Can Live Theatre Exist Online?

Empty stage

This post is in response to the tweet:

“Dear Theater stop being afraid of the internet,”

I saw posted to facebook followed by a very intelligent discussion in the comments lead by the young artistic director who posted it.

The following is a commentary presented by this old artist curmudgeon who is deeply saddened by the isolation, depression, and mental illness that is rampantly infecting the generations being raised in the current environment of digital media that disassociates us from the natural world, other human beings and ultimately our own humanity. This is a bold statement, I know, but there is now a great deal of scientific research to support this stance. I would even go as far to say that the most dangerous pandemic rampaging the globe is digitalmediaburitus (for lack of better term). The irony of writing this as a blog post for my website and then posting it on social media knowing it will help boost my SEO is not lost on me.

What do the theater masks have to teach us about the value and impact of live vs. digital communication through artistic expression?

production shot of hecuba greek theatre mask from hecuba
Hecuba at The University of Colorado Boulder

The discussion of new integrated performances languages aside, I would say the answer to the question, “Can live theatre exist online,” is a resounding NO. … uhmmm… because it isn’t live. The loss of the live element eliminates one of the three major fundamentals that allows for “theater” to exist as “theatre.”

The masks reveal to us the importance of the three underlying principles that are at the foundation of all artistic expression(other disciplines reveal these as well but using the term mask boosts my SEO). The three principles are:

  • Rhythm/Musicality
  • Space
  • Form

All artistic disciplines can be reduced to these three principles. When an artist understands how they interact and are connected through composition, the resulting consequence is work that profoundly engages the audience. Works that hold within a sophisticated integration of these principles provoke and in many ways demand engagement with the viewer.

Communication exists in the space between

How we deal with the space is what defines our relationship to the audience and how an audience deals with space defines their relationship with what they are interacting with.

Live theatre is a kinesthetic and visceral medium that requires human beings to be present in the same space with other human beings sharing the same physical, psychological, spiritual and intellectual experiences.. The spaces of the natural world and the energies within must be fully present for the live experience to have the profound impact that it does. Without that space there is no theatre.

The mask reveals this to us through the simple relationships the actor is having in the artistic act of creation through performance. There is:

  • the actor
  • the space between the actor and the mask
  • the mask
  • the space between the mask and the audience
  • the audience
  • the space within which they are experiencing the event.


The listening through those spaces, the extension of energies through those spaces, create an incredibly dynamic experience/conversation in which an audience experiences themselves through the story and the performers telling it.

Once the live space is eliminated the type of, and I believe the depth of, the experience not only changes but is diminished.

Can many of the attributes I have mentioned above be accomplished in a digital medium? Yes of course. Film and television do it all the time. These are editors mediums. What an audience experiences is dictated by the camera angle, the way in which a scene is edited and the musical score/sound design underscores the action. This creates a dynamic and very personal experience for the viewer.

Digital media is a passive medium; one that allows the viewer to disassociate or distance oneself from the action.   This is why film and television can display graphic violence and overt sexual content in a way live theatre cannot. In many ways the less graphic and realistic violence and sex are portrayed in a live environment, the more poetic they are the greater meaning they hold. What is not said or shown can create a space for greater understanding and a deeper experience.

The language of performance for live theatre is very different or one could also say the style. How the performers create for a live audience in a large proscenium space, in an out door thrust or in an intimate space in the round does not translate to digital media. The language of performance is reduced to something profoundly superficial and often just looks like a bad amateur production because the language doesn’t translate. Is there a language that could successfully integrate the two? Most likely. But it will still not be human beings partnering with other human beings in a common space. We need more of this not less. In my curmudgeonly opinion.

I believe all art is diminished through digital representation. Yes, I know NFTs are becoming a thing.

Brokering the human experience, storytelling and artistic expression through technology removes from it its three dimensional space. The result is that it becomes first and foremost an intellectual endeavor. The spiritual dimension, that quality provided by the spaces of the material creation in which we actually live is absent.

Larval Masks in Spain design by jonathan kipp becker

The impact of live theatre is clear.

Night Mother and the Wolf masks

I for one have no interest in promoting a greater entrance into the digital realm than we have already created for ourselves. The endeavor of doing so has become a plague upon our humanity. It seems unstoppable.

The discussion of digital media marketing and audience building is completely different. The current model for not-for-profits is to spend 40% – 70% of their budgets on digital media marketing. The harder they work, the more popular they become, the larger the following gained results in more money having to be spent to maintain and build off the hard work and accomplishments already made. The algorithms that govern this have created a non-sustainable environment that funnels everyone’s money into the pockets of those who broker information. And the platforms for communication are shifting so rapidly that one barely has time to learn how to use one before the trends shift. Digital media marketing is much like dropping money into a slot machine.

How much of our humanity must we loose in the rush to put everything online before we realize that the live in person event is not only necessary for maintaining and furthering expressive art forms but also integral in the sustaining of local economies.

Prior to COVID 19 the arts in America generated 4.8% of the GNP. That is more than agriculture or transportation.

The question that remains is:

Will a stance on the maintaining of live theatre as live loose its young audiences and so then loose its future?

I say go out and attend a live event with as many young people as you can. Get vaccinated, wear your mask and leave all your phones at home so you can be completely where you are. 

Also send a bunch of your money to a practicing artist engaging their community. You could send it to me or this great new theater company forming in Detroit called Break The Chain Theatre Company.