For the first time in over fifteen years, live cricket is back on terrestrial television. Early on a Saturday morning, I’m watching England captain Joe Root work his way to a double hundred. The stadium, on a blazing day beneath blue skies in Chennai, is empty, the familiar murmur of the mass of live spectators notably absent – the atmosphere is gone, no Barmy Army chanting, no ovation as landmark moments are reached, records set, wickets taken or runs  posted. 

And yet, in spite of this, I’m thoroughly enjoying being here. There’s a sense that, for all the crowd reactions that are missing from the ground, I’m part of a wider community of cricket fans watching the world over, a legion of enthusiasts sharing the same experience at the same time. There’s a channel of reaction steadily passing on Twitter in which radio listeners and television viewers can participate, sharing reactions in real time. 

(Two in two for Ishant Sharma brings the anticipation of a hat-trick. Archer out first  ball.) 

It’s the connection that I miss, as performer and listener (or spectator): that shared live moment in the concert-hall generated by the collective electricity. It can’t be recreated; it necessarily evaporates as soon as the performance is over, the audience and performers leave, the lights go out and the doors close. That fleeting frisson of the shared, temporary emotional charge is what ignites the live experience, lifting performers (or competitors) to new heights, feeding their willingness to take risks. 

(Leach defends; no hat-trick for Ishant). 

The challenge during lockdown, to which many organisations, venues and artists have heroically risen, has been to try to create that same sense digitally.

The pianist Igor Levitt’s marathon live streamed performance of Satie’s Vexations; cellist and composer Anne Müller’s electronics-draped Wohnzimmerkonzert, broadcast from her living-room; and National Theatre At Home are all poignant examples of lockdown reinventing the proximity of performance. From the individual working in the confines of their home, to pre-recorded performances accompanied by requests for donations; all manner of digital avenues have been explored in a quest to reach out to audiences from behind closed doors, from empty theatres and playhouses. Lounges have become stages;  laptops and mobile-phones have become mobile broadcasting facilities; bedrooms have become boardrooms. 

Classical music, hitherto notoriously against the idea of audience members using their mobile phones during concerts, has slowly been changing, now positively welcoming audience live-tweeting: in fact, it needs it now. Listening parties have proved a vital means of connecting with others during a shared live listening session, reflecting our love of conversing over our shared experience as observers.

All the internet’s a stage

Resorting to digital platforms has, helpfully, increased the reach of some events, and the ability of people, particularly those with disabilities or committed to childcare, to be able to experience them when previously they might not have been able to. There’s no need to travel, no need to pay for parking, no need to check ahead for accessibility issues and viewers aren’t limited by geography or time zones either. Putting content online has allowed venues to engage international audiences, to access viewers far beyond their normal, often regional, scope.

Ultimately though, the opportunity to reinvent oneself digitally, especially for live artistic or sporting events, has really been about finding ways to create that sense of occasion, that sense of connection between performers and audience, between players and listeners, between sportsmen and women and spectators. The main obstacle to recreating that live frisson is that pre-recorded performances don’t elicit the same response. They cannot. And perhaps, in some ways, this has forced us to shift our expectations, slowly to adjust to the fact that it’s not going to be the same – for better and for worse – and to change both our cultural expectations and consumption accordingly. 

I have often marvelled at the courage that performers – musicians, actors, comedians alike – have demonstrated in taking on the challenge of channelling all their performing energy into the unforgiving eye of the webcam, the sheer strength and commitment it takes to be prepared to risk the unpredictability of technology (at least, in the early months of lockdown). The challenge of relying on domestic internet connections, of having to create a small performance set-up in your home, and to have to step into that space not as your living-room or music-room, but as a  performance arena, one that is lacking the reciprocal energy generated by the  expectant hush of the live audience, the nerve-tingling anticipation of stepping out onto the stage, when all you have is your own personal, private space into which to invite the online viewer. 

The lack of clear, informed planning from the government throughout lockdown has made it  impossible for venues to be able to plan ahead for a return to live audiences: to organise productions, rehearsals, sell tickets, book performers and technicians. This uncertainty about the return to live events has made proper reopening preparations a gamble few are willing, or indeed able, to take. Glastonbury has already been cancelled this year. 

Performances can’t be created and delivered overnight. We need a clear time-frame for the return of live audiences and what social distancing rules may or may not apply at the time. This has been lacking. There is now, thankfully, a series of dates, milestones on the route towards a more normal way of life that at least begins to afford scope for venues and performers to begin to emerge blinking into the daylight, clutching their decimated diaries as they are finally able to enter tentative fixtures into them once more 

Back in Chennai, the second day’s play closes on 555 for 8. Will I be back tomorrow,  watching the game unfold in an empty stadium, without the noise of the crowd  creating that welcome low-level background tapestry of sound? Of course I will. But I am also looking forward to being able to experience the electricity of the audience at shared cultural and sporting events again. To get the opportunity to dream collectively as the curtain rises on the stage again; we’ve all worked hard to try to realise our dreams digitally this year, but we all look forward to realising them, sharing them, in the real world once more.

Dan Harding is the Head of Music Performance at the University of Kent. Image top: Molly Hollman photography

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