RTÉ Brainstorm: Why are audiences seeking out live collective events online?

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Apr 15 2020 Posted: 09:41 IST

Author: Dr Ciara L Murphy, O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance

Opinion: these events show that it is reassuring during a period of coronavirus isolation to be together even if we are home alone

The way that audiences participate in theatre and live events has always been influenced by the social moment. It wouldn't have been at all strange to throw rotten fruit at actors in Shakespeare’s Globe, yet doing so at the Gate Theatre would almost certainly see you ejected from the performance.

Audience participation is informed by social values, the structure of the event, and the conditions and contexts of that event. This can range from a move towards community-based events during the Troubles (where travel to the city centres of Belfast and Derry was seen as unsafe) to the rise in digital and interactive performance in recent times. 

What unites most cultural output that is intended for the public sphere is the live audience. A visit to the cinema, a music gig or a theatre production relies on the presence of the live audience for both its financial and creative success. The live event also has the power to transform audiences through the collective experience. There is pleasure in sharing the common experience as  anthropologist Edith Turner notes. Similarly, according to academic Jill Dolan, there is a ritualistic, almost spiritual cohesion that becomes present during the collective, live event.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Irish pianist Dearbhla Collins on the "Live in the living room" performances from the Royal Irish Academy of Music

But what happens when the live event is no longer possible? The coronavirus pandemic has changed the social moment and is ensuring that we remain at home. We simply do not know when we will next have the opportunity to sit, side-by-side, in a venue, participating in a moment of live culture. In this time of crisis, many of us are turning to culture for entertainment, solace, and inspiration. In the absence of the physical collective, audiences and artists are creating it digitally. 

Irish comedian Alison Spittle's nightly #CovideoParty demonstrates the fluidity of audience response in a time of crisis and illustrates the importance of liveness and togetherness. Every evening, an audience gathers online to simultaneously stream a Netflix film. The film, chosen daily via a poll on Spittle’s Twitter page, is coupled with the opportunity to converse with fellow viewers via the #CovideoParty hashtag. 

Spittle’s intervention is far from an isolated event. Limerick theatre company Bottom Dog Theatre have recreated the live theatre experience by streaming previously staged productions online. Under the event title #TheatreFromHome, the company have re-performed A Wilde Fan and Bachelor of Kilkish to an online audience. These performances contain many of the structures of a theatre production, such as an interval. The audience may not be physically in the theatre but, in the nature of the collective, the live event remains present. 

Musicians are also recreating the live event. Irish musician Emma Langford has been hosting live sing-alongs on her Instagram feed and The Charlatans’ frontman Tim Burgess is hosting nightly listening parties on Twitter using #timstwitterlisteningparty. Like the #CovideoParty, audiences of theatre and music can participate live and simultaneously with a digital audience that could be spread across the globe, but that are united by the cultural event. 

Social media has long been considered as a space of performance. Patrick Lonergan emphasises the collaborative nature of social media as a performance space, acknowledging that it allows audiences to take on the roles of the playwright, the actor, or the director. In this current moment, social media and digital technology become one of the only ways that we can stay connected to each other, and to culture. 

Many museums, theatre companies and other cultural organisations are making their cultural content available for streaming online. This is a worthy and necessary contribution to the current moment. However, the emergence of #CovideoParty, #TheatreFromHome, and #timstwitterlisteningparty signals that one of the pleasures of cultural engagement is participation in the collective, live moment. There is a clear mirroring of the inherent structures of these cultural industries. Museums do not necessarily depend on the collective, but when we go to the theatre, we go together. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, journalist Toner Quinn and folk singer Daoiri Farrell on the growing number of online concerts and the changing landscape of music performance

Perhaps it is reassuring, during a period of isolation, to be together even if we are alone. Culture has always responded to the social moment, often anticipating change before it happens, subverting ingrained power structures, challenging dominant and oppressive hierarchies, and suggesting, in many cases, a route forward. 

By gathering together, we are communally re-reading cultural material within the frame of this current moment of social crisis and change. We are collectively witnessing and engaging with the many new resonances that these moments provide. Together, we are sharing the common experience and maybe we will find a way forward. 


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