Are we losing the theatre experience?

Lubna Abdel Aziz, Tuesday 30 Jun 2020

Are we losing the theatre experience?
Are we losing the theatre experience?

As much as we hate to mention it again, coronavirus has impacted every aspect of our lives.

To stop this Niagara, this overflow of losses, emotional and financial, seems impossible. The decline of businesses and the rise of unemployment are staggering. Our concern includes the decline of the theatrical experience.

The thrill of enjoying a complex work of art amidst a crowd, in a darkened room is a delight too precious to lose.

Many forms of art and entertainment can be enjoyed in private: the reading of a poem or a book, tinkling the keys of a piano, or strumming the chords of a guitar. Even singing in the shower is pleasurable, but watching a motion picture or a play, the company of a crowd enhances the passion and the thrill.

We enjoy a movie less when we see it on TV. Even a stage play seems stilted and contrived when the live experience is missing.

If you step into a movie house and you find you are the only one there, your first instinct is to walk out. It has nothing to do with the movie, but everything to do with the collective human experience. We relish the sense of escapism that a movie theatre offers. This art form is meant to be watched in a darkened room full of strangers with whom you form a common bond.

Going to the movies is a social experience that has survived much competition and many obstacles but remains and endures because it offers a unique sense of belonging. This hunger for escapism is thrilling and titillating. You start by booking your ticket, walking into the lobby on to that precious dark room, you find your seat and look around at the crowded auditorium, you watch the trailers of coming attractions as the salty smell of the freshly popped popcorn tickles your nostrils, then, like everyone else you settle down with great expectations.

Everyone next to you, front and back, share with you the cheering, the booing, the gasping, the laughter. A large involved audience becomes your brethren. Together you are all trying to escape a world full of sorrow, if only for a short while. Together you have shared a catharsis, an aesthetic experience.

Similar emotions apply to the attendance of a stage play. Think of the thrill of a grandparent taking a grandchild to the theatre for the first time. How can you compare this experience to watching TV and running off for a snack and replaying the part you missed? It takes all the fun away. 

Whether in sports, concerts, music-halls, galleries, stadiums — the personal involvement makes it an event. That seemed to have been swept away by the coronavirus pandemic as has most all else, most especially the loss of millions of lives.

Filmmakers with hundreds of films awaiting release ponder their future. The premieres of blockbusters have been delayed, first by months, now by years. Film festivals have been cancelled. The Oscars are considering 2021 as a potential date for evaluation of 2020 and 2021 productions. Will there be any productions? Are the dates confirmed? Who knows?

Surely you have heard of streaming, but perhaps like many of us you are not quite sure what it is or how it works.

In the simplest terms, streaming is the continuous transmission of audio or video films from a server to a client. Streaming is what happens when consumers watch or listen to a podcast of a live event on Internet devices. Millions of viewers watched Andrea Bocelli’s solo streamed concert from the Duomo in Milan. 

 It was a heavenly bonus during those sad days of isolation, but watching Bocelli live is a whole different experience.

Filmmakers are now choosing to stream certain productions as they have been hit hard by the loss of box-office revenues. Disney did well by streaming Trolls, a much anticipated film, amassing $100 million, and no 50/50 split with theatre owners, just a fee to the streaming company, and they are growing by the dozen.

So, what about theatre owners? The dim lights of cinemas, Broadway and London’s West End is a bad omen. Will they keep their theatres empty, without revenues? How about actors, playwrights, directors, costume makers, stage managers, lighting specialists, ushers, concessions? It is even worse for movie-theatre owners. Will they allow this art form to die? Are we to watch everything on TV from now on?

There is some flutter over opening some drive-in movies, which were fashionable half a century ago. With the cost of $125 per vehicle, restrictions of 6-9 metres between vehicles, the less than perfect viewing unless you occupy the front seats, plus the erratic sound equipment, it is unlikely to be a much-awaited experience. That is why it died out in the first place, at least it gets you off your TV and on to a big screen.

Films are more than words. Unlike the theatre, the camera catches facial expressions, the wink of an eye, the beauty of nature, of a screen goddess. Photography is the magic of film.

“Cinema is truth 24 times a second,” said French screenwriter/director Jean Luc Goddard.

The most democratic of all arts, if it dies, what else dies with it? Something sacred has been removed from our lives, our culture, our legacy.

Please say it is not so.


“I think the cinema is the very greatest art, with the possibilities of becoming the greatest art form that has ever existed.”

 H G Wells (1866-1946)



*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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