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'Newbury Weekly News first to recognise rise of Zoom theatre'

Only publication to run reviews of all formative shows


Newbury Weekly News arts and entertainment recognised the importance of the emergence of a new approach to theatre in lockdown, by one of our favourite innovative companies Creation who came up with a real gamechanger, in The Tempest and in commissioning N2 reviewer Jon Lewis we notched up a first as the only publication to run reviews of all the formative shows created for Zoom transmission. Jon reflects on the rise of Zoom theatre:

WHEN Boris Johnson announced there would be a national lockdown, theatres across the country were forced to close, employees were placed on furlough and freelancers and casual workers lost jobs and income. In response to the crisis, from April to the end of lockdown, theatres and theatre companies large and small, subsidised and profit-making, across the country, made some of their greatest hits available for free on platforms like YouTube, some requesting viewers to pay a donation for viewing the show. It was a purposeful opportunity to experience back catalogues.

Looking back at the year, what stood out most to me were Simon Godwin’s swirling, magical National Theatre production of Twelfth Night, starring Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, Tom Morris’ Bristol Old Vic musical The Grinning Man, a psychological horror with a heart of gold, Jenny Sealy’s joyful, explosive Ian Dury musical Reasons to be Cheerful for Graeae, Timothy X Atack’s The Bullet and the Brass Trombone for Sleepdogs, a powerful one-man drama about a British orchestra involved in a foreign coup, Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks’ imitating the dog’s visual feast exploring different versions of a story in the Second World War using stage and filmed media, and Breach Theatre’s emotive recreation of a day of police brutality, The Beanfield, fusing live performance and pre-recorded film – all remarkable productions that I wasn’t able to see originally on stage.
And many viewers like me probably only signed up for the free six months trial with Disney + just to watch a recording of the first staging of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s box office sensation Hamilton. These, and many more free showings, made
lockdown for theatregoers more palatable, but the experience of watching these great productions was akin to seeing a movie or a television drama. Something big was missing.

There wasn’t the important feeling of liveness, of shared experience and of connections with performers and audiences. Yael Farber’s National Theatre production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs was a terrific show, but none of those actors were performing for me. Their audience was the one in the Olivier on the day of the recording. Ditto the wonderful archive broadcast by London’s tiny pub theatre, the Finborough. It was history and not the present. There was no sense of danger in viewing these shows. Some theatres realised this and started to broadcast live performances from their stages – I reviewed Emma Rice’s touring company Wise Children’s musical hit Romantics Anonymous performed to an empty Bristol Old Vic theatre in September, long after the first lockdown had ended. It should have visited the Oxford Playhouse.

There was a sense of liveness and danger; on the night I watched the play, a technical problem with the internet provider caused a lengthy delay and Emma Rice gave a unique, bespoke introductory talk that referred to the problems that made that performance a bit more special. But an empty theatre, bar the technicians who the viewers could see when Rice was talking to us, made the absence of the audience more glaring. There was still a gap in the experience.

Fortunately, there was an innovation that emerged from Oxford, the city that’s bringing the world a vaccine that could end these lockdowns for good. Oxford developed the country’s first university, university library, museum, concert hall and botanical garden. Now, it can add live theatre on the internet to the list.

On April 11, Creation Theatre, who I have been reviewing for the Newbury Weekly News for 20 years, brought to its
audiences the world’s first live theatre show broadcast on the conferencing platform Zoom.

Director Zoe Seaton rethought her site-specific production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a superb show that took place across a range of sites on Osney Island in July 2019, using the same cast, creating an interactive performance where the audience could see each other, and their names, as could the actors, creatives, Creation management and technical personnel.
The Tempest demonstrated that theatre in lockdown could generate a shared experience for a live show. In terms of Covid safety, the creative and technical team rehearsed and performed from home.

This development was so interesting and innovative, Exeter University researchers wrote a lengthy report about the production and its impacts, Digital Theatre Transformation: A Case Study and Digital Toolkit, published in October, and for which I was interviewed.

I had ended my NWN review of The Tempest (I watched the performance on April 12) by revealing just how important Creation’s use of Zoom was for the theatre: “Out of a crisis, Creation has innovated a theatrical experience that has lessons in engaging anyone who is isolated, whether by location, health or incapacity. People in hospitals, remote rural locations, in prison and many other locations, could all experience high-quality interactive theatre like this.

“Creation and its inspirational artistic director Lucy Askew, has laid down a challenge for the entire industry to up its game to reach new audiences. This show, made in only two weeks, is a game-changer.”

