The Life of Virtual Theatre in an Ongoing Post-Pandemic World

Written by: Luis Herrera

On March 12, 2020, theatre as we knew it was shut down and forever changed…

Now I know what you’re thinking, you know this story, you lived through it, but please, bear with me. After that fateful day in 2020, theatre would never be the same, it couldn’t be. What makes theatre the engrossing, heart wrenching medium that it is, has always been  the live aspect. The in-person shared experience that we as a people go through every  time we sit down at a theatre for the next play, musical, performance… But after March 12th, that was no longer possible.  

At the time it wasn’t unreasonable to believe that theatre would never come back. That  Broadway and the idea of anything love was done for the foreseeable future. While we  see now that that obviously wasn’t the case, it was a time of uncertainty, and sometimes  it’s best to expect the worst.  

During the shutdown, the theatre community felt broken, disjointed, and lost. Everyone was so accustomed to what made theatre so special, the human element. But despite the  distance, despite the isolation and disembodiment of an artistic community, the hunger  was still there. Hunger to create, connect, and reach out, and so we did what we always  do, we found a way to make it work – with a now tired and toxic phrase we collectively  thought to ourselves, “The show must go on.”  

Virtual theatre.

For the longest time those two words never looked like they belonged side by side – in  fact just the simple idea felt like something out of the dystopian films from the 80s and  90s – but the demand for a continuation of the medium was in high demand and those two  words seemed the only logical response.  

It started with Zoom.  

Zoom, with its slightly better quality than FaceTime, and multiple participant capabilities  gave people around the world a way to connect again, and at first the theatre world went  back to its roots, no big lavish performances, but readings. Readings and readings and  more readings of work both old and new – even when theatre companies tried to expand  on this with zoom “performances”, the fact that it just looked and felt like a reading was  inescapable. So as the idea of “live” theatre was evolving, we as artists had to adapt. We  had to work through the medium, with it, not simply trying to recreate what we had  known through the live experience.  

The virtual realm of theatre had the possibility to go beyond zoom, beyond the recorded  performances and instead dive into the audio landscape. Along with zoom the world of  podcasts began to grow exponentially – people had things to say and the best way to just 

put it out there, was through a podcast. From this came the resurgence of the audio drama  – something that at one time went from revolutionary, to outdated, and has now come  back in what I believe has been a successful revitalization of the medium, letting our  imagination do half the work for us as we are taken on an auditory journey. 

All of this had the essence of theatre, creating stories that could take us away through  authentic performances and innovative digital content. The world forced us to examine  the form as we knew it, both in execution and in practice. Theatre companies grew just as  exhausted as the rest of the population from the constant zoom calls, readings, and  “performances” that they started creating their own digital platforms like that of  PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS’ SOUNDSTAGE – a free streaming program that offers “theater for your ears”, or the FRONT ROW  membership service from New City Players, a service which provides exclusive access to  seasons and media. 

Virtual theatre went from production recordings, to zoom readings, to audio plays, to  weekly subscription services that provide anything from weekly short films to a web  series. More and more companies, groups, collectives – whatever you call your theatre home – started coming up with these new ways to put out theatrical content. Some held onto  these new avenues, realizing that audiences love theatre, that they love stories being told  in one way or another and some let them go completely thinking that they were purely  circumstantial, based on the height of the pandemic moment. 

Yet here we are, COVID still actively a part of our lives but not as it once was, and  virtual theatre is alive and thriving. The future of the virtual theatrical medium is one that  seems to be growing, giving those who would never step in a theatre an opportunity to  experience an aspect of that artistic realm. There are some that are using this virtual  revolution to their advantage through the advancement and use of VR (virtual reality) and  AR (augmented reality), in order to create a much more immersive experience, so that we  could not only watch from our homes, but, to fully be a part of the experience. At the  moment these only work to a certain degree, but it is a part of the evolution of the  medium.  

Some think theatre will one day die, but the truth is that that isn’t possible. Like people,  theatre is resilient, and adapts when necessary, and as we learn what that means, the  virtual life of theatre will continue, bringing in new audiences and giving us the  opportunity to connect with artists from around the world in a way that we never thought  possible. 

The future is terrifying, but that does not mean we shouldn’t walk towards it.

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