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Catcalls and Live Chat: Or, How Livestreamed Performances Illuminate the Early Modern Audience

Author: 
Lindsay Adams
Institution: 
Saint Louis University

The plethora of Shakespeare performances currently being made available online are an incredible resource to anyone who teaches early modern drama as they offer a unique opportunity to have discussions with students about the different levels of audience participation in Shakespeare’s time and our own. Due to the global pandemic and the closing of theatres, the Globe Theatre has made some of their productions available on YouTube, creating a schedule where a different production is posted every few weeks.1 There are also Shakespeare productions filmed by theatres like the National Theatre and Donmar Warehouse being livestreamed. These livestream productions of Shakespeare’s works are available and accessible on a broader level to our students than ever before, due to the unprecedented times we are living through.2 Not only are the Globe and National Theatre productions free on YouTube, but they are all close-captioned, and offer either voiced audio-description or transcripts. These livestreams are prerecorded; however, they are premiered on YouTube at a specific time, similar to a play with a scheduled show time one can miss. These livestreams (previously recorded theatre productions from earlier seasons) also allow the audience watching to utilize a chat, posting live as they are watching. This live chat is saved to the video, so even an audience member watching it later can still follow the live response of other viewers.

These performances are not live in any traditional sense of the word, as “live” is traditionally understood in performance studies. However, no one looks askance at National Theatre Live presenting theatre with the separation of a screen between the actors and audience. Not only that, but these span multiple days and have encore performances—though once performed and broadcast live, in later showings they are a frozen, recorded performance. This is what Philip Auslander describes as “the experience of liveness,” which is a different, broader category than traditional definitions of live theatre.3 This does not require the performance to be performed live, or for the audience and actor to be in the same room, but is a “continuous, technologically mediated co-presence.”4 As he puts it, “The liveness of the experience of listening to or watching the recording is primarily affective: live recordings encourage listeners to feel as if they are participating in a specific performance and to enter into a vicarious relationship with the audience for that performance.”5 This affective participatory experience is one of the most important parts of understanding the dynamics of theatre and studying it as a medium. These livestreams can mimic that relationship for our students while theatres are dark.

Before the novel coronavirus expedited this shift, Rachael Nicholas wrote about the possibilities of online broadcasting and Shakespeare performance. As Nicholas argues, “The reciprocal relationship between audience and broadcast looks set to evolve further as theatre broadcasts branch further out into online distribution and as two-way interaction becomes a strategy of live online video to the point where audience performance is an integral part of the experience.”6 National Theatre Live and The Globe recognize the power of the affective “experience of liveness” on their audience, and the way it can build this reciprocity, which is why they present these performance recordings as if they were premieres. There is a countdown clock, the show starts at a certain time and then plays out, which means there is no fast forwarding. While the performances are not actually live, the livestream form uses audience interactive engagement as a way of imbuing the performance with that excitement and “liveness.” They have good reasons to do so. Kevin Roose recently wrote about the importance of online engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic for the New York Times: “One thing we know for certain is that actively participating in online culture is far better than passively consuming it. Research shows that people who use social media actively—by sending messages, leaving comments or talking in group chats, for example—report being happier than those who simply scroll through their feeds, absorbing news stories and viral videos.”7 This engagement is important for the medium of theatre, but in a situation where we are forced to “live” in virtual spaces it is also important for student wellbeing. Roose concludes, “if you’re looking to find solace on the internet, lurking alone won’t cut it—you need to contribute.”8 This relates to students both as members of a virtual livestream audience, and as members of a virtual classroom space; it is engagement that brings deeper meaning and connection, both in the social and educational sense.

