3-D Sound and a Zoom Apocalypse: The Plays That Come to Life Online

Published in The New York Times May 20, 2020

There’s a voice inside your head, and it’s telling you the story of a man who went into the Amazon and came out with a new understanding of human consciousness. It whispers in your left ear, then your right. Then it seems to take up residence right inside your skull.

The voice belongs to the writer and performer Simon McBurney, co-founder of the British theater company Complicité, who toured internationally with his one-man show “The Encounter” from 2015 to 2018. The audience wore headphones, and the show made a pioneering use of binaural sound, which uses a head-shaped microphone to record sounds in the same way our ears hear them.

Fed back through headphones, it creates a 3-D sound world. Binaural sound can be intimate, but it can also evoke vast soundscapes, like the Amazon rainforest.

An unanticipated bonus of binaural sound is that it can be replicated at home: An ordinary pair of headphones provides the same audio experience of “The Encounter” that audiences enjoyed in the theater. A recording of the show, made in 2016 at the Barbican Theater in London, is available on YouTube through May 22.

Since lockdown, many theater companies have been putting shows online: The National Theater in London has attracted viewers in the millions with a schedule of crowd-pleasing productions from recent years, and the Schaubühne Berlin has been sharing a production from its archive every night. Musical theater fans can get their fix for a monthly fee on Broadway HD, which features hundreds of recordings.

But while these digital offerings are finding an audience, watching recordings can feel like a poor imitation of the real thing. Much of what makes theatergoing special — the live-ness, the immediacy, the sense of a collective shared experience — is absent, while performances that won plaudits onstage can fall flat when viewed onscreen.

In an interview via Zoom from his home in southern England, McBurney acknowledged that experiencing “The Encounter” on a laptop was “not the same as being in the room.” But, he added, because of the sound, “there is still nonetheless a physical intimacy you don’t get with a movie, or watching a piece of theater online.”

Artists are also making work that uses the communications technology we now rely on to enhance the streamed theater experience: from interactive performances on Zoom to plays written to be watched on Facebook.

“Midnight Your Time” by the British playwright Adam Brace, first seen onstage in 2011, has been revived this month with a digital makeover. The show’s star, Diana Quick, recorded herself at home during lockdown via webcam; she plays an overbearing mother leaving video messages for her daughter who is living in the Middle East. It’s a total match of form and content that possibly works better online: The stream, available through May 19 at the website of the Donmar Warehouse, a London theater, is like watching relatives peering into Skype.

Other playwrights are innovating with technology in new work specifically for the digital space. “Bubble,” by the Scottish writer Kieran Hurley, has never played onstage; it only exists online.

Audiences can watch “Bubble” via Facebook through June 30. The play follows a scandal mushrooming across a social network, and it plays out online, in Facebook comments and replies, performed aloud by actors to their cellphone cameras, as emojis pepper the screen.

“Bubble” was commissioned by the Space, a British organization that supports artists to develop and find audiences for digital work. It also collaborated with Complicité on “The Encounter,” negotiating a partnership with Twitter, which streamed it on the platform starting May 15.

The Space has had a busy few months. When theaters in Britain closed in March, “everyone was plastering stuff up on their virtual walls,” said the organization’s chief executive, Fiona Morris, in a Zoom interview. “And it doesn’t work. Even in ordinary times, we say consider the fact that online is a noisy, volatile, chaotic space. If you don’t go into it absolutely targeting your audience, it’s just going to be beautiful and unseen.”

Theaters needed to stop thinking about audiences “as passive recipients,” Morris added. “You’ve got to make sure that they feel that they’ve been asked to participate.”

Some British companies have been experimenting with video conferencing platforms like Zoom during the lockdown to give interactive or immersive shows a new life.

The troupe Uninvited Guests is staging “Love Letters At Home” live on Zoom, from May 20 through June 26. Audience members are invited, in advance, to dedicate a song to someone they love, filling out a form with their message and choice when they book; they are then read out during the performance, which falls somewhere between a listener requests radio show and a cheesy wedding reception.

The original show, “Love Letters Straight From Your Heart,” toured Britain from 2007 to 2018 and reliably made audience members cry. Online trials of the show in its Zoom format were also “a moving experience,” the production’s director, Paul Clarke, said in a phone interview. “We’ve had dedications written for people whose weddings have been canceled, and to older parents who are socially isolating. There’s a sadness, but we’re also trying to help people feel a little closer,” he said.

Viewers are encouraged to say hello as they join the call and to post comments throughout. “It’s an antidote to isolation,” Clarke said. “We hope the show makes you feel part of a temporary community.”

Another Zoom show, “Party Skills for the End of the World,” was first seen at the Manchester International Festival in 2017, where it was an interactive, site-specific piece. The audience explored an abandoned building while actors warned of a looming apocalypse and gave lessons in tactics needed to survive it, from rabbit skinning to martini making.

To recreate the experience online, the audience will be split into groups of 12, and “teleported” into Zoom breakout rooms, where an expert will be waiting. The skills to master are now things you can do safely at home: Knife throwing is out, hair cuts are in.

The show, which will be presented at 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern time on May 22, will inevitably feel different online. But there is one key, traditional element of audience interaction that the show’s creators, Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari, said they wanted to recreate. At the end of the show, everyone will be transported back to the group call, to finish on a virtual curtain call.

“We’re ending with a round of applause, because we’ve missed that,” Mari said. “Then we’ll all feel like we’ve been in the theater.”

Where next?