The Future of Theatre


Sophie Burton speaks to Dramasoc about current restrictions on live theatre and how they are working to overcome them.

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Image by Lorna Suzanne

By Sophie Burton

To say that the theatre industry is experiencing some instability at the moment would not just be an understatement, it would be an injustice. There have been endless discussions about funding problems, redundancies and the bleak financial crisis affecting not only theatre but all areas of the arts. However, it’s more than just our jobs and our finances being put to the test, it’s the integrity of the art form itself. In a world of social distancing and (constantly changing) new legislations, the concept of live theatre is under threat.

As creatives, those of us involved in theatre are seeking out new ways to produce work and to keep theatre alive but the burning question remains – what does ‘theatre’ look like in a post-Covid world? I interviewed Izzy Stevens and Lorna Suzanne, committee members of DramaSoc, to get an understanding of how the society is approaching these testing times.

Like many professional companies, they explained that the society is finding ways to produce new work in line with social distancing measures through a combination of online performance – either pre-recorded or live streamed and (before lockdown was imposed) having live streamed on-stage performances without an audience present. Many of us tuned in to some of the incredible performances by mainstream theatres  over lockdown.  But most  were recordings of previous live performances and so creating original work in these new mediums is a different matter in itself.

One of my biggest concerns in my own contemplation of the issue is, with new ventures into technology to create work, where we draw the line between art forms. Where does theatre become film? In creating work that is both accessible and safe with these new limitations, are we at risk of  losing the essence of live theatre and verging into a different medium?

Lorna talked me through some of the steps that DramaSoc are taking to maintain the ‘in the moment’ atmosphere that is the essence of theatre. She explained how in some shows, where scenes are pre-recorded, directors are trying to avoid doing multiple takes of scenes. In the same way as in live performances, if an actor messes up or something doesn’t go exactly the way they wanted, it cannot be changed. “When you’re on stage with an audience, what you do then and there in that moment is the performance you get.” She explained how, although there is complete respect for film acting, if we were to record new theatre in the same way as film, we might risk losing the spontaneity at the heart of theatre.

My next question about the new approach to making theatre was that, as an industry that is reliant on interpersonal relationships, is it possible to create an authentic theatrical atmosphere with the absence of an audience in the same room? I’ve watched many examples of recorded and live stream theatre, some have been incredible and I felt as if I was in that room watching it in person . But in other cases I have found the screen can be a barrier and that some of the magic of theatre is missing. However,  both Izzy and Lorna gave some very insightful and hopeful responses.

Izzy, who has just produced a show that was live streamed from the Drama Barn in person, expressed her concerns about how much of the performance would be conveyed, and whether acting styles might need to be adapted to overcome the virtual barrier. She was reassured by responses from audiences to some of the shows the society has produced so far. She identified how audience members have been using the chat function in Zoom to give positive feedback as soon as the performance ended and how those messages are providing the ‘buzz’ actors used to get  from an audience’s applause or audible reactions.

Lorna also pointed out the importance of mindset in these unprecedented times. She explained that we need to make an effort not to compare the ways we are used to creating theatre to the ways we are currently making it . If we do, we will find ourselves stuck in a rut of negativity. She quite rightly highlighted the huge progress that creatives have already made since April. If we are already producing these high standards of work now, imagine what the future will hold.

In the spirit of these ideas  about mindset, I want to leave you with some words of advice from Izzy and Lorna to budding creatives. To anyone who is feeling nervous or afraid of what the future of theatre may look like, this is for you.

Izzy’s advice is: “Don’t be afraid. We are in a really turbulent time right now where anything can happen, but don’t be afraid to play with that fire, to get experimental and creative. If you don’t you might miss out on it. Theatre isn’t going anywhere, it isn’t leaving. The show will go on because it must. The more we fight for it and go to new, crazy places with it, the more chance we have of producing something really exciting.”

Lorna concluded by saying: “Think Big. Don’t see Covid or online theatre as a limitation – see it as an opportunity. Ask yourself what you can take from what’s going on in the world right now and channel it into something creative. Be stubborn against everybody telling you that your industry is collapsing. Be stubborn and think big.”

None of us know what the future holds. The world is changing every day, and the arts are changing with it. That does not mean that the core essence of our passions must change, we merely have to find new ways to adapt and find the strength to keep fighting. Watch this space for I assure you: there will be some incredible theatre coming your way.

If you are interested in seeing DramaSoc’s upcoming productions, their weekend show this week will be Love and Information by Caryl Churchill, directed by Emma Prestedge and produced by Lorna Suzanne. Check out their Facebook page York DramaSoc for more information on where to buy tickets or to find out about their weekly free Open Drama Night performances.