Through experiencing livestreams myself as an audience member, and as a playwright having some of my own plays livestreamed, I realized that having students watch (and contribute to) this kind of performance on online platforms is not just an opportunity to see some of the best theatre artists working today interpret the Bard’s work. By creating a virtual classroom exercise that explores the difference between viewing and participating as an audience member in a livestream performance, we can give students insight into the distinctions between the Renaissance and contemporary audience experience of theatre. Performances in Shakespeare’s time were highly interactive: audiences verbally responded to each other, the play, and performers.9 In a livestream scenario, which usually takes place on either YouTube or Facebook Live, the viewer not only experiences the play in that moment, but the very form itself welcomes and invites them to voice immediate affective experiences into the live chat inherent to those platforms. Not only can a viewer express their emotion or shock or excitement at any given moment of a performance, but the rest of the audience can respond to them. The chat automatically scrolls, and updates live with the performance. Because all audience members’ comments are viewable, they have the capacity to affect other viewers’ responses to the play. This reciprocal relationship between audience members and a performance experience is analogous to the performance situations of Renaissance drama.

Of course, in this performance model, the actors cannot modulate their performances based on the energy or response of the audience. In the performance of Shakespeare’s plays, the audience interacted not just with each other, but also with performers who, in turn, sometimes out of necessity, engaged and responded to their unruly and discursive audience. Still, in this brave new world of online, livestreamed performances, we are not only allowing, but creating an outlet for audience response; we allow the boos and the hisses and the cheers, while protecting the actors from the potential trauma and law suits that might arise if we allowed that audience criticism to be physically, rather than just verbally, expressed. We have moved from throwing fruit to live-tweeting, from catcalls to live chats. Talking about how the audiences that filled the theatre profoundly affected the performance itself is essential to any discussion of early modern drama. When teaching theatre, we cannot ignore the effects of the performance and audience composition on the play script we are reading.10 The stage technologies available at indoor theatres like Blackfriars changed how plays were being written to include more spectacle. The tastes and opinions of the court and the nobility influenced the stories that were being told. The performances and memories of actors possibly changed words and lines in speeches. Teaching livestreamed performances allows students to start engaging with some of the larger critical questions around Shakespeare’s work: How much was Shakespeare writing for an audience, and how much were the texts that we have now changed and affected by live performance? How does the theatrical form (and this new livestreamed theatrical form) turn a performance into an experience?

Using livestreamed performance and the chat that is connected to it can also be quite helpful to students in parsing out their experience of the text as written, versus the text as live performance. The chat creates a permanent tracking of audience response that allows students to analyze similarities and differences between their responses and those of the rest of the audience.11 Students learn not only how to read a text, but the ways that they read a text, and how that is informed by their own experiences and identities. By assigning students to watch livestreamed performances, rather than just giving them access to films, we are making them reflect on the role and response of the audience, recognize the plurality and instability of any audience as a group, and consider how their perspectives differ or coalesce with other viewers. There are many ways to do this. Students can track the ratio of positive and negative responses, exploring how the other responses change their opinions of the work or production. They can look at what moments in the production had a higher number of comments posted to the chat; does that correspond to particular plot twists or moments of intensity? There is a reason why courses on drama and literature are often so discussion heavy. We can learn so much more about a text by hearing from others that had a wildly different experience of or response to it. Livestreaming can give students another way of getting a broad, fresh range of responses and interpretations of a performance.

A Virtual-Classroom Exercise

For my Introduction to Literature class, which was focused on Shakespeare and adaptation, I created a specific exercise to discuss the differences and similarities between early modern and contemporary theatrical audience expectations. I planned it in response to our complete switch to remote learning midway through the spring 2020 semester due to the novel coronavirus. I intend to use a similar, but adapted exercise for my students in the fall, as I am teaching a class on writing for the stage, and I cannot have my students attend live theatre.

When I taught this exercise in relation to a Shakespeare livestream, I split my students into thirds to prepare for the class period reserved for a discussion of the livestream. First, I identified those who were available to watch the livestream when it “premiered,” and those who were not. Two-thirds of the class watched it “live” and the other third watched it after the fact. I split up the students watching the stream “live” and had half of them (about a third of the class) watch the livestream only, and the other third of the class I assigned to actively participate as commenters in the livestream and to post their responses to the show as comments, or comment on other audience members’ responses.12 I required them to post at least ten times over the course of the play but recommended even more posts.

