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The possibilities and impossibilities of online drama

Source: NCPA JournalJune/30/2020

Theatres in China have been silent for more than three months. The curtain has fallen quietly and there are fewer crowds in the auditorium. But the play never sleeps, as the once live form performance has shifted to online platforms, and present to the audience in different forms. At the beginning, some theatres chose to post recorded videos online, so as to recall audience’s memory of the theater. However, these past frozen images failed to trigger the interaction on and off the stage, nor to mention the rise of inspiration and emotion of creation. As time goes by, people in the theater begin to think about how to greet the audience “in the clouds” while maintaining the maximum taste of the opera. They kept thinking on what they wanted to do and what they would need to do during the temporary lockdown.

This is how the new experiment began. On April 5th to 6th, Director Wang Chong’s online drama “Waiting for Godot” hit the live streaming platform. From script discussion, rehearsal to performance, the four actors did everything online. Based in three cities, they participated in the creation and rehearsal in their rooms. This 100% online drama creation is still a minority, as more theaters or artists choose to replay the drama on the cloud. Though they see the interest of online exploration, they are still waiting for the curtain to open on the offline stage.

What can be done online

The parent-child micro theater “The Art Space for Kids” started preparation during the Spring Festival. Yet unexpectedly, at the end of January the theatre received a notice to suspend business. Similar institutes began to try online shows, as it seems to be the best stopgap. The discussion of “What can we do online?” never ceased among the producers. At the online meeting, everyone contributed their ideas. The original idea, of course, was to record the entire performance and move it online, but such a huge project was difficult to complete in a short time. In addition, “The Art Space for Kids” mainly focuses on the introduction of foreign plays, and the constant changes of national policies also make the communication with foreign artists full of uncertainties. Sometimes, the troupes finished a long discussion on how to participate in online recording, and a day after, they were told to stop the filming. In the end, the theatre came up with the fragmented video “Little Plays at Home”, with each video lasting for three to five minutes. The main pressure of creation fell on the members of the theater, who uphold the mission bin various ways: The drama teachers put “creation lab” courses online, the former producers and theater managers became actors, and launch their own videos. For example, Wang Le, the general manager of the “The Art Space for Kids” anchored on his history major, and started his short video series “Sinology 60 seconds”. Of course, there are also artists who were willing to join the online campaign. Will Pickvance made short videos on “Anatomy of the Piano”, allowing children enjoy the fun of piano performances from home.

Will Pickvance, director/actor of Anatomy of the Piano, a British play for Children 
Photo by GAO Shang

Since the end of February, “The Art Space for Kids” has recorded hundreds of videos to spice up the kids’ home life. In the view of Chen Jizen, the founder of “The Art Space for Kids”, though these online performances are not real dramas, they managed to deliver the imagination of the drama. It’s more like attracting people to go back to the theater once permitted, and getting children to explore the theatrical elements around them.

By the end of April, one third of 2020 had already left the stage empty-handed. “We have so much to say to the audience.” With such an urgent eagerness, “The Art Space for Kids” decided to host a 2020 live streaming press release. Choosing a broadcast live show was a risk, as the team was inexperienced. The heavy load of controlling the camera is even moonlighted by the CEO. Someone on the team suggested a recorded release for less risk, and yet it was turned down. It is a pity to lose face-to-face communication in the theatre, and the team does not want to even lose the immediacy of the drama. Chen Jizen hopes that, even if they did not share the same place, at least they can meet the audience at the same time.

The venue of the press conference was also under consideration for a long time. Originally, everyone thought that the online press conference gave rise to a greater freedom of space choice, and that people could go out of the theater to give full play to their imagination: the balcony, the living room, the garden, the field and even different place for different spokesperson. But finally, the team has decided to return to the theatre because it was the most imaginative place. It’s a place where children would marvel at its magic: the stage of today is a hot air balloon. In a month’s time, it’s a boat. And then a cardboard house, a tent... In the heart of Chen Jizen, the theatre is a place full of surprises, and surprise itself is an important part of a drama.

The press release was interspersed with a 25-minute drama produced entirely by “The Art Space for Kids” team. The story tells that in 30 years’ time, the camera lens is the children’s eye, that recalls the story of the spring in 2020. The scenes and characters are familiar and favorite with children. For example, the shoe cabinets in the theater were transformed into the residential buildings in the new story, in which the characters from the dramas lived in one home after another. Grug from Australia, Paper Beauty from Scotland and Muffin and mouse in Goodbye Mr. Muffin wore masks in the new story. With this special occurrence of children’s drama, the “The Art Space for Kids” finally met their audience.

Make plans for future

In April, the Beijing People’s Art Theater launched four online screenplay campaigns. At first, the purpose of reading script online was to keep actors in business, practicing their lines while their performances were on hold. Later, The Beijing People's Art troupe leader Feng Yuanzheng suggested using live broadcast to show the training state of the actors to the audience, and to present the state of the theatre to the audience.

Beijing People’s Art Theater’s drama The First Building of the World
Photo by GAO Shang
Although the online meeting has been labelled, the actors are even more tense than in offline venues. The solid stage is a familiar field to the actors now that everything can be seen and touched, and in comparison, in online platform, the picture is quite different: 8 virtual portraits were displayed on the screen, and worse still, due to the limited number of colleagues, the staff would have to step in and out of the studio, cutting off the live streaming severely. For the actors, this doesn’t sound easy, as first of all, there is no scene atmosphere, and secondly, the delay of the Internet is mysterious and uncertain all the time. What if there’s a network breakdown? And who can be a substitute if any actor should go off line? Anything can happen at any time.

