Going Viral: On Streaming Theatre in and after a Pandemic

Theatre is to be experienced live, streaming can merely be a surrogate. Not necessarily, our author claims. Examples from Britain and elsewhere show that the German theatre scene’s streaming bliss actually helps to spark a new interest in the art.

Haters gonna hate and in the middle of a pandemic, it’s not hard to hear the various frothing voices decrying the digitalisation of theatre. Online streams of performances are of course no substitute for the real deal – but nor do they have to be. They are still incredibly valuable to us as a theatre community and society as a whole. Recordings are artefacts of the past and snapshots of the present. They’re educational and entertaining. They’re stopgaps for theatre junkies and gateway drugs for the rest. Those who fail to see this and instead arrogantly call for theatres to stand as vacant temples of self-pitiful mourning during the current pandemic are too privileged to realise the benefits of streaming. They are luddites that history will not look favourably upon.

Loss and gain

Far from flogging off culture for free, as some would have it, providing complementary online streams is the logical conclusion of a heavily subsidised culture industry. It’s widely recognised that theatre as an artform cannot survive among the ruthless market forces of capitalism alone. That’s why it’s heavily funded by the state – because it has a cultural and political value far beyond some mere numbers on a balance sheet. In that respect, there’s always been something inherently anticapitalist about the theatre world. Providing streams that are available to everyone is merely consistent with that. By uploading recordings of past performances online, we aren’t devaluing theatre. We’re acknowledging that it can and should be accessible to everyone.

Of course, watching a pixelated stream on a 13 inch screen buffering in staccato is no replacement for the thrills of an analogue performance. Many elements get lost in translation, even if the absence of neighbour-induced sound effects is a welcome addition. Oh, the Benjaminian aura!

Actress Sandra Hüller as Hamlet, not yet downsized to a 13 inch screen © JU Bochum

A prime example from last year’s Theatertreffen is undoubtedly Christopher Rüping’s ten-hour antiquity marathon Dionysos Stadt. By hour nine, the mood was euphoric, if not a little giddy. There was an unspoken connection among the remainers that had  braved through the rhythmic tile smashes of the Trojan War and chuckled along to the side-splitting soap opera Oresteia: we had experienced something truly magical that bonded us as a collective – we were in a Dionysian delirium! By the end, even Nils Khanwald had lost his voice. In a recent interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Rüping said he longs for a theatre where both audience and artists truly encounter one another (begegnen). There couldn’t be a better example of this sentiment than Dionysos Stadt. As a result, it’s completely understandable that Rüping vetoed uploading a stream of the performance to the Münchner Kammerspiele’s on demand service.

Finally, we see and hear what those of you in the front rows have always taken for granted in theatre: the beads of sweat, the subtle smirks, the nuances in tone, the spit that flickers through rays of stage light.

But for all that gets lost along the way, streams enable those of us who spent years of our lives in the last row of the highest tier just to be able to afford tickets to a performance an unprecedented level of detail – when filmed well. Finally, we see and hear what those of you in the front rows have always taken for granted in theatre: the beads of sweat, the subtle smirks, the nuances in tone, the spit that flickers through rays of stage light. That’s not true of all recordings, granted. Some abrasively strip plays off their power through static camera angles and diluted expressions. But slouched behind our laptops or sprawled across the sofa in front of the TV, we are all equals.

Enter: the interweb!

The fact is: people won’t stop going to the theatre just because you can stream certain performances. They might even be more likely to go, having gotten a taste for the medium online. This might be hard for some fervent thespians to stomach: but our theatre bubble is a privileged, elitist and often inaccessible world. For many, the idea of going to the theatre is an unaffordable luxury. According to the sociologist Karl-Heinz Reuband at University of Düsseldorf, between four and six percent of the German population goes to the theatre and opera regularly. This figure has continuously sunk since the 90s and is made up disproportionately of people over 50 years old. Enter: the interweb!

Another interesting potential of streaming performances is cultural cross-pollination. The online programmes of European theatres have lit up the eyes of young theatremakers in Britain, who have taken to Twitter to wax lyrical about the German tradition of Regietheater. By contrast, Britain’s National Theatre in London is one of the only so far to provide a streaming service. Even the Wunderkinder of yesteryear like Schaubühne director Thomas Ostermeier, who after a long and successful career has long ceased to be viewed as the aesthetically radical enfant terrible he once was at home, are now eyed up hungrily by a new generation of Britain-based directors. In a conservative industry overly faithful to source texts, these practitioners long for a more experimental approach to theatre that grants directors more artistic freedom. Those looking for examples of this theatrical climate need look no further than this year’s Theatertreffen invitee Katie Mitchell and the at times hostile reception to her experimental, deconstructive modus operandi back in Britain.

Even during the pandemic, theatre continues to connect us…

This element of cross-cultural exchange motivated the Romanian-born, London-based director Alexander Istudor to set up a “European Theatre Club” on Twitter, where he and other industry professionals and theatre buffs watch a different stream from Germany, the Netherlands, Poland or beyond each week – chatting, debating and mulling over the performance online late into the night. “We try and watch productions of classic texts, because it’s a lot easier to notice what a production brings to something we already know”, Istudor explains via email. “There’s a real sense of community” – even if he is quick to stress that streams will never be able to replace the live experience of a theatrical event.

Similarly, the London-based theatre critic Natasha Tripney recently wrote in an article for Exeunt Magazine that archive recordings “can connect people in different ways, and it’s all we have for the moment. It can connect us with our cultural history and allow us to enjoy the performances of actors no longer with us. It can impart ideas, about life, art, and the systems we live in.” In her case, that means connecting with her Serbian roots and her family’s past – through streams from theatres like Belgrade’s Yugoslav Drama Theatre that touch on the traumatic history of the Balkans.

For all that’s lost through streams, a wealth is gained. Even during the pandemic, theatre continues to connect us – and in the era of social distancing, that’s exactly what we need.

Nicholas Potter

Nicholas Potter

Nicholas Potter, Jahrgang 1990, ist ein britisch-deutscher Journalist und Bühnenredakteur beim englischsprachigen Stadtmagazin EXBERLINER. Er schreibt über Kultur, Gesellschaft und Politik für die taz, die Jungle World und den Freitag. Seine Lieblingsthemen: Theater, Subkulturen, Gender und soziale Bewegungen. Seit 2019 ist er im Theatertreffen-Blog-Team.

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