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Making theatre in COVID-times

It is 17 March and I am standing outside Southwark Playhouse. It's slightly drizzling with rain, but I don't really feel it - I'm excited for the show we are putting on tonight with Director's Cut Theatre Company. Art From The Heart is a special show, where our company members bring their own heart's work, and it is always a joy to work with passionate and talented people on something special.

There are about 25 people around me, waiting for the venue to open. That's half of what we originally had planned, and it is no secret why. In fact, the new virus is the talk of the town, the country, and the world. I have had multiple conversations with the Director Cut Theatre Company artistic director Heather in the days leading up to the show about whether or not we should cancel. We decide to go ahead; all our creatives have worked so hard for this show, and we have a decent amount of tickets sold. We have an expecting audience.

The next day, the UK government decides to move into lockdown. Creatives are left scrambling to save their shows and courses and workshops - and unfortunately fail. The lockdown has a devastating effect on the arts in the UK and across the globe. Actors and directors lose not just their first job, but their second too - many working in the hospitality industry to pay the bills. We all huddle together and try to ride out the storm, but it's futile. Furlough, universal credit, and insurance schemes are needed to feed, house, and clothe my friends and fellow creatives.

But it's not all doom and gloom

In the first few weeks and months, the arts industry is in shock. Everyone's just trying to pay the bills and feed themselves and their families; creating art is a second priority to just surviving. We take to Skype and Zoom to stay in touch with each other, usually nothing more than just chatting about what's happening and what is to be done, and being together.

It is on one of those Zoom calls with the KDC Theatre committee that I decide I won't sit back and let things happen without at least trying to do-- something. Anything. If we can meet via Zoom, we can watch people act via Zoom. It takes a bit of convincing, but I get the KDC Theatre committee's backing to move the summer Full Stack show online.

It is the start of a lot of learning, experimenting, exploring, and adapting. But the writers, directors, and actors all embraced the new medium - and I am still grateful for their trust in me - and we staged a 90-minute live show for an audience, 3 days in a row. It's a fully produced show, specifically for the online medium - and it's a roaring success. The feeling is one of monumental achievement; we haven't just staged a live show in a medium we didn't know before, but we made art, for an audience!

The birth of a new medium

National Theatre Live starts releasing pre-recorded shows on Youtube for free - many theatre companies across the UK and the world follow suit. Broadway World in the US do the same thing - it's like having Netflix for theatre shows, and it is lovely to be able to "go to" the theatre for an evening.

It's not the same though; these shows are not made for an online stage. They are merely filmed on an actual stage and then streamed to an online platform. They are more like films than live theatre, but missing the usual close-ups. There's a lack of audience connection you would have in a venue, and the short attention span we have when online isn't conducive to making it feel like true theatre.

So what is true theatre? Better yet, do we need to chase "true theatre", whatever that is, in this new medium? By producing the KDC Theatre Full Stack show and a series of rehearsed readings for Director's Cut Theatre Company, I feel like the online theatre medium is a format somewhere between live theatre and film. For actors, it seems to feel like self-tapes they are used to doing for auditions. For directors, it feels like live editing a short film. For stage managers, it feels like building a website in an hour. All with a hidden, silent audience.

The online stage is not a film and it is not a theatre show. It is its own format, starting with of course the screen layout. There is no 3-dimensional set for actors to exist in, and audiences to look at. But there are close-ups and immediate scene changes. Actors are not in the same space together. Music and sound effects can be used only when actors are not speaking. Lighting is entirely dependent on the actors' surroundings. The audience is not only invisible but also silent; they is no feedback at all - no laughs, no gasps, no uncomfortable shifting, no shocked silences, no sniffles. And there is no shared experience of being in a space with other people having the exact same experience, often times with no way to replicate the experience.

As a director, the COVID pandemic has challenged me to adapt, despite struggling with the how. I have been very lucky to have the support of the various companies I work with, and the other creatives that were and are part of my projects. It has been difficult but fun, and I believe this new medium will stay around for a while - even after the worst of the pandemic ends. If for nothing else, online stages offer extremely cheap R&D and rehearsal opportunities.

But I can't wait to get back into a theatre venue, on an actual stage, with actual actors in the same space. Stay safe everyone, let's get the lights back up!