Commentary: Theatre & film are increasingly merging mediums

As theatre moves online, the line between the two art forms blurs

The mediums of theatre and film are merging.

As COVID-19 forces theatre companies around the world to innovate and adapt to a new virtual forum, the lines between theatre and film continue to blur. For some critics, this means losing the aspects of theatre which make it such a moving art form. 

“Streaming and recording has been a gigantic ad for theatre writing, acting and directing,” theatre critic Susannah Clapp stated in an article on digital theatre.

“But it’s a skeleton of the thing itself. Work on stage happens in the present, at a particular moment: it can’t, any more than life, be rewound or fast-forwarded.”

Theatre and film have always been separated by the way audiences perceive the two art forms; the magic of theatre is largely a result of watching live actors perform on stage while surrounded by other spectators. Its heartbeat is reliant on human interaction, ideas of realness, and the dynamic relationship between actor and audience.

Film, on the other hand, doesn’t promote human interaction unless audiences are watching from a movie theatre. Even then, they’re watching a screen rather than live actors.

I find comfort in watching movies alone—in having the ability to watch a scene or film multiple times. The predictability of old movies is beautiful, but drastically different from the unpredictability of traditional theatre.

National Theatre, based in the UK, was one of the first large theatre companies to move its shows online. At the beginning of quarantine, it launched “National Theatre at Home,”  a new initiative where the company posted recorded versions of highly popular theatrical productions—including A Streetcar Named Desire, Macbeth, and Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch—to its  YouTube channel. 

The initiative was, in many ways, like a Netflix for staged performance. It was a completely different experience for many theatre lovers in comparison to a normal show, but turnout was high nonetheless.

I was initially hesitant to embrace the trend of online theatre because of how much I love the traditional theatre experience. There’s something thrilling about watching two actors pass lines back and forth, seeing their chests rise and hearing their voices echo at the back of the room.

Theatre is innately filled with risk, and the tension between realizing the actors could mess up their lines and escaping into the world of the play is what makes it so captivating.

As time progressed, I quickly realized that even without the pandemic, theatre and film would likely have started to melt together in an increasingly digital age. There were artists performing shows on Instagram and experimenting with podcast performances long before COVID-19, which indicated a palpable shift in how we as a society prefer to consume art.

However, I hope we recognize the power in both art forms as separate and unique entities, and fight for their individuality after the pandemic is over.

Though some of the magic of theatre will undeniably be lost, temporarily moving the art form online keeps it alive. Theatre artists are a vital part of the artistic community, and plays must move forward and continue to be seen, even if they are watched alone.

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