How theatre is staying spontaneous online
Theatre-makers are coming up with innovative ways of making virtual productions that feel intimate and immediate
Thanks to the likes of NT Live, where shows were filmed when originally performed, there has been a surfeit of plays available to stream online. It's a valuable opportunity to relive great moments, to catch up on those sellout hits you missed and to enjoy close-ups and front-row views. Yet a recorded performance does not quite match the experience of watching something as it happens and being, as Aaron Burr says in Hamilton, in the room where it happens.
With theatres due to remain closed until at least 28 June – and producers suggesting that opening is unlikely until 2021 – it will be a long time until we can watch something tangible. But a new wave of theatre-makers is adapting and innovating with the creative process to bring spontaneity and intimacy to our experience of culture online.
Culture Whisper rounds up the best shows offering a new, more connected kind of online theatre experience.
The Old Vic: in Camera
Live theatre returns to London with The Old Vic's 'in Camera' initiative. After glowing reviews in 2019, Claire Foy and Matt Smith reprise their starring roles for a socially distanced revival of Lungs. The two-person play will be performed in the empty theatre and available to stream for up to 1,000 audiences members an evening - reflecting the physical capacity of the auditorium.
Tickets to watch online are £10-65, the same price as standard Old Vic performances, and all 'seats' will offer a front-row view of the stage.
In a statement announcing the in Camera series, The Old Vic said: 'Rekindling live performance in this irrepressible 202-year-old venue, albeit with minimal staging and accessible only via camera and live stream, is a genuine thrill for us. But this series is both an exciting creative experiment and also crucial in igniting the box office now all our usual channels of revenue have been entirely wiped out and we fight to preserve this beloved theatre for our audiences, surrounding schools and communities, staff, crew, and the myriad of writers, performers and creatives that work with us.'
Tickets are not yet on sale. Watch this space for updates
Over 50 actors, 14 playwrights and 11 film directors give their creative repose to these unprecedented times in a major new project from Headlong Theatre Company and Century Films. Unprecedented began one week before lockdown was announced, when a selection of the UK's most celebrated playwrights were commissioned to write 14 new stories. The project is packed with talent, featuring writers such as April de Angelis, James Graham and Duncan Macmillan, working with actors including Gemma Arterton, Rory Kinnear and Meera Syal.
With warmth, humour and a keen sense of uncertainty, they explore themes of community and isolation. Different works hone in on the experiences spanning the NHS frontline to viral social media fame. Written, filmed and produced during lockdown, these stories record a new way of life as it is unfolding.
The short films were rehearsed via Zoom and shot in homes around the country using digital conferencing technology, with props and costumed sourced by the cast members. While most new works for both TV and theatre have been paused, this fusion of genres inspired by and created in spite of lockdown offers a rare reflection on the history that we are currently living through.
The Unprecedented stories will be aired on BBC Four on Tuesday 26 May to Thursday 28 May at 10pm and will be available to stream on BBC iPlayer as part of BBC Arts' Culture in Quarantine initiative.
The Caretaker, Royal Court Theatre
This new 'durational installation' by Hester Chillingworth features a livestream of the Royal Court Theatre's empty stage. The footage is punctuated with witty, warm and provocative audio messages broadcast by Chillingworth, but mostly it captures the uninhabited space. The emphasis on space, with no pressure to do or produce, is a powerful lockdown sentiment – and the uncertainty over what you may hear when you view the livestream fulfils the organic and unexpected experience of live culture.
Describing the motivation behind the work, Chillingworth says: 'For me, Caretaker is a piece about carving out space for us all to be in however we want or need to, and that not having to link to productivity in any way. It's about sharing time and space as materials, not as commodities. It's about finding new ways of watching and being together or being alone. It's about the power of slowing down to let stuff emerge.'
The Caretaker is available to view on the Royal Court website at any time day or night from now until the theatre reopens.
Love Letters at Home
After impressing at the Edinburgh Fringe, Southbank Centre and RSC, interactive theatre show Letters Straight From Your Heart is embarking upon a digital tour. Instead of simply releasing footage that can be streamed online, the show will be unique and particular to each new audience. Based on a collaborative approach, Love Letters at Home invites audience members to send song requests and declarations of love. These words are then built into each new show. The result is a fusion of speech, song and drama that reflects the personal stories of the individuals who have tuned into watch each digital transmission.
Love Letters at Home is 'on tour' from 20 May - 26 June. Click here for dates and times.
For Your Ears Only
Beyond the stage design, spotlights and applause, live theatre is essentially experiencing words brought to life by actors. Capturing this essence and adapting it for social distancing, For Your Ears Only recreates the connection between performer and audience member through a short phone call. Pick a time and an actor will phone you and share an extract of text from literature, poetry or theatre. Each text is chosen specifically for each new audience member, ensuring a unique cultural experience that plays out in real time and cannot be repeated online.
Devised and organised by director Marianne Badrichani, actor Edith Vernes and producer Nathalie Berrebi, For Your Ears Only is a free experience and requires no input from the audience; all you need to do is choose a time slot, register your phone number and email, be ready to answer the phone, then listen to the performance.
For Your Ears Only runs from Monday to Friday, 3pm - 5pm until 29 May. Click here to select a time slot.
Alan Ayckbourn's Anno Domino
There's nothing new about radio plays, but the simple appeal of an audio experience has grown in lockdown. With the creation of new staged shows severely restricted, creatives are returning to the radio as a platform for exciting premieres. Prolific playwright Alan Ayckbourn has penned a new work during the coronavirus crisis. Anno Domino premieres as a radio play and he will return to acting alongside his wife Heather Stoney to voice the work. Together they play eight characters ranging in age from 18 to mid-70s as Anno Domino follows a family preparing for a momentous event. Giving us an insight into their homes and lives, the play asks what happens when support networks crumble, and how actions can have consequences on those we love.
Anno Domino is free to access from noon on Monday 25 May until noon on Thursday 25 June. Click here to listen.