When stage shows went virtual, traditional directors declared that the form was “dead.” They are extremely wrong.
“For every moment genuinely experienced onstage we get back a response from the audience, participation, empathy, invisible currents from a thousand living, emotionally stimulated people who create the performance with us.”
After every show, we host a discussion between the audience and artists—for new plays in need of workshopping, traumatic works that warrant joint catharsis, historical pieces that require context from intergenerational audience members, or pedantically subversive texts that benefit from critique. Our theater is niche, so we’ve cultivated a warm and familiar audience. In the discussions, Lata is our most notorious and beloved participant: She demands that playwrights end stories with tidier conclusions, denounces characters as Hindu nationalists (rightfully so), calls on actors to talk if there’s a momentary lull (wrongfully so) and, most of all, despises the overactive Zoom chat. During one conversation, Lata Aunty asked how audience members could turn the chat off, as it was distracting and overshadowed the “actual performance.” It’s a fair concern. Throughout our plays, the chat is a stream of consciousness.
What I meant to say to her was, “the Zoom chat is call and response. The Zoom chat is like the mob in Julius Caesar, or getting lost in a crowded outdoor market. The Zoom chat begs the spectator to scream, jeer, live-stream to Facebook (if you’re an Uncle), live-tweet, send actor-crushes to the director and then the whole chat (“Kanika is soooo cute”), boo, interrupt, disagree, and feel. The Zoom chat is like dancing atop floats in parades, or chanting at protests and rallies. The Zoom chat allows you to be validated and held in real time. The Zoom chat is the performance.”
But I probably just said, “I’m not sure. I love it. Does anyone else have any questions?”
On the surface, a lot gets lost when producing theater online: the symbiotic relationship between performers and audience, the spontaneity of liveness, and the fullness of shared space. Notable artistic directors from traditional, stodgy, well-funded theaters have responded to this DIY, seemingly ersatz art form by declaring theater is dead. Perhaps you feel the same: could video conferencing software designed for board meetings between the UK and Singapore ever be home to liberatory, participatory art?
At first, I would have agreed with you. There was an influx of reunion episodes of F.R.I.E.N.D.S and other anodyne staged readings, all devoid of texture or crunchy experimentation. Other productions were more digitally experimental, using complicated editing software to splice and superimpose actors into the same space in real time, producing a stale and belabored nostalgia for rigid definitions of “real theater.” Screw liberatory, can Zoom even produce tolerable art?
These performances will nourish theater’s renaissance and leave the dregs of hierarchy behind.
Virtual theater is not temporary, but a genre all its own. There are many reasons why these performances will nourish theater’s renaissance: they steal the rush of participation and the sense of community between a close-knit crowd of strangers; they blur the (nonexistent) line between actors, artists, and audience; and they leave the dregs of hierarchy behind—every audience member across the globe is seated in the front row (or closer), can bring their dog, and rarely has to pay. But the live chat is easily the most exciting intervention.
During a class on the anthropology of media I took during my junior year of college—every liberal arts cliché you’re imagining I embody is probably true—I became obsessed with Benedict Anderson’s theory of the imagined community. He posits that the nation is an “imagined political community,” a hypothetical relationship that may be largely anonymous, hierarchical, undefined, and unequal, but is still “conceived as deep, horizontal comradeship.” Once I learned about the concept, I mouthed off about it in every seminar in mostly misplaced contexts, made it at least half of my personality, and over-applied it to non-Western contexts, most notably Ramayana.
Ramayana is an epic serial, based on the story of Ram and Sita, that was publicly broadcast in India during the late 1980s. Many people, including the anthropologist Purnima Mankekar, point to the serial as a foundation for an explosive era of Hindu nationalist politics. I wrote my midterm essay on how Ramayana created an “imagined community” by pushing viewers to see India as a flat, one-dimensional, inherently Hindu state rather than a pluralistic, secular nation. The same way that Marvel movies are copaganda for the military-industrial complex, Ramayana was propaganda for a quickly growing fascist party. I, along with the better and more coherent scholars I cited, argued that the passive audiences who watched Ramayana were easily persuaded to absorb jingoistic attitudes. Media like this is infectious: Months after the broadcast on state TV, my grandparents watched Ramayana on VHS cassettes purchased from an Indian video store in Queens.
