Reconnecting With Digital Theatre in a Recovering Theatre Community

By Noah Boonov

On a whim, I applied to be part of a Digital Theatre Creation program this past winter through a company in Barrie, Ontario called Talk Is Free Theatre. I was lucky enough to be chosen as a participant and the program finished in March. Over the course of this four-week program, I was paired with two other artists to create a piece of Digital Theatre. This was a daunting task. My understanding of computers and technology is as follows: I can use most social media platforms, basic website maintenance is a breeze, Microsoft Office products are my best friends, and hey, I can even edit a video or two on iMovie. When it comes to streaming, coding, and anything further than the basics, you have lost me.  

During the height of the pandemic, I attended two different performance programs. You may be asking; how do you learn theatre and stage performance when you’re not able to do it live?  

I did a lot of Zoom acting. I even performed via YouTube livestream a couple times. I spent many nights recording elements too. For me, these types of performances were double-edged swords. I have always struggled with performance anxiety. These livestreamed productions were a terrific way to gain confidence on stage, without the pressure of an audience watching and judging my every move. Unfortunately, this also means losing out on direct feedback. I lost out on many nights of applause. I was never sure who was able to catch the shows I was in on livestream, and most people don’t tell me unless they see me in person.  

Despite these challenges, I was excited to revisit Digital Theatre with a new mindset! As theatres are opening back up, I felt there was a reason to choose digital theatre as a platform for creation. I wanted to see how I could create a digital theatre piece that needed an online space to exist. Particularly, how could it exist on platforms I’m familiar with like Twitch, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. Our class was introduced to a multitude of “world building” platforms, digital art hubs, and technology-reliant based theatre and performance art. For example, Single Thread Theatre Company uses a variety of technology and non-traditional spaces to create immersive theatre experiences. Their shows like Collider were created by a remote virtual ensemble to explore live, immersive theatre in VR (Virtual Reality) to explore storytelling and movement in an online space. The “immersive digital theatre” style was brand new to me. It was fascinating to learn how everyday devices like iPhones, laptops, gaming systems, and social media can be woven into my theatre practice. Once I met with my partners, ideas began to spark! 

My partners and I pitched a Twitch-streamed retelling of a classic Shakespeare play. The show would be episodic, taking place over 5 days. During the livestream, audience members could send tips to the actors. When a financial goal is reached, the actors on stage would have to say a certain phrase or complete a certain action. At the end of each show, the audience would get to vote on a small pre-determined options on a slight change to the story. To demonstrate how these would work, we performed a scene from Romeo and Juliet and prompted the audience to react with a confetti emoji. If we reached a certain number of reactions, my scene partner and I would have to perform an interpretive dance as we said our lines. At the end of the scene, we prompted our audience to vote on what would happen in the next episode. We explained that It would be captured with iPhones and stationary cameras, using OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) in a black box, multi-set performance space. This style of show could be repeatable, engaging for both the audience and performers, and could be streamed on platforms other than Twitch. This idea felt accessible, in both a “Hey, we could really put this on!” and a “Wow, anyone could interact with this piece from their home!” sort of way. By being true to ourselves as performing artists and using technologies we were familiar with, it made our final product feel authentic to who we are and what skills we have.  

I finished the project feeling inspired. What does the future hold for digital media and the kind of experiences we can create online? I won’t lie and say it can make up for the feelings of being in a theatre. There is nothing like sitting in a dark theatre, cozied up next to tons of other people, breathing, feeling, and emoting together. And yet, digital theatre was so much more than I had imagined! It can be interactive, immersive, and even play with the sensory by using Virtual Reality. It can be in-person and weave technology into it. It can exist in an online space and create a world just for the piece. There is so much variety! I’m excited to see what other impacts technology and our digital age will have on theatre as the years come. Whatever it will be, I’m excited to be along for the ride. 

A group of people stand in a room around tablet screens and watch a video.

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