• michaelabennison

The New Empty Space

This morning I sat down on my bed and watched “The Barber Shop Chronicles” on the National Theatre YouTube Channel before it was taken down. It’s the third NT Live play I’ve watched during lockdown, having also watched “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Frankenstein” over the last few weeks

The Nation Theatre isn't the only company making work available to online audiences. Other productions are using archival footage, creatives are organising live-streamed charity benefits and individuals are posting either pre-recorded or live performances on social media from home.

Frustratingly, I’m quarantined approximately 40 miles away from my copy of “The Empty Space” by Peter Brook. But from memory (and with a bit of help from Google, not gonna lie) Brook opens by defining theatre as:

“a man [who] walks across [an] empty space whilst someone else is watching him...”

The question that increasingly occurs to me as Theatre, machete in hand, carves its way into the internet jungle is: if a man is filmed walking across an empty space, am I, the home viewer, really watching him?

Firstly there’s the pedantic response: “Well, technically, I’m watching an image made up of pixels coded in ones and zeros that create a replica of what a man walking across the space would look like from the camera’s point of view.”

But there’s also the question of what we mean by watch. Just as, in language, “listen” and “hear” have subtly different meanings, watching a recording on a screen doesn’t feel the same as being in the same room as the action. And, admittedly, I feel the plays I’ve seen would’ve been more enjoyable live, even though I’m incredibly grateful that I saw them at all. It’s what I love about theatre - being in the empty space is electric.

It can’t go unsaid that NT Live, both in its original and online forms, is increasing accessibility to theatre. The NT Live program has historically correlated with an increase in theatre attendance. Online spaces that can be accessed from home are another positive step towards accessibility. Neurodiverse patrons don’t have to worry about crowds and can pause the recording if they need to take a break. YouTube also has automated captions for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing, although I would love to see set captions and audio description provided for all productions.

For me, the important question that we, as theatre creatives, need to be asking is, “What is the empty space on a digital stage?”

  • Is it shared time, using live broadcasts? And are views after the fact still in that shared space?

  • Is it a shared community, with audiences talking about and discussing the play on social media?

  • Is it the platform used to broadcast; should YouTube and Instagram be viewed as spaces as distinct from each other as the Olivier and Dorfman stages?

And if the digital theatre space remains post Covid-19, as I believe it will, how do producers curate work for it? Theatre created for a proscenium arch, 1,000-seat theatre will not directly translate to a 50-seat studio space in the round. The same is true for work made for stage directly transferring to screen and vice versa.

I don’t know the answer to these questions - I’m just an actress sitting in her childhood bedroom on her laptop. And I don’t think the answers will present themselves any time soon. Theatre’s want to keep audiences engaged so that they will return when it’s safe. And for many theatres, that strategy involves making work available digitally. But in this endeavor, we cannot forget the essence of theatrical experience:

Two people. An empty space. One walks across it while another is watching.

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