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Digital theater isn't theater. It's a way to mourn its absence.
The theater industry’s show-must-go-on smile masks a harder truth: that there is no substitute for the live interaction between performer and audience. Patrik Svensson/The New York Times.

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- I have seen it more times, in more productions, than I can remember: Nick Bottom, the weaver transformed into an ass in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” waking the morning after the merriment. The enchantment broken, he is returned to human form, with strange memories he can’t articulate.

It’s a silly comic interlude, and had I caught Nicholas Hytner’s production last summer at the Bridge Theater in London, it wouldn’t have registered the way it did for me the other day. In the National Theater at Home recording I streamed on my laptop, Bottom perches on the edge of a confetti-strewn bed, clutches a pillow in his lap and declaims his muddled thoughts.

“The eye of man hath not heard,” he says, “the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what this dream was.”

And just like that, I was in tears at ridiculous dialogue that had never moved me in the slightest before. Bottom’s indescribable visions were a suddenly wrenching metaphor for the collective dreams we dream — artists, audience and all — when live theater, at its best, pulls us under its spell.

Bodily immersed in an experience, sharing a single space, we emerge at the finish of those performances imprinted with sense memories. And afterward, we possess no more power than Bottom has to translate their totality.

Plenty of people, starved for theater, are gorging on it digitally. But to feel its full force, you have to be there — to absorb it physically.

“I have had a most rare vision,” Bottom says, and it might as well be me, trying to explain why I’m so bereft in these months of darkened stages.

A temporary grief
In a pandemic that has killed scores of thousands in this country alone, shuttered theaters are hardly the worst that could happen. In the days before they closed, it stopped seeming safe to gather in them, and when British theaters stayed open a while longer, we looked across the ocean with mounting alarm.

This isn’t about lacking a sense of proportion or danger, then. And live theater, although overwhelmingly MIA, isn’t gone for good. But its absence is profound and lingering — for Broadway, through the rest of the year at least.

So it’s not overdramatic to speak of grief, a freighted word that we associate most with death, but that is simply the sorrow that comes with heavy loss. For some of us who depend on the theater for sustenance — creative, spiritual, economic, all of the above — that is the term to describe what we feel in this time of limbo.

Uncertainty makes it scary, not knowing what damage will be irreparable by the time the field reanimates. Which companies, artists, careers will make it through?

This is the anxiety that roils and percolates, mixed with all the sadness and futility. What theater people do is put on a show; what audience members do is gather. It’s ritual; it’s reflex. It is also, in any conventional sense, largely inoperable right now.

So we take the closest substitute we’ve got, and even that can be fraught. Just ordering a virtual ticket for a performance of “Lungs” at the Old Vic — a starry, socially distanced experiment born of that company’s financial peril — made my throat catch as I imagined the empty house, the echoey silence of the air in there.

It also sent my mind wheeling into thoughts of a crunchy little restaurant I’m fond of in that neighborhood. Countless favorite spots like that are part of the ecosystem in every city, every theater town.

Whether they survive, and in what condition, will either salve our grief or add to it.

Keeping the candle lit
For now we hold a vigil, awaiting the reawakening.

It’s not a quiet vigil, mind you, or a dormant one. All that frenzy of streamable online activity — the virtual readings and talk shows, the archival videos and topical new plays — is part of keeping the candle lit.

Economically and artistically, the industry and its idled workers are in survival mode, improvising a response to an open-ended disaster. Many digital offerings are inherently exploratory, gauging an unfamiliar medium’s potential.

But theater’s primary public face wears a show-must-go-on smile, so there’s a weird and self-defeating disconnect, as if being supportive means pretending that these works are just as exciting as live stuff would be.

You don’t have to be a Luddite or a nostalgist to believe that that isn’t true, or that theater on camera becomes another form. Even the “Hamilton” movie, a thrilling and democratizing testament to the power of stage performance, can’t capture the soul of theater, because that soul lives in the room.

Physical presence is part of the essence of theater; so is occupying a common space. One of the most alienating things about this vigil is the need for us to keep it separately.

Alone in my apartment, streaming Hytner’s immersive “Midsummer,” I wanted nothing more than to catapult myself back in time and into that Bridge audience. I felt as distant from the experience as I always do when I watch theater online — which doesn’t mean I got nothing from it.

In the last moments of the performance, the fairy Puck hangs upside down from an aerial silk, suspended above the stage.

“Give me your hands, if we be friends,” he says — a Shakespearean plea for applause that transforms into something else as Puck stretches out his arms to clasp hands with a spectator below.

In person, I’m sure it was charming. But through the glass of my computer screen this beleaguered summer, it became a tableau of blindsiding poignancy, embodying the charged connection live theater can have when you’re in the room with it.

That communion is what we’re after; that communion is what the vigil is for.

There’s not a chance we’ll let that candle get snuffed out.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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