New Forms: Could film and theatre converge?

"My First Film", "What Do We Need To Talk About?", and the new forms that might emerge from this moment
May 20, 2020

This week I saw two exceptional pieces that blended the lines between theatre and film in fascinating ways.

The first was Zia Anger’s exceptional My First Film. Anger first debuted her piece as a live cinema performance that has been touring around the country since 2018. In it, Anger projects her laptop onto the theater’s big screen, where she plays segments from her “abandoned” first film, speaks only through typing text into TextEdit, clicks around on video files, and interacts with audience members digitally (she asks them to leave their phones on). In other words, it’s an experience that, in many ways, could translate perfectly to a live stream. 

In the live stream rendition, all those elements are still there. What makes it different, however, is that we aren’t amidst an actual physical audience. Instead, Anger has figured out how to expertly capture the feeling of being in a collective space with others, better than any online theatre I have seen so far. To begin with, the space in the live stream is limited: it’s capped at a number I’m assuming is under 100 people. Anger would tweet about an upcoming “show” on Twitter, and spots would fill up within a day. Already, entering the stream, there is an aura of exclusivity, of this being a singular experience we are going to share in—not something pre-recorded that can never capture the feeling of “liveness”.

When we enter the live stream, however, Anger immediately makes it a collective digital circle. With a soft hum of music playing, she puts a note on her screen that gives us an Apple ID to text. With Messages open on her screen, people start texting in, and we see their messages and their phone numbers. (She makes clear that you need to be comfortable with your number being shared in the space.) Anger plays short videos from her computer (actually old saved Instagram stories), and sends them live to people texting in, often writing back with short messages. She also encourages anyone who gets a text back to start texting others, creating a virtuous circle of sharing. It’s actually the most connected to others I’ve felt in a “theatre-y” way since we lost live theatre.

Throughout the performance—which primarily covers her using her sadly lost and abandoned film to explore personal and professional trauma—we never lose the sense of this being a communal experience. There are several more instances throughout the show of “audience interaction” as well, some of which are very powerful.

While My First Film is classified as a “live cinema presentation”, I’m not sure if it can really fit neatly into any category at all. It’s not quite theatre, and it’s not quite a movie—but it’s something somewhere in between, a birth of a wholly original new form. As I’ve written about before, sharing one’s screen is an alluring kind of nakedness and vulnerability right now, when all so many of us. seem able to do is stare at our screens. It makes sense that there is much to be excavated in the way of creating art in this realm, especially when leveraging the power of the live experience.

Richard Nelson’s excellent new “Zoom” play What Do We Need To Talk About? creates a different kind of “theatre” experience. Nelson’s latest is a continuation of his Apple Family cycle, one of the two main play cycles that he has been presenting at the Public Theater over the last ten years. It was originally presented as a Youtube live stream for some 5,000 viewers, but is now available to replay on demand. The convenience of being able to hit “play” on a play whenever you want is nice, but you do certainly lose something of the live experience—especially in contrast to something like Anger’s My First Film

Nevertheless, there is something that feels like theatre here—though it’s not immediately clear what it is. As Helen Shaw writes:

In the Time Before, I tended to be a bit glib about what constitutes “theater”—I like a big tent, so I figured anything (dance, storytelling, drama) that happened in a theater counted. But now even that expansive definition seems paltry. What Do We Need to Talk About? was made for and with screens, yet it still tastes totally of theater. Maybe it’s the top notes of language, or the length of engagement among the cast, or the way that the audience’s own imagination is a crucial player? I’m trying to place it.

For starters, it’s a piece of “digital” theatre—though can you really call it that, if it’s just theatre?—that feels uniquely suited to its form. Writes Alexandra Schwartz: ““What Do We Need to Talk About?” (directed by Nelson) takes place, inevitably, on Zoom, which, for once, isn’t an irritating technical compromise but an integral plot point.”

Like all good theatre, What Do We Need To Talk About? considers carefully its form, and what it is that makes it unique. In this case, it makes use of Zoom to highlight its hyper-realism, retain a sense of intimacy, and let its terrific actors’ subtle performances truly shine. The play is moving and funny, blending fact with fiction, and feels like it was always meant to be seen this way, in this moment—a mirror of our own lives.

It’s interesting to consider the quality of video presented in Nelson’s production; it differs greatly from video used in a lot of other theatre, like that used in an Ivo Van Hove show. Another lesson to take from the success of What Do We Need To Talk About? is that video does have a tonal quality—not everything needs to be super HD. In fact, the imperfection of webcams over Zoom helps the production—it would have a very different feel if it were all shot perfectly in high-definition.

But I still wonder if there’s a way to combine the live energy of My First Film with the theatrical hyper-realism that’s found in What Do We Need To Talk About?. Both feel fresh and alive, distinctive works that aren’t marred by the lack of a physical, live space but instead are helped by it. They also feel on the verge of something even deeper and perhaps grander: could film and theatre—different forms, but ever intertwined—find ways to converge into an entirely new-but-familiar form that emerges from and speaks to this moment in time?

What Do We Need To Talk About? is available to stream for free on Youtube until June 28th.

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