An online theatre performance in Lithuania wasn’t merely a gimmick – the play had been written well before the pandemic with a dystopian scenario in mind, which materialised during the coronavirus lockdowns. Amid the continuing pandemic, what will our art look like in the future?
May 2020. The quarantine in Lithuania has been extended again; the international borders are closed, people across Europe cannot leave their homes.
At the agreed hour, several dozen square windows pop up on a computer screen with the faces of actors from all over the world. A female voice announces that the viewers will witness a read-out of the play Miegantys (Sleepers) by Marius Ivaškevičius, directed by Oskaras Koršunovas.
A dictatorial future
The play by two prominent figures in Lithuanian theatre was ahead of its time – it seemed as if it had already been written for the era of coronavirus lockdown
“Ivaškevičius wrote a prophetic play that seemed to be intended for the pandemic period and had to be performed on Zoom,” Koršunovas said. Actors from around the world gathered virtually to create a novel theatre experience.
Ivaškevičius’ play, written in 2016 in Russian, describes a future that seemed unrealistic back then. For example, communication and performances portrayed in the play all happen at home. This became our reality four years later.
“The pandemic, isolation, and uncertainty about the new world showed that the future is already here. The quarantine really made this piece relevant,” Ivaškevičius said about his play that premiered online.
“The dystopia, set in the 2100s, shows that our current lifestyle will eventually result in dictatorships promising to save us from demographic and environmental collapse,” he explained.
The new unknown
Koršunovas told LRT.lt that directing plays online was like a journey to an unknown place. The result was a novel form of theatre that was difficult to put into words.
“There were some ‘stage’ risks, because the play was performed online, actors could make mistakes. Technical failures could also have happened. Fortunately, we avoided them, but this was not the theatre as we understand it, but something new,” the director said.
In his view, the pandemic has not brought up any new forms of artistic expression, but sharpened those that already existed.
“At the start of the quarantine, these forms just offered themselves. The more we need them in the future, the more they will offer themselves. It will completely change cultural and artistic expression, method, and view,” Koršunovas explained.
Covid-19 did not alter the world, because the change had happened much earlier, according to him.
When the Spanish flu hit in the 1910s, “the disciplinary societies […] did not react to the pandemic, they found it more rational to ignore it”. But new technologies and a new economic system, as well as a different attitude to life and the environment, have shaped a novel reaction to disasters and pandemics.
“Where is the danger in it? The coronavirus prevention gave rise to control systems. Governments discovered ways to establish their absolute dominance,” Koršunovas opined.
“In the future, new technologies and the demographic explosion will consolidate this total control,” he added.
Reappreciation of live contact
Philosopher Gintautas Mažeikis of Vytautas Magnus University believes that the coronavirus pandemic ushered in new trends in governing and changed consumption habits, but these changes were less significant than expected.
According to him, the arts sector was altered least of all.
“It [the culture] did not manage to find new means for communication, did not embrace new issues,” he said. “For example, the current artistic production in Lithuania is detached from the criticism of EU politics, issues of the environment and human dignity.”
The philosopher said that people must not only concentrate on Covid-19, because there are other pressing issues, such as climate change.
Arūnas Gelūnas, the head of Lithuanian Art Museum and former culture minister, also said that the pandemic did not give rise to a new cultural era.
“There were many turning points in history. But after them, most things returned to normal,” he noted.
The more digitised sectors were more prepared to survive the pandemic, he said, but this would not lead to a cultural revolution.
“The isolation and life on Zoom quickly became tiring and made us realise the value of physical contact,” Gelūnas said. “During the pandemic, people understood that experiencing live performance is nicer than sitting in front of the computer screen.”
The overall effect of the pandemic could thus be twofold: as we will focus more on having well-developed technologies, will also re-evaluate the meaning of live communication.
The coronavirus pandemic also highlighted the role of the state in the culture sector, according to Gelūnas. While some artists felt at risk and required state support, others voiced fears of statism and greater control.
“So it’s a question for debate. What state mechanisms must be put in place to deal with similar crises in the future?” he said.