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Features Innovation

Theatre Live and Online

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In May 2020, the Theatre Development team at Paytm Insider commissioned a few theatre practitioners to create a demo of a short, live, theatrical performance on the Zoom video-conferencing platform. The aim was to conduct an internal research experiment (which they have been more than happy to share with Theatre Ink) to gauge its viability and analyse its capabilities and shortcomings. Have a look at the video of the performance [click here] and then read Arghya Lahiri’s analyses of their findings. These, and the technical specifications of the team’s devices [available here], might be useful tools for theatre makers looking to create a live “theatre” experience on Zoom.

Theatre: Live and Online

In the early part of the first, most severe lockdown, Nadir Khan reached out to a handful of colleagues. He wanted to let us know about a workshop that Paytm Insider was conducting – a brief introduction to the facets of the Zoom software that could be used for theatre performances online – especially if we wanted to work live.

A couple of days after this, a small group of people – Nadir himself, Sukant Goel, Rachit Khetan and I – began to explore the possibility of using everything we’d learned about the capabilities of Zoom to create a demo of how an online live theatrical performance might be created.

That resulted in Here’s Another Story Idea For You. And here are some thoughts and observations about the process, and about theatre online in general.

[Anything that pertains to the recording of the performance of Here’s Another Story Idea For You is placed in brackets. These are reflections on the process and not necessarily a guide to what to do. Sometimes, it’s a realisation of what not to do.]

Mannat home setup
  • The choice of text is important. Just as we wouldn’t ordinarily pick an intimate two-hander to perform at large proscenium spaces unless there was a very specific reason, rooted in the design/vision, not all texts will lend themselves to this medium.

    [Here’s Another Story Idea For You was picked because it didn’t lend itself to this medium. But it posed enough challenges of a theatrical nature – things we’d do very easily on a stage – for it to become a good test case for a showpiece. How do you respect the stage directions of the restaurant coming to life around Raghu? How would it be possible to stage a scene in one location [at a restaurant], with three actors in three different places? How do we portray the characters ‘popping’ into someone’s head? How do we get past physical limitations – people handing each other props? All of this contributed to the choice of this text for this exercise.]
  • It is a new medium. That is also important to bear in mind. Currently, it presupposes perhaps the most important factor of the theatre – the mutability of space, which feeds the temporary suspension of disbelief. At the moment, audiences seem to have applied that across media – from the theatre to online performances. But I’m not sure if that’s permanent, or something that is happening at this moment because there’s no other option. A lot of seasoned theatregoers find it difficult to watch performances online. This is not because they’re old-fashioned, it’s because their brains refuse to make the switch. This is not dissimilar, in my opinion, to issues with watching films in 3D. Some people just can’t do it. And that is because part of it is biological – our eyes aren’t meant to capture all planes in focus at all times. Similarly, in a socio-cultural sense, how far do we park our disbelief when we can see that someone is sitting in their home?
  • Part of the apparatus of the theatre is to wipe that slate clean – we are always in a neutral space. Therefore, it becomes what it needs to and we believe it, without pause.
  • How can that apply to online performances?
  • For the moment, the less realistic the better. That’s my feeling. And to spin that out further, the less realistic a text, the easier it will be to conceive for a performance of this nature.

    [Again, the choice of this text challenged that. And that, in some part, became the reason for this realisation. Apart from the end, and the transition to the restaurant and back, this is a realistic text. Correspondingly, watching the end with the Sadhu and the Priest takes the least amount of effort because it’s not realistic, and because it also depends on our habit of having received performances in this kind of form – characters looking across split screens at each other, being in separate spaces and reacting to the same impulse, attempting to control other’s behaviour [by introducing romantic music], etc.]
  • Of course, this focus on more abstract texts can’t apply as a blanket rule. If you’re interested in a text, you’re interested in a text. But it might be worthwhile to look at it structurally – what does a shift in location mean in our understanding of the way we’re receiving this story? And how can we enable that in an online performance?

[Therefore, the transition to the restaurant, which went through several iterations becomes an interesting case study.

1. The transition is a response to a stage direction “the restaurant forms around Raghu”.

2. It is also a deeply theatrical moment. It only occurs on stage. We don’t ‘cut’ to a restaurant. Ragu doesn’t exit and enter. He literally turns and he’s in a different space.