Feng has a positive attitude towards these anxieties. Live streaming is a desperate move under the epidemic. It brings about a lot of uncertainty, yet a loss doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing, as it could be blessing in disguise. This multiplier of uncertainty is also a rare rehearsal in life. After all, this is not a formal performance and the audience would watch it with more open minds. “There's nothing awkward about an online incident,” he always tells his nervous actors before a live broadcast. “These incidents can be precious lessons for our future formal shows.” Feng hopes that young actors and actresses will gradually adapt to the uncertainties of live streaming, so that in the future, when they meet the need to improvise on the real stage, they may be able to find solutions more calmly.

The actors had gone through about half a month of online rehearsals before starting the live broadcast. Feng Yuanzheng, Gong Lijun, Pu Cunxin and other famous stage actors and actresses also watched and gave guidance many times. The cast also made a lot of plan Bs: Each actor is accompanied by a spare actor, who will help with lines when there’s a lag of internet or internet breakdown, maximizing the flow and integrity of the play. To guarantee quality of the play, the actors even spontaneously recommend trustworthy devices, and the online preparation group was almost drowned by floods of product information.

Even with the best preparation, it can be hilarious when small situations come unannounced. At the first online script reading of Tang Ye's “The Emperor's Pride” on April 5, Liu Zhiyang, who plays Cao Zhi, was reading an emotional ode “Goddess of Luo”, when a “Hello” burst in - actress Cheng Lisa was cut into the studio, thinking the reading was over. When Cheng found out the situation, she hastily stopped her voice and apologized to the audience with her guilty eyes and actions. Liu Zhiyang, calmly, steadily continued to recite the last line of the ode “dream about a few times meet”. She lightly ended. Both the cast and the comment section were silent for a few minutes until the end of the performance, when laughter over the unexpected began. From the viewpoint of a serious performance, what happened just now was probably not a small accident. But the objective conditions and excellent response of the actors made this a lovely episode.

Due to the authenticity and real-time characteristics of the live streaming, those unexpected circumstances that performers encounter on stage will be broadcast directly. Yet this form makes the theatre closest to its audience.

More open spaces

Online audiences also found a few surprises beyond the theater. Usually, when the actors put on costumes and stand on the stage, the actors at the back row may not be seen clearly. However, in the broadcast room, the audience can clearly see the actors’ face. In the third phase of Beijing People’s Art Theater’s reading, “Amadeus”, the actors appear less inhibited and pay more attention to the audience’s interaction.The pop-up comments on screen bring the audience’s more specific thoughts to the actors. The audience expresses their admiration for every person, every action and every scene, and will get excited by the chance discovery of the pets around the actors. Liu Beibo, who plays the Baron Sweeten, is a bubbly character who, in his spare time, responds to comments with his gestures of hearts. Wang Jiajun, who plays Mozart, also holds up his pet to satisfy audiences’ little wishes.

Beijing People’s Art Theater’s reading poster Amadeus
Photo by Beijing People’s Art Theater

Some people may have doubts about such half-hearted action, but Feng Yuanzheng regards it as an interesting thing: “Many people say that actors should be 100% committed, but in fact they are not 100% on the stage, it may happen at any time on and off the stage. In some cases, actors have to jump in and out of the scene.” The stage is an integrated space, and the actors’ every move may affect the audience’s perception and the people around them. Therefore, the actors will tend to hide their small emotions. But in the studio, everyone seems to be in their own little boxes. “When they go online, the actors see things that are hard to perceive offline -- the most direct feedback from the audience. The actors’ unconscious instant action reflects their lovely side.” In Feng’s view, this is not a distraction of the show, but rather a reflection of the excitement the actors feel when performing. This open space gives the play a whole new look and experience.

Reading scripts online is still a testing ground for digging out the potential of young actors. Just because of the lack of formality, Feng focuses on breaking the record of young actors’ reading quantity, as well as breaking the performance limitations of young actors. Although applicants can volunteer which act to play, it is still recommended that actors presented unread scripts and play the genres that they haven’t tried before. The bold breakthrough was effective, as several of the plays performed so well that people began to wonder what they would look like when they were put on the stage.

The solid ground station won’t be always on the cloud

Entering June implies everything is gradually on track. Although the theater has not yet opened, the day when actors get on stage is not far away. At the end of “The Art Space for Kids” live drama, “Little Plays at Home” entered a smooth running process. The program even went to do live streaming at the homes of artists to talk about their art life stories, and present some demo so as to warm up the upcoming original children’s dramas launched later this year. Beijing People’s Art Theater online version of reading script campaign has completed four phases, and Feng is becoming more and more interested in this kind of online interaction. “Reading the script online will not stop until the epidemic ends.” he said.

But they don't intend to “float on the clouds” all the time. For the audience, even if there are always surprises in online theater, the power of direct communication between the stage actors and the audience is incomparable. Online drama is not a fruitless tree. It just needs to mature longer. Feng has an idea: He wants to create a real online show with artists from other cities. It may be that the artists stand in different theaters, put on their costumes and conduct all the live broadcast with a beam of light. They will work together in different spaces to complete one play. “In the future, online shows can break down the geographical limitation, but now we’re still limited to present merely a tenth of the drama.”

On the days when Chen can’t arrive at the scene, she often speaks of some scenes with friends: in a play, a white-haired old artist sit on the stage even before the children enter. play on the stage to wait, when the children are seated one by one, he used his gentle and smooth voice and said “Wait.”, and pause two or three seconds before he said another “Wait.”, and then he stopped. With such simple words, Chen instantly felt silence in the air. The separation of the theatre with outside space left her deeply moved. There is no other means that can touch people like this. “We are not going to turn the solid ground station into a ‘space station’. We still want to root deeply in our fields.” Even though the clouds look vast, full of hopes and possibilities, I think the performances should still be played on the ground.”

The Art Space for Kids 2020 Press Release 
Photo by The Art Space for Kids

Author/ Ma Feiyu
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