This is so important and so true!
For a few years now, the actions from Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) have resolutely turned towards digital technology. While the theatre community recognizes the undeniable value of these tools when it comes to production and outreach, it is quite a different matter when it comes to creation.
Since the beginning of the crisis, an optimistic discourse, although unfortunately misleading, is gaining momentum: that the survival of the arts will require they move online. It is true that virtual spaces of togetherness comfort us. We want to believe that they will adequately replace live arts, if not how can we possibly envision the months, or perhaps years, to come? However, to better participate in the current transformation of the world, we must first be honest: the direct nature of the performing arts is, in general, incompatible with digital arts.
Perhaps it is the stunning prospect of a lasting no man’s land of live performance that has caused so many voices to emerge to sing the praises of our digital salvation. Liza Frulla and Louise Beaudoin, two strong advocates for arts and culture, said in an interview with Radio-Canada that the artistic community was going to have to reinvent itself through digital technology. In a blog post published on April 19th in La Presse, Simon Brault, director of the CCA, invites us “to consider the future with a real desire to experiment and innovate” and encourages “the rapid and widespread adoption of digital tools.” He reiterated his position, still in La Presse, insisting on the fact that “we need to encourage the conversation about the digital […].” The CCA has joined forces with Radio-Canada/CBC to offer the Digital Originals program to finance the creation or adaptation of digital works.
The problem is not in creating such programs, nor in the faith expressed in artists. The problem is in the monolithic character of the statement itself. We are puzzled by this tendency to believe that practicing one art form means practicing all the arts forms and that it is therefore enough for artists of all disciplines to migrate online to continue to exist. Each sector requires its own expertise. A dancer is not a visual artist, who in turn is not a film director. Some artists happily choose to adopt digital tools in their practice and that is exciting and commendable. However, each artistic practice must remain radically free. It is precisely this freedom that we are demanding today: the freedom to remain faithful to the performing arts. Not because they are better than digital arts, but because they are inherently different in nature, and this specificity must be preserved.
Theatre is the art of gathering. Without direct encounter with the audience, theatre does not exist. Without this delicious and dangerous awareness of the fallibility of the humans there, in front of you, theatre does not exist. Without the mystical awareness of sharing a unique, fleeting moment, theatre does not exist. Its existential quality is based on its ephemerality. Theatre is what happens between humans gathering together. Theatre is built on the ideas and feelings shared between souls gathering together. We build multifaceted universes, integrate new technologies, we sometimes collaborate with other artistic disciplines, but none of this affects the essential nature of the performing arts, which fulfill the prehistoric need of humans to be among their own, to observe oneself in the cathartic presence of fellow humans.
In these unprecedented times, digital technology is a Band-Aid solution that we appreciate for what it is: a way to keep in touch with our audiences and offer them some substitutes for the shows they are waiting for. Some encouraging and promising initiatives will last. Others are created to be temporary, to keep our heads above water while the storm passes, which may take a long time.
Without knowing everything about the scenarios of deconfinement, we already know that the distancing measures will need to be upheld. It will be a long time before can gather again in a performance venue. The theatre community’s priority is undoubtedly to show solidarity, follow the rules of public health and wait as long as it takes before we can reopen our doors safely.
We are only at the beginning of the crisis. It is therefore astonishing to read Simon Brault rejoicing in the fact that “[…] But the shock of these changes has not led to the disaster we anticipated. Within days, hundreds of artists were broadcasting their creations from their homes.“ How is it possible, right now, to affirm the avoidance of disaster? And is this digital tidal wave really proof that artists have found a way to make up for the closures of all performance venues? A spontaneous initiative born out of shock does not guarantee the will or the capacity of an artist to pursue this path, an almost systematically unremunerated path, it must be said. From their home studios, encased in a solitude that is the opposite of their practice, many artists are currently worrying that the theatre itself will be swept away by the pandemic after millennia of resistance. Many feel that their duty, at the moment, is to listen attentively and not to succumb to their reflex to produce by quickly learning the basics of digital technology. Some will have the opportunity to finally take this time of isolation for the development, research and creation that is constantly neglected. Some will perhaps succeed in perceiving deep things, which are otherwise hidden from us, and transform them into works to be deployed, one day, on stage.
The theatre will survive this crisis. It will standby. It will endeavor to face its fear of emptiness. It will be patient, but if necessary, it will imagine unexpected ways to bring us together other than through our screens. It will be performed in front of an audience of twelve, will disperse in a football stadium and will distribute astronaut suits to its audience, thirsty for human proximity. It doesn’t matter: as long as we are together.
And then, when the time comes, the theatre will open its doors wide and resume its role where it left off. We do not want a digital exit from the crisis. It is through direct contact with others that we will find that strength that we have missed so much.
This letter is co-signed by the members of the board of directors of the Conseil québécois du théâtre:
Charles Bender, Isabelle Boisclair, Lesley Bramhill, Mireille Camier, Sophie Devirieux, Geoffrey Gaquère, Maude Gareau, Mayi-Eder Inchauspé, Albert Kwan, Hubert Lemire, Mathieu Marcil, Dany Michaud, Mathieu Murphy-Perron, Jane Needles, Solène Paré, Édith Patenaude, Olivier Sylvestre, Leïla Thibeault Louchem, Pierre Tremblay, Anne Trudel and France Villeneuve.
PEI Professional Theatre Network
PEI Theatre is the Guild, Harbourfront Theatre,
Confederation Centre for the Arts,
Watermark Theatre, and the Victoria Playhouse