Audiences need to learn new skills to consume art online

I have discovered the joys, frustrations and etiquette of being a spectator alone in my home

Stanley Townsend pictured on stage as producer Selina O’Reilly (right) and Gemma Reeves, General Manager Rough Magic, prepare socially distanced allocated seating of Solar Bones by Mike McCormack in an adaptation by Michael West. Photograph: Mark Stedman

At an arts industry webinar about creating art for presentation online, one of the speakers pointed out that compared with the gaming industry, most artists, arts managers, promoters and presenters are beginners in the digital realm. Reflecting on this observation after the webinar, it occurred to me that it was not just the artists that needed to learn new skills but audiences too.

When the pandemic caused the closure of arts institutions and the cancellation of festivals, live art event enthusiasts were faced with the choice of forgoing their habitual engagement with the arts or taking a leap of faith with the artists and arts organisations that were experimenting with new ways of transmitting art.

Motivated in part by professional responsibilities as an arts consultant and researcher for the UCD Irish Arts Festival Archive, in part by solidarity with the artists whose livelihoods were under such threat, and finally by curiosity and a desire for adventure, I have over the past year discovered the joys, frustrations and etiquette of being a spectator alone in my home.

While sorely missing the incomparable potency of the collective experience of assembly and witness that is experienced at a performing arts event, and the visceral pleasure that can be had wandering the halls of a museum, I am, at the end of a year of remote cultural consumption, beginning to be a more comfortable and enthusiastic voyager in the virtual realm and a keen consumer of offline solo art experiences.


One of the first online events I attended was the Abbey Theatre’s Dear Ireland, which offered the public 50 short plays performed to camera by 50 actors, released over four nights starting on April 29th. Responding to the zeitgeist, the protagonist in each of the plays shared insights and frustrations at being forced to stay apart.

The last year has been challenging for Galway-based spectacle theatre company Macnas. Their Galway 2020 commission Gilgamesh, which was originally conceived as a public performance, has been reimagined as a series of films. Video: Bryan O'Brien

Shane O'Reilly's Windowpane, a signed performance by Amanda Coogan, epitomised the separation we were all feeling while reminding us that, for some, separation is always present. In Shower, written by Sarah Hanly and performed by Denise Gough, the nurse's cry for help while on a phone call to a plumber left an indelible mark of front-line worker heroism.

I was able to witness dancers from around the world speak about their practice... and what it meant to them to perform

Viewing these works, I initially felt connected to a community of theatre enthusiasts around the country and beyond, who, starved of live performance, were embracing this project as an interim measure. However, my edge of excitement at being part of a collective experience was tempered when I discovered I could pause the streaming and return to it at any time.

I have always enjoyed the spectacle of world-class dancers presenting finely crafted choreographies but often struggled to embrace the more abstract works, feeling I lacked an understanding of their complex vocabulary. Unable to present live dance in 2020, Dublin Dance Festival presented a series of events online in late May under the title Modes of Capture. This included some newly commissioned filmed dance pieces, among them a hilarious representation of a dance couple's rural lockdown created by Jazmin Chiodi and Alexander Iseli, and several events that invited the public into the discussion about dance.

Emboldened by the relative protection of Zoom, I attended some of these events where I was able to witness dancers from around the world speak about their practice, how choreographies were created, and what it meant to them to perform. As I listened, the forbidding discourse that I believed precluded me from contemporary dance was slowly  revealed and I realised that, while lacking the joy of live dance, the online format of the 2020 Dublin Dance Festival offered me something new instead.

During the summer I was encouraged by easing public health restrictions to seek out what limited cultural events were happening around Ireland. I delighted in Stanley Townsend performing Mike McCormack's Solar Bones as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival, and sat for an hour on the harbour wall in Galway watching John Gerrard's Mirror Pavilion.

