As I sit in a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt at my desk watching pre-recorded productions of plays, I wonder if the magic of theatre has disappeared during the pandemic. Of course, the pre-pandemic version of theatre cannot exist with coronavirus cases in the country at an all-time high, but I still wonder how theatre companies can respond to the pandemic while keeping the magic of theatre alive. I also appreciate how dedicated some universities and theatre companies are to put on in-person productions, but are the risks of these types of shows really worth the final product?
While the increased accessibility of theatre during the pandemic is great for the art form as a whole. It still has me wondering if the disappearance of the physical community of the theatre is responsible for this disappearance of theatre magic. Part of what makes going to see theatre fun is dressing up and going to meet with friends to go experience a show together. After these shows, we would always go out to eat and talk about the production together to really digest what we just saw. While Zoom hangouts after watching productions are similar in their atmosphere, nothing can level up to our pre-pandemic rituals. How can theatre companies recreate this community to keep it alive, and also not put members at risk of contracting the coronavirus?
After watching a few of the productions from this year’s pool of KCACTF productions, I got flashbacks to working on previous pandemic productions through both Zoom and in-person, masked productions While I searched to find the spark that is a part of shows gave me through these productions, I still couldn’t find it. While the shows that I watched for the festival, both in-person and virtual, covered all the bases in terms of quality of productions and skills of the actors, something was still missing. Perhaps it was the masks covering the actors’ faces during the in-person shows. Or it might have been the use of virtual backgrounds during the Zoom productions. It most likely, however, was the computer screen separating me from the actors.
While these streamed or pre-recorded in-person shows are great at providing many accessible options to audiences, they often lack many aspects that don’t make them worth the risks. These shows are often staged with over six feet of space between actors, which results in an overall drop in energy. This energy can be felt in the performance and even through the computer screen. Viewing in-person productions on the computer screen can vary based on the types of recording equipment that the theater used. While actors do wear masks, these block the actors’ facial expressions and muffle much of the important parts of the show. Theatre magic is hard to define, but for me, it’s that moment where I can feel for the characters in the show and am completely enveloped in the story. I found myself removed from these performances from my concern for the safety of the actors on stage.
The safer way of performing during the pandemic has proven to be through Zoom performances. While many suffer from ‘Zoom Fatigue’ at the moment, it has proven to be useful to connect with others during the pandemic. Theatre creatives have found ways to edit these live recordings together, using virtual backgrounds, to create an environment that resembles a theatre space. Zoom performances encourage writers to show off their skills as well as designers a chance to flex different muscles to produce different types of designs. Because of the position of actors, this mode of pandemic performance proves to be more intimate and easier for me to digest. Actors also get more comfortable with their self-image through the process.
While many creative endeavors have come from the pandemic, I suggest that we all agree that while in-person shows are ideal, there’s no sense in putting actors and audiences at risk just to pull them off. There’s no sense in lowering the quality of work just to bring back a little normalcy when we all can agree that these are not normal times. Until cases of the coronavirus have decreased and the vaccine has successfully rolled out, let’s continue to use technology to better connect us until we can safely assemble to experience the magic of theatre once again.