The NWN is the only publication in the world to have published reviews of all the formative live Zoom theatre productions.
Having realised how important a breakthrough The Tempest was, I made sure I reviewed all the following shows on Zoom, many of which had connections with Creation.

Zoe Seaton’s own Northern Ireland-based company, Big Telly, was quick off the mark with Operation Elsewhere (May 23-24) and The Machine Stops (June 6-7); Creation rethought Jonathan Holloway’s London-library adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine (May 27-June 21), a play that was curtailed midway through its run when lockdown began, the experimental readthrough of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (July 2) and Alice: A Virtual Theme Park (August 1-30), Super Stories & City Actors’ children’s show Up Up Up and Away (June 13) and OVO Theatre’s musical version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (June 12-14), where in the post-show discussion, the artistic director of the St Albans-based company explicitly referred to Creation’s The Tempest as its chief inspiration.

Ovo integrated music, and the Zoom frames, more fully than Creation and Big Telly had done, expanding the envelope for the format further. During the summer, other UK companies, such as The Guildford Shakespeare Company, who share actors and directors with Creation, have joined Creation and Big Telly in programming plays for Zoom, but the platform is being pushed to its limits.

Breakout rooms containing smaller audience groups worked brilliantly during Coney’s interactive piece of game theatre Exit Zoom, and were the way audiences navigated their way through Seaton’s Creation production of Alice: A Virtual Theme Park.
But the seams do show, and transitions between locations or between multiple screens can be clunky. Overlaying scenes with filmic and animation wizardry gives live theatre another dimension but has its limitations.

Creation’s recent announcement of a grant from Innovate UK worth £165,000 to develop a bespoke digital platform for live performance with partners Flipside, and Charisma AI to replace Zoom, and then create the country’s first digital repertory company, suggest that its innovations during the pandemic have been taken seriously. Live, interactive theatre over the
internet is here for good and Creation have offered their new platform to other companies so that this digital stage becomes a national resource.

Some theatre makers have used Zoom as a way of the performers interacting with each other live during a show, as with the Oxford Playhouse’s Do You Love Me Yet? where two actors who have never met respond to pre-set questions but then have broadcast the show live on YouTube. Although live, there were no interactions with the audience, so the production lacked the presence of its audiences. Javaad Alipoor attempted to rectify this with is two recent live productions broadcast on YouTube, and promoted by the Oxford Playhouse, The Believers are but Brothers and Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran.
In the former, viewers could sign up to a WhatsApp group, with some messages read live by Alipoor, and in the latter, audiences were encouraged to join a bespoke Instagram site where we could view photographs and films referred to in the play that we would not have seen on YouTube alone. Although we could not see other members of the audience, messages did pop up saying so and so had joined the group.

Alipoor’s political and technological discourses may not have worked so well if performed on a Zoom platform with visible theatregoers integrated in the show.

Other Oxford-based companies, inspired by Creation, have plans to develop Zoom-based theatre in settings beyond audiences’ front rooms such as schools, care homes and communal houses. Some theatre companies have moved out of live theatre into film-making. Mandala Theatre’s Small Hours, co-produced by the Oxford Playhouse and the IF Festival of Science, was rehearsed with actors using social media in their own homes, and then recorded while Savage Heart’s production We are not Even, is at the time of writing, midway through its new series, filmed on a mobile phone in bite-sized segments and broadcast sometimes up to four times a day on Facebook.

Cherwell Theatre Company has developed a play aimed at schoolchildren, The Web, about internet safety that has been filmed and will be broadcast to a number of Oxfordshire’s schools. If Oxford’s vaccine, and those from other countries, eradicates the pandemic, theatres will fully reopen. I for one, cannot wait to be in a venue, surrounded by an audience.

But there will always be audiences who cannot attend live – for reasons I outlined in my Tempest review and for them, online theatre – sometimes interactive, sometimes not – will mean that theatre’s reach is so much greater.

Creation Theatre has stepped up from being a local company to global: I have watched its plays with audiences across the British Isles, but also across Europe, the US and further afield. With international audiences buying tickets, UK theatre could discover new export markets without having to leave the country, creating environmental benefits at a time of global warming.
The impact of live theatre on, say, bedridden hospital patients or the elderly in care homes, could not only improve people’s mental and physical health, but also make improvements to the work lives of health professionals.
Once this terrible pandemic is over, the theatre world will have expanded.

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