Theatre

Amid the gloom of an industry largely left to fend for itself through the pandemic, digital seasons of live performance are a sign of hope. By Robert Reid.

Theatre’s new digital frontier

Duncan Wass, Madelaine Osborn and Geraldine Brown in Miranda Gott’s Kangaroo.
Credit: Becky Russell

How we think about going to the theatre has remained largely unchanged for more than 2000 years, but perhaps the continuing lockdowns of Covid-19 are finally forcing a reconsideration. Last year, digital productions such as Red Line Theatre’s Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) and Moira Finucane’s Love Letters to Melbourne showed that live performance can still unite us, even if the performers and audience are in isolation.

There’s been a variety of responses to the pandemic crisis. Companies such as Ilbijerri and Black Swan presented digital seasons of new and remounted works – Jack Charles v The Crown and Unsung Heroes respectively – expanding the audience for these works and extending the privilege of being in the right theatre at the right time to see them. Early this year the Malthouse’s pivot towards long-running immersive theatre with Because the Night built in the capacity to weather snap lockdowns with an extended season that wouldn’t simply evaporate in the face of lockdowns four, five, six and counting. Most recently, the MTC’s live productions of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes and Berlin were accompanied by on-demand seasons.

The initial flurry of online work has calmed down, but companies are still finding inventive ways to repackage their work when live performances are cancelled. Australian Theatre Live is currently hosting an impressive on-demand selection of productions, following the lead of international companies such as Classic Spring and the Royal Shakespeare Company that are available on Marquee TV.

The Q Theatre production of Miranda Gott’s play Kangaroo, originally scheduled to be performed at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith, Sydney, has been repackaged as an audio experience. It’s a classic Australian outback mystery of three strangers thrown together by circumstances: Melissa (Madelaine Osborn), the teen mother escaping her abusive father; Mick (Duncan Wass), the old loner who works at the town sewage facility, and Barbara (Geraldine Brown), the former university lecturer resettling in the country to write her next book. The little town where they live struggles with the contrasting realities of its dwindling population and its administration by a distant council divorced from the locals’ experience. The story is interlaced with lectures from Barbara on the works of Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi and the podcast-style production is accompanied by a digital flipbook that includes the paintings referred to in the play.

The soundscape that runs underneath moves from haunting guitar and piano to diegetic sounds of birds and wildlife. Melissa’s “Ten Commandments of Antworld” monologue is a standout moment, using the audio format to evoke the magic realism of Melissa’s apotheosis as the Ant God visiting a plague of Mortein on the ants that disobey the First and Second Commandments: thou shalt not steal from the dog’s bowl or get into the Milo tin.

Rovers, a heartfelt work from Brisbane independent company Belloo Creative developed by Katherine Lyall-Watson with the two performers, Roxanne McDonald and Barbara Lowing, is also worth catching online. Rovers tells the story of these two actors’ 30-year friendship and struggles through a troubled industry, blending truth and fiction into a lively, touching and very funny journey through the deserts of Australia. It uses multiple camera angles to capture the full-scale live production, recorded at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta, to make the watch-at-home experience as engaging as it would be in the venue. The cheery, direct address also helps to keep the home viewer feeling like part of the event.

While slick production values can make digital presentations more accessible, they’re by no means the deciding factor of their success. That’s down to the skill, imagination, and generosity of the performers. The Mermaid, presented recently at La Mama, was a small production by mostly emerging theatre-makers on a shoestring budget with an accompanying digital season. Its videography was competent, though not outstanding, but its heart was in the performances of the young cast and the cleverness of the direction, writing and design. In contrast, the very slick production values of the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Wharf Revue 2015: Celebrating 15 Years did nothing to relieve the dated nature of the comedy nor the questionable politics of its satire, no matter how good it looked on screen.

There are exciting ventures just on the horizon. The Knack Theatre in Melbourne is currently developing a six-week season of a new weekly sitcom for the stage called Hey, Is Dee Home?, to be broadcast over Zoom from early September. Melbourne Fringe Festival is also imminent, boasting 60 digital on-demand performances and artworks. Shows that grab my attention include Jeremy Goldstein’s Truth to Power Café, a meditation on time and place originally filmed live on location at Conway Hall, London, and Bunjil Place, Narre Warren; Jason Triggs’ shadow puppet show The School Yard Incident, devised and written with a group of eight- to 12-year-olds and suitable for all ages and Same-Same 2.0, an international collaboration between No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability and Theatre Today, developed and performed online by the disabled performers in Singapore and Australia.

Amid the doom and gloom of a sector abandoned to fend for itself, these digital seasons are signs of hope. As snap lockdowns break the hearts of performers, with show after show interrupted or cancelled, and as venues become increasingly hesitant to book in new productions for fear they may not make it to opening night, the most successful companies are those with a built-in capacity for digital broadcast.

In his Sydney Morning Herald article on Kangaroo – The Audio Experience, John Shand tells us that “despite some brave efforts, streamed theatre rarely cuts it without TV-scale budgets”. This grudging acceptance of digital theatre’s value echoes a sentiment that commonly attends discussion of online access to performance: that “it’s not the same as actually being in the theatre”.

Of course it’s not. But I can’t help wondering if this hesitancy isn’t born of the same rigidity that has been slowly strangling live performance in Australia for decades. Not only does it ignore the value of taking performance to communities that can’t regularly attend live performance because of geographic distance, cultural exclusion or physical and mental health limitations, it also elides the core aspects of live performance: storytelling, image-making and cultural conversation.

Sitting in the same building and milling around in the foyer are certainly important aspects of the live experience, but that element of communal participation was just as strongly present last year during Moira Finucane’s work or Lawrence Leung’s online magic show, Connected. Maybe more so, as those audiences all seemed to work harder to ensure their presence was felt and to show their appreciation for the performances. Just as when they are present in theatres, the audience for the most part wants the experience to be successful and works with the performers to complete the event.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, it’s never been clearer that Australian theatre – which has been trapped in a systemic spiral towards collapse for decades – needs new models. Exploring digital performance to accompany live seasons or as performances in their own right is about more than surviving the vicissitudes of the disaster du jour. As The Knack Theatre’s Steven Boltz told me recently, “It’s not just about lockdown, it’s about travel restrictions, it’s about capacity, factors that change from week to week even once the lockdown proper is over.”

These shocks to our systems are not going to stop. As has been said countless times in the past decade, we live in an age of the unprecedented. Even if Covid-19 is eventually defeated, new shocks await us. Whether it’s the 2019 megafires that choke our cultural hubs with toxic smoke, or torrential downpours that flood our arts centres – as Brisbane suffered in 2011 – or even another global pandemic, it’s become clear that the old ways don’t work. And it’s also certain that the urge to make theatre, to connect with each other through performance, is already finding new evolutionary niches in which to survive. 

Rovers is available on demand at Critical Stages. Kangaroo – The Audio Experience is streaming through Q Theatre, Penrith, until September 13.

 

Arts Diary

THEATRE Meat

Victoria Hall, Fremantle, until September 12

VISUAL ART CURING Cassie Sullivan and Josh Prouse

Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, until September 26

EXHIBITION Entwined: plants and people

State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, until November 14

VIDEO Alex Martinis Roe: To Become Two

Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide, until October 1

THEATRE Every Brilliant Thing

State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, Perth, until September 18

Last chance

THEATRE Yarning Circle: Sound and Song

Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, September 5

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 4, 2021 as "Crossing to stream".

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Robert Reid is a Melbourne theatre historian, critic and playwright.