Only Players

By T.K. McNeil |

While it is ideally best to try and get along, there are some things that seem like natural enemies. Klansmen and Hippies for example. Or cats and most other cats. One of the most recent assumed battle-lines has been drawn between live theater and the Internet. As with television, recorded music and print journalism before, it is naturally assumed that the Internet and the Stage would be mortal enemies engaged in a zero-sum war of attrition, the great digital monolith eventually winning out, decentralizing, demonetizing and eventually obliterating live theater as it has been known since the days of Ancient Greece. Except this not the case and theater remains as popular now as it has been in the past. At least since the introduction of television. Part of theater’s longevity, especially in the face of change, is what could be known as the ‘Adam’s Argument’, referring to what Science Fiction author and arm-chair Scientist Douglas Adams said about the survival of books. In essence it comes down to a matter of uniqueness. Books are very good at being books and nothing has yet come along that is better, or even as good, at being a book. Not even the much touted e-readers, which one has to look fairly hard to find in a shop these days. Similarly there is something that happens with theater that simply does not happen in other mediums. Live plays on television get very close but are still not quite the same. Except maybe in the case of Spalding Gray, whose monologues seemed almost designed to be shown on a screen.

Chris Hardwick and Grace Helbig

Traditional notions of performance are so engrained in culture that even those now in the digital realms have yet to completely shake them. High profile digital media stars such as YouTube darling Grace Helbig and Nerdist founder Chris Hardwick identify not in the terms of the digital age, ‘YouTuber’, ‘Content Producer’ and the like but as ‘Performers’. Both are trained in traditional performance modes, Acting in Helbig’s case and Stand-Up Comedy and Music in Hardwick’s. Helbig turned to the digital, do it yourself realm of vlogging after tiring of the pressure and scrutiny she faced as a young, unknown, female looking for acting work.

Hardwick continues to do live stand-up comedy, while also doing his famously successful podcast. Felicia Day is also Internet-famous for her various roles actor, writer and producer on some of the webs most popular shows, including but not limited to The Guild and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. She has also been in traditional media on and off through her career, including a supporting role in the last season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and is classically trained in Ballet, Opera and Violin.

Far from posing a threat to the existence of traditional theater, the Internet, particularly streaming sites such as YouTube have proven to be a key platform and propagator of the form. A quick look at YouTube’s music section will yield quite a few examples of Show Tunes, both in their original form as well as cover versions. Les Miserables, Cabaret and Avenue Q being particular favorites. The site also hosts full-length versions of stage plays, similar to those that used to be seen on television. Which really only stands to reason given web-streaming’s role as traditional television’s immediate successor.

The content is also fairly diverse, ranging from earnest and endearing, if slightly censored, high school productions of Avenue Q to professional productions of the notoriously difficult to stage, Irish modern classic Stones In His Pockets. The Internet has also been used as promotional tool. Such as in the case of the YouTube video of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater doing a flash mob production of the ‘One Day More’ number from Les Miserables in the middle of a busy shopping mall to promote their up-coming production. A clear case of traditional theater using the internet’s well-known audience-base to their advantage. Adapting rather than being in denial or just waiting to be overcome.

Not only is the Internet being used to promote and spread traditional theater, there are those who have begun to use the web as a platform. The very best evidence of the peaceful co-existence between traditional theatre and the Internet being the existence of The Dolls of New Albion. Produced in 2012 and initially release independently in digital-audio by creator Paul Shapera, New Albion is the world’s first internet based musical. Despite being audio-only, the original version has all the traits of a traditional stage musical.

Image result for The Dolls of New Albion
The Dolls of New Albion, A Steampunk Opera is a 90 minute, 4 Act musical with each Act following a different generation of the McAlistair family in the fantastical city of New Albion.

To the point that if it were played out of context it could easily be mistaken for a live soundtrack recording of a stage-production as opposed to the original work. Something Shapera more than likely intended when creating it. As if to prove his point there have since been several live adaptations of The Dolls of New Albion, mostly put on by fans of the original. Which have, in their turn, been recorded and posted online, thereby bringing everything full-circle.

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