Does theatre have a role in the 21st Century?

Streaming, gaming, social media…. The Cloud. In the 21st Century our lives are split between the tangible and the ephemera; that which we can interact with using all of our senses and that which is limited to a subset of them (I have no idea what the internet smells or tastes like and have no desire to find out). In a world where much of our leisure time is spent ‘on line’ whether on social media, streaming films or playing multiplayer games, theatre sits apart as an artform that is not only best experienced ‘in person’ but almost exclusively only experienced in person.

stage@leeds has just launched stage@leedsDigital, an on line multi-platform digital theatre. Unlike the National Theatre’s ‘Theatre at the movies’ initiative, which opens up London Shows to worldwide audiences by streaming live theatre to cinemas, the aim of the stage@leedsDigital theatre is to support creatives who create work specifically for the digital realm. A few years ago, the idea of stage@leedsDigital would have been viewed as a gimmick, or an attempt to pander to what we used to refer to as ‘New Media’. In the current climate and on the back of advances in remote social technologies like Zoom, Facetime, IGTV etc. the idea of a virtual is accepted as natural evolutionary response.

When our fishy ancestors crawled, or possibly slithered, out of the oceans and on to the land, theirs was a singular journey. They didn’t return to the water, didn’t choose a semi-aquatic life, didn’t become mermaids. We gave up the sea in favour of the land. I don’t know why, I wasn’t around at the time. Maybe we simply no longer needed the sea or the idea of soggy cheese toasty was more than we could bear but whatever the reason, for better or worse we chose the land.

In a world currently dominated by the realities of social isolation, remote working and ever more digital output it would be easy to believe that our relationship with live theatre is destined to end up like our relationship with the sea. We know its there, we’re glad it’s there and once in a while we actually visit, but, it doesn’t really form a central part of most of our daily lives.

Actually, that’s the reality for live theatre already. Since the first movie theatre opened its doors, live theatre has been competing in an ever more crowded market for our attention and support. Does this mean theatre has no place in the 21st Century? I don’t think so. I’m extremely excited by the possibilities digital theatre offers and I look forward to working with and supporting artists working in the digital domain, but it doesn’t dim my love or belief in live theatre and its unique power.

I said at the start of this article that; we undertake some activities in which we interact using all of our senses, and some where we only use a subset of them. Live theatre (when done well) is a fully sensory experience. People talk about ‘immersive’ theatre as a genre or style, but the truth is, that all good theatre is immersive. ‘Social distancing’ has become a phrase and a reality we are all familiar with and highlights something we all know but rarely acknowledge. Humans are pack animals; we like being social and because of this we struggle with distancing. Theatre is a social activity that we experienced together, there is a connection between audience and performers that is immediate and free from cyphers. When, blinking in the light, we return to our new normal, it will be live performance that we will seek out and it be live theatre, in all it’s diversity, that articulates our mood, dreams, wishes and fears.

By Steve Ansell