In the beginning, everything was live. We sat around the fire, banged bits of bone together and howled tunefully at the unforgiving moon. Then some bright spark picked up a charred stick and used it to draw the first rudimentary picture on a cave wall. Fast forward 40 millennia, 2001: a Space Odyssey-style, and we continue to make a distinction between the thrilling evanescence of live performance and the profoundly different experience of recorded art, whether that record has been made in burnt wood or on 4K video.
Covid has caused us to think again about the differing values we apply to the live experience and the recorded one. Much of the focus during the pandemic has been on how we miss being in crowds at live events, but there’s also the emotional charge of watching or hearing something in the actual moment, even if you’re not physically present. Call it immediacy or authenticity, unpredictability or uniqueness, but it’s part of the reason people pay more to attend a single concert than they will to purchase the entire recorded works of the same musician. And it’s why online audiences still get far more excited about live events than about recorded ones.
Theatre as a live online proposition is trickier than music or direct speech
This week Twitter launched its new Spaces feature, which allows users to have real-time audio conversations with others while the public (or the part of the public that's on Twitter) listens in. Meanwhile, as it continues to diversify from its origins as a music service, Spotify is experimenting with livestreamed sports chat. And the hot start-up Clubhouse also offers live conversation as its sales pitch. All of these may come to nothing but it looks possible that online audio might shift away from its current purely on-demand model of podcasts and music playlists towards something more dynamic, immediate or anarchic. In other words, live.
In Covid-era Ireland, there's been an upsurge in online performance, some of it live, some not, since the Abbey Theatre kicked off its Dear Ireland series of straight-to-camera monologues last summer. These, of course, were pre-recorded by the performers, usually in their own homes during the first and harshest lockdown.
Since then we've seen a wave of live musical and spoken-word events, many supported by the Arts Council and other State agencies.
Theatre as a live online proposition is trickier than music or direct speech, but there have been a few attempts, most notably from Druid, which livestreamed Sonya Kelly’s Once Upon a Bridge from Galway’s Mick Lally Theatre in February, and Boland: Journey of a Poet from the same venue two weeks ago.
While that livestream was happening, Frank McGuinness's new play The Visiting Hour was "streaming from the Gate auditorium". There is no suggestion that the Gate was representing The Visiting Hour as anything other than what it was, the online broadcast in a fixed timeslot of a recorded production, although some of the promotional language used – the last night of the run was described as "the final performance" – may have caused confusion and, to judge by some online feedback, including several Tourism Ireland social media accounts describing the first night as a "live world premiere", it did exactly that. (The Visiting Hour will be available on demand from May 10th -23rd.)
So what, you might ask. Livestreaming adds an additional layer of technical complexity and cost but doesn’t necessarily improve the audience’s experience of the play itself. Pre-recording allows the various elements of the production – editing, sound, etc – to be fine-tuned in advance. But then why not go the whole hog and just release an actual film?
To understand what might be going on, consider television, which always aspires to the condition of liveness, even when it’s clearly recorded. Some of TV’s most popular formats such as sitcoms, soap operas and chatshows still adhere to conventions established in an era when everything had to be broadcast live. The few which still pretend to be live, like The Late Late Show, use clumsy sleight of hand to slip in recorded segments.
Traditional linear TV clings to liveness as its last best hope of survival in a multi-platform world. That's why broadcasters set such store by drama series like the BBC's Line of Duty, which obviously isn't live but is heavily promoted as a communal live audience experience. Something similar may have been going on at The Visiting Hour two weeks ago, with loyal theatre-goers greeting their socially-distanced friends on their way into the virtual auditorium and swapping reactions afterwards on Facebook or (for the unvarnished opinions) WhatsApp.
Will online theatre thrive post-pandemic? The director of London’s Old Vic said on Thursday that livestreaming would now be “hard-baked” into how the sector operates in future. Perhaps, but the ultimate arbiters of that will be the audience, and, judging by the online chatter at the Gate’s first night, it can’t wait to get back into a real, live theatre.