Commentary: How to define theater in the digital era? I’ll know it when I see it

Derbhle Crotty and Cathy Belton in Landmark Productions' streaming presentation of Mark O'Rowe's "The Approach."
Derbhle Crotty, left, and Cathy Belton in Landmark Productions’ streaming presentation of Mark O’Rowe’s “The Approach.”
(Landmark Productions)

Since the advent of motion pictures, the question of what distinguishes the stage from the screen has been a bone of contention among a small subset of intellectuals. The issue may seem academic, but savvier theater practitioners have recognized that it’s really a matter of survival.

The theater has long felt cinema breathing down its neck. Susan Sontag, taking up the matter in a 1966 essay, “Theatre and Film,” declared that, despite the ingenuity of the most resourceful experimental companies, “Theatre as an art form gives the general impression of having a problematic future.”

Such dire predictions have more to do with cultural primacy than with any real existential threat. “The fabulous invalid,” as George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart dubbed the theater, has managed to hold on for millennia despite chronically shaky health. The secret to longevity can be found in remaining true, in or out of fashion, to what has set the stage apart.


Meanwhile, film, no longer the cultural upstart, has been facing intense competition from its more accessible rival, TV. After usurping some of film’s prestige during the golden age of cable, the ever-expanding medium known as television is posing a more fatal challenge through streaming services that have disrupted long-held orthodoxies about delivery systems. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic closed the cineplexes, Amazon and Netflix were bringing anticipated new releases to audiences’ living rooms.

The size of a screen is no longer a deal-breaker. Even that bastion of moviemaking tradition, the Academy Awards, has been forced to reevaluate the centrality of the movie house to cinema’s identity.

Digital performance has only exacerbated the definitional crises during this year of hard and soft quarantine. At a recent UCLA roundtable on the subject of the future of theater, I came to the conclusion that, even in this pioneering moment in which artists from different time zones can collaborate without ever coming into direct contact, place still matters.

I was basing this assertion on empirical evidence. After spending so many hours of home confinement watching plays and performance pieces on my laptop, I discovered that I’m more wholly engaged when a virtual offering is anchored in a location, be it geographical or cultural, that has resonance for me.

Those works that have attempted to embrace a more hybrid form, that are “staged” in a liminal space, not quite theater and not quite film, have been less successful in holding my attention. Just as I have preferred films of musicals and plays recorded inside their venues, such as “Hamilton,” “David Byrne’s American Utopia” and “What the Constitutions Means to Me,” to more traditional movie adaptions, such as “The Prom,” I have been more receptive to digital offerings set in theaters than those splayed across Zoom tic-tac-toe boards.

As a theater critic, I’m naturally more invested in the future of the theater than in technological offshoots that have sprung up in an emergency. But this preference for work that isn’t placeless reveals something at the heart of theater’s uniqueness.


In his classic two-volume work, “What Is Cinema?,” film critic and theorist André Bazin argues that there “can be no theater without architecture,” by which he means there can be no theater without a demarcation between art and life. The stage establishes an “aesthetic microcosm,” a zone “materially enclosed, limited, circumscribed,” which becomes the site of our “collusive imagination.”

In the theater, when an actor exits, we’re aware that the performer is either going to the wings or to the dressing room. What lies outside the playing area is divested of magic. This is not true of the movies. An actor outside the frame has merely moved beyond our vision; the life of the character is unaffected.

The overwhelming realism of film induces a kind of hypnotic passivity. Theater, which demands a more active suspension of disbelief, relies on conscious collaboration. Bazin’s thinking illuminates something I’ve frequently observed in myself. At the movies, I tend to lose myself in the unfolding fiction whereas at the theater I’m rarely not aware of myself and those around me taking in the stage experience.

I’ve chalked this up to film being more of a leisure time activity for me. But even when I’m not on duty, I find my analytic faculties are at higher alert when watching a play than when sitting in my sealed solitude at the movies.

In the theater, the text commonly takes precedence over the mise-en-scène. In film, the visual has priority over the verbal. When actors are onstage, I’m often tracking an argument. When they’re onscreen, I’m usually tumbling around in a dream.

For Bazin, these distinctions are a function of the handling of space. “The basic principle of cinema,” he writes, is “the denial of any frontiers to action.” The screen’s movement is “centrifugal” — it keeps expanding outward. The theater, by contrast, he argues, finds “infinity” by pressing inward, moving from the decor to the human soul.


The physical limits of theater, to put it another way, are the source of the art form’s imaginative freedom and power. It’s from scenic constraints that visual metaphor arose, from the paltriness of special effects that dramatic poetry learned to dazzle. The ruthless economy of playwriting — tasked with capturing the imagination of a group of strangers, confined to the same physical space, through what Shakespeare’s Prospero calls an “insubstantial pageant” — is what separates the theater from its screen cousins.

In struggling to articulate a legal definition of hard-core pornography, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote, “I know it when I see it.” I feel similarly about theater when hunting for it online. No description is going to be capacious enough to encompass all possibilities. But a mark of authenticity is an acceptance of the restraints that are unknown to the camera.

Granted, it’s getting harder to find the proverbial theatrical needle in the haystack of online readings, computerized gimmicks and thinly disguised TV pilots. But I had a recent memorable rendezvous with the stage courtesy of a livestream performance from Dublin, Ireland, of “The Approach,” presented by Landmark Productions, in association with St. Ann’s Warehouse and Project Arts Centre, where the work was staged.

Available on demand through Sunday, this hourlong play, written and directed by Mark O’Rowe, is elevated by a cast of three unerring Irish actresses (Cathy Belton, Derbhle Crotty and Aisling O’Sullivan). From a dramaturgical perspective, there’s nothing remarkable about this series of tête-à-têtes, except that I found myself listening harder with each turn of the conversational carousel.

My interest was provoked by the desire to fit the narrative pieces together. But it was the haunting humor and pathos of the acting that ensnared me. “The Approach,” which had its premiere in Dublin in 2018, is built expressly for the boards. O’Rowe is writing not to lull but to intrigue.

The elliptical play deepens in retrospect, and the author expects audience members to assemble the whole in the darkrooms of their minds. This invitation to be imaginatively active while simultaneously bewitched by unassuming acting brilliance charges a small-scale virtual offering with theatrical significance.


According to Bazin, “The cinema calms the spectator, the theater excites him.” This excitement can happen anywhere, but even in a staging as abstract as this, it must happen somewhere.

I’ve never been to the Project Arts Centre, but I recognized the milieu in which the ensemble is steeped. Although I was once again staring at a computer screen, I was grateful not to be floating aimlessly in the ether. I was home again, at the theater.

The nation’s overlapping crises have sparked the notion that audiences want to be uplifted, more than anything else. I disagree.

Jan. 14, 2021