I’m watching a montage of flashbacks onscreen. Wealthy people cavort in satin pyjamas and canoodle in a candlelit bathroom; domestic strife spills out into the plush corridors; disgruntled staff skulk and scheme in corners. Meanwhile, a smooth voiceover talks us through the plot so far: “Previously on Edward II . . . ” For this is a serialisation of Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century tragedy, mischievously packaged to resemble the sort of sizzling, flesh-and-frocks period drama that has beguiled many a television viewer in recent years.
It’s just one of the shows on offer from the Schauspiel Köln in Germany, which has met the pandemic with its own nippy take on streamed drama. The theatre’s online service — playfully titled Dramazon Prime — offers a daily diet of drama, with a range of shows rotated as in a theatre repertoire. The name is deliberately ironic, explains the theatre’s director Stefan Bachmann on a Zoom call from Cologne. Online theatre cannot compete with the high-end, big-budget shows or range of choice on popular streaming services, he says, but it can offer something different.
“Every time we decided to make something or translate something into the digital language, we chose a different way to do it,” he says. “And it never hides that it is theatre. I think it is also important that you don’t hide what you are: our main business is to make theatre and that’s what we want to do.”
Edward II (adapted by Ewald Palmetshofer and directed by Pinar Karabulut) is serialised across six episodes, lifting Marlowe’s drama of political intrigue and personal passion into a modern context — with a luxury hotel replacing the English court — and splicing the original with references to pop culture.
In contrast, a staging by Rafael Sanchez of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath feels much closer to a theatrical performance, with the story rolling out backstage and the vast landscapes and striking topicality of the novel evoked through simple props. Wajdi Mouawad’s Birds of a Kind, a multilingual love story set against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and directed by Bachmann, is clearly filmed onstage but makes overt use of the digital format, often splitting the screen into two or more sections to reflect the splintered experience of the characters.
The challenge, says dramaturge Lea Goebel who worked on Birds of a Kind, is to find an online style to suit each show: “We have films, we have series like Edward, we have livestreams, we have interviews — we try to do a huge range of different digital formats of theatre.”
Together with many other companies across the world, the Schauspiel has embraced the possibility offered by online drama to stay in contact with its regular audiences but also to reach a wider public. Viewers have tuned in from Mexico and Israel, with the option of English subtitles enabling non-German speakers to access the work. It’s a chance to collaborate too: this weekend, the theatre will join forces with the Residenztheater in Munich to mount a three-day joint festival. In the autumn, the Schauspiel will mount a piece created specifically for the digital platform in collaboration with leading Flemish director Luk Perceval.
The past year has brought something of a revolution in online practice for theatres around the globe. Starting with recorded performances (such as the National Theatre’s NTLive) and plays made for Zoom (including the New York Public Theater’s What Do We Need to Talk About?), theatres moved on to streaming live performances from empty theatres. Audiences could tune in to watch Andrew Scott perform Stephen Beresford’s Three Kings live from the Old Vic, for example, or Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani deliver Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hymn in London’s Almeida Theatre.
Others have concentrated on creating work specifically for the digital space, including the delightful What a Carve Up! from the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield and the innovative pieces crafted for the Public Theater’s “Under the Radar” festival, or experimented with engaging online audiences in the action. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent ambitious project Dream employed motion capture suits and gaming technology to enable audiences to interact with actors, live, via the screen. On May 9, 22 theatres from 18 countries across Europe join “Renaissance”, a month-long online festival on the theme of rebirth.
For many theatre practitioners it has been a rapid learning curve. The Schauspiel consults regularly with 14 other German theatres to exchange experiences. “This is something new: it would never have happened if there had not been this crisis,” says Bachmann. “For me this is something very positive because I think the more you talk together, the better it is.”
One of the many challenges for theatres is how best to make online drama economically viable. The Schauspiel has implemented a pay-as-you-choose model, offering a range of ticket prices between €1 and €100. Bachmann was surprised by the response.
“People were paying approximately what they would have done for a normal ticket,” he says. “Maybe it was an act of solidarity in a deep crisis but for me this was a big surprise. People really wanted to pay more than they had to.”
Goebel cites the example of one family of four who wanted to watch a show together and contacted the theatre to ask how many tickets they should buy. They could have bought one, but they paid for four: “People were trying to be fair.”
A pay-as-you-choose system is perhaps easier to implement in Germany, where levels of subsidy are high, than in some other countries. But Goebel suggests that experiments such as the RSC’s Dream and one of the Dramazon Prime shows — Richard Siegal’s ballet Two for the Show — offer food for thought. Audiences for Dream could watch free of charge but could also pay for a more interactive experience; viewers for Two for the Show can access extra material by paying more. That’s an idea that might appeal to many audience members, bringing to the digital platform the sort of flexibility offered in recent, hugely popular immersive shows (such as those by Punchdrunk), with participants able to shape their experience.
There is also the question of what role digital work can play once theatres are able to return to in-person performance. Could it expand access to those unable to attend or provide a platform for complementary material? For Goebel, the option of mixed offer is attractive.
“It will be interesting to see in what ways we can continue with exclusively digital performance,” she says. “But personally I am super curious to see what we can do with hybrid performance, trying a fusion between analogue and digital performance. One scenario could be that in September or October we are able to open our doors and do a performance with 50 people present, but still have three or four cameras onstage to do a livestream at the same time.”
This is an option that some English theatre companies are already embracing as they look to reopen this summer. Many smaller venues (such as the Orange Tree in Richmond, and London’s Jermyn Street Theatre and Southwark Playhouse) are planning livestreams alongside in-person performances, thus expanding access. Lucinda Coxon’s Herding Cats at London’s Soho Theatre will go one further, with one actor also appearing via video link from Los Angeles. Bristol Old Vic is also offering both in-person and online access to its thrilling tale of survival, Touching the Void, in May.
For Bachmann, nothing quite replaces the electricity of live, in-person drama. But he thinks we are at the beginning of learning how much the fusion of stage and screen could deliver.
“It’s not yet something that is fully invented,” he says. “I think it’s all about finding out what the possibilities are and maybe creating something that is as challenging as theatre is.”