One of the best things about Sweaty Palms is that all four of our massively different backgrounds translate into different forms of theatre. This means we are often annoyingly opinionated about what is or isn’t theatre. For the purpose of my argument, I’m dragging good old Shakespeare from his grave (sorry, Frankie) and exploring his relevance in the modern theatrical world.
Theatre is a collective of art form that creates a live performance for an audience. The purpose of this performance is to entertain (the West-End sellouts), to cause socio-political and cultural change (spoon-fed boring political ideology), or a healthy mixture of both (good fringe theatre). If all art forms transfigure with time to fit the age they are existing in; how does the theatre of the near future look, existing in an age where the attention span is shorter and the demand for constant engagement is higher?
I know this is a big leap, but bear with me through this one:
Let’s take Hamlet (3-4 hours) and an episode of a bingeable Netflix original show (25-50 minutes) as examples. Yes, this is the age old argument of theatre vs. television, but the comparison should be seen in the greater sense: as why these two artistic mediums that engage, entertain, and influence are so popular with the masses.
Due to the way the world has evolved, most of us never truly just sit and watch something anymore. Most people have something on TV while working on their laptop and regularly checking their phone for messages that inevitably send them a link leading to yet another form of entertainment. This is the age of multitasking. It is the age in which we bombard ourselves with information. As an audience, we demand to be engaged at every second. Shakespeare existed during a time with no technology, where people had to seek out entertainment and expected it last for as long as possible, as it was their only dose for the day or week.
Besides the failure to meet the popular allocated time, Shakespearean dialogue is being understood less and less as it gets older and we often find ourselves at an impasse, where the basic theatrical tool of language acts as an obstacle rather than a facilitator. Coming back to Netflix, the reason binge-watching for hours happens is because our attention can be spread across many platforms. With Shakespeare, we must be focussed on the language for so long that we crave the multitasking. The classic “just one more episode” vs. “how much longer until Act V is over? I want to go home.”
Now, let’s compare a Netflix binge to a week at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At last year’s Fringe, our company provided technical support to six shows and watched at least 4 shows a day. Why does fringe theatre appeal to a younger audience? First of all, think of some of the things that make Netflix great: such as constant engagement, relatability, variety, and easily digested length. Now, mix those things with what makes theatre magical; the live aspect, the immersion, and an audience gathered together. We get something like the Ed Fringe: you spend a lot of time figuring out what to watch, there’s a huge variety that caters to all tastes, performances are selected and curated, and they are generally around an hour long. Like the Netflix algorithm, the theatre-goers populating the city will tell you which shows you must see and which you should stay away from depending on what you’ve loved and hated form what you’ve seen.
Fringe theatre is the key to gaining and maintaining audiences in the new age of technology and entertainment. Also, I don't like Shakespeare and I don't care what my cohorts in Sweaty Palms think.
What do you think? Feel free to agree or disagree with me.
Where do you think popular theatre will be in 50 to 100 years? Does it still have a valuable place in our society?