Streaming/Theatre: Thoughts and feelings on missing an art form

Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire
at the Young Vic in 2016

I miss theatre.

I miss a lot of things but theatre was a weekly fixture in my life.

I write plays and I review plays and even if I wasn’t reviewing, watching theatre was always an opportunity to learn more about how theatre worked. And to be entertained.

The experience of theatre is ephemeral. A play changes every night. It’s living and breathing. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.

And then it turned out the existence of theatre is ephemeral, too. And within a week in March, my thoughts turned from “should I be sitting in a large audience” to “wow, theatres are all closed, I wonder how long this will last”.

At the start of the pandemic, I made a pretty conscious decision that I would take time away from playwriting. The world had changed so suddenly and so had my daily life and trying to find the passion and energy for creativity seemed like too much of an extra burden. Fuck all this talk of Shakespeare writing King Lear during the plague, I’d be kind to myself and put projects on hold.

Collaborators understood. They were all going through their own reckonings with how to survive without work or with streaming or home school.

I thought, though, I would keep reviewing. I might try to find ways to connect the TV series I binged with the theatre that was missing from my life. If I had reviewed Succession, for example, I would have talked about the writers’ room being filled by playwrights.

And very soon, there was talk of streaming theatre. I’d definitely, absolutely, watch lots of streaming theatre and write about those productions.

That never happened, either.

I didn’t even watch as much streaming theatre as I thought. Some of it I downloaded to watch later. Some I missed because I had a bad week or because you had to watch that stream at a particular day or time, otherwise, like actual theatre, it would disappear, never to be seen again.

Theatres were trying different things to try to survive the shutdown. Some cancelled months ahead. Some took an axe to the rest of their year. Some rushed new work online and some, with healthy archives like the National Theatre in London, started to put older productions on YouTube for the world to see.

And none of it was like being in a theatre. But some of it was able to give me things I missed.

The National Theatre has been screening films in cinemas for years, so they had a lot of good quality, professionally produced product that was designed for non-theatre audiences. These aren’t just archival recordings so that people doing research can study theatrical technique, these were already prepared to be seen on the screen.

The first production they streamed was One Man, Two Guv’nors which I had seen on Broadway in 2014, but their first month’s roster was more interesting. I only really got excited when they announced they were streaming the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Benedict Andrews, starring Gillian Anderson.

In the weeks leading up to this, though, I had watched readings via Zoom and live performances of new work and anticipated new content from local creators and overseas artists, while also spending a lot of time in Zoom meetings and watching Q&As via Zoom and catching up with friends that way, as well. So live theatre was already blurring in with every day elements of my life.

The screen time was getting too much. And a lot of the content that was rushed out was poor or suffered from technical difficulties. The only thing a lot of these experiments captured about theatre was the live nature and you had to be in front of your screen at a certain time. Both of these things had their downsides.

The National Theatre broadcasts were limited to a week only, but otherwise they are beautifully shot and they captured a live performance from many years earlier. So, it’s appointment viewing, but you could watch at any time during that week or find ways to save for later. This was much more appealing than Zoom readings at particular times, some of which tried so hard to find windows that would suit audiences in New York, London and Sydney all at once.

I was more and more impressed with newly-created streaming theatre content in June than I was in the early days of April. By then the technical difficulties hadn’t entirely disappeared, but some of the limitations had been overcome. While most embraced the direct-to-camera style, some played with the Zoom box structure and sometimes the occasional camera movement helped enormously.

I was glad the Malthouse Theatre commissioned new works from three playwrights for their Lockdown Monologues and took their time with writing and producing the works, the third and final instalment streaming only last Friday night. I thought the series got stronger as it went on, as well, and in some ways this might be a good ongoing feature in the Malthouse’s arsenal. Though I would hope that there are additional opportunities to watch if you can’t sit down at the premiere time.

The three-night monologue festival, Dear Australia, from Playwriting Australia is still online, though from the advertising I really thought it would disappear once it was streamed for the first time. I’ve only seen the first night so far and I’m glad I’ll be able to watch the rest sometime soon, because it showcases the work on new writing from fifty playwrights and fifty performers. As with any night of monologues, it was hit and miss but some of it was devastatingly dramatic and others were hilariously funny.

Toby Schmidt in Thom Pain (based on nothing)
streamed last week from the Old Fitz in Sydney

Red Line Productions in Sydney started out with readings and then, last week, they streamed a season of Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) by Will Eno, starring Toby Schmidt. It was performed five times over the week, so the audience had a chance to pick a night and it was it was always live snd there were nine cameras in the Old Fitz Theatre to capture Toby’s performance. It lasted an hour and, was a complex, complicated piece of non-linear narrative that was beautifully shot with a layered, captivating performance at the centre.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams is one of my favourite plays, though I’ve only read it, seen a reading and watched the feature film version starring Vivien Leigh. I’ve never seen it on stage. The Young Vic production modernised it in some ways, but never really threw off the shackles of the period it was written in and originally set. And it was fully designed for the theatre experience, with the whole set on a revolve that starts spinning as soon as Blanche enters the play.

The stage for A Streetcard Name Desire
It’s impossible for cameras to capture the feeling of being a few metres away from performers or feeling claustrophobic in a small space or how it must have felt to watch Blanche and the rest of the characters spinning out of control in front of an audience at the Young Vic. It’s hard to know if a fixed camera might have helped in some ways, but then when you’re in a theatre, you can choose to look where you want – and a fixed camera is a more limited point of view.

