Theatre and other art forms are not exempt from the myriad of cancellations and postponements affecting Hamilton and the world at large. From professional theatre companies, to community theatres, indie festivals, and University mainstage productions, there is an inundation of cancellations impacting both patrons and performers. For most, the effects are devastating. Having worked on a performance for months on end only to have it suddenly called off is not something artists anticipate. Many of us mantra the iconic phrase “the show must go on” but what happens when the show can’t go on? It is heartbreaking that so many artists can’t share artistic work in familiar ways. However, the present circumstances offer possibilities to re-examine ways of seeing, and valuing, the creative process in light of the final product being put on hold. While the final product is indeed rewarding and an opportunity to share one’s work with the world, the process is equally, if not more, valuable in shaping both the artist and the art itself.
Collaboration in isolation is not an impossibility. Artists and non-artists alike are getting creative with how to build opportunities for collaboration, most prominently through online means. The fencing team of my alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, posted on Facebook a solution to their training sessions being cancelled which they referred to as “remote group-exercise sessions”. The team is taking part in free online yoga sessions each day to stay connected as a group, while physically apart. Unable to collaborate in their regular post-secondary classes, students from the Guthrie BFA Acting Program and the University of Minnesota planned a “Quarantine Playwriting Bake Off”, where participants of any experience level were given “ingredients” to write a play. This playwriting challenge was an opportunity for artists to practice their craft knowing that others are out there doing the same. In addition, many artists are offering play readings and theatre discussions through Zoom or Facebook groups. While these online spaces have traditionally been used to plan collaborative opportunities, they are now the site of process and collaboration itself. This reality offers occasion to redefine both process and product. How this process and subsequent art may manifest will become more apparent in the weeks to come, as artists and organizations are required to amend their plans according to the interests of public health. Technology will become vital in the collaborative process in days and weeks to come.
Revisiting the artistic process in a time of social-distancing also requires revisiting the relationship between art and its audience. Many companies have opted to share their work to audiences online. The Windsor Symphony Orchestra live streamed their performance on Facebook, as did the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra with their performance called BeethovenFest Virtual Finale. The Metropolitan Opera in New York has encore performances available through its website and other New York theatre companies are also in the process of live recording performances. Toronto Dance Theatre will live stream its performance of Glass Fields on March 23rd at 8:00pm EST. A Torontonian artist, Nick Green, established the site The Social Distancing Festival as a way for creators to feel community and continue to share their work. Although sharing finished products with audiences is still possible, the role of audiences has invariably shifted as they are no longer physically present in the performance space.
Sharing cyberspace instead of physical space might seem less enchanting, however, it has the potential to revitalize traditional theatrical experiences by sharing it with not only a wider audience but perhaps a new audience. Unlike traditional theatre spaces which are accessible to a select number of patrons, or a select demographic of patrons (geographically or financially or otherwise), an online space makes theatre accessible to those who may not have had previous opportunities to experience it. The audience is no longer a local assemblage, but a global one. In addition to theatre transcending traditional space it can also transcend time, with past performances being uploaded to sites such as Amazon Prime, the avant-garde Ubu.com, and the UK’s Digital Theatre streaming service. Artists, while hopefully already conscious of the influence of their work on prospective audiences, have new opportunities and responsibilities in light of this global audience.
Alongside sharing the product, audiences who are not often privy to the behind-the-scenes work of a performance can become part of the artistic process through online platforms. Time will tell how these conversations take shape but there are opportunities here for meaningful connection between the artist, the art, and its audience. As aforementioned, social networking sites are already a gathering place for those in isolation to continue community-building. An example of this shared space is the website HowlRound TV, which not only streams performances but also events and conversations in real time. Actor Robert Myles created the online project The Show Must Go Online where professional and amateur actors read Shakespeare’s works for their YouTube audience; an audience that can comment in real time through Live chat. There is potential for wide-reaching discussion and collaboration through these sources. This spontaneous onset of collaboration between artists and audience might lead to new work commissioned, in a way, by the community itself.
Not only will future projects take innovative forms, but planned performances will also need to navigate new territory. Many performances are being rescheduled for prospective post-isolation days. Once companies are given the go to return to traditional frameworks, the typical rehearsal process will have been considerably deferred. The anticipated polished-performance may need more time in process; additional time that, depending on the circumstances of the company or project, may or may not be possible. What was learned in many weeks of work and preparation prior to social-distancing, may be shortened to days, or lengthened to months. The chemistry, interpretations, and careful considerations that are typically seen in finished public performances may manifest differently. At the same time, these changes may create new, one-of-a-kind experiences. Technology may play a role of increasing importance in a finished product, particularly if it was essential in the remote rehearsal process, leaving artists with a new type of active collaborator. Artists could also be left with new perspectives on the creative process itself. After an extended time of physical separation, while having engaged in remote-collaboration, artists have the opportunity to investigate traditional artistic processes and make changes to its structure where necessary. A traditional rehearsal process may resume but with a renewed purpose and sense of camaraderie.
The heart of theatre is one which values stories and their ability to bring people together. This act of sharing and relationship is one that has prevailed for centuries while also taking new shape according to time and circumstance. Despite the challenging times of cancellations and postponements, the arts continue to provide solace, inspiration, and community for theatre makers and audiences alike. But how theatre is being engaged with, through pre-recorded performances or live activities, is changing. The relationship between artists, art, and audience, is changing. Our response to these changes, as an opportunity to grow as an arts community in uncertain times, will be our next pivotal process.
About Rebekka Gondosch
Rebekka Gondosch is an actor and arts educator based in Hamilton. She is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin’s M.Phil. in Theatre and Performance program, has a B.A. in Dramatic Arts and English Language and Literature from Brock University, and a B.Ed. from Redeemer University. She was a member of Hamilton Fringe’s ALERT team from 2018-2019 which co-produces Hamilton’s site specific winter performance festival Frost Bites.