Recently, New Earth Theatre (previously Yellow Earth Theatre) launched New Stories, a digital short play festival showcasing the work of 17 British East and South East Asian (BESEA) playwrights as part of their 2020 Professional Writers Programme.
Led by director of new writing Ng Choon Ping and created by over 60 BESEA freelance theatre-makers, the three-day digital festival is a shining example of the creative ingenuity artists have employed when faced with the challenges brought on by the Covid-19 crisis.
With a programme of 17 new short plays available to watch right now on YouTube, the festival crackles with the energy of original voices pushing their practice in bold directions.
I asked this year’s cohort of writers how they found the process of translating work originally intended for the stage into the realms of digital theatre and short film.
Kevin Shen, author of Paper Daughter, said, ‘There has always been a stigma around theatre being inaccessible or elite, in part because of ticket prices and the need to be in a certain physical location, among other things. Furthermore, limitations on venue and the costs involved in mounting productions often serve as a barrier for new work, with producers often falling to “less risky” theatre, which can potentially be less exciting in terms of championing new writing or lesser-known casting.
‘I think it is exciting that digital theatre can address some of these issues and bring new work and new faces to wider audiences, but I do think it’s important to find a way to capture what makes theatre unique – the element of liveness and the shared audience experience – so that it can sit apart from the plethora of streaming entertainment options already available for screen.’
Lockdown is changing the way artists relate to their craft and how they work.
‘I am a very traditional playwright, coming from the tradition of theatre in the Philippines that the medium was a tool for social change, usually political in form and substance,’ said Rogelio Braga, author of Miss Philippines. ‘I still believe that theatre performances are communal engagements and the experience of the stories being told live on stage including the consumption of meanings inside the theatre – is always communal.
‘But digital theatre provided a new way of telling stories, it is a negotiated medium between theatre and film, and whatever that will come out of this hybrid of forms is always exciting for me as a playwright.’
That excitement also requires some additional considerations, however.
‘It was an exercise of trust,’ said Marie Yan, author of A Tidal Home. ‘What the presence of the audience’s and the performers’ bodies would hold together in a theatre, this immediacy, now an image had to hold it together. I felt that the words had to recess, give more space to the creative team that was going to shoot the film.
‘The real gift of the experience was that my team was in Hong Kong, so I shipped this text to Tam Yuk Ting, one of the creative producers and actors who was coordinating everything and it came back to me as this gem that I could watch and re-watch. It was beautiful and bittersweet, stressing the distance and the proximity of us all, which is very much the theme of A Tidal Home.’
Marie also raises a vital point on the true accessibility of digital theatre: ‘I would not be too fast at praising digital theatre as absolutely more accessible, accessible for whom? The digital divide in the UK was highlighted by the pandemic.
‘According to this article published by Cambridge university, “The likelihood of having access to the internet from home increases along with income, such that only 51% of households earning between £6000-10,000 had home internet access compared with 99% of households with an income of over £40,001.” And this digital inequality runs along the same lines as for many others – age, gender, body-ableness…’
But that doesn’t mean Marie sees no benefit. ‘Of course, that doesn’t erase the great work that was done by many theatres and companies to jump to reinventing themselves and reach out to their audiences and look for new ones and who would I be to not want that new people come to theatre through this initial, digital encounter?’
There are lessons to be learned, she feels. ‘What it proves to me is that theatre can develop a stunning and daring digital programme alongside an in-person one when the circumstances allow it again. For A Tidal Home, it did allow me to share my work with faraway friends and acquaintances, it did allow me to meet professionals and to imagine the future of my piece.’