COVID-19 and its impact on the aesthetics of dance and theatre

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Numerous media, activist and scholarly articles have already described and analysed the economic and social impacts of the coronavirus-related lockdown restrictions on the arts. We know of theatres that have shut down around the world, with the related job losses. Broadway theatres have announced that they will reopen only in September 2021. Dance and theatre companies have retrenched staff. Huge amounts of artistic capital have been lost as creative individuals have migrated to other industries to find alternative sources of income in order for them and their families to survive.

But what has the impact of the lockdown been on the very forms of theatre and dance? The uniqueness of theatre and dance – we are led to believe – lies in the live encounter between performers and audience, so that no performance is ever the same, with performers feeding off the audience, and vice versa. Without live audiences for more than seven months and the retreat to online platforms, how have theatre and dance adapted and changed? And is it true that dance and theatre are best consumed as live performances?

These were some of the questions that formed the premise of a recent Sustaining Theatre and Dance (STAND) Foundation webinar, with speakers from the USA, North Macedonia, Uganda and South Africa. The range of speakers was selected specifically to gain insights into how different countries are dealing with the economic, social and aesthetic challenges of the lockdown, so that we in South Africa might learn and might apply this learning as appropriate to our context, while also sharing our experience with colleagues abroad.

Erwin Maas, a theatre director from the Netherlands who is now based in New York and who is a founding director of the Pan-African Creative Exchange initiated by the Vryfees in Bloemfontein, spoke for many when he expressed his antipathy towards watching theatre online. With numerous movie-streaming platforms to choose from, each with thousands of movies and series with infinitely superior production values, online theatre is often amateurish in comparison. The equipment used to film theatre productions is basic, and the imperative is to have work seen and perhaps to generate some kind of income, but, generally, online theatre has not evolved to a point where it can compete with other offerings to which “the market” is much inclined.

On the other hand, Christiaan Olwagen, a local multiple award-winning director working in both theatre and film, spoke of how the lockdown restrictions have allowed him to access international theatre productions that he had not seen before, principally through the National Theatre in the United Kingdom livestreaming productions that they had recorded for archival purposes.

It is those like Olwagen who are best able to navigate the possibilities of theatre on film, given his experience in both. Currently, he is working on a project labelled Proscenium, in which mainly Afrikaans theatre productions are being filmed professionally for online release. This is being done with multiple cameras and all the relevant film expertise necessary so that the final product – even though performed on a stage with traditional sets, rather than on location – will be worth watching as filmed theatre.

While the National Theatre productions were filmed for archival purposes with live audiences, the Proscenium productions are filmed without live audiences: does this make the National Theatre productions closer to the traditional understanding of theatre than the Proscenium filmed theatre? Does it matter?

While there is general agreement that theatre and dance are best experienced “live”, the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions and the innovations and “out-the-box” thinking that have been initiated by the need for actors and dancers to earn an income through online platforms, are likely to continue, but with greater resources and attention to production values.

Biljana Tanurovska runs a dance centre in Skopje, and Musa Hlatshwayo is a choreographer based in KwaZulu-Natal. With travel limited by the lockdown and social distancing, both spoke of the challenges of choreographing over Zoom, rather than in the actual space with the dancers. Inevitably, the form and quality of the work would be affected as a result, and the audience’s experience of the dance performance on an online platform – mediated by a camera – would be considerably limited, too, as the audience is less likely to appreciate the breadth and depth of the work on a mobile phone or computer than on a stage.

Director of the Kampala International Theatre Festival and herself a playwright, Asiimwe Deborah Kashugi opined that online theatre is already a genre in its own right and will soon be taught in training institutions, with students learning how to make theatre particularly for online consumption. This will be no different to radio drama, where theatre is created particularly for that medium, so that online theatre will, in future, be created with its own set of rules, technical requirements and skill sets.

Kashugi’s view was also that online theatre has two further benefits. First, the genre in which she works – monologues – resonates with traditional African storytelling, so that contemporary technology facilitates traditional cultural practices. Second, online platforms allow theatremakers to get around the censorship of dictatorial regimes like those in Uganda. On the other hand, expensive data and poor internet access limit local audiences from viewing contemporary online work.

Less than a year into the global pandemic, it would appear that the need to innovate is opening up possibilities for the very forms of theatre and dance to be interrogated, and for new forms to emerge, with the additional benefit of potentially global audiences.

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