If the world’s a stage, play on

Performing arts are as old as civilisation, but they have also evolved with time. As we become consumed by customised digital content, will the pure form of theatre survive?



By Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Sat 8 Jan 2022, 10:16 PM

During the pandemic lockdown of 2020, as actors worldwide neither had the stage nor the audience to perform, Dubai’s very own theatre arena, The Junction, swung into action. It arranged monologue evenings, bringing them all online. The audience was muted, and actors gave live performances via Instagram, Facebook, and Zoom.

Gautam Goenka, The Junction’s co-founder and artistic director, describes the phenomenon as the “fusion of two mediums”. Goenka goes back in time to narrate the build-up to a convergence of this scale. Almost two years ago, The Junction was involved in a play with a French group where parts of the performance happened in France and Dubai. The two were then digitally merged.

“Similarly, the Italian embassy asked us to participate in a digital and live collaborative project tying up the UAE, Italian, and Israeli 
performers to celebrate the Abraham Accords,” he says.

Going by Goenka’s experiences, the fusion of live and digital mediums is becoming mainstream and, “in terms of the possibilities that exist, the sky is the limit in this new age”. Gautam leads the largest and most active community theatre group in the UAE — called 
H72 Productions.

He cites another engaging lockdown experience. “When the doors were shut, we filmed a performance of Romeo and Juliet where every actor filmed their parts sitting in their homes,” he says.

But is fusion the exception or the norm? Or is it a sign of things to come for a performing art that has survived ages? Or is it merely adapting to changes technology is bringing about? Goenka, working in the UAE as a director, producer, and actor for over 20 years, says theatre has historically been an art form that adapts itself, and that’s what it needs to do.

A ‘pure’ art form

Alex Broun is another illustrious name in Dubai’s theatre community. The award-winning Australian playwright and screenwriter is one of the world’s most performed 10-minute playwrights. He has had more than 100 different 10-minute plays produced in over 1,500 productions, in more than 40 countries. Broun believes nothing replaces the sense of community when people gather to share a story.

“The collective experience of live theatre can never be replaced or outmoded,” he says, adding that the over-the-top (OTT) platforms and digitalisation have affected films more than theatre. “Why do you need to go to a cinema when you get the same experience watching on a screen at home or on your laptop lying in bed? But the experience of seeing someone live in front of you in a theatre can never be replicated at home,” he says.

Digitalisation will never replace raw art forms such as dance, theatre, and even sculpture as there is “something pure about the human connection unimpeded by technology”. Broun predicts that technology fatigue will eventually result, and people will want more human and earthy experiences. “You may see a rise in ‘poor theatre’ as established by legendary Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, theatre that eschews elaborate lighting, sets, and costumes to get back to the pure art of storytelling and bodies in space,” says Broun.

So, what makes a live performance so intoxicating? For some, it is the experience of witnessing an actor at the height of their craft, embodying a character to such a depth that they become the character. Broun calls it the “pre-act of transformation”, which technology can never replicate. “Great stories, great roles, great plays will forever endure as there will always be actors who want to act them, directors who want to direct them, and audiences who want to watch them,” he says.

Broun has the most evocative example to illustrate this phenomenon — live performances like the Theatre of Digital Art (TODA), where the actor, in this case, Juan Mario Silva, performs in an immersive background of Vincent van Gogh’s painting. Going by the Metaverse versions of digital space, watching a theatre performance in a shared digital space is not much of a stretch.

Technique and technology

Thirty years after Saif Hyder Hasan fudged his high school mark sheet to hide his failure, he has written two books, three television soaps, 14 plays, and directed eight of them. He has also directed two films. Those early adventurous days gave him a glimpse of the drama called life and made him decide he wanted to be a storyteller. No wonder Hasan found theatre as the best medium for it.

“Theatre has a different grammar and survives in the present moment,” says Hasan, adding that the theatre audience can smell the actors and vice versa. “It is a three-way movement from actor to the audience to the actor, and then back to the audience. No other storytelling format has these dynamics,” he asserts. Like most of those associated with theatre, Hasan admits technology is essential to survive and thrive.

“Theatre has to communicate with an audience extremely aware of what’s happening in the world of entertainment,” he says. According to him, performers must narrate stories using today’s tools. “Otherwise, content creators will become redundant and harp on the loss of raw theatre. Even raw theatre was done with the tools of its day and age,” says Hasan, who has produced and directed the film Yes Papa, which is in post-production.