Raghu Home + Restaurant Setup - Device 2

3. This is what occasioned the use of the second device and the challenges it brought.

4. We then discovered that while the move worked, the background in Raghu’s room was too distracting.

5. The Waiter hung up a painting on the wall – as an effort to distinguish his space, and to differentiate it from the second time we saw it – that immediately changed the nature of the combined space, across the three screens.

6. Except, the only reason he did so was as a response to the Oriental-looking blue fan behind Alaya – which she found as the most Japanese-looking location possible in her own home.

7. So we took the print from the painting, found something similar, and created a digital backdrop for Raghu with a similar colour/wall tone to the waiter’s location.

8. And then discovered, incredibly, that Alaya’s location now looked the least real. This was partially solved by turning off most of the lights in the room.

9. Then we played with the sequence of events. Because of the limitations of the Zoom software, the multiple screens must come up in order [this might have changed in subsequent software updates]. So Raghu’s screen came up first. Then the waiter’s. Then Alaya’s. Then we thought it would be more fun if Raghu rolled into position and then had the background change.

10. Except that never quite looked right. So we then had the background pop up first, and then Raghu roll into place. Which worked better, and also gave us the little joke of him disappearing and then rolling through the background.

11. And then realised that it would be even clearer if his background popped up, the waiter’s followed suit, then Alaya’s, and a befuddled-looking Raghu rolled into a fully formed restaurant that came out of the air in front of his eyes, in his own room.

12. Therefore, we could play with the transition back to the room. Raghu takes a sip of water, the backdrop disappears, he’s stunned again. He rolls ‘home’.

13.  And because he needed to switch the other camera back on, we made it his mirror and planted that tic/behaviour early on in the story [before the restaurant], so that stooping in front of the camera wouldn’t look weird the second time.]

Alaya restaurant setup
  • It’s not a deeper reading of the text. It’s a slightly different one from the one we’re used to.
  • Staging will help. And so will lighting – if that can be controlled. But it will come back to the significance of story-telling choices. Why we make a particular decision at a particular junction.
  • As an exercise, and if resources allow, it might be interesting to begin work in the dark. Therefore, the addition of every element is brought into sharp[er] focus. Why has this just happened? How do we begin from ‘black’?

    [This presupposes that ‘black’ is even possible. If it’s not, structurally, what can give us the sense of beginning? How do we wipe the slate clean?]
  • It will also, inevitably, lean on our understanding of film and television because those are the two predominant visual media of our time.
  • More importantly, we steal how to control what we see. A scene set in a restaurant in Italy can be done very effectively with in a little studio in Goregaon. What then, do we need, at base minimum, given the audience is ready to park their disbelief, to sell the situation enough to move the story forward?

    [The prints, and the suggestion of cutlery and crockery, as well as a vase were what we went with. The other locations were easier to do because they were either ‘mind’ space or the characters’ homes.]
  • We also steal the ‘cut’. We cannot appropriate the full power of editing, but we can change enough to get the audience to look at something in a different light.
  • There are of course, huge opportunities. We suddenly have the possibility of movement. We can access settings and backgrounds [a balcony, a terrace, a park, step into sunlight, see the rain] that we never could.
  • Like film, rehearsal should perhaps move down two different streams. There is need for much greater preparation before rehearsal. Effectively having a storyboard for the performance so that you can explain it to your actors – chances are slim that you’d be able to explain what you need [most of which are greater technological challenges than the theatre is used to] in abstract [without an illustration] when it’s unlikely that you’re in the same space [you’re going to have to explain this on a Zoom call – having a document helps].
  • Also, things can and will change during the course of rehearsal. [For example, the restaurant transition finding its final form]. But you must have a plan. You can’t ‘find it in the room’, because there is no room.
  • We’ve barely scratched the surface of what we might be able to do. So the largest requirement for this is time: time to dream it up in different ways, and then time to be able to rehearse it without overwhelming the actors and technicians. And then to be able to watch it and react to it. Much like the theatre pre-Covid, the more time you spend on something, the better it’s likely to be.

– Arghya Lahiri

About Arghya Lahiri

Arghya Lahiri is a writer, director, lighting designer and filmmaker. He's been involved in the theatre, in every capacity that he can get away with, for over twenty years.

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