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Liminality and screening kimchi

Photo: Dr Kara McKechnie

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 7 / Day 6


It’s the weekend. Saturdays contribute structure in my Covid-19 world. The professional and the personal blur into one. Any idea of boundaries is out the metaphorical window. I have, for several years now, been occupied or even preoccupied with the live-capture screening of performances in cinemas. The phenomenon was, initially, a useful space to revisit questions of the necessity of the live co-presence of performer and audience in theatre. There have been entanglements with notions of adaptation. There have been heated debates over mediatised interventionism. In a loop back to Day Four, there have been examinations of the institutional dramaturgies involved and the implications thereof. Australia is, for example, woefully under-represented in its theatrical offerings to the medium. There are many reasons for this absence, not the least of which is a lack of infrastructure. But this is a divergence.

I need to loop back to Day One and cultural frameworks. Mine is an intercultural life. It always has been. Various cultural frameworks from three continents shape my life. Theatre and theatre-going are two of these frameworks. Here, I add the valency of audiences to my dramaturgical meditations. Covid-world has blasted the theatrical landscape brutally. I write a truism, to the point at hand. A small group of friends, whose spatio-temporal boundaries are equally reduced, and I decide that on Saturday afternoons at 2.00pm we shall collectively watch the National Theatre at Home offering. From our homes – we are, of course, observing appropriate physical distancing protocols – and before the performance begins, we chat. At interval, we natter. At curtain, we regroup on what we thought of the performance. There is the linear pattern.

Dramaturgically speaking, pattern formation is always fascinating, asking one to consider both surface structure and deep structure. The start time, although perhaps seemingly arbitrary, is fixed. We, the audience, decided on the viewing time that worked for us. (As a theatre-scholar, I wonder about the influence of the Saturday afternoon matinee on our choice.) Our pattern has been created through experiment: allegiance to content provider and form discussed. New technological skills acquired. Aversions to Zoom, as belonging to professional life, accommodated. Alternatives trialled. Firewalls negotiated. A mirror, phones, tablets, computers, and domestic televisions all feature. Uptime does not. The conversation is, for the most part, verbal. At 2.00pm, mics and videos are turned off. The surface contours of the experience are defined.

The five of us have different interests, discrete curiosities, and varying attitudes to the live-to-digital phenomenon. Friendships within the group operate on different axes. We, nevertheless, commit to one particular act of community. Within that act of communion, our responses to the productions on offer vary. For example, some have seen the productions live. Some have seen both the theatrical version and the cinematic version. None of us has seen the cinematic version in a domestic setting on domestic devices before Covid-19. The ontological status on the object being viewed becomes a preoccupation. Designed for the stage, filmed for the cinema, but watched on television and computer screens in a domestic setting raises questions of competencies.

If watching the cinematic version of National Theatre Live is watching the production at one remove, is watching the cinematic adaptation on a domestic television screen, consumption at two removes? What is one to make of the aesthetics? As the film and television person amongst us observed, the centrality of darkness to frame the action of the production becomes apparent. There are no long shots per se. But then, does the lack of darkness in the viewing environment disturb the cinematographic decisions made vis-à-vis the production? They are, after all, dramaturgical decisions. Here, the theatrical, the cinematic, and the televisual combine while retaining their characteristics. Cultural frameworks become simultaneously troubled and enriched by questions of cultural competencies (in a nod back to the Blažević quote of Day One).

Finding our way into A Streetcar Named Desire was difficult for all of us. We decided that a production done in the round, with revolving set, further complicated by an aesthetic of roving cameras was an apt metaphor for not being able to locate ourselves in the production. Watching at two removes with two whirligigs in play meant somehow violent masculinities came to fore, almost relentlessly so. We all understand the importance of the examination of domestic abuse in Streetcar. But the examination mediated by multiple screens and aesthetics became unsatisfactory. There is no criticism of National Theatre at Home as such. To expect them to anticipate the televisual as a response to a pandemic is palpably unreasonable. It was, nonetheless, a salutary reminder of the necessity for dramaturgical thinking to exist in four dimensions.

We didn’t watch the entire production. For the first time, conversations were had during the production. Thankfully we could slip out of our auditoriums discretely. One went to make kimchi. I changed my Zoom background.

Photo: A sculpture by Dale Chihuly


Blažević, Marin. “Dramaturgy’s Complexity.” Dramaturgies: New Theatres for the 21st Century. Eds. Peter Eckersall, Melanie Beddie, and Paul Monaghan. Melbourne: Carl Nilsson-Polias on behalf of The Dramaturgies Project, 2011. 51-2.


Bernadette Cochrane is dramaturg and theatre academic at the University of Queensland. She focuses on institutional dramaturgies and cultural production. Bernadette writes extensively on the dramaturgies of the screening and streaming of live performances.

She is a board member of Migrant Dramaturgies Network, developed in partnership with New Tides Platform (UK) and the Centre for Theatre Research at the University of Lisbon, Portugal.


Headshot photograph by Chris Osbourne.

Other photography courtesy of the author.


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