For a while, I was pretty convinced by techno-determinist arguments like this, which claim X text made the audience think Y way. As a director and performer, these arguments made me feel powerful and important and special (I’m changing hearts and minds!) So, instead of just fighting with uncles in the family WhatsApp or cringing whenever I heard the story at Diwali, I decided to direct a reimagining of Ramayana written by playwright Dhinesha Karthigesu. One way to engage with and destabilize canonical narratives is by creating provocative, comedic, and thoughtful reinterpretations of them. Instead of an epic following Ram rescuing Sita from the demonic (dark-skinned and curly-haired) Ravana, the adaptation positions Ram and Ravana as occasional lovers rather than enemies; the setting, Ayodhya, as a consulting firm rather than an ancient kingdom; Sita as bombastic rather than docile; and colorism as something to unpack rather than reify.
This play, Ravayana, was one of the first shows I directed over Zoom. Admittedly, I’d expected calm silence from the chat; maybe an “um, congrats?” at the end. But if audiences who watched Ramayana were impressionable, malleable, and universal, the audience for Ravayana was noisy in their dissent, adoration, and confusion. Messages ranged from earnest questions (“is there a symbolism behind the fortune cookies?”) to unfiltered musings (“lol that David Foster Wallace is so on brand,” “kai is gonna get a beat down from aunty kaushalya”); from adoring (“I want to dress like Sita for the rest of my life”) to not so adoring (“Fuck das”). The conversation made it impossible to hold onto techno-determinist beliefs: the chat created an empathetic, lively, affective audience—not just between spectators, but also with the artists.
Western theater practitioners often view the audience as an anonymous mass. The theater still demands a (classist, white, Western) politics of quiet respectability: sit down; cross your legs; if you take out your phone and record the performance to love later, Lin-Manuel Miranda will publicly shame you to his 3.5 million Twitter followers. Don’t eat (unless it’s $3000 M&Ms from the lobby), smile and clap on beat, and laugh and gasp in sync. Be barely seen and only selectively heard.
These expectations assume a normative spectator stripped of agency. They also create boring and inaccessible art. Out-of-place behavior, like misplaced laughter, is embarrassing because the audience is perceived as an undifferentiated mass rather than individuals. Reactions become manufactured, standardized, and muted.Wait, was that joke racist, hahasounds the same ashaha, that joke was racist.
Philosopher Bruce Wilshire claims that “the key to all great theater is the silence of the audience.” Sorry, Bruce but the chat reminds us that masses are differentiated, our digital public spaces populated by fabulous, noisy, bickering individuals. Plus, there’s nothing less manufactured, and more capable of rupturing Western classical theater norms, than a volatile argument in the chat about Ram’s bisexuality.
After an in-person performance of traumatic material, there’s often an implicit processing that occurs as you wind through the bubbly crowd, into the lobby, out to the street, and down toward the subway. At the end of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play—about which there will be NO discourse in this essay—I waited in the bathroom line with a group of mostly Black and brown women. When a white woman cut the entire line, we all laughed. The ending of Slave Play is pretty intentionally traumatic, but I didn’t feel alone in the bathroom line.
Most performances, including Slave Play, don’t offer the audience any space to process unresolved feelings. This lack can be even worse with virtual theater: Did the play incidentally stir up intergenerational trauma? Oh well, close your computer and sit alone in the dark. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this irresponsibility. It’s a loving, playful stereotype of diasporic artists (maybe especially South Asian diasporic artists) to overshare, burdening the audience with assumed joint baggage. But loving your audience is also an investment, a commitment to healing and nourishment. A well-moderated discussion can hold us close: someone else might be tearing up, someone else might be frustrated at the playwright’s carelessness, someone else might make a joke to buffer the pain (that’s mostly my role).
A member of our ensemble, Canadian-Pakistani playwright Nilofer Rolston, pitched us a series of absurd vignettes. Each vignette contained a subtle element of horror and distress: a patient, covered in bandages, who couldn’t remember which procedure she’d undergone as the threat of state violence loomed in the background; a young woman who had killed her husband after presumed domestic violence. My artistic partner and I had worked with Nilofer twice before. While we were excited to continue our trajectory, I was also hesitant to showcase such emotionally turbulent work.
The Zoom chat was unusually sleepy throughout the show, so I was anticipating a similar discussion. As the audience slowly turned their cameras back on, I asked the director what it was like to stage explicitly political theater and the chat revved up. The director didn’t feel the play was explicitly political. The audience gently disagreed, “thinking about ambiguity as inherently political, especially in overcultures that seek and prioritize distinction, boxes, clear lines, ‘knowing’, etc.” The audience also weighed in when the playwright debated the narrative arc. One spectator appreciated how Hira’s reflection “just re-ordered the vignettes in my mind. the 2nd as being a ‘reason’ to want to forget memories, the 3rd as having the option to forget, and the 1st as being that liminal space of forgetting, and perhaps longing for the memories that have been lost.” Catharsis isn’t spontaneous, it’s cultivated. The chat allowed audience members to get the last word, naming their discomfort rather than letting it fester.
