Is a Play on Zoom Still Theater?

Oh, yay, another Zoom performance. Well intended, I mark my calendar—and wind up reading a book instead. Why does performance feel so flat online?

Well, it is flat, reduced to two dimensions, and often popped into Brady Bunch squares (though I think we are getting past that). But the caliber of the performance can be the same, I remind myself, and they sound surprisingly good. In my broke and lawless youth, I listened to several bootlegged Broadway shows, had even allowed the use of my purse to conceal the crime. Then, though, half the thrill was the illicit act. Now, in sedate maturity, my problem with digital or recorded theater—theater, in other words, that is distanced from us by time or space or both—is that I know the performers have no idea what their audience thinks and feels. And I have no idea what the rest of the audience thinks or feels. Instead of being bound into a temporary community, hearing gasps of shock or sniffled back tears, I feel like I am watching from a sensory deprivation tank.

When someone shy has to go onstage, the advice usually aims to diminish the audience: “Focus on just one person” or, my favorite, “Imagine them all naked.” But experienced performers can cope with a clothed audience, and they feed off the energy that audiences throw back to them. Try reconstructing that response with livestream tweets, and you will lose your mind.

I am thinking these things when I read about this year’s A.E. Hotchner New Play Festival, specifically about Cheryl Robs a Bank, a comedy that explores questions of self-presentation, anti-heroism, and who gets to tell the story. It sounds delightful. It will debut online. I will forget and miss it. In a spurt of guilt, I contact the playwright, Washington University graduate student Holly Gabelmann, the following week. How … er … did it go?

She wrote the play before the pandemic, intending it to be seen live. “The lead character talks to the audience a lot,” she tells me, “and theoretically, there’s this really beautiful feedback between her and the audience. On Zoom, there wasn’t that almost tactile connection.” She sighs. “It was also hard because it was a comedy, and I have no idea if the jokes landed.”

Still trying to wrap my head around the fake applause at sporting events—so necessary, so cheesy—I ask if she considered a laugh track. “I think that can be a little bit condescending,” she says. “It kind of tells the audience what to find funny.”

She mentions audience members live-tweeting as a way to restore some of the energy, underscore what was funny or moving, but I worry about Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” Trying to think of something clever, astute, or witty to tweet takes your brain right out of receptivity; you are distancing yourself even further from the work, holding it at arm’s length while you analyze, and soon your ego is up there on the stage too, a faux-reluctant guest pulled into the limelight for a magic trick.

Gabelmann reminds me (and maybe herself) how adaptable theater is, how Zoom offers new creative possibilities, how it has democratized (meaning, made affordable) access to some really fine theater. “In the space between actor and audience, something really magical happens,” she says. “An offering, and the audience picking it up and measuring it against their own experience. That can happen over a computer.”

It can, of course it can. So why do I still hesitate? On screen, even something happening in real time does not feel live. When does a piece stop being theater and become film, I wonder. We have always recorded plays to be seen later, but the best parts of those recordings, Gabelmann concedes, are “the times the camera pans back so you can see the first row of the audience and feel a little jealous of them because they got to see it live.”

She once heard a choreographer do a monologue “about sitting in a chair in the theater, surrounded by other people who are sometimes too loud or whispering something to their grandmother, but then the lights go down and you have this sense of being held.” Sitting in your living room watching a recording, nothing keeps you on the couch. You can walk to the fridge, jot something on a grocery list, transfer clothes from the washer to the dryer. In a theater, you are held in place, and you know everyone else is, too. Every audience member has made a commitment, setting their life aside, becoming a willing captive to the story.

A good friend of mine, Mike Isaacson, is artistic director and executive producer for the Muny Theatre; at the moment, he is also producing, on Broadway, David Byrne’s American Utopia and Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite (this time with Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker). Musical theater is Mike’s life. This summer, he put together a Zoom variety show for all the audience members desolate at missing the season. It was enthusiastically received, but I could tell it was harder for him to do than ten live shows at once.

“Theater is people in the same space, experiencing things at the same time,” he says firmly, “and forming connections.” I close my eyes for a second, envisioning beams of criss-crossing light and, by the show’s end, a sort of fiber-optic mesh stretching across the footlights. “In those connections,” Mike continues, “there are discoveries and truths that only happen when people connect live in the same space. There’s an energy that only happens when people are in a real conversation.”

Put a show onscreen, and it changes fundamentally, he maintains. “You cannot get real connection—everyone is in a box—and therefore you cannot get real conflict, which is the essence of drama.” It never before occurred to me how embodied and primal our imaginations are, how seeing people in two dimensions might cut the physical tension. Onstage, the actors could theoretically come to blows at any moment, whether the script calls for it or not. Online, they cannot even touch. And in a film, spontaneous gestures can be edited out.

“Film is a brilliant lie,” Mike startles me by saying. “It is edited; it has a point of view. It’s not showing you reality.” As for Zoom, after six wearying months, he has decided that “screens are dehumanizing. I need to see the flicker in your eye as we talk. Something biochemical, spiritual, whatever, happens when we are in the same space. On Zoom, you are just staring, worrying about your lighting.”

“But in a big, dark theater, we can’t see somebody’s eyes flicker,” I point out. “We’re distanced there, too.”

“You’re not,” he says. “You’re not. That’s what’s wild. There’s something intuitive, and I can’t explain it, but it’s not about distance. You are in the same place, you are looking, someone is projecting toward you, and you are connecting. You see that performer’s human struggle. And that, even from the free seats at the back of the Muny, is more clear and honest than looking at a screen.”

If it were not, he adds, the form would have died out with television.

We fall silent for a few seconds. Then he reminds me that he is the one who brought giant LED screens to the Muny stage to add to the storytelling. He is not against technology: “It definitely has a place and a possibility. Especially for educational stuff, talkbacks with actors, and audiences. But it’s not theater. The most creaky, bizarre musical, live, tells more human truths than any film ever made.”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.