Later, as the country moved back into lockdown my exploration of alternative modes of arts experience resumed. Some of the events attended during this period were broadcasts of prerecorded performances to camera. But the work that resonated most with me was by artists who, like gamers, embraced the interactive potential of the internet, or looked beyond the internet for media to transmit their ideas and connect with the public.

During Dublin Fringe Festival I attended Initiation by Matthew Bratko & Frank Sweeney, an audio performance presented on Zoom to a small audience who looked at each other while listening to the story of a person's initiation into a cult. Advised in advance to have certain props to hand, we were instructed at one point to put our face into a basin of water when the protagonist was submerged in a tank, and to drink a raw egg when the hero was forced to consume a gooey liquid.

Moving away from the virtual realm, attendees at 1000 Miniature Meadows were sent a small packet of Irish wildflower seeds, which they were invited to plant somewhere nearby their home,as they listened to an audio download that had been created by artists Shanna May Breen and Luke Cassidy. Some weeks later, I sat in my kitchen for 45 minutes attending A Thousand Ways by US company 600 Highwayman, presented as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. This surprisingly moving piece was experienced by an audience of two on a conference call, during which a computerised voice took us on a mutually self-revealing drive through an American desert.

The most recent period of lockdown has seen the emergence of a new generation of online theatre experiences presented by larger arts organisations with the resources to develop high-quality theatre performed to camera, supported by extensive marketing and PR. In the comfort of my home I have enjoyed Landmark's live performance of Mark O'Rowe's The Approach, from Project Arts Centre, and Once Upon a Bridge by Sonya Kelly, presented by Druid live from its theatre in Galway.

These initiatives were met with enthusiasm not just in Ireland but by critics and theatre lovers around the world. Contributing to the quality of these experiences was my purchase of a ticket, knowing there was a predetermined start time, and that the cup of tea would have to wait until the end.

The corollary of having the best of Irish theatre and other arts available to audiences globally is that we too can enjoy an unimaginable array of events that are now being streamed online. This includes such global brands as New York’s Met Opera and London’s National Theatre, but also less mainstream offerings that offer more alternative experiences.

In recent weeks I had the pleasure of attending a series of events happening in Vancouver as part of the PUSH OFF festival, an event I had attended several times in person in the past. Responding to the festival’s invitation to speculate on future forms of artistic presentation, We Quit Theatre presented an evocative interrogation of gender identity on a google doc, with the audience reading along as the text was typed live.

I am hopeful that the developments in cultural production and dissemination that have emerged during the last year are not jettisoned

After the show the doc was left open, and a lively discussion ensued between the audience and the creators. I also received by post what was billed as a paper concert: a beautiful handmade CD-sized book created by singer-songwriter Amanda Sum. As evening fell, I settled into a quiet corner and relished every moment of this delicate artwork that, in spite of its silent delivery, was full of music.

As the distribution of the vaccine accelerates in the coming months, those of us who love the arts, will, I believe, emerge enthusiastically from our year of hibernation to sit, dance and sway in the company of artists and their work, cherishing more dearly these moments of congregation and communion. However, for a multitude of reasons I am hopeful that the developments in cultural production and dissemination that have emerged during the last year are not jettisoned.

As a rural dweller of more than 30 years, I have often yearned for greater access to the arts. Consequently, I would hope that, in the future, companies such as Druid will consider including a live broadcast of their productions for those of us unable to see their work in person. While not the same as going to a live theatre performance, online streaming is a game changer as work becomes accessible to other audiences including us rural dwellers, those with disabilities that preclude them from attending live events, the elderly, and people who may not otherwise feel comfortable in a theatre.

As I pass by the little ring of stones that mark my “miniature meadow”, watching for the first seedlings to emerge, or catch a glimpse of the paper concert booklet, I am reminded of the many rich experiences that I had over the year, and hope that the innovation of the arts community that has overcome such immense obstacles during these periods of lockdown will continue to explore and sustain new ways to connect with us online and in person.

An earlier version of this article misidentified Shower, by Sarah Hanly