Curtain Call: Theatre of the future, and reality
I was recently asked about “Theatre of the future” in an interview. The pandemic has changed many definitions about what was earlier considered “normal” and watching live online performances is a part of it. In the past year, theatre lovers must have attended at least one such show. I suppose this is what the interviewer was expecting when she posed the query. But I do believe that with the technology currently available, online performances are a compromise. More of a placeholder for the real thing.
I feel that in the next few years, after this pandemic is over, we will see an increase in plays in the genre of immersive theatre. Immersive theatre blurs the lines between the audience and the performers. They are usually performed at unconventional venues unlike traditional auditoriums, such as hotels, run-down mills, warehouses, and the like. The concept of “fourth wall” (the imaginary wall between the audience and performers, which is an integral part of most plays) is destroyed completely. In fact, in most of these plays, the audience becomes an active part of the performance!
A friend of mine had watched a performance of “Macbeth”, retitled “Sleep No More”, at a hotel in the UK. What he narrated seemed fascinating! The opening of the play was presented at the entrance. After that they could choose the floor they wanted to visit. Each floor had a different part of the play being performed. The audience could choose to leave that scene midway and go and watch another scene. Or they could stay and follow the journey of a character. They could walk with the character and witness her or him meeting other characters and perform different scenes. In the end, all characters converged on a floor where the climax was played out.
I too had watched a play when I visited the UK around three years back. It was a spin-off of “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie. I was extremely excited to watch it! The set was built in a run-down warehouse in London. While the production design was wonderful and the audience was made to feel like passengers on the train, complete with real dinner and wine, and was also made to participate in the investigation, the performances were strictly ok. So was the overall approach towards the script. While it was a new theatre watching experience for me, the impact was less than impressive. But I cannot judge the entire genre based on a lone performance of a play.
Some plays do not even follow this traditional approach of introduction, conflict, resolution of storytelling. They rely more on the experience of the performance at that moment. And that choice is made by the audience! So, there is a possibility that a part of the audience might not watch the climax of the play, they might decide to follow a character who might be inconsequential to the story of the play but is someone they relate to more. The outcome of the play is different for every audience member and it depends solely on the choices that they have made! The linearity of story is not very important in such performances.
We have seen variations of this genre in other mediums as well. Video and computer games have followed this interactive genre since a long time. The outcome of many such games depends on how the player plays and the options he chooses. There isn’t a specific “end” to the story that we as an audience have been conditioned to. Even the eerily predictive show “Black Mirror” experimented with this format in the latest episode of theirs titled “Bandersnatch”. The audience had to choose the decisions the protagonist made and the outcome of the show depended on that. There were nearly nine outcomes that I experienced. I am sure there might be more.
Films are also gradually experimenting with virtually reality. I had attended a demonstration for the same and it is very similar to immersive theatre, wherein the audience could choose where to look at during a scene and decide to follow a particular character.
These experiments are being conducted in India as well, but not in a large number. But after the pandemic is over, my guess is that the number of venues for such experiments will increase as most people will be working from home. People will also be open to watching more abstract content as the reality we are currently living in is nothing less than bizarre!