Performance in a remote world: Q&A with Stanford’s chair of Theater and Performance Studies

Matthew Smith, chair of Stanford’s Theater and Performance Studies, discusses how his department is trying to make the magic of live theater happen remotely.

When Matthew Smith took over as chair of the Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) in September 2019, his vision for the department was one of unity and integration. TAPS, in the School of Humanities and Sciences, encompasses a diverse set of disciplines, including acting, playwriting, design, dance, tech, history and theory. It’s when these separate spheres come together through shows and performances, Smith explained, that magic happens.

Matthew Smith, chair of the Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS), photographed during the shelter-in-place. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Recent productions of Revival and Everybody, both of which combined dance, acting, design, and scholarship in inventive ways, are examples of “the spirit of collaboration I want to build on and showcase,” he said.

With the COVID-19 outbreak, the challenge Smith and his colleagues now face is finding ways to create the joy of live performance remotely. Here, Smith speaks about ways the department’s work has changed in response to this time of crisis.

 

While all faculty are adapting to teaching online, are there particular challenges for teaching live performance techniques remotely?

Our dance and acting teachers are being asked to do the nearly impossible – to transfer, into a digital medium, practices that largely depend on the presence of live bodies in a shared space. But they are coming up with the most extraordinarily creative responses to this challenge.

We are holding remote dance classes from students’ bedrooms and living rooms, from parks and backyards; we are doing acting training in Zoom breakout rooms. One of our artists in residence Amy Freed has reimagined her whole course as one in which the students work remotely on a collective dramatic adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (which is on people’s minds today since it responds to a plague). Another faculty member Samer Al-Saber has reconceived his course so that it now focuses on developing, performing and editing solo radio dramas.

 

Live theater with an audience can’t happen right now. How does filming theatrical performances change the experience for the performers and audience?

Nothing can re-create live performance but filming it can do a number of valuable things. There is no right way to do it, and there are gains and losses for any approach.

For instance, one way to film a theater piece is to place a camera in an auditorium and simply press the record button. There are benefits to this minimalist approach: the filmmaker is not manipulating our viewpoint, and in that respect, the resulting film will in some ways be closer to the actual experience of watching the play. But the film probably won’t work very well as a film; it will feel more like a documentary record. At the other extreme, a director can seek to completely translate what was once a play into a movie, using the full cinematic vocabulary of editing, camera work and special effects. Here the result will almost certainly be a better movie but a worse record of the performance. We can think of the difference between a static film of a stage performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet versus, say, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

 

Are there any unexpectedly positive realizations that have come out of this period for you as a theater lover and educator of theater and performance majors?

The first – no great surprise – is that my colleagues in TAPS are boundlessly creative and that the improvisational spirit of “yes, and” lives in this department. That improvisational technique, when participants build on each other’s ideas by adding the phrase “yes, and” to what the previous actor has said or done, is a perfect metaphor for this moment. So many teachers have seized upon this crisis as an opportunity to reach out to our students, to create connections despite differences, and to find new ways for us all to perform together.

The second positive realization, perhaps more surprising, is the degree to which meaningful presence can be created between people when virtual media are used in the right ways. If we in TAPS can find ways to turn social distancing into social togetherness across distance, then we will have done a great deal.

 

Can you comment on the performative nature of each of us having so many of our daily interactions online?

Here I have concerns and hopes. My main concern about online performance is that these performances are often embedded within highly sophisticated and largely invisible systems of surveillance, commodification and manipulation. When we perform on Facebook, for example, we generally think of ourselves doing so for one another and for ourselves, while in fact, we are also performing (and, in a certain sense, principally performing) for an algorithmic system that is designed for very different ends than our individual and social well-being.

Over the years, many people have also been exploring other, more beneficial, ways of connecting digitally. I would be very pleased if one silver lining of this pandemic would be a better understanding of how to use virtual media to better connect over distances. I don’t think this will be possible on a large scale unless we have social-media platforms that are not rooted in profit.

 

Will this moment have any long-term implications for theater and live performance in the future?

This pandemic will almost certainly hasten what has already been a trend in theater performance – a trend toward the use of virtual media in concert with live performance. What this will end up looking like five or 10 years from now remains to be seen, but I think we are already getting some hints of it in this quarter’s TAPS classes.

On the other side of the coin, I wonder whether this crisis will also do the opposite – increase our appreciation for the unique potency of live, embodied, shared performance. Maybe being forced to spend so much time apart from one another is helping us better appreciate the importance of bodies – other people’s and our own.

Media Contacts

Sandra Feder, School of Humanities and Sciences: (650) 497-4832, sfeder@stanford.edu