In July of 2020, New York Times critic Laura Collins-Hughes wrote an article entitled "Digital Theater Isn’t Theater. It’s a Way to Mourn Its Absence.” I must respectfully disagree.
To the extent that she was referring to streamed recordings of previously recorded performances, I would not argue the point. But in reference to the streaming of live performances, my experience is not in any way funerial. Live streamed performance is not the same as live performance in a theatre, but properly presented, the essence of theatre remains.
I’ve now produced and directed four live shows over Zoom (zoomtheatre.com), starting with small two-handers and progressing to Shakespeare. While I will state unequivocally that the platform is not perfect and is fraught with issues, I can also testify to the creative joy and satisfaction I have experienced working with brilliant actors, designers and crew to bring exciting, thought provoking scripts alive for our audience. The motto of Zoom Theatre has become “embrace the limitations of the medium”. Based on their kind feedback and comments, our audience has also embraced our efforts.
Most gratifying to me is that audience members adjust to the medium and are able to focus on the story and performances, not the technology. One reviewer commented on Macbeth, "It is the breathtaking chemistry between Nick Medina (Macbeth, in Oregon) and Ash Reddington (Lady Macbeth, in New York) which sets this production apart, not the platform. Often actors in these roles are individually quite extraordinary, but it is rare to see them come together in such perfect harmony. Their scenes are riveting, and when Macbeth learns of her passing, his “sound and fury … signifying nothing” soliloquy is captivating in its raw grief.”
Consider also how theatre can be enhanced by the reach of digital platforms-
* Live digital theatre allows theatre artists from all over the world collaborate without travel or housing budgets.
* Live digital theatre opens the doors to audience members that could otherwise not attend performances due to geographic or physical limitations. (It does however, impose a new “digital access” limitation for audience members that might not have computers or fast internet.)
* Live digital theatre allows audience members from all over the world to respond to performances verbally and via text in real time, completing the loop and giving theatre makers feedback on their work.
* Live digital theatre can be much less expensive to produce, allowing theatre companies to mount productions that might not otherwise be economically feasible.
As one audience member commented after a recent performance: "Innovative, provocative, you managed to get through the 'obstacles' imposed by our current state of affairs as it affects theatre, and present something that was not an excuse for not being able to present theater in its usual form, but rather a vibrant presentation of something altogether new and very much alive."
Live digital theatre, and Zoom Theatre in particular is no longer an experiment in "will this work". Zoom Theatre is now an experiment in "how much farther can we take this?."