Zoom theatre and podcast dramas: How Covid sparks innovation in the arts

William Lim
·5-min read
Zoom theatre and podcast dramas: How Covid sparks innovation in the arts
Zoom theatre and podcast dramas: How Covid sparks innovation in the arts

Performing artists are among those who have been worst hit by the economic slowdown and Covid-19 restrictions, leaving many in dire economic straits.

For some independent artists, however, the challenges have become an opportunity to reinvent and explore new ways of performing and engaging audiences.

One such independent venture is Pop Up Theatre, founded by writer-director Scott Mcquaid and run by administrative director and actor, Alexandria Tan.

Unlike conventional companies who play to a live audience, this not-for-profit outfit has used the pandemic to explore innovative ways of bringing theatre to life through multiple platforms of the stage, screen and audio streaming.

Alexandria said when the pandemic hit, the company faced the reality of having their shows cancelled indefinitely.

Deprived of the stage, the fledgeling company, founded in 2016, started to look at other ways to reach their audiences.

The pandemic allowed artists to experiment with different ways of connecting with their audience around the world.

“I started with the first Sherlock Holmes podcast play and that then spawned into a complete series… now we are doing podcast interviews and all kinds of audio plays,” Scott said.

They recently hosted a virtual show for a worldwide Halloween event held by Thornhill Theatre Space and are in the process of producing another virtual theatre show for early 2021.

“I think people are desperate to witness theatre again, so we’ve had quite an overwhelming response to our recent digital ventures, especially our podcast plays.

“One of our episodes, ‘Sherlock Holmes in Ripper Street’, just surpassed 1.1K views on YouTube, and we couldn’t be more stoked and humbled,” Alexandria said.

Their efforts to rehearse and record from home may have led to exploring new mediums but what they did not expect were growth in audience and public recognition.

Casting international actors who had to adapt to video call rehearsals and taking their work to the stage of social media also helped them reach a wider audience.

“We now have a rather active YouTube channel, where our shows and podcasts are available to stream for free, and we were also contacted by other international theatre companies to participate in virtual theatre festivals, which was an honour,” Alexandria said.

Theatre at home

Celebrating 31 years in the scene this year, the Instant Cafe Theatre’s pivot towards online theatre this year shows old hands too can find new ways of keeping the arts alive.

Using teleconferencing applications like Zoom and streaming platform Cloud Theatre, Instant Cafe staged two plays to a paying audience who tuned in from the comforts of their home.

Due to social distancing requirements, the rehearsals were also held via Zoom with performers only gathering in the same place on the performance day to minimise as much contact as possible.

Instant Cafe producer Tan Cher Kian said the outcome far exceeded expectations and brought about an added dimension to the theatre experience.

If audiences in a live performance are passive spectators, those watching via online streaming can participate by exchanging views with each other in the online chat rooms, including participating in post-performance discussions with the cast and production team, he said.

“The audiences are now able to share their thoughts and feelings with us from all around the world,” he said.

Kukathas, who has had more than three decades in the scene, believes this is a new way to watch theatre.

“People can enjoy their own refreshments whilst chatting with other viewers,” she said.

Tickets were priced from RM5 to RM100, leaving it up to the audience to decide how much they are willing to pay for the promised “front-row experience”.

For some productions, like Alfian Saat’s Nadirah, the tickets were sold out, forcing Instant Theatre to host an encore of the show at the end of the run.

More than 1,500 people tuned in to watch the production from 26 countries, allowing Instant Cafe to donate five percent of proceeds to communities worst hit by the pandemic.

All-girl alternative rock band

Aside from theatre, local bands, too, have had to convert the live music experience to reach an audience from behind the screen.

Time Machine, an all-girl alternative rock band in the local indie music scene said they faced major financial losses in the first months of the pandemic as show after show was cancelled.

Time Machine
Time Machine

At the same time, however, there were more and more online concerts hosted to raise awareness for causes or raise funds for those facing hardship during the pandemic.

These online concerts have kept them going, Time Machine guitarist Krychell said, but switching formats was not a walk in the park.

“It was very different (to perform at an online concert) because there is no way to feed off crowd energy,” she said.

As more people grow accustomed to tuning in to new music online, playing these concerts have also raised their profile in the scene.

This helped them release a song on online music streaming platform Spotify which gained recognition through 5,000 streams the following month.

Despite the difficulties faced during the pandemic, it seems that it is the sheer passion that people have in their respective industries that is keeping the arts alive.

Time Machine believes their story shows how challenges can turn into opportunities.

“If music is something you enjoy doing, keep the content coming on your social media pages… even small stitched-together covers or new tidbits and releases can make an impact on someone new.”

In a way, the difficulties of the year 2020 have taught arts practitioners to return to basics of their craft and use it in new, exciting ways.

For Pop Up Theatre’s Alexandria, it is about remembering why they are in the scene in the first place.

“When you remember the reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’ll be able to overcome anything, and maybe even strive through the storm.”