I can, inadvertently, put a lot of pressure on theatre to be something I consistently love. Of course, the reason I am a theatre critic is because of my deep love for the art form and because of the multiple transcendent – and sometimes life altering – experiences I’ve had in theatres. But I don’t feel this pressure and expectation is uncommon. It arises from our enduring relationships with the form, yet also from the effort required to go to the theatre: outlaying the money for a ticket; arranging our days to make time to attend a production; allowing for time spent travelling there and back. The mental and physical difficulty, once you’ve entered and sat down, of leaving the theatre if, part way through, you realise you don’t want to be there at all. You need to love it.
Sometimes, it’s this pressure that causes us to be forgiving of theatre: I put so much effort in, I’m going to make sure I have a good time. But even a show that is fine, a show that is okay, can niggle away at you: especially if, over time, these just fine shows mount up on top of each other.
Which is why, when re-watching Young Jean Lee’s work in preparation to write my column last fortnight, I was gratified to be reminded of how much I love watching theatre on my computer. It takes away all of the pressure. Who really cares if the theatre is only okay, if the only effort involved is loading a link? When you can watch it in bed, without any of the effort of wearing pants? When, if you’re busy, you can watch it in small chunks? When, if you’re bored, you can stop watching all together?
Watching theatre on the computer comes nowhere near to the real thing. You can’t see the full depth of the director’s choreography; you can’t understand the details of how the designers’ set and lighting intersect; you can’t feel the way the sound designer’s work swirls around the space. In the most meticulously edited video work, the camera will linger on a performance you don’t care for; in work edited on the go, the camera will cut to an empty desk for no apparent reason. But it’s this shitty approximation of theatre that makes it so endearing. It’s all fine, and that’s okay.
At Edinburgh’s Forest Fringe in August, I went to Quizoola!, a six-hour long question-and-answer based work first performed by Forced Entertainment in 1996. For the past few years, I’ve been watching Forced Entertainment’s frequent livestreams online whenever I can – and was especially fond of the 24-hour version Quizoola!, which for once rendered time zones immaterial. Somewhere in the world, the company members sit in a theatre in front of a live audience; somewhere else the rest of us sit and watch on our computers and phones, and tweet along.
Part of Quizoola!’s longevity derives from its live, generative nature, which shifts not only over the hours but also over the decades as one performer asks questions – some prepared, some not – and a second performer answers them. Watching this process live was a truly bizarre experience. Every now and then, they would ask a question I’d heard before as I sat on the opposite side of the world and I’d startle as – somehow – I’d recall an answer I’d heard all that time before.
In the live space, you see the machinations of Quizoola! and join in with the audience’s collective laughter. But, mostly, you become conscious of the way the company plays with time. When you leave the room to get a drink, or, as I did, to go and have a nap, you’re acutely aware of the way time and the performance continue without you – an awareness that’s inevitably absent when you are able to shut the lid of your laptop and walk away whenever you wish.
It’s this distortion of time that is the real failing of theatre on the small screen. You can pause it for an hour or a day; if it isn’t live, you can rewind when your mind drifts off or you want to re-watch a moment you loved. This is so far away from the way real theatre operates that you can love it on its own, unmitigated terms. It’s not theatre. It’s not even really trying to be.
Cinema screenings of recorded theatre productions are a different matter. They desperately attempt to recreate the real deal – to be just like the real thing, but better – and so are destined to fail. Instead, it’s the online versions of theatre I keep going back to. I loved seeing Quizoola! live, but I won’t miss that in-theatre setting when I next watch a livestream, because that’s not what I watch for. I watch it, and all the other shows I watch on my computer, because they can’t possibly pretend to be anything more than what they are.
I watch the one camera livestreams, and the multi-camera edits. I watch those with high production values, and those without. I tweet along with the livestream, and idly check Twitter when I’m watching alone. And I’ll keep coming back to it: just me, alone, in bed, with my computer and no pants and my greatest love of all – theatre. In all its shitty glory.