I’ve developed a routine of watching theater online during the pandemic: comfy clothes, a specific spot on my couch to tuck into, and a glass of wine. I can really only do this when it’s my husband’s turn to put our four-year-old to bed. Surprise: the four-year-old does not always go quietly into the bath and to bed, so my ritual also includes shutting the doors to our living room and putting on my pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Naps are a bit unpredictable, so I don’t try to do matinees at home, though I was too eager for my first viewing of Hamilton to wait until night time, so I risked it, and was not able to make it all the way through in one sitting. (I noticed something important to a matinee experience: I had to close the blinds to keep out the afternoon light. Not something I would have needed to think about in the theater. I do miss the full darkness of a theater.)
I don’t have a Netflix routine. I watch in fits and starts as I can grab time whenever. I don’t make any extra effort with the sound or the light. It doesn’t even occur to me. But watching theater online feels different. I want to be fully present, and the work seems to demand it. I am disappointed if I need to stop and restart for some reason. (knock-knock. “Mom, I can’t find my tiger.”) Yes, I’m recreating a bit of the theater experience – with some extra comforts.
Though we would all rather have the option of being able to gather together to see performances and exhibitions, there are real benefits of the relaxed atmosphere of watching from home, the power of which should not be underestimated. Here are a few tangible ways that our current mode of arts participation makes for a satisfying arts experience:
Ability to interact with others. A friend of mine who is a huge fan of the Metropolitan Opera bounced with enthusiasm when he told me about watching a Met livestream while cooking dinner with his husband, the two of them critiquing the performances as it played. I diligently followed Hamilton’s first Twitter watch party shortly after it premiered on Disney+. People were giddy for the opportunity to share the experience of the show: favorite moments, connections to current politics, how the show had been a change agent in their lives, and multiple interpretations of the last moment.
Processing and interpreting an arts experience with others is essential to creating a meaningful experience. And I mean that literally: without this step, the experience just might slip through and it won’t have meaning in our lives. We need to make the meaning. Lynne Conner, whose blog I’m lucky to be writing in now, writes about the importance of audience’s discussion of the work to create meaning. In the preamble to Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era (2013), she sums up the argument of her book as:
“…without public opportunities to articulate our individual decoding processes, the pleasure of the interpretive function is cut short and thus engagement is limited…The pleasure inherent in the interpretive function is enhanced significantly when meaning making is made social.”
As my friend and his husband chatting during the opera demonstrate, we now have a new opportunity: we don’t have to wait until the show is over to react, respond, express, start the process of making meaning. One of my favorite scholars and thinkers on audiences is Dr. Kirsty Sedgman, “Doctor of Audiences”, based at the University of Bristol. In a recent podcast interview on Digital Works, she said the following about this simultaneous social interaction:
“…this is one of the great affordances of the digital environment. We can engage in what [Nicholas] Bourriaud called ‘relational aesthetics’, where we can actually talk to each other about the thing we’re watching rather than just receiving it, being expected to absorb it, and then only later being permitted to go away and discuss. We can do those things at the same time. It’s a really complicated and quite wonderful balancing of our attention, and a redefinition of what our attention spans actually mean. That’s great.”
Get closer to the art than we can in person. Virtual gallery tours where viewers can get right up to the paintings, with more information about the paintings than you could ever want just a click away. A close up of Jonathan Groff and his spittle in Hamilton. In some tangible ways, we’re closer to the action than we can be when we’re physically in the same room with the work. In Martin Barker’s 2013 book about the livecasts of performing arts (opera, theater, ballet) to movie theaters, Live to Your Local Cinema, audience surveys showed appreciation of seeing the singers up close. One respondent said that, because of the size of the hall, when seeing performances in person at the Metropolitan Opera, they felt “little connection with what was happening on stage…being able to see the faces of the singers and registering the emotions they convey offers a far better experience.” (p. 64).
Enjoying the work in the way that you want to. No one is telling me they can’t see around my head when I’m watching the show from my couch. Or looking at me askance when I’m wearing pajamas and drinking a glass of wine. I don’t have to stifle a laugh or gasp because I’m the only one that finds something funny or surprising. No one minds when I need to talk to my child while the show continues* or if I need to stand up because my foot falls asleep. While the rituals and rules of going to performances or museums are part of what many people love about the arts (including me), they are also barriers to arts participation. Not knowing what to wear to the theater or when to clap is part of what keeps people away. At home, that’s no problem at all, if your chosen arts experience is totally devoid of interaction with other audience members or the artists.
In the Digital Works podcast, Kirsty Sedgman discussed how policing behavior results in the exclusion of groups of people ranging from people who are neurodiverse to caregivers. (See also her book The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience.) She and Barker both advocate for allowing space for new norms to develop, rather than imposing old norms on new spaces where arts audiences gather, such as movie theaters or a Zoom chat box. Barker’s book has delightful, heartwarming quotes from audience members who said they wanted to clap at the end of the streamed performance, but felt silly, since the performers weren’t there to hear it. So there’s a new problem of not knowing when to clap!
There is a lot of hand-wringing in the arts industry about whether online performances will reduce audiences’ interest in attending in-person. The responses to digital content that we’re seeing all around us now, as well as Barker’s research shows that audiences are perfectly aware of the differences, tradeoffs, pros, and cons between watching performances where they are physically co-present with the performers and fellow audience members and when they are not.
We should trust audiences to seek out the experiences that they want. And artists and arts organizations should trust their own ability to make work in both in-person and online formats which their audience will find value.
I want the day to come as quickly as possible when I can again be in a theater full of people. But by then, I’ll want to be able to choose: velvet seats or my couch.
*One of the great discoveries I had when I became a parent, and then was the Executive Director of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte was the joy of the audiences never being quite still – there was always a kind of wiggling going on that has a special energy.