Why we need online theatre after lockdown

Accessing theatre online is a post-pandemic imperative, argues playwright and performer Jamila Main.

14 September 2020

My heart pounds as the boa constrictor of anxiety tightens around my throat. I haven’t had a panic attack in 11 years, but live theatre in South Australia opening up without online viewing options has me on the precipice of one.

After almost half a year inside watching hours of online theatre, the prospect of losing that precious, unprecedented access was re-traumatising. From the start of lockdown, disabled people had predicted that we could lose these increased access measures once nondisabled people were out of lockdown. I was terrified that this was coming true.

A month earlier on 14 August 2020, my article On the precipice: theatre for the isolated audiencewas published by ArtsHub. In it, I called for online viewing options to be embraced once nondisabled theatre-makers return to the stage.

My article was well received and shared widely – even cited by college students in Canada – and I fielded calls from companies and artists asking further questions about online viewing of live performance. I was, naively, optimistic that we would see a future where live performance was regularly accompanied by an online option, the new standard, best practice.

4 September 2020

I was among the first in SA to perform onstage with a live audience after theatres reopened, and I made sure to bring my work to the online, isolated audience. I performed a work-in-progress showing of my durational theatre work about living with a disabling, incurable disease, How Long Can This Last? at Adhocracy, presented by Vitalstatistix.

The live audience were seated cabaret style and a global audience watched from their beds and couches via Instagram Live on my iPhone atop a tripod. My dramaturg Emma Valente (THE RABBLE) directed me over Zoom from lockdown in Naarm/Birrarunga/Melbourne. The video quality wasn’t fantastic, but it was better than nothing for audiences who wanted it. Something is better than nothing.

The recording of the livestream is still up on my Instagram, viewed by just under a thousand people who were isolated from us: by disability, being immunocompromised, distance, or COVID-19 restrictions.

17 October 2021

As a disabled performer and playwright who is frequently unable to attend live performance as an audience member, I am determined to incorporate online viewing options of my live work. I believe it should be the new standard and a new line in our budgets.

As a self-producing indie artist, I have continued to provide online viewing options for my work in 2021 (Butterfly Kicks at RUMPUS; Benched at FELTspace and SALA Festival) while government funded theatre companies and festivals have failed to do so.

For the most part, mainstage theatre companies have demonstrated a disinterest in livestreaming or pre-recording their shows. It tends to be the symphony orchestras and indie artists who are livestreaming and recording their work, while mainstage companies are hamstrung by music licensing, increased actor fees, and expensive technology. Melbourne Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre are two exceptions, both offering a limited slate of digital recordings at the more affordable price of $25.

The recent 2021 Melbourne Fringe, which largely took place online, was a fantastic example of the ingenuity Australian indie artists possess. Stuck at home with a brutal Endometriosis flare up and 722km from Naarm/Melbourne, my diet of pain meds was accompanied by a nourishing charcuterie board of online theatre options.

Among them was a digital adaptation of Lou Wall’s sell out MICF live show, That One Time I Joined The Illuminati. Wall is another self-producing indie artist who has quickly made a name for themself as an ingenious creator of online theatre following their online presentation of Lousical the Musical,which won the 2020 Green Room Award for Outstanding Online Achievement in Cabaret. Wall’s brilliantly bonkers show about their attempts to join the Illuminati during lockdown was a fantastic demonstration of how editing and film techniques can take a live work to new heights.

Once nondisabled artists can return to the physical stage, there will still be artists and audiences who need to make and watch theatre remotely. If we do return to the ways we made and presented theatre pre-pandemic, I sincerely hope Wall and the other artists in Melbourne Fringe continue to experiment with making and presenting their work online in addition to live performances.

The Future

Theatre folk are a resilient people. Problem solving, improvising, and adapting are our daily bread. I had hoped the larger companies with their greater resources would be more engaged with online theatre rather than myself, an actor/playwright who scrounges grant money to pay a mate with a camera to record my work.

For a sector so oft described as programming for their aging subscribers, wouldn’t online viewing options be a worthy investment for their audience as they miss the matinees and move into nursing homes? What if Sydney Theatre Company had redirected some of the cameras in The Picture of Dorian Gray to provide an online viewing option?

As a Tandanya/Adelaide based artist, I was able to work with STC during the most recent lockdown on a creative development of Curiosity by Daley Rangi, where the team was spread over four states and three time zones. The only time during the development that I deeply missed being in the same room together was when we would break for lunch and step away from our laptops, alone in our homes. Our work-in-progress reading was livestreamed via Facebook to an audience of 120 people, some watching from lockdown, but others in WA and SA electing for a Friday night in.

This makes me, perhaps naively, optimistic that there is a future in online theatre.

There will always be an audience who cannot come to the physical theatre but want to be with us virtually.

Access is a human right. I believe in our responsibility as storytellers to provide that access. If we have the audience, and we have the stories, and we have the ability to provide access, we must not fail.

Every state and territory are at a different point in returning to live performance as they navigate the impact of COVID-19. There is an atmosphere of striving for the pre-pandemic normal in Tandanya, but there are artists taking this opportunity to integrate online viewing options.

Replay Creative is a newly formed company specialising in hybrid theatre and film work, teaming up with independent theatre venue RUMPUS to provide livestreamed and digital recordings of the 2021 RUMPUS season. The boa constrictor of anxiety has loosened its hold. If I can’t get there, I will still be able to see the shows, support the artists, and be included in the conversations.

Slingsby Theatre is another company in the small-to-medium sector in Tandanya who provide digital viewing options through Slingsby On Demand. Windmill Theatre has expanded to include Windmill Pictures, adapting their live show Beep into a mixed media seriesfor ABC Kids. As the larger theatre companies in SA and around the country announce their 2022 seasons, I search for any announcements of online viewing options.

Even if they did, would they continue sharing theatre online once lockdowns are a thing of the past and all the nondisabled theatre-makers are back on the stage? I live with incurable, chronic disease that frequently flares and knocks me off my feet and into my wheelchair or bed. Will I have a charcuterie board of online theatre options when I am too unwell to leave my home in 10 years’ time? In 30? 60? Will there be more options? Or will there be none at all, save for the ones made by the disabled and regional theatre-makers who know the significance of theatre for the isolated audience? We are still on the precipice. We still have the chance to move into a more accessible, inclusive future of live and online performance. We must take the leap.

Jamila Main has been writing and performing work for the stage, screen, and livestream since 2016, and has worked with Sydney Theatre Company, Malthouse Theatre Company, Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Adelaide Festival, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Midsumma Festival, Back to Back Theatre, RUMPUS, and ActNow Theatre. Jamila has previously been published by ArtsHub and Meeting Place Magazine, and freelances as an Access and Inclusion Consultant. Jamila is based on unceded Kaurna Yerta and is a queer, ambulatory wheelchair user with Endometriosis and Osteoarthritis. Jamila fosters community and advocates for disabled, queer rights on Instagram at @mamila_jain