Digital Groundlings

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Digital Groundlings

By Heidi McElrath

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Meow Meow (Titania) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Steve Tanner

As most internet-Shakespeareans probably know, on Sunday 11 September 2016, the Globe did something it had never done before: live streamed a play. On the internet. It was Emma Rice’s first production as the new artistic director of the Globe, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was a popular choice for wide-consumption Shakespeare in 2016. Besides this, we had Erica Whyman’s Dream 16: A Play for the Nation tour for the RSC.

It’s not hard to see why this play is so often chosen as an entry-level Shakespeare. Magic, a love quadrangle, the perennially popular Puck, Bottom transformed into an ass. It’s classic Will. And while Whyman’s production seemed carefully designed to offend no one, Rice’s Dream offended practically everyone.

She added lights, sound equipment, and electronic music. She gave us Helenus instead of Helena and the delightful Rita Quince. The production was raucous, full of Bowie and Beyoncé, and characters shouting “bitch” and Rice has been accused of dishonoring the play, the playwright, and the playing space. But I loved it.

To be sure, I didn’t love all of it. I disliked the fact that in order to “queer” the text, we lost a female character, when we could have had a lesbian couple instead. I disliked that an able-bodied actor sat in a wheelchair as Egeus. I disliked a lot of the additions and alterations to the text—I am a textual scholar at heart.

What I loved was the boldness of the production, the strength of every choice. There isn’t anything apologetic about Emma Rice’s Dream and there isn’t, I imagine, anything apologetic about her Shakespeare—he has nothing to apologize for. He plays at every level to anyone ready to listen and on Sunday evening, that’s exactly what Emma Rice helped him do. Anyone who wished to could, at 6:30 BST, tune in to a free livestream, the final performance of Dream at the Globe.

Some has been written—and more, I’m certain, is coming—about cinema screenings of live theatre events. What does it mean to be “live”? Is a cinema-goer as engaged as a theatre-goer? Are live screenings just cheap experiences adapted through a camera lens? And now we have a new question: what does it mean to be in an audience when you’re watching all alone?

The answer, of course, is that we weren’t alone. Thanks to social media, I watched the livestream in an audience of Shakespeare-lovers from around the world. The people tweeting #DreamLive had strong opinions about the performance from start to finish. They loved the costumes (wonderfully dubbed “burlesquebethan”) and fell in love instantly with Helenus and Hermia. They thought the music was wonderful and distractingly bad. They thought the lights in the second half ruined what makes the Globe special and they thought the lights completed the “disco-vibe” of the production. I had a conversation about the added meaning when a female Flute says “let me not play a women” and how it was troubling that many traits people found annoying in Helena did not bother them in Helenus. I’ve never connected so deeply with an audience, even those I could touch and see.

It wouldn’t have worked with a less-provocative production of a less-beloved play because it needed conversation and debate to bond physically separated viewers. And debate requires a passionate, opinionated, diverse audience, which is exactly who congregated around their computers on Sunday, turning this into a play not for the nation, but for the world.

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Author:Heidi McElrath

Heidi recently completed an MA in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute and is nearly finished with a term as co-president of the Institute Players. She hails from San Diego and Seattle, where she was a Taproot Theatre Company dramaturg and spent several seasons in the Seattle Shakespeare Company box office. She currently works at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she compulsively sees every possible production. She is an occasional actor, avid reader, pop-music listener, and playwright. She is looking forward to writing at her first 14/48 festival in Leicester this November and she tweets @theheidimce.

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