Press play: Is virtual theatre just what we need?

For the world of theatre, the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have been immeasurably dire. With gatherings of more than a few people banned around the globe, the entire industry has ground to a halt. Theatres have been left untouched for almost six whole months.

This unprecedented time has therefore led to a re-evaluation of our theatre consumption habits, shifting us towards virtual (and therefore risk-free) methods of viewing drama.

For many, this shake-up has understandably been quite a shock. Concerns grew as to whether virtual theatre is a valid way to consume drama, compared to physically attending a performance.

As a long-time watcher of virtual theatre, however, I believe that not only is it just as effective as the bona fide theatrical experience, but that it can actually be more fulfilling than watching a live performance.

My experience with virtual theatre began three years ago, when I decided to take Drama and Theatre Studies at A-Level – A core component of which is the viewing and analysis of live theatre. There was just one problem. After completing high school, my family relocated to Tokyo, where, as you can probably imagine, English-language productions were few and far between. 

Enter virtual theatre.

Digital Theatre Plus, a repository of British plays filmed especially for online consumption, gave me the opportunity to have the same experience as any other drama student. I could view theatre, without the disadvantage of living abroad. Not only this, but I could watch amazing productions from the comfort of my classroom. No travelling to a theatre. No searching for tickets. No waiting in lines. Just instant drama, beamed directly to my computer screen. 

Moreover, instead of being limited to what was being performed at the time, I had access to a catalogue of decades worth of plays, allowing me to broaden my theatrical acumen to a far greater degree than students in the UK who would only be able to watch the select few productions being performed at any given time.

Patsy Ferran describes her relationship with a challenging character. Watch more actors on the link above.

Convenience is far from the only virtue of digital theatre. I believe it can, in fact, augment the theatrical experience.

Now, this might seem somewhat counterintuitive. How could watching a piece of drama virtually be better than actually being there? How could seeing the story unfold on a screen possibly compare to seeing it unfold mere feet away from the actors?

Well, as with any form of literature, drama is always far more than just what the author has written on the page. Every sentence has a plethora of meanings, every character has countless possible motivations, every object or location could be a symbol of something far greater than it appears. This is especially true in theatre where lighting, sound, set and performance add to the words on the page, coming together to tell a greater story.

Additionally, when you’re watching live theatre, that greater story can sometimes pass you by. Immersive as it is, theatre can often sweep you away, constantly pushing onwards without giving you a chance to reflect on what you’ve just seen, to dwell on and ponder the greater implications of each scene as you might when reading a novel.

With virtual theatre, this is not the case. Scenes can be re-watched again and again, rewound, re-examined and re-contextualised over and over. You can press pause to give yourself a chance to think, or to look closer at what’s happening on stage. Lighting, sets and facial expressions can be examined in intricate detail, the symbolism and significance of each closely explored.

The play thus becomes more meaningful, rather than something to simply be watched and forgotten.

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Here’s what’s happeninggggg

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‘Theatre Without Theater’ compiles a list of relevant live steaming performances every week.

Ultimately, while nothing can truly compare to the visceral excitement of sitting in a darkened theatre, waiting for the lights to come up, the curtain to rise and the story to begin, virtual theatre isn’t a bad alternative at all. After all, it’s still a way of escaping our busy lives for a while and diving into a story.

And, in trying times like these, a little escapism is just what we need.

By Daniel Mansfield

Image by Nick Bolton

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