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Who's Zoomin' who: theatre and tech through the ages

Theatre has always embraced innovation, just as a new play on a video chat platform shows, writes Katy Hayes


Worth a look: What Do We Need to Talk About? from the Public Theater in New York

Worth a look: What Do We Need to Talk About? from the Public Theater in New York

Worth a look: What Do We Need to Talk About? from the Public Theater in New York

Cameron Mackintosh, producer of big musical hits such as Cats and Les Misérables, says he cannot see the West End opening up until 2021, once social distancing has been abolished. Venue managers here are considering how they might operate with a reduced, separated out audience. The Abbey Theatre responded to the Covid crisis with 50 playlets on YouTube in a project entitled Dear Ireland. London's National Theatre has provided streaming access to its archive, with a different play free-to-view each week.

Richard Nelson, the American playwright best known in Ireland for his Broadway musical adaptation of James Joyce's The Dead with Shaun Davey, has tackled the pandemic challenge head-on. He is the author of a quartet of family plays about the Apple siblings, produced at the Public Theater in New York. Nelson rapidly put together a new instalment of this family saga: What Do We Need to Talk About? Here the family gets together on the videocall platform Zoom in the aftermath of one sister's near-fatal encounter with Covid-19.

It was performed in lockdown and premiered live on Zoom on April 29. One brother and sister are temporarily living together and appear in the same frame; they are played by a husband and wife acting duo who cohabit in real life. One sister and her live-in boyfriend appear on Zoom in different rooms; he is self-isolating because he has symptoms. It is all social-distance compliant. It runs to 65 minutes and the Zoom format is surprisingly effective. It is well worth a look.

For many theatre-lovers, these technological responses to the lockdown are deeply unsatisfactory. Producers find these events awkward to monetise; generally, the pandemic-response offerings are free to view, accompanied by prompts to donate to the venues or production companies. Mostly they are an attempt to keep the spirit alive, albeit on an artificial life support. However, these innovations will leave their trace. Might Zoom plays become a thing in the future?

The theatre has always responded to technology with dynamism, from the spread of chandeliers out of Europe to Britain and Ireland during the Restoration period, through to the development of limelight ­­(incandescent quicklime) in the 1830s and 40s. The Irish playwright Dion Boucicault was a 19th-century innovator in stage technology, creating a dramatic house fire as the highpoint of one show, and a convincing simulacrum of the Killarney lakes in another. Recent decades have witnessed an explosion of visual technology on stage, including lasers, scrolling text and complex video projections of all sorts.

Live music has always had its place in large-scale operas and musicals; music or audio was frequently used to cover clunky scene changes in plays. But in recent decades, audio design has become a whole new element, with shows frequently scored like movies. This explosion in tech reached a high-point here with the Enda Walsh/Donnacha Dennehy opera collaboration The Second Violinist in 2017. This used filmed excerpts, scrolling text, projected images as well as chorus singing, ensemble musicians, soloists and mime; it was a smorgasbord of the oldest and newest theatrical tricks.

There are many one-off technical spectaculars, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Tempest from 2016, made in collaboration with Intel and Imaginarium Studios. The sprite-like character of Ariel was performed by an actor wearing an electronic motion-capture suit. Thus, the Ariel appearing on stage is simultaneously projected as a digital avatar floating above.

The stage is in a constant state of self-reinvention, and every age leaves its mark. While theatre is currently suffering a grievous wound, something interesting may emerge from the scar.

'What Do We Need to Talk About?' is on at publictheater.org until June 28

Indo Review