Isolated Theatre: A reflection on performance without a live audience

The ghost light at Hoxton Hall, London

The onset of Covid-19 forced theatres all over the world to close their doors and turn on their ghost lights. With a speed unsurprising for such a creative industry, theatre moved online. Individuals are using live streaming platforms to perform with others. Large theatres have scrambled to temporarily waive copyrights for their archival footage. Now with wild success, they are reaching a new, worldwide audience online. As a former theatre professional, I am quite proud of how the sector has found new ways to bring theatre to people during this time of crisis.

Still, one does wonder about theatre without a live audience.

Theatre brings people together, but how much is lost when we are no longer able to physically be together? Can online platforms really bring that sense of community to our screens?

As a fundamentally collective art form, theatre is a shared experience between audience and performers. Without a live audience, what makes theatre different than cinema? There are normally many similarities, of course. Both gather a group of disparate people into a dimly lit room to watch a narrative unfold. The audience either sits silently or empathically reacts. Yet a mighty difference is, in theatre, audiences can directly affect what’s going on. It’s not a reaction to a screen, it’s reaction to fellow human beings. Therein lies the magic.

There is a good deal to be said for the power of collective stillness. In fact, it is one of my favorite moments in a theatre. The pre-show music fades, the lights dim and suddenly a crowd of people fall silent with anticipation. From that moment on, individuals transform into one empathic presence called an audience. Audiences react together along with the eb and flow of the narrative. Some of the most poignant moments in theatre happen when words spoken on stage reverberate through every person in the audience. A palpable gasp ripples through the room, or an unmistakable cringe weaves its way around. This undeniable, live energy is influential to the performers.

Consider comedy, for instance. Comedians rely heavily on even the slightest reactions in the room. Take the audience out of the equation and they’re basically just talking to themselves. Virtually replicating an audience is better than nothing, but it’s not without its problems. Afterall, timing is everything in comedy. A lag in internet connection can make a great punch line remarkably awkward.

Is watching theatre online a bit like watching sport on TV? Attending a match versus watching it on TV is arguably a vastly different and, in my humble opinion, less enthralling experience. It’s enjoyable, certainly. The narrative, if you will, is still there. But the energy, the collective cheers and jeers — that’s what makes the fans feel involved in what’s happening. Imagine an empty stadium with players moving around in silence on the pitch. For the players, there would surely be an impact if no roar lifted their adrenaline with every goal scored.

All that to say, I am pleased theatre has found new ways to connect with people over the internet. Going forward, I’m sure there will be a rise in demand for online accessibility of theatre productions and, frankly, I am all for it. Yet, I do not think it can ever be a replacement for the experience of live theatre. As the current circumstances poignantly remind us, virtual interaction is simply not a replacement for being together in the same room. With this evidence alone, it is fair to say live theatre will always be an irreplaceable place of human connection.

Through these innovative online platforms, I sincerely hope an unprecedented amount of people will connect to theatre during this time. Will more people be inspired to actually step foot in a theatre in the future and take part in the full experience? As with so many other things in this incredibly uncertain era, only time will tell.

P.S. Please take a moment to consider how essential the arts are to our hurting world. Remember, all those who make this art possible rely on your financial and political support to continue their creative and influential work.