There comes a very special point about once every other generation of theatre artist. This point being, for a lack of a better word, the worry that theatre as a whole will come to an abrupt and destructive end. The death of theatre if you will. However, at the end of crisis, after we have blanketed our worries under a façade of normalcy, we once again learn that theatre never dies. Theatre cannot die, it merely evolves.
In the midst of early 2020, global pandemic struck. Masks went from a suggestion to a requirement, social distancing and restrictions on public gatherings started being enforced, local and professional theatres started to close, and many of our fellow artists lost their jobs. Many of us, as so many have thought before, thought “this is it, this is the end of theatre.” We have never been so happy to have been so wrong.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a whole host of minute problems that accompanied it during 2020, theatre expanded into a new vein. One that, up to this point, had yet to be explored in detail. The digital era of theatre has begun and with it an expanded and revised definition of the word we think we know so well. Theatre may once again attempt to return to its roots, however the new methods explored by artists of the craft around the world will never fade. They will instead become an integral part of what we consider to be the “meta” of theatre. Tragedy has once again caused theatre to evolve, and the art will be better because of it.
I first realized this odd transformation while watching two unique productions during the virtual Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival of Region 5. The first of which being Jabberwocky, By Lewis Carroll, adapted and directed by Ethan Koerner and performed by the students at Northwestern College. The production combines the use of various forms of puppetry with a heavy saturation of audience interaction via phone apps. This production of Jabberwocky highlights a first for me, and possibly for many others with the usage of digital interactivity, the likes of which you would expect from a traditional theatre performance. Koerner and their ensemble has proven that the dawn of the “digital theatre era” is upon us. That the magic of theatre, the intimate nature of theatre can still live, despite the audience not actually being in the theatre.
Another production that proved the evolution of theatre for me was that of Iowa State University’s devised production: Of the Deep, facilitated by Amanda Petefish-Schrag. Like Northwestern’s Jabberwocky, this production shares its love and expert use of puppetry to tell a story worthy of being called theatre. Unlike the previous production however, Of the Deep relies entirely on the imagery and different styles of puppetry to tell its story. What shocked me the most about this piece was the lack of dialogue. Before me stands a several different interconnected stories that have nothing to tie them together except for music and imagery. Something that that classical-elitist theatre artist in me was horrified to learn at first. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it is still theatre. It is simply a new and uncomfortable way of doing it, as most experimental forms of theatre tend to be.
The era of digital theatre is just beginning, and everything that we’ve learned during its inception is here to stay. In the future, there will be more tragedy and with it more evolutions and developments in the way we do theatre. Where we our now is simply another step in the monstrous beast that we call theatre. The greatest hope that we have to continue to be theatre artists is to bow our heads to our immortal, ever changing monster.