When the pandemic forced theaters across the world to shut their doors and halt productions, almost immediately, theaters turned to the internet to unleash their works to the public. Streamed theater productions are now becoming a norm.
National Theatre Live, which in the past has shown recordings of prestigious theater productions in movie theaters, is now streaming one of their shows for free every week on YouTube. On a local level, Dallas’s Ochre House Theatre has been doing its part from the beginning, also putting recordings of some of their recent shows online. Other theaters released recordings of productions that were supposed to start right as the pandemic started; now, theaters are happily producing new plays again, but only streaming them online, with ticket prices a bit cheaper than usual.
Seeing theaters dusting off their gears is a wonderful thing. But it’s with a resigned sorrow that we think of the empty chairs that should have been filled night after night as faithful theater audiences sit instead on their couches, fumbling through a Vimeo sign-up instead of unwrapping lozenges before the show starts.
Despite the obvious differences between in-person performances and streamed shows, there is still a deep worth to online theater. At its center, theater is a mode of storytelling. That central beating heart of theater remains, regardless of whether you’re sitting in front of a stage or on your couch at home.
The problem here is that TV shows and movies are also modes of storytelling, and it’s easy to conflate theater and film when you’re watching both in your living room. One might ask — if I’m watching something on my TV anyway, why not watch something that was meant to be seen on a TV? But theater and film aren’t the same. Usually, the theaters themselves tell us what the difference is.
There's the shifting of your neighbor in the seat beside you, the occasional conversations started up by strangers briefly united by a play, the surrendering of control of when the show starts, when the lights dim, when you’re allowed to get up. There are the awkward rise and subsequent rush to the restrooms at intermission, the location of your seat and the knowledge that it changes your perspective of the play.
There's the fact that the performance before you belongs precisely to the audience you are a part of, and won’t be seen by anybody who isn’t in that very room at that very time — and the converse fact that tomorrow night there will be another nonidentical performance that you won’t be witness to. There are those inevitable missteps on stage that aren’t planned and aren’t repeatable, the brightening of the lights, the applause, the slow community of audience members rising to give a standing ovation.
All of these glorious things draw patrons into the world of theater; they make us sharply recognize that we are not at home, and not watching TV. And they are utterly absent when we watch theater at home. This means that theater lovers have to find other ways to distinguish theater from film, even when we’re watching both on the same screen.
Committing to watching the show at the time the theater normally would have presented it helps; turning the lights off and enforcing the silent attention of any family members watching helps; double-checking that your phone is turned off and that you’ve unwrapped any crinkly snack wrappers helps. These little things remind an at-home audience member that they are watching a theater production and not another Netflix original. There’s something special in that — even if it will never be the same as breathing and heart-beating in the same room as the artists themselves.
Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage is making it even easier for their audience members to feel as though they’re at a theater. From now until July 30, they’re streaming Shaun Pendergast’s riveting and touching The True History of the Tragic Life & Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World. The lengthy title also serves as a solid summary of the play, whose titular character is cheated and taken advantage of throughout her life as a character in a circus freak show. A moving meditation on beauty as well as an exciting story, Julia Pastrana is the perfect play to produce online. It is supposed to be performed in complete darkness, and complete darkness is the easiest setting to re-create at home.
For this solely auditory play, strong voice acting and sound editing come together to form a story that is as enthralling as any visual tale. It transports you from your own home, just as it would transport you from your seat in the theater. This play exemplifies the fact that if a story is good enough, it doesn’t matter how, when or where you witness it: regardless of these factors, you’ll exist in the world of the story for an hour or two.
The theater-going experience won’t be the same as it once was for a while yet; perhaps it will never be quite the same again. But plays like Julia Pastrana encourage us to enjoy it anyway. And who knows — if we remain supportive of our beloved theaters throughout this pandemic, we can pray that we will be rewarded with a place before the stage again before too long.
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