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Students rehearse a scene of “Good White Men.”Students rehearse a scene of “Good White Men,” one of four plays performed via Zoom as part of a research project. Led by dramatic arts professor Michelle MacArthur, the study showed it is possible to have a communal theatre experience despite the audience and actors being in lockdown. Photo by Sébastien Heins.

Live theatre over Zoom? Study shows it works

It’s possible to have a communal theatre experience, even in the midst of a lockdown, a study by UWindsor dramatic arts professor Michelle MacArthur has found.

Last fall, graduating Bachelor of Fine Arts students performed four plays over Zoom. The live, online performances, produced by University Players with the help of Toronto theatre company Outside the March, included breakout rooms, polls, and focus groups made up of the audience members watching from home.

A research team led by Dr. MacArthur surveyed the audience about the experience and analyzed the responses. An article she published recently in Canadian Theatre Review discusses the findings.

“What we found is the audience still felt quite engaged by the shows, especially those audience members who were younger and/or newer to theatre,” said MacArthur. “We wanted to consider how Zoom changes how we make and experience theatre and how we make theatre…. We found you can create something over Zoom that is a different theatre experience, but it can still be an engaging and communal experience, and one that has the potential to attract new audiences.”

MacArthur worked with University of Guelph professor Kimberley McLeod and independent scholar Scott Mealey on the research project. They received a $20,000 grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to study theatre in the time of COVID.

The project they studied involved an original anthology entitled The Stream You Step In. It involved four plays, some with scores by UWindsor professor Brent Lee and set design by UWindsor’s University Players.

The performances were conceived against a backdrop of profound sadness and loss, MacArthur explained. In addition to the fact that the live theatre season had been cancelled due to the pandemic, ripping from the students the mainstage experience they had been working toward for four years, the subject matter of some of the plays was heavy and dark. Some of the plays dealt with anti-Black racism. All were conceived as Canadian society turned its attention to the loss of Black and Indigenous lives, magnified by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota and the global outrage that ensued.

“The article looks at how a grief-led creative process can honour what was lost, create and strengthen community, and foster opportunities to make new meaning,” MacArthur said.

The research team included two graduate students and five undergraduates.

MacArthur and her team found that audiences were craving a theatre experience. They were enthusiastic about participating in the focus groups to be able to discuss the content of the performances and the online experience with other people.

For some, the focus groups took the place of a theatre lobby or the ride home where you would normally talk about the play you had just watched.

One notable finding was that engagement depended on the device used to watch the play.

“Those who watched on laptops were more immersed than those who streamed it to a desktop or television,” MacArthur said.

“We suspect that having a device on your lap helps focus your attention.”

The plays included closed captioning — an accessibility feature usually not available with in-person performances. For people with mobility restrictions, watching from home removed the usual physical barriers associated with attending the theatre.

“We wanted to take advantage of the unique qualities of this medium,” MacArthur said. “It was a learning experience for all.”

—Sarah Sacheli