Three weeks ago, I went to see a play. And by “went”, I mean that I went home, walked upstairs … and watched a live performance through my computer screen
In August 2020, the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM) announced that their fall 2020 program would be available online to a ticketed audience. Initially, it had also planned to welcome spectators at a reduced capacity, in compliance with the government’s health recommendations. However, now that Montreal has re-entered the red zone, going out to the theatre is no longer an option.
Times are extremely hard for the local artistic community. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, cultural stakeholders have had no choice but to adapt quickly to this new reality. And that’s when modern technologies came into play – no pun intended.
During the pandemic, digital platforms and online streaming services allowed artists to keep sharing their passion virtually. This year, viewers and consumers of art were gifted with many online film festivals and concerts. The TNM decided to follow this trend by streaming five plays and live performances for the season.
But livestreaming theatre comes with its own unique challenges. It is quite easy for the film industry to transfer everything online: Netflix does it all the time, and movies are made to be watched through a screen. In contrast, plays are made to be seen in person. Some could argue that livestreamed theatre makes the “real” theatre lose its essence. Moreover, it also makes viewing difficult for senior spectators (the TNM’s main audience) who may be less familiar with computers.
Suzanne Lebrun, 90, has been a TNM subscriber since the 1980s. When she tried to log in on the platform for the first play of the season – Zebrina. Une pièce à conviction – everything went smoothly… up until the moment the video started lagging. Before the play had even started.
She had been able to get to the correct webpage thanks to her niece, who stayed on the phone with Lebrun to help her adjust the image and sound settings. They hung up just before the beginning of the performance, and that’s when Lebrun noticed that something was wrong.
“Everything was pitch-black. I could see the stage and a moving shadow, but I had no sound, and there was this circle that kept coming back again and again,” said Lebrun.
The circle she is referring to is the loading icon. At the time, she didn’t know what it was, and had no idea that a connection problem was the cause of these technical difficulties. She tried refreshing the page multiple times and had to navigate through the website by herself to get back to the play. After an hour and a half of failed attempts, she completely gave up.
The worst part of this story? Lebrun wasn’t able to access the page in the days that followed because the link was good for one use only. The performance was live, and just like “in real life,” she couldn’t go back to see the play for a second time for free.
Nevertheless, she doesn’t regret paying for the $65 dollar livestream subscription (for five shows). Even though she is extremely disappointed with her first experience, she believes it is important to encourage the artists any way she can. But she admitted that she still missed going to the TNM: “It’s not the same. My usual seat is right in the front, it’s like I’m part of the play. I can see them [the actors] sweat, cry and spit… Once, there was even a sword that flew all the way to our row, at the bottom of the stage!” she said.
For Marielle Lussier, 65, the experience was enjoyable. She says she was able to watch the play in the comfort of her house for a fairly low price, and that she is happy that she didn’t have to deal with Montreal parking.
“Sure, the visual and sound effects are not as amplified, but in the light of the specific circumstances, I prefer it this way [online] than no way,” said Lussier. Still, she would’ve gone to the theatre if she had had the option.
Theatre regulars and enthusiasts seem to think unanimously that something is missing with online plays. A screen is a wall between the public and the performers: the emotions and the intentions can be lost in translation. And frankly, it is way harder to feel the theatrical spirit when you are vegging out in your pyjamas in front of your 27-inch TV. Despite all of this, this could be a great opportunity for theatre companies to reach a new audience since the easier and cheaper access could appeal to the younger generations.
As J. Kelly Nestruck tweeted: “Rehearsals and digital capture are still permitted during the 28 days [partial lockdown].” The TNM will be moving forward with its online programming.
Do you like orchestral music or classic literature? Whether you are a French speaker or a French learner, you should go check it out!