Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Who has to turn up for an event to be live?

I saw a play and there were no actors in the building. And you know what? It was great.

Internationally acclaimed Theatre Company Pan Pan presented their production of Samuel Beckett's ALL THAT FALL at Project Arts Centre, Dublin a couple of weeks ago. Beckett wrote the play for radio, so Pan Pan decided that rather than stage the play they would very simply record it (with a great cast) and play it back in a theatre. There was no stage, but there was a design that occupied the whole space. I went in, chose my rocking chair with black cushion adorned with white skull, sat back and listened to Beckett's radio play in the company of a packed house all sitting and rocking. Not an actor to be seen.

Pan Pan's production of All That Fall begs a really interesting question: who has to be present for live theatre to be live?

For years one of the key arguments for the continued significance of theatre was the very fact of its "liveness", of being in the presence of real people acting out a story in real time in the same space as you. Pan Pan's production has dealt that argument a devastating blow. The audience loved the production, making it a 98% sell out hit. Nobody minded that there were no actors actually present, nobody minded that the performance they were hearing was identical to every other performance in the course of the run, and nobody minded that there was nobody to applaud at the end. In fact nobody minded that the show lacked some of the key characteristics in the traditional argument for why live theatre is uniquely different from cinema.

It would seem that all that is required for Live Theatre to occur is for a bunch of people (the audience) to gather in the same place to witness a story: the medium of retelling (is the teller present or not) is irrelevant.

It would have been very possible for Pan Pan's production to have occurred in any number of venues simultaneously, greatly increasing the audience and significantly reducing the costs of touring.

A couple of months ago I attended a production of The Royal National Theatre's Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle. Except I wasn't in London - I was in Dublin, in a cinema. Frankenstein was part of the NT Live programme. The live theatre event was beautifully captured for the screen by multi camera director Tim Van Someren. Again, the absence of actors did not affect the quality of the experience. I saw an excellent piece of theatre - on a big screen.

Here in Ireland theatre has been bedeviled by a massive overdependence on inadequate state funding: unwilling to invest during the boom times and unable to invest now (but that's another story). Quite simply the cost of production and subsequent touring far outweighs the potential income from sales. That no longer has to be the case. The NT Frankenstein and Pan Pan's All That Fall have proven that it is the quality of the experience and not the "liveness" of the actor that is paramount. If we accept this and then understand that the technology for opening a show in many different venues simultaneously now exists (and is becoming cheaper all the time), allowing theatre to access a global maket, and continue to generate revenue long after the live show has ended, we realise that the economics of theatre production is undergoing a fundamental shift.

(Cinema folk refer to this screening of live theatre, opera, ballet etc as "Alternative Content". That's a little bit cheeky, when you consider that theatre, ballet etc has been playing to audiences in specially built venues for a lot longer than cinema has).

So what makes Live Theatre Live? It would seem that the audience does. But this in itself raises all manner of interesting questions.