When my students logged into Zoom for our synchronous class period, I put the students into groups of three to four people (at least one from each separate group) and had them do small group discussion in their own Zoom discussion rooms.13 I had them talk about their experiences of watching the play and discuss what it was like watching it live versus after the fact, as well as watching the play versus actively responding to it. Then I returned the class back to the main Zoom meeting room. First of all, I asked students what they know about theatre etiquette, or how one is “supposed” to behave as a theatregoer. I made a list of the rules as students offered them. I used this list to transition into a mini-lecture about the differences between contemporary play going and going to the theatre in Shakespeare’s time. I also had some supplementary resources uploaded to the class website (see resources below) that they could refer to after the class to learn more about the staging practices and theatrical situation.

To discuss the effect that the audience interaction can have on the actor in a live theatre performance versus a livestream performance, I had students participate in another exercise. First, I picked a speech from the play that we watched livestreamed that has different sides to it, something that could be divisive. Before the class session, I checked in with one or two of my more vocal and talkative students (or you can also enlist drama majors if you have some in your class) to make sure someone was willing to read a speech in the synchronous class. In class I assigned the other students to different positions, either for or against the arguments/claims of the monologue and told them to respond verbally to the “actor” (as an early modern audience would) while the speech was delivered.14 The student performed the monologue over Zoom, but with the active audience response.

Afterward, we had a conversation about the ways that having to engage with the audience or respond to their jeers or disagreement changes (and often almost propels) the performance of these lines: how this more interactive actor/audience relationship can give heightened immediacy and purpose to a performer’s arguments and tactics. Then, I had them do a short writing reflection on their experience. Had their understanding or interpretation of the soliloquies of the Shakespeare play we read changed? And how would they, as an Elizabethan actor performing one of the roles in the play, try to win the audience over to their side? Having students reflect on their experience builds the kind of metacognition they need to recognize that the skillsets they have honed for online-culture engagement can give them clues how to be a more participatory audience member and a more active reader.

Conclusions

There are many differences between a livestream performance on YouTube and a performance in a crowded outdoor theatre in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; however, these very dissimilarities start further conversations about technology and distance, and their effects on an audience. The lack of reciprocity between the actors and audience in the online interaction is notable. The question becomes whether that makes people more likely to respond honestly or less likely to engage. There is also permanence to the response on YouTube; does that change how critical we will be as an audience? Does the relative anonymity offered make people crueler? Watching and analyzing livestream productions give students the closest experience possible to live theatre, and by utilizing the teaching exercises I have outlined above, students can learn about early modern staging practices and audience participation in a hands-on way. These discussions can also function as a foundation that allows for further student conversation and reflections. It can open up a dialogue around how students engage in online discussions, what kind of audience/responders they are for their peers in class as well as livestreamed performances, and just how far removed typing a vitriolic comment from behind a screen is from hurling a rotting vegetable from the safety of a crowd.

Resources on Performance in Elizabethan England

For multimedia resources, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast has an episode, “Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Elizabethan Theater,” that talks about the sensory experience of performances and another episode, “Women Performers in Shakespeare’s Time,” that discusses women performers in other forms of entertainments in early modern England. For readings to assign students, Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare and Beyond blog has a wonderful article, “Elizabethan Theater Etiquette and Audience Expectations Today,” that discusses the differences in the audience/actor relationship in early modern and contemporary theatre. A helpful downloadable pdf, “Fact Sheet: Audiences,” is available on the website of Shakespeare’s Globe. Shakespeare Online, a web resource with texts of his plays, synopses, and supplemental material, also has a short article by Amanda Mabillard, “Shakespeare’s Audience: The Groundlings?” that discusses the social variety of the early modern audience using primary texts from the period. For a more extensive overview of drama and performance in the period (this includes major dramatists, masques, the laws passed that professionalized acting, the play-going experience, and the difference between public and private playhouses), see the Encyclopedia of Tudor England’s “Drama” entry, which is available online through the Gale eBook database.15

Lindsay Adams is an English PhD student at Saint Louis University and nationally produced playwright with an MFA from Catholic University of America. Her recent research focuses on invisible disability in early modern drama and consent and public confession in Shakespeare and Middleton’s plays. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at SLU, as well as leading playwriting workshops and theatre camps for all ages.

