Swings and Roundabouts: Theater Strikes Back

How Theater Could Leapfrog Movies to Return as a Central Art Form in the 21st Century

Plague Spring

I was a drama kid. In high school I acted in 23 different plays, and crewed on 25 more. In college, I wrote and acted in (and eventually helped design and produce) a “season” of three-day LARPs. 

But then I gave up the smell of the greasepaint to concentrate on pursuing a practical, money-making career: writing freelance science fiction novels. This turned out to be harder than expected but it kept me out of trouble and away from theaters for many years. But in the spring of 2020 I found myself working on a project with the Royal Shakespeare Company, while at the same time I was writing a fancy-dress Murder Mystery Dinner Party for a double-digit cast and more than a hundred guests.

On the last Thursday in February I finished a week-long business trip to the RSC in Stratford, England, cutting out a couple of hours early to get to Heathrow. I had brought a tuxedo in my luggage; the mystery party was in Seattle and there wasn’t time for me to stop by home for my fancy clothes.

That Friday the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Italy passed four hundred. Although they were all in the north, around Milan, the Uber driver who picked me up at SEA-TAC told me his uncle had closed down his restaurant in Rome. Everything was closed in Rome, he said, despite being a six and a half hour drive from the outbreak.  I remember thinking, Wow, this is going to get big.  

The mystery party was a smashing success. The cast was excellent, the attendees resplendent in 1920’s finery. The party had been set for February 29; a whimsical date – most years it doesn’t even exist. It felt like Midsummer’s, or All Hallow’s Eve – the sort of night where the rules are relaxed and impossible things can come true. 

The next morning we discovered that as we had been clinking our glasses of champagne, a hospitalized nursing home resident five miles away in Kirkland had become the first COVID-19 fatality in Washington State.

Covid mostly spreads by airborne transmission, especially between people who are packed close together, indoors, for a prolonged period of time – particularly if they are speaking loudly, singing or cheering. If a criminal mastermind with unlimited resources set out to destroy the theater as an artform, she’d have a hard time bettering C-19 as the weapon of choice. By the end of the next week it was clear my project with the Royal Shakespeare Company would be put on hold. Shortly afterwards, the RSC was forced to furlough more than nine hundred employees.

So the fate of theater in the age of Covid was very much on my mind when I was contacted Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA). Each year they put on a festival to showcase the school’s graduating class of actors, but this year COVID had scrapped those plans. They were looking to do some kind of online replacement work, and would I like to direct such a thing?

The next day I woke up with an idea for what felt at that moment like the only producible play in the world. I told NIDA I would be happy to direct a play – as long as I got to write it, too.

Swings and Roundabouts

There’s an old-fashioned expression that goes, What you lose on the swings, you get back on the roundabouts. It means that the pros and cons of two different possibilities more or less cancel one another out – If you drive through the center of town, for example, your distance will be shorter but there will be more traffic.

Any reasonable person who lived through the 20th century would agree, I think, that video – first as movies, and then as TV – came to thoroughly eclipse theater as the dominant form of dramatic art; probably, in fact, the most culturally central form of art, period.

Cinema’s killer advantage was what Silicon Valley calls scalability. You can only sell as many tickets to a play as there are seats in your theater. If you want to sell more, you have to perform the play all over again, and pay your actors and crew and so forth to do it. A movie, on the other hand, might be expensive to make, but once you’ve made it, you can sell tickets forever. As of this writing, Gone With the Wind has sold more than 201 million theater tickets, not to mention being seen or streamed countless times on TV.

The first part of the idea I woke up with – blindingly obvious in retrospect, and one many others have thought of, too – is that platforms such as Twitch and Facebook Live make theater enormously more scalable. More people can – and have – watched live events on those platforms than could fit in every seat of the world’s largest cinema chain.

The second part of the idea was that theater has a secret weapon cinema can’t match: interactivity. It turns out that as hard as it is to make theater scale, it’s even harder to make cinema respond to it’s audience in real time.

Of course, creators have been making “interactive movies” for a long time, usually following some variant of a Choose Your Own Adventure / branching narrative strategy. A recent example, done about as well as you can do it, would be Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch episode.

But CYOA approaches suffer from a number of problems. The most basic one is math. Every time you branch a narrative, you are making twice as much content for half as many people. Yes, there are a lot of strategies to try and mitigate the damage, but even being very clever you have to create a lot of content. In a text adventure, when words are all you make, that’s not too bad. Writing – alas – is cheap. But in the world of high quality film, where it costs tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per minute of content, creating two hours of finished material so an audience member will have a thirty minute experience is swimming up a waterfall in the worst way.

And because you can only afford so many branches in your narrative, you have to tightly limit both the number of times the audience can impact the action, and the ways they can do it.

Even an open-world style AAA video game – which costs hundreds of millions of dollars to create – can only process certain kinds of inputs from players, in certain situations.

You know what processor can handle audience input well – even completely random stuff you never thought of in advance? A live actor: and to be frank, you can get some pretty good ones who otherwise are getting $12/hour at their barista gig.

In other words, although it looked for a hundred years as if the dominance of cinema over theater was a foregone conclusion, I think that horserace is a very different proposition now. Broadcast video is just a collection of bits that can be pirated from dozens of torrent sites on the web. But theater – scalable on streaming platforms and responsive to its audience – can deliver a live, interactive experience that cinema can’t come close to matching.

What theater lost on the swings, it has finally got back on the roundabouts.

Epilogue

So I went back to NIDA’s artistic director and said, “I want to make this play on a streaming platform – something that has both a video window for people to watch, and a chat channel where they comment on the action. I want this show to play across both of those stages. 

“I want to write a scripted piece with solid story structure, but one designed from the ground up to involve the audience in the show. If someone wants to just lean back and watch, they should have a hell of a good time. If they want to lean in, I want them to be able to have a huge impact on the show, talk to the actors – even to add their own flair and creativity to the performance every single night.”

He said yes.

That play goes into technical rehearsal in one hour, with opening night less than two weeks away. It’s called Roundabout, and now you know one of the reasons why.

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