swoop in and out of different screens and stories, the unfolding drama a patchwork of intrigue and revelation. Maybe we’d be able to chat to the characters or to each other, comment on the action or even shape it in some way. In hindsight, I think my expectations were unreasonable. After all, the play was directed for the medium, not written for it. As a result, it ended up feeling more like a hybrid than anything else, a not entirely comfortable halfway house between the digital and the corporeal.
The outlandish plot sees six characters, brought together through a complex web of relationships, together on a plane to Hawaii. They end up on a desert island where their existing tensions devolve over the course of six years into increasingly absurd tribalism (the title is, of course, ironic). Kavanagh’s last play with Tiny Bricks, Deluge, also betrayed the writer’s fascination with multiple, interweaving narratives.
In the play’s early stages, I found it difficult to follow its various threads – Beth, a teacher, has a student who is an anti-abortion activist, whose friend is an Instagram influencer, who is the girlfriend of the son of a recently-deceased businessman, who is also in a relationship with the teacher, and so on – but I put this down to the medium rather than the writing, which is shrewd and funny in its gently excoriating portrait of middle Australia. It must be a tough gig for the actors, performing in isolation and without the presence of a physical audience, and I think it shows; only James Smith and Rory Walker are able to muster the energy, from god knows where, to do justice to the play’s pushed-up, highly theatrical style.
For most of the play, two actors appear on separate screens – their eye-lines precisely choreographed to match up – while a third screen below them, in one of Jelk’s most astute touches, displays a contextualising close-up or scenic image that almost manages to trick the eye into seeing one, seamless whole. Otherwise the medium is perhaps most effectively used in the service of a montage, during which the actors manually cover their cameras when they don’t want to be seen, and during the original songs (by Will Spartalis) that punctuate the action like viral videos, the actors’ mouths filling multiple screens like an internet age version of Beckett’s Not I.
Despite these pleasures, at one hour and forty-five minutes the play starts to drag. I found my attention waning before the ten-minute interval, and had to claw it back again to make it through to the end. Again, I suspect this is a problem inherent to a medium we are ill-equipped to engage with in a focussed way, and ended up wondering if the play might have worked better as a web series, or even a much shorter teaser for when the work is finally realised in the flesh. I also kept being pulled out of the experience: by audible prompts to one of the actors; the poor sound quality – an endemic issue with laptop microphones made worse by the heightened performance style – and by various technical issues (at one point, the play had to be stopped to reorder the actors’ screens).
It’s still too early to say whether streaming platforms will remain part of our theatrical toolkit once social distancing has ended. As I’ve written before, I think they’re a potential boon for audiences with access issues. They may also become increasingly appealing as the climate crisis deepens, making fossil fuel-based transport and other forms of consumption a moral question. For the moment, our use of them as theatre-makers remains in its infancy. We weren’t prepared for a global shutdown of the theatres and are, as the old saying goes, building the plane at the same time as flying it (and desperately trying, like the hapless suburbanites of As One, not to crash it). And we haven’t yet thought deeply enough about theatre as ritual; a process of enriching our relationship to things to which the internet, in its ubiquitousness and superficiality, seems almost antithetical.
It may be that these early experiments falter and are forgotten, or that they affect no more than an enhanced appreciation of the live – no bad thing, perhaps. But the history of theatre is nothing if not a record of invention and reinvention, of our entanglement, through choice and necessity, with each new social and technological shift. While they may prove exhausting, the possibilities of streamed theatre are surely far from exhausted.
As One, written by Phillip Kavanagh, directed by Nescha Jelk. Assistant directed by Rachel Burke, designed by Meg Wilson, composition and sound design by Will Spartalis. Performed by Kathryn Adams, Shabana Azeez, Yasmin Gurreeboo, Jacqy Phillips, James Smith and Rory Walker. Tiny Bricks, June 5-7.