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.”
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.
Luis Roberto Herrera is a Colombian-American artist who uses his work to ask the questions of what it means to be alone, who are we within our relationships, and how does our culture effect who we become. Luis Roberto Herrera was a resident playwright in the 2017 GREENHOUSE Residency at SPACE on Ryder Farm, a Fellow at Athena Theatre in 2019, and most recently part of the cohort in the Latinx Playwrights Circle 2022 Mentorship Intensive. Along with being a playwright he is also a screenwriter and director having written 6 short films, one television pilot and directing two of them. Some of his works include several full length plays; Poolside Glow(Inkwell Theatre Playlab 2022), SAA[not that one](A-Tipico Play Festival 2021), At The End Of The Hall: A ghost story(Latinx Playwrights Circle 2022 Mentor Intensive), BLOOD ON THESE HANDS, Born Still, and Grandma’s Armchair. His film writing credits include; No Te Puedes Mover(short), Slow Dance(short), Wren & Lin(short), Sunny(short), Through The Crowd(short), and Thank you, places!(feature).