Zooming into theatre
Two national theatres’ strategic approaches to digital formats - now amidst the pandemic they are more noticeable than ever.
The unprecedented times. That’s all we’ve been hearing about since last March. Our current reality has certainly been nothing short of absurd, but perhaps the most bizarre element of this is how quickly we have adjusted to drastic changes and made peace with the knowledge that the concept of normalcy will remain stuck in a limbo indefinitely. If anyone had any doubts about the crucial role and impact that digitization has had in our lives before this, these doubts have now undeniably at least been reconsidered on a massive scale. One direction we can seek such reconsiderations is the performing arts.
Without the element of the live, we must reposition ourselves to new methods of consuming theatre, accepting that this experience of art cannot solely rely on physical presence. In order to create theatre during this time, we must also redefine what elements we consider crucial to what Benjamin has famously referred to as the ‘aura’ of an artwork. So how are we to consume theatre when we already have this built-in idea that digitized forms are a secondary experience? One idea is waiting for the dust to settle and returning back to normal. Another is using this moment as a turning point and a chance for new approaches (such as implementing telepresence) to thrive.
Two countries, two perspectives
Every country and their theatre scenes have made their own choices regarding what digital advancements to implement into their repertoires and general approaches to the dramatic arts, both before and after Covid. Something I found interesting was looking at the different strategies that national theatres have had, possibly providing us with clues about how they view the future of their post-pandemic theatre scene. For example, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki appear to have branched in different directions.
The Abbey Theatre has emphasized the importance of having a digital presence already in its five-year strategy (or full version). Emphasis on this is especially crucial for the purpose of showcasing Irish theatre on an international scale as well as enhancing visibility of national works while the theatre is under construction.
This digital presence refers to at least the Abbey Theatre’s digital archive which contains digitized material (such as scripts, set plans, playbills, audio files etc) from as early as the 1800’s. This was one option they provided audiences during lockdown, others being their telepresence-focused Dear Ireland-series and most recently a digital play named This Beautiful Virtual Village, both of which were created during the lockdown and gave people the opportunity to reflect on the current situation through the arts.
The Finnish National Theatre does not have a publicly accessible five-year strategy. However, based on its mission statement, the emphasis appears to be more on returning to traditional forms of staging and focusing on domestic audiences. As global outreach does not appear to be a similar concern to the FNT as it is to the Abbey, digital materials would be for a much smaller, Finnish-speaking target audience and niche, implying that the benefit is not worth the cost and effort. Its main ‘new’ digital performance (which has only come to life during Covid) with elements of telepresence was its audio channeI. In terms of digital archiving or accessing older materials from theatres and plays, the FNT does not have its own database or digital archive for this purpose, as the ILONA database (a collaboration between TINFO and the Theatre Museum) would be the closest resource to something similar to what the Abbey has.
October has just rolled up, and currently theatres in Finland are carefully letting audiences and performers back in. Stricter hygiene and safety protocols have been implemented to ensure safer experiences, but the theatres are still holding their breaths each week waiting for further restrictions. This may very well be the beginning of a time when theatre as an art form is reinvented and revolutionized entirely - or perhaps it will remain as a relic of ‘the time before’, an escapist physical space in which we can reflect on how things used to be.
We still have yet to comprehend what we will take from all of this with us into the future; only time will provide us with enough distance to put things into perspective. Artists now play a crucial role in putting our experiences and thoughts into the words that we ourselves cannot utter. I believe that now is the time to listen. Theatre and the arts now need us more than ever, and perhaps the reverse is true as well.
To reiterate the already-clichéd mantras of the present: stay safe, wash your hands, support the arts however you can, and have hope in the future. It’s what will keep us going.
Pia Malinen is a second-year M.A. (FM) student majoring in Theatre Art Research (TaM) at the University of Helsinki writing her pro gradu -thesis on the intersectionality between theatre and the digital space. Pia graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 2019 with a B.A. majoring in Theatre Studies, minoring in Film Studies.