Earlier this week I was searching for full productions of As You Like It online. I stumbled upon the entirety of the Globe’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy posted to youtube in 12 parts. I was only about 12 minutes into the play when it dawned on me: surely, this is the epitome of theater for the masses–at least it is the 21st century version. There is something so remarkable about the fact that I can sit at my desk or in my bed or on my couch and for the cost of internet only, watch as many online productions of plays as I can possibly click my mouse on.
Of course, digital theater is far from perfect. In addition to the number of legal/ copyright issues it brings up, watching theater from a screen denies the audience member some crucial part of the experience. That audience member cannot be immersed in the theatrical experience the same way someone sitting in the theater can be. There is no collective breath holding as the room goes dark and the curtain goes up. There is no fidgeting with your program (there probably is no program at all, actually). There is no awe at being so close to the action. The audience members watching from behind their screens are removed from the action. One of the biggest distinctions is that the audiences of digital theater have the ability to use the pause button. In a darkened theater I have to watch a play all the way through (or with an intermission if one is included). At home, I can pause the play, go to the bathroom, make myself a sandwich and do a little dance before resuming. I’m a lot more likely to want to get up and do all these things because I am removed from the actual play. The piece has the potential to move me just as much, but because I have the screen in front of me instead of real live actors on a stage, the experience will be less immersive and therefore, less likely to hit home as hard as if I was sitting in the physical theater.
Yet, I don’t think that digital theater is a lost cause or a waste in any way. It is like the difference between getting up and going to a museum and looking at the works in that museum online. The sculptures seem a little less magnificent and the rarely take your breath away. But on a day that I need a little art and I lack the money and/ or time to go to the museum, I’ll settle for using my computer, because it is the next best thing. Essentially, theater that has been posted online is “for the masses” because it is accessible when people lack the resources to go to the theater and pay for what they are seeing. Additionally, online theater allows people from all around the world to see a production. I do not have the means to go to the Globe theater. I do, however, have the means to turn on my computer and watch it that way. I would prefer to go all the way to the Globe, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, I can be part of a larger online community. I can be in conversation with someone from Australia about a piece that was performed in England. If theater is posted online, there is potential for a vast audience and a vast amount of audience interaction. Furthermore, if a play that was performed in 1980 was filmed and put online, that production can be seen by audience members who were not even born when it first occurred. That production becomes a documented part of history with a virtually unlimited audience.
Nothing can replace live theater. It is not possible to recreate live theater if you’re watching from a screen in your bedroom. But theater that has been posted online for the public to see presents exciting opportunities in terms of audience size, location, diversity, and temporality.
PS. If you want to watch some more free theater via the inter web, click here