Online Theater Manifesto

 

Wang Chong

 

The ancient Greeks probably could not have imagined that the public forum they called theater would still exist more than two thousand years in the future. They absolutely could not have imagined that, more than two thousand years later, a plague like the one in their play Oedipus Rex would suffocate theater.

 

Performances have stopped; venues have closed; theater has disappeared.

 

Theater disappeared. Only video-recordings of theater are left on the internet. But of course, video recordings of theater are not theater. They are merely bad copies, passing shadows, and vague memories of theater.

 

Theater artists became jobless and started suffering and complaining. In fact, the worst part is not that they lost their jobs; it’s that they have been forced to realize the cruel reality of the twenty-first century: theater is non-essential.

 

Among all businesses, theater was the first to be shut by the pandemic and will be the last to reopen. Theater is non-essential.

 

Restaurants must go on; factories must go on; music must go on; Netflix too must go on. Only theater is non-essential.

 

Theater artists only realized that theater is non-essential once the plague was everywhere. In fact, theater became non-essential long ago. Theater stopped connecting humans and gods long ago; theater stopped being the only light during the long night long ago; theater stopped enlightening people long ago. Theater is not public forum anymore. Most theater has nothing to do with our times.

 

While cellphones and internet have become new organs of the mankind, and the age of cyberpunk is at our doorstep, theater is one of the last few places that doesn’t allow the internet. While global news reaches people in seconds, theater still takes a year or two to go from page to stage. While most people in the world have access to the internet, theater remains the pretty plaything of the privileged few.

 

Theater is tourism; theater is consumerism; theater is capitalism. Theater is non-essential, because theater stopped being public forum long ago. It is neither public nor a forum.

 

Yet the online world is public and a forum. This world has sharing, participation, and billions of people. This world has stages, auditoriums, and open-air squares. This world has bodies, spaces, and beating hearts. This world has energy, light, and zeitgeist. The online world is not a mirror of the world. It is the world.  

 

In this world, theater artists can start from scratch with just their bare hands. We can define all time and space; we can control all language and symbols; we can create all the currents and futures. In this world, it is easier for us to find the Dionysian spirit or the “immediate theater” imagined by Peter Brook.

 

Online theater is absolutely not a stop-gap measure during this plague. As in Oedipus Rex, the plague will pass at last, and the hero, through life-and-death experiences, awakens to the truth. Human society will soon be full of virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and artificial organisms. So will the arts. Humans will at last redefine “human,” and also “theater.” Theater artists, having experienced “the death of theater,” should’t and can’t stand by awaiting our doom. Online theater is no death knell for theater, but a prelude to our future.

 

We, I and my friends, stayed up all night, only because the prelude has started.

 

Stand still, or join us.

April 20, 2020, published online

English version proofread by Tarryn Chun