Hasan associates digitalisation with digital transmission and points out that a substantial digital interplay is already happening in 
theatre. “Lights and sound are operated 
on digital boards, and the operator just has to push a button. We use methods like reverb and delay in sound,” he explains. The bottom 
line is: digital interplay already plays a massive role in the performance and mounting of 
a production.

If digitally transmitting a play is akin to losing quality, the art form will indeed lose its intrinsic charm. “I don’t think that should happen or will happen because, at the end of the day, you have a digital interface and an actor in front of you,” he says, reiterating that the charm of live performance will always be there. “People anticipate a performance. They dress like it’s a wedding or an occasion.”

Hasan also distinguishes between what is digitally possible and what is not. For him, the closeup in a digitally transmitted performance is not the same as a closeup in a digital movie. “The audience is not going to appreciate a digitally transmitted show because the quality is not going to be similar to a Netflix show or a movie. And, if you transmit or adapt it or give it cinematic dimension, then it is not going to be a play anymore,” he says.

Streaming musicals and more

Actor, director, and theatre specialist, Dr James P Mirrione was the playwright-in-residence 
for the Creative Arts Team (CAT), the resident educational theatre company at New York University (NYU) from 1978 to 2005. He has taught in China, the UAE, the Middle East, and the United States. Dr Mirrione cites the National Theatre in London as the “vanguard institution” providing valuable digital streaming of plays during the pandemic.

He laments that because of the shutdown’s length, the lines between the higher standards of theatre and “the flotsam and jetsam of purely diversionary streaming platforms” began to blur. “The apex of this conflation of aesthetics, between what the audience experiences when watching a live show as opposed to what is felt during a home viewing, occurred when the Broadway-bound show Diana: The Musical was presented on Netflix in November 2021,” he says.

According to Dr Mirrione, filmed with no audience attending and using the technology for theatre filming, the net effect was to dilute whatever impact the genre could have achieved if it was presented in its pre-pandemic form. “More worrying was that by resorting to streaming the work as a financial manoeuvre to recoup monetary losses, it did nothing to improve the genre or reputation of musical theatre. It became one more forgettable televised product,” he says.

Amid the deluge of digitalisation, Dr Mirrione is more concerned about “a sedentary global culture”, especially in the developed world. He posits that the pandemic has allowed us a proxy to be anti-social and exclusionary about our surroundings. “Theatre is a public spectacle. The frisson one experiences, when surrounded by fellow citizens while watching a live performance cannot be matched by the digitalisation of human interaction. It [digitalisation] only serves to increase our sense of alienation from one another,” he asserts.

Dr Mirrione is a Luddite when it comes to the overuse of digital and live mediums, stressing the need for the right balance. He cites another example, the Broadway show Network, which adapted the movie into a play. “It sought to recreate the bombastic style of televised journalism within the context of a live drama on the stage,” he says, claiming that when used well, it can further the plot and actions. “However, when it is employed as an excuse to supplant drama with visuals, then the effect is that of pandering to the lowest common denominator,” he sums up rather succinctly.

‘A good story’

Travelling writer, filmmaker, and storyteller Alison Richards now basks in her new 
avatar as founder and creator of Film Co-Op, a hybrid of traditional studio and indie production houses. She still prefers live events despite dealing with videos and films for over 35 years. “We got swept away by special effects and digital technology, but the bottom line is a good story with universal audience appeal,” she says.

Real stories showcase the human spirit for Richards, and the trick nowadays — as 
Saif Hyder Hasan asserted earlier — is to present using the best tools available. She illustrates her point with her most happening fusion experience in which a Sketch Comedy Group formed with a comedy writer from 
CBC Radio. “They took the radio format scripts and worked them into sketches for live shows,” she says. Her rationale behind the experiment is self-explanatory. “Genuine interaction with an audience is the greatest high a performer can achieve. No technology can top that,” Richards says.

Theatre specialist Dr James P Mirrione seems to have the most appropriate diagnosis in this live vs digital debate. For him, the technological digitalisation of everything we encounter daily only serves to keep us distracted. “We swipe, tune out, change the channel, and look away with ever-shorter attention spans. This is not progress; this is regression,” Dr Mirrione sums up the drama encompassing the theatre world.


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