Retaining Theatrical Honesty during a Pandemic

What separates theater from film? The list of technical differences goes on and on, but I would argue that the fundamental difference that separates theater, film, television and literature as storytelling media is the intrinsic honesty of theater. 

We often think of the “fourth wall” as the imaginary barrier between the performers and the audience, but I don’t believe in the fourth wall when it comes to theater. In a movie, sure, when the characters directly engage with the audience, it’s a deliberate breach of the social construct we’ve all grown accustomed to: I’m watching this movie in my pajamas, lap covered with popcorn, and I’m in no way ready to entertain company. Yet sometimes the characters “break” the fourth wall, and with it, they break the unspoken agreement that we were separated – actor and audience – from one another.

I don’t believe that this can be the case in theater. In order for the fourth wall to break, there must be an understanding that the actors and the audience are separate and won’t interact with each other – yet the very belief defies logic. 

The audience members enter a big room and sit down next to each other, and then the actors enter that same room and begin their performance. The actors are as aware of the audience as the audience is of them, and to pretend that this is not the case is juvenile. I can scream at Leonardo DiCaprio in my living room all day long, but he won’t hear me. If I did the same at a live theatrical performance of Hamlet, you’d better believe that wouldn’t be the case.

Therefore, it’s the intrinsic honesty of theater that makes it what it is. Traced back to its roots, we find that theater began as oral storytelling, in which the performer would engage his audience directly. Somewhere along the line, we put the performer on a platform and decided that we’d pretend he didn’t notice us, but I feel that defies the art form.

My greatest theatrical mentor drilled this honesty into my head every day before a performance. “Remember, if a cell phone goes off in the audience, don’t ignore it!”

Now, in a year when nearly every production has attempted to adapt to new formats lest they grind to a halt entirely, we’ve seen a number of innovative options for delivering theater during a pandemic. Zoom play readings are commonplace; Door Shakespeare presented a remotely staged adaptation of Rosalind this month; and troupes engage their audiences on social media every day in lieu of standard performances. 

There are numerous challenges to overcome when it comes to public health and delivering content to your audience, but I feel the greatest artistic challenge that theater companies face right now is how they can create engagement that keeps the intrinsic honesty of theater intact. 

I think the troupe that has delivered the greatest example of this thus far is Tender Claws’ The Under Presents.

Imagine purchasing a ticket and arriving in the theater lobby 10 minutes before the curtain time. Three other audience members greet you; maybe you nod in acknowledgement; and then you enter the theater as the show begins. 

The actor comes on stage and begins the performance. You and the three other audience members are invited to the stage, and the five of you all interact in the performance of a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The actor tells the story, often handing you props or asking you to perform certain tasks, and each participant is actively engaged as the narrative unfolds. 

That scenario seems inconceivable in the midst of a pandemic, but now imagine that you can do all of that and more from the comfort and safety of your own home. 

The Under Presents: Tempest is a virtual-reality (VR) experience in which, using a headset and controller, you’re transported to a virtual theater lobby. Together with a few other audience members who all have limited options for communication – physical gestures that you can make with your real body and snapping fingers – you enter the theater. Instead of sitting in chairs and watching a performance from beyond the fourth wall, you’re spirited away to a virtual landscape. 

A traditional performance of The Tempest might include a representation of a ship and perhaps pipe in the sound of rushing water and stormy weather, but in this experience – with no physical limitations to speak of – you’re transported onto that ship as a storm ravages it. 

In VR, there is nothing that cannot be conveyed, and with a little bit of emotional buy-in from the participant, the line between reality and illusion blurs. When the 3D-rendered actor turns to you and asks you to hold an object, you’re compelled to do so because, after all, there’s a real human on the other side of those polygons. 

It’s through this physical engagement that Tender Claws has been able to do what no other theater troupe has been able to accomplish, to my knowledge, regarding preserving the intrinsic honesty of theatrical performance. 

I’ll admit that this intersection of theater and gaming speaks to me so directly that I couldn’t help but become a little obsessed with the concept. I imagine a future in which VR complements live performance in even greater ways. 

I think of a performance of Little Shop of Horrors being mounted in VR, but instead of dropping some foam tentacles from the fly system during the finale as is traditionally done to suggest the sheer size of the monster plant, Audrey II, you could have the tentacles break through the walls of the theater, snake their way around the audience, and lift people out of their seats and swing them around. 

Or imagine Les Misérables, which would actually take place in the streets of Paris, with soldiers running past you during the climax of the rebellion. There truly is no limit to the innovation that virtual spaces could create for theater as an interactive medium. 

Although I can’t wait to attend live theater again, I’m excited to see exactly what theater looks like in the future as current circumstances urge ever-more-innovative adaptations.