Can Theatre be performed remotely?

Can Theatre be performed remotely?

It was 1996, when I first touched a computer. It was a large and lazy machine, housed in the only air-conditioned room in my school. I call it lazy because it would draw any kind of stupid lines I asked it to, if I just asked it in the correct syntax. It would never ask me why I wanted to draw an oval, or a slanted line on its screen, what would I achieve by drawing a circle inside a circle. It just did things that I told it to, its blinking cursor, always waiting for a key-press, eager to please and equally willing to tell me that the syntax is wrong, not caring to uphold my reputation in front of the girls of my class, who maybe waiting in the queue for their turn. It was reliable, but not as a friend who would sometimes lie to save me from a beating.

A few years later, the computers became more useful, and it became possible for people to communicate with a distant friend almost instantly if only both of them had hardware and connecting cables, the cable did not have to be thousands of kilometres long, just a few metres connecting the back of their computer to a tiny socket on the wall was enough to connect the two of them, some network company charged a good amount each month for maintaining the extensive cabling and switching that no-one needed to think about.

I used the service a few minutes sometimes when I had to send an email or look up something important, I would do so by going to a special place, a cyber-café. A cyber-café was an excellent place with rows or cubicles of computers, all connected to the internet all day, were available for rent as long as needed. I would go there once a week to check my emails, look up some information, stare at porn and be in cool air-conditioning – all of that would cost about Rs. 40/- an hour at first, but in a few years, it deprecated to about Rs. 10/- an hour, so I could spend long hours if sometimes downloading music, or stuff that I liked, it gradually evolved into a ritual. Outside the ritual, I had friends who I would play with, go shopping with, have a meal with and create theatre with. My friends were reliable and we would standby each other when needed, we would celebrate each other’s birthdays and go on trips, we would collaborate and write stories, enact plays and make films. In a few years, each of us had computers at their homes, so we would talk to each other, play games, shop online and even sing birthday to each other, even if we lived a few metres from each other.

Years later, I have literally been glued to my laptop screen for extended hours each day. The computer now wants to know, and perhaps knows, everything about me, sometimes even more than my best friends. Every impression of my online life carries an equal amount of validity as every memory that I have of my friends, in fact some of my memories are augmented by the computers networked to each other that store photos which have no material reality, voice snippets that were echoed decades ago.

This immortality however can also be painful because one is forced to exist as is, once a snapshot of their person is created, it will continue to live forever in the digital realm, its own objective reality, unyielding to any kind of corrective ink I may have applied on myself. Recording every attempt of changing the snapshot, and revealing it to whoever wanted to construct a linear narrative of my person. Some of my friends are still alive through those means, and just like them, I too would never die, never change.

It is with this fear that I started removing myself gradually from spaces such as social networks blogs and forums, trying to construct a different personality, a new character for every space I went to via the computer interface, that occupies my lap more than anything ever has. I exist simultaneously in several different characters – as a cultural activist, as a tech-help guy, as a friend, as an ex-lover, as a desperate loner, as a brother, as a stoner, as a ghost. With a significant portion of me flowing through any of these roles at any given time, I am reachable via several different email addresses each designed to project a different personality or version of me. I respond from all of those email addresses adjusting my choice of words, tonality etc, hoping that it would convey the exact emotion I hold At The Moment, sometimes I am successful.

It is possible for me to kill any of these versions of myself, terminating an email address will automatically generate an error for anyone who writes to me, if I do not share an alternative email address and in the absence of any related digital profile, I am dead from the moment the email is terminated.

I recently terminated one such profile along with its website, emails and social media pages. I would receive a few emails every week seeking more information, sometimes enquiring for services etc., while the places I left notes for people to find me still exist, the address does not. Does it seem similar to looking for someone who maybe dead? I was tired of playing that character, which tough helped me find some friends and I learnt a few things along the way, but it was simply too laborious to carry it on. My familiarity with the digital realm makes it convenient for me to create and erase such characters at will, often driven by the need to say something that I wouldn’t otherwise utter with my friends.

As an actor I have always been fascinated by the possibility of living multiple lives through the characters I played. I would feel a surge of adrenaline, an emotional current as soon as I would embody a character and step on stage, my voice would acquire new tonalities, my body would acquire new mannerisms to realise the text I was performing. Quite similar, though muted, was the affect when I would open an inbox and begin responding to an email or get on a call with any prospective client. In the time we have been in lockdown, I have created a few more personas, and now they occupy different segments of my day, the longing for a theatrical experience has been in check.

Two days ago, the desire to mount a performance in the digital realm gripped me. While I can create different personas for myself, the real question was how can theatre be performed and experienced in the digital realm? It led me to think about what theatre is, who actors really are and what a performance is, who the audience and spectators are, what does it loose and gain if theatre were to transcend to the digital realm. A very long time ago, I had written a detailed answer about Why Do People Prefer Cinema Over Live Theatre.

Theatre in the digital realm should not be confused with simulcast / live-streaming, that is simply remote viewing, much less exhilarating, of a performance that is taking place somewhere in the ideal settings which for logistical or other reasons cannot be experienced live, in that it is a second-hand experience. Theatre is a 'performance in which the text has revealed its meanings and intentions through skilful acting in an environment designed with the appropriate measure of beauty or visual impact'1. If this environment was to be the screen in your lap, how would the performance change. It strikes me now that we have no texts that are designed for a performance of this nature.

For reasons beyond anyone’s control, our world has changed and as much as we would like to go back in time to rescue ourselves, there is simply no going back. As we move into uncharted territories, enforced by Covid19 for now, we will soon accept this new normal and become comfortable with it. It is only imminent that we will attempt to redefine certain things that were so dear to us. We will redesign our experiences and reconfigure our sensorial arrays to attain a new catharsis. What would a digital catharsis feel like?

Discrete Theatre is the beginning of re-assimilation, reconfiguration and redesigning our beloved form of collective expression, theatre, in a new realm. I invite you to participate in creating a new form of one of the oldest artistic disciplines.


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Suraj Prasad

A cinephile, actor, filmmaker and creative technologist I am a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar 2020-22 and a recipient of the ARThink SouthAsia Fellowship 2018. I co-founded Lightcube in 2012. I am an active member of NETPAC and have been on the awards jury for Kerala International Film Festival 2015, Bangalore International Film Festival 2019 and Ulju Mountain Film Festival, South Korea, 2019.

With experience in Radio, Sound Production, Web, Computer Programming, Hardware & Software Assembly, Immersive Theatre and Film, I am actively looking for collaborations to work on issues and subjects that lie at the intersection of arts, technology, culture and society.