15 September, 2020

Does the pandemic spell the beginning of the end for live performance?

By Anina-Marie Warrener

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, as we found ourselves confined to the couch, longing for the sweet first notes of the overture and the excited whispers of the audience, many of us turned to digital media for our entertainment fix. With a plethora of quality digital stories and content readily available and easily accessible from the couch, you might be asking yourself this question:

“Will this pandemic spell the beginning of the end for live performance?”

Arguably, there are many different opinions about the future of theatre. Some believe that the age of virtual is inevitable and live is dead. Some think that the arts have no value to offer in times of crisis. Others question why anyone would bother to attend a live show at all anymore. But if you ask any thespian, they will tell you:

There is nothing that can ever replace a live show.”

But why is this? What is it about the experience of attending a show with live performers on the stage that makes it so poignant that digital media will never be able to recreate it? The answer lies in the concept of ‘liminality’. Stemming from anthropological studies of rituals and rites of passage, liminality refers to the space created between one state of being and the next. For example, the ritual of the wedding ceremony takes place in the liminal space. That is, you enter the ceremony in one state of being (single) and emerge after the ceremony in another (married).

In many ways, live performance can be compared to ritual. Steeped in tradition and a familiar sequence of events, attending a theatre performance is much like participating in a ritual. The space between entering the theatre and emerging to continue about your daily life is, by definition, liminal.

The power of this liminal space is in its capacity to create transformation. Just like the wedding ceremony, theatre has the power to transform you from one state of being to the next. This is the reason why digital media will never be able to replace live performance. Attending the theatre is a sacred ritual that humans have conducted time and time again. Theatre is a space separate from daily life reserved for the act of transformation.

So when you’re lying on the couch watching Hamilton on Disney+ for the 50th time and wondering why it is just not the same as seeing it live, the answer is that you need the ritualistic experience of attending the theatre. It is about the defined, familiar sequence of events that come with the theatre and the magic of that liminal space that is neither here nor there that allows you to leave daily life behind and suspend your disbelief for a moment.

For those that believe theatre has no place in times of crisis, I say:

“Theatre is a sacred ritual that must be preserved because it is an extremely powerful tool of transformation.”

So no, the coronavirus pandemic does not spell the end of live performance. If anything, our days of couch-dwelling has only served to highlight how essential live theatre really is.