After the performance, we received this email (shortened and shared with permission) from a regular audience member: “this show did not translate as well to zoom for me and I think it’s because the themes were heavy. It made the audience uncomfortable and want to pull away. The discussion at the end really helped to pull it all together and create an unforgettable performance. Without that talk back I could see myself forgetting it right away. Not because it was bad or unmemorable, but because it’s hard to sit with that discomfort.”
In Fresh Lime Soda performances, audience members turn off their cameras and mute themselves throughout the performance, returning on screen and unmuted for the post-show discussion. This setup always carries the possibility of disaster: unimpressed Aunties unmuting themselves mid-conversation during a moment of terse dialogue, or shirtless Uncles turning their cameras on in a moment of vulnerability. For the first few shows I directed, I was flush with embarrassment and horror when audience members popped on screen. But striving for glossy perfection is like returning to the sterile, too-cold, air-conditioned lobby. Interruptions aren’t just crumbs, but the main dish: an actor’s mom yelling at them in Punjabi, or their dog barking throughout the scene. They add grit and grain to the performance—plus, I’m nosy, so I’m constantly waiting for a glimpse of someone’s home life. I’ve even begun scripting interruptions into performances. I directed one show where an offstage character interrupts a scene, but instead, I had the performer act as if he was really frustrated by an audience member interrupting. “Sorry, Nikita, could you turn your microphone off?” escalated into “Seriously, Fresh Lime, Sabina, Kanika, could you sort this out, please?” Later in the show, I had the actors use the Zoom chat in character, engaging with the audience members in real time and heckling fellow performers (this essay is a love letter to heckling).
Blurring the line between performer and audience is more than breaking the fourth wall or harassing a tourist sitting too close to the stage: it embraces theater as something that can be co-created. Western theater is often steeped in hierarchies—the spectator versus the actor, the consumer versus the creator, the darkened auditorium versus the spotlit stage, the anonymous crowd versus the upraised star. Virtual theater embraces the audience reactions as an equal part of the performance. When the chat is embedded in the action, the production becomes a collective work. Lata was right: sometimes the chat can overshadow the performance.
When the chat is embedded in the action, the production becomes a collective work.
Participation isn’t just fun, but also emancipatory. Leftist theater makers like Safdar Hashmi, Augusto Boal, and Paolo Freire all saw breaking the false binary (between participant and observer, performer and audience, teacher and student) as politically necessary and central to public pedagogy. They would’ve loved the Zoom chat. Co-creation even extends beyond art: I see the chat breaking down hierarchies and power dynamics in community board meetings, mayoral debates and forums, and tense hearings about New York City Council land use disputes.
Even though I beg them to, audiences are still conditioned to be too nervous to start messaging. I always bribe a friend or six to be “chat plants” who aggressively send messages early in the show. Once audience members learn that rowdiness is a gift, they often find it irresistible. Rather than being expected to laugh or gasp on cue, audiences can instead have an argument about whether Kaushalya Aunty’s joke was actually steeped in colorism or omg how cute were Sita’s earrings in this scene or wait was that Carnatic singing in Tamil?
As summer draws closer and days get longer and stickier, as bodies get closer and performances invade outdoor spaces, liveness has become gluttonously immediate. Whenever someone asks me if I’m excited for the return to in-person theater, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. Not just for the audience members across the country who can’t fly to NYC every time I direct a play (unless there’s some patron of the arts who’s made it this far into the essay, wink), but for the new interventions that virtual performance has introduced.
Friends who have “accidentally” missed plays often ask if I recorded the performance for them to watch later. I never share the video. Re-watching a virtual play alone is like biting into a stale madeleine de Proust: it will only leave an unsatisfying taste in your mouth. The sense of liveness is irreproducible. Or maybe I’m just bitter they didn’t show up.
Sabina Sethi Unni is an aspiring artist-scholar. She is the co-founder and artistic director of a contemporary South Asian theater ensemble, Fresh Lime Soda Productions. She is also an urbanist who is passionate about creating equitable and dynamic cities using participatory practices. She does not like the convention where short bios must contain a "lowbrow" cultural reference at the end to counterbalance the previous sentences of unabashed bragging and pretentiousness. She’s also addicted to string cheese.
Check out her other writing at SabinaUnni.com or on Twitter @Sabinathegreat.