What it absolutely did capture and preserve was Gillian Anderson’s astonishing performance. And that made this recording absolutely worth watching, even as I sat there thinking about what I was missing out on. Then, after the play ended, as the credits rolled (which is entirely non-theatrical), I watched as the audience started to exit the theatre, while some stayed in their seats and talked to fellow theatre-goers, unable to leave the space without first trying to process what they’d just seen. I know that feeling well and it made me miss post-show discussions very much.

Somewhere, in amongst all of this streaming theatre that other people made, a short play of mine was streamed live from London a couple of weeks ago and I got up at the ongodly hour of 5am to watch it live, because I wanted that experience – and there was a post-show drinks/catch-up on Zoom with folks in London and America and Europe and me in Melbourne celebrating a job well done.

Rachel Nott in Like A House on Fire from 2016

Encompass Productions had produced my short Like A House on Fire in 2016 at one of their house shows and wanted to bring it back because it was so popular. It streamed as part of their Bare E-ssential series with three other short plays and the full show is still online for people to catch up with. And it was an odd experience, having only ever seen it performed live where the comedy is supported by generous audience laughter. Watching it online, and alone, it was stripped of that. But I’m reliably informed by other people that they laughed a lot.

And then, after all these months, and just as some countries are opening up and my state is slowly getting locked down again, Disney+ released the most anticipated piece of streaming theatre of the whole pandemic, Hamilton.

I am lucky to have seen Hamilton on stage twice already, once in San Francisco in 2017 and once in London in 2019. The first time was overwhelming; having loved the cast recording for a few years, I wasn’t quite prepared for the show to live up to its hype and, in some ways, surpass it. You can’t really be prepared for the choreography to lift the words and the story to a greater level than you thought possible. And as with all live theatre, seeing those words sung live adds a whole new dimension that a perfectly polished cast recording can never capture.

I never saw the original Broadway cast, of course, so the fact a performance in June 2016 had been captured was always enticing. When Disney announced, last year, they had acquired the theatrical rights to screen it in cinemas in October 2021, I was already counting down – while also excited for the prospect of the stage show to premiere in Sydney in March 2021.

All of Broadway is filmed for archival purposes, but these will never be released and none are filmed to the level of the National Theatre broadcasts or – above and beyond – like this film of Hamilton is. The show was filmed four times, twice in front of an audience and twice without. The times without allowed cameras on stage to get impressive close-ups of these actors giving the performances of their careers. Tony-nominated and Tony-award winning performances on Disney+ forever.

With multiple performances on film, it allowed director Thomas Kail (original stage director and now director of this filmed version) to make choices, find the right angles, and edit the footage together to try to recreate some of the feeling of being in the theatre, even knowing there are limits to the medium of stage-on-film.

It’s a remarkable achievement technically but it’s also extraordinary how widely available it now is and how many people are being exposed to musical theatre and Hamilton for the first time. After living through the original raves at the Public Theatre in 2015 and the continuing phenomenon as it transferred to Broadway and started breaking box office records, it’s amazing to watch now as a whole new audience finds the show. Some are theatre nerds who couldn’t get to see the show, due to cost or location. Some are occasional theatre-goers who have heard of it, but don’t know the cast recording backward.

And some are people who have rarely been to the theatre in their lives and only really know Hamilton exists because it now streams on one of the biggest content platforms in the world. It’s a real joy to watch YouTube reviews from people who normally review film and television, who are desperate for new things to cover, deciding to try Hamilton and it blows them all away.

When streaming theatre began to bubble up in April, as some theatres tried to use it as a fundraising effort, I wondered if perhaps access to theatre online might boost future theatre box office. If people get to sample theatre online for free – or a donation – maybe they will want to check out live theatre, whenever that can happen again.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs
streamed from the Old Vic
And, for theatres in the future, streaming theatre might be a way to supplement their income, if their bricks and mortar spaces have to have reduced capacities. Companies are now experimenting with paywalls, so you have to buy a ticket to see a streamed performance. Not surprisingly, the Old Vic’s two-week streaming season of Lungs starring Matt Smith and Claire Foy sold out quickly – added performances were released and added “seats” became available during the run.

There’s no way of knowing when theatres will return. The Australian and UK governments – both conservative with little interest in saving the arts – have thrown lifelines that may prop up institutions but mostly won’t help freelance or independent practitioners. So hopefully the theatres themselves last long enough to re-open.

But when they do, I suspect streaming theatre won’t ever disappear. Who knows what it will look like yet? Perhaps shows will go online once their live dates have passed. Perhaps half the audience will always be at home, pants-off and in front of the television.

This is the birth of a new age of Streaming/Theatre. It’s not quite theatre, but it’s definitely another way to experience it now and in the future. Until I can – and feel comfortable to – walk into a theatre foyer again, I’m glad we have this outlet. Theatre has lasted two-and-a-half thousand years so far. The Elizabethan stage was closed because of the plague. I’m not ready to give on up on live theatre any time soon, but it’s exciting that we have this new form that artists can play with and experiment with and turn into something extraordinary. Even without the budget of Hamilton and the backing of Disney+.

Hamilton in 2016
now streaming on Disney+