1 For upcoming livestreams see, “National Theatre at Home,” National Theatre, accessed 2 July 2020, and “Schedule of Upcoming and Current Free Live Stream Broadcasts,” Playbill.com, 29 June 2020.

2 Livestreamed audience experiences are not unique to this moment in time. Focus on the audience’s collective experience and live response has begun to gain traction with recent live musical broadcasts on television, and live tweeting of television episodes as they air. However, with the stay-at-home orders and social distancing, has come a plethora of professional and amateur virtual Shakespeare performances and recordings, perhaps even to the detriment of supporting and hearing other writers and voices. Alexis Soloski argues, “this explosion of online Shakespeare is less about Shakespeare and more about the feeling of virtual community that the shared knowledge of the works enables.” For more on this see Alexis Soloski, “Is This a Livestream I See Before Me?,” New York Times, 13 May 2020.

3 Philip Auslander, “Live and Technologically Mediated Performance,” in The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies, ed. Tracy C. Davis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 111.

4 Auslander, “Live and Technologically Mediated Performance,” 111.

5 Auslander, “Live and Technologically Mediated Performance,” 110.

6 Rachael Nicholas, “Understanding New Encounters with Shakespeare: Hybrid Media and Emerging Audience Behaviours,” in Shakespeare and the ‘Live’ Theatre Broadcast Experience, ed. Pascale Aebischer, Susanne Greenhalgh, Laurie Osborne, Bloomsbury Collections (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2018), 90.

7 Kevin Roose, “The Coronavirus Crisis Is Showing Us How to Live Online,” New York Times, 2 Apr. 2020.

8 Roose, “The Coronavirus Crisis.”

9 For more on the norms of performance and playgoer behavior in Early Modern England, see Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), esp. chap, 2, “Physical Conditions.”

10 Another similarity between the livestream and Renaissance audiences is in their diversity of their composition compared to a traditional theatre audience. In Shakespeare’s time a wide swath of social classes came together to watch live theatre. Audiences were not only from different classes, but there were also more women attending theatre than is often assumed. Of course, when it comes to who is able to watch livestream performances, one cannot ignore the issue of the digital divide; however, the groups of people able to scrounge up internet access either on a phone or computer to watch a free YouTube livestream is much broader and much more reminiscent of the social breadth and variety of Shakespeare’s audience, than the limits of those who can drop forty or more dollars on a theatre ticket. For more on the makeup of the Elizabethan theatregoer, see Gurr’s Playgoing, esp. chap. 3, “Social Composition”; and Jeremy Lopez, Theatrical Convention and Audience Response in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). 

11 Other technologies like Netflix Party, also allow for private live response and communication between specific watchers.

12 I assigned students to watch and not participate in the comments, because, as Nicholas writes, “Non-participation in audience performance is also a valid approach, and we should consider how to account for audience responses that are not so visible or accessible.” It is important for students to consider what audiences might not be represented in comments. Nicholas points out, “just because some forms of audience performance remain private, this does not mean that they are not taking place.” See Nicholas, “Understanding New Encounters,” 90.

13 If one is doing a fully asynchronous online class, one could use a combination of a Learning Management Software discussion board and video-recorded lecture instead.

14 If you are worried about students getting out of hand in this exercise, you can take some time to establish clear boundaries that they are only to criticize the character and the argument, not the actor playing the character. Another option would be to give students a “script” that lists Shakespearian insults or compliments from which they can choose.

15 Julie Sutherland, “Drama,” in Encyclopedia of Tudor England, vol. 1, ed. John A. Wagner and Susan Walters Schmid (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012).

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