John Wyver: “The language of lockdown: split-screens and spatial montages in online performance adaptations during and beyond the pandemic”

Many performance companies responded to the enforced closure of theatres in 2020-21 by taking their creative practice online. Theatre and dance companies across Europe, in the United States and beyond released archival recordings of stage productions but from early in the pandemic also began to create new productions for the digital space.

            Shaped by conditions that necessitated remote working by individuals, many of these original and adapted performances either employed directly online tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams or developed screen languages that referenced or echoed the multi-window interfaces of these applications. Multiple frames set within the main screen quickly became so prevalent, employed in productions by, among many others, Ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris, Creation Theatre, Theatre for a New Audience and Fisher Center at Bard that split-screens and spatial montages could be regarded as the distinctive screen ‘language of lockdown’.

            This paper situates the use of split-screen techniques in lockdown productions against the history of their use in cinema and television productions stretching back to the earliest years of film. It considers the creative potential that these techniques offer and the explores the meanings and affects that they can prompt. And it relates them to the pre-pandemic use of screens onstage by many theatre artists including Katie Mitchell and Ivo van Hove.

            One central aspect of split-screen techniques is that they disrupt the seemingly unmediated ‘relay’ function that so much performance on screen is widely believed to have operated with to date. The paper concludes by speculating about whether the prevalence of such techniques across lockdown performance will lead to significant changes in the screen languages of future performance adaptations, and in the reception of those languages. Might we see the development of new intermedial and hybrid forms significantly marked by the ‘language of lockdown’?

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