About Sarah Bay-Cheng

(Name pronounced Bay-JUNG, rhymes with "sung.") Dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University in Toronto, Canada. Formerly Professor of Theater at Bowdoin College and the University at Buffalo (SUNY). Co-host for the On TAP (Theatre and Performance Studies) podcast at www.ontappod.com. Very sporadically blogging about theatre, performance, and digital culture. twitter/instagram: @sbaycheng

A Unifying Accident: Theatre Education in Strange Times

One of the most exciting theatrical experiences is what the actor, Spalding Gray, called the “unifying accident.” In his solo show, Monster in a Box, Gray defined a unifying accident as a theatrical event so spectacular and unforeseen, “that it suddenly unites the audience and the cast together in the realization that they are all in this one moment together.” Because of the strangeness of the moment, “we all know that it will never be repeated in the same way again.”

A unifying accident is never intended and rarely pleasant. (By way of example, Gray offers his own experience when a young actor suddenly vomited during the Lincoln Center production of Our Town.) But it is always memorable.

For all their discord, such accidents often become the stuff of legend. Whether it’s the lead actress scooping up a phone from a front-row mid-scene, or that pesky wardrobe malfunction, audiences often recall most vividly the moments when it all went wrong and thrill to what happens next. This is, after all, what gives live performance its brio: the possibility that anything could happen and the anticipation of what will come next.

Of course, now the world is living through an “accident” of unprecedented scale, but while live performance is paused, some theatre companies and artists have never been more active.

For some, this is an entirely new event. (It’s been rather amusing to watch as critics previously dismissive of theatre on screens suddenly warm to it when it’s the only game in town.) But, of course, some of us have been working in this area for literally decades and amid all of the struggle and strife, there’s something really exciting in the current moment.

Both new performance techniques such as virtual reality and digital performance, and older forms such as radio drama and living-room performances that previously existed at the periphery of theatre are suddenly at the centre of global attention. Previously inaccessible shows are newly available (some for the first time), and local events with specific audiences and missions are able to reach wider audiences, bringing diverse stories and perspectives into deserved focus.

Here in Toronto, I’ve been following Factory Theatre‘s online projects and Soulpepper Theatre‘s Fresh Ink series (which, to be fair, has cost me a ton in the plays I’ve ordered from the playwrights featured there).  Companies across Canada are finding ways to bring performance to audiences at home, through radio, podcasts, or as in Theatre SKAM’s “Pop-Up Theatre: Home Delivery” performances at your door.

In addition to new work, the advocacy and labour of BIPOC artists and companies and allies, as evidenced in projects like Stratford’s “Black Like Me” and panels on the experiences of Indigenous theatre artists, have meant that as live performances move online, audiences do not hear the same voices. This moment is not about waiting to go back to how it was before, but as I wrote in an open letter to creative arts students, it’s about re-imagining what theatre and dance, and indeed all the arts, can become in the future.

Theatre is an ideal model for accident-prone times because it reminds us not only that anything can happen, but that even the most terrible and sometimes frightening moments create new spaces for what comes next. The show, after all, goes on.

That’s why it’s been so discouraging to see the dominant narratives emphasize loss and futility, and I see the effect this is having on students, who believe that their education and their very work is being impossibly compromised. But this assumes that there is truly only one way that the arts — including embodied and performing arts — can be taught. This has never been true and it’s not true now.

To take only one example from my own university:

In the Department of Theatre at York, we have commissioned playwrights to write original one-act plays for performance in an online environment as we work with emerging actors and designers to develop their theatrical skills and technique for the online environment. We see this as a critical part of their training for the future of theatre. “The Ashley Plays,” a cycle of original site-specific plays written by our 3rd and 4th year playwrights, will be staged virtually in October, and we have created a virtual Devised Theatre Rodeo for high school students that will bring together drama classes from across the GTA and beyond to hone their techniques in both devised and digital theatre. Live arts education does not stop when physical venues close. It evolves.

This is not to discount the real challenges that many performing artists are experiencing right now, nor to dismiss the long-standing and painful inequities and exclusions that have been part of both arts organizations and educational institutions for too long. But these conditions are precisely why we will wait for things to return to “normal” or simply try to replicate what was happening in the past. As we struggle through our current moment, we have the opportunity to experience not just the accident, but unity as well.

Now, then, is an unprecedented opportunity for meaningful, positive change in arts education. It will not be easy, but it is necessary and, indeed, long overdue. The lessons in this coming year will not be about teaching how to work in the ways we know, but in learning together what new forms of work can happen and how our processes can better serve everyone, artists and audiences alike. Education will not be a top-down exercise, but a collaborative and mutual exchange in which we are all learners. This is the lesson of the unifying accident: the realization that we are in a unique and strange moment together and that we can all shape what happens next.

Programs often talk about “state-of-the-art” in relation to professional arts training. Well, this is the state of the arts profession now. How we learn, adapt, and create today will shape the ways that professions in the arts and media emerge tomorrow. We cannot simply put our programs on hold but must adapt and adjust to the new opportunities.

The unifying accident onstage can be challenging, but it often comes to define the specific performance and can even shape the industry more broadly. After all, the familiar “break a leg” for theatrical good luck is an ironic tribute to one of the defining accidents in theatre history.

So, to all my theatre colleagues, students, and artistic fellow travellers of all sorts: Break a leg this year.

An Open Letter to Students: “Don’t Wait”

Dear arts student:

You are essential.

I hope that wherever you are in the world and whatever discipline you practice or field you study, that you’ll continue your creative work this year. We need you.

Amid all the current uncertainty and planning, it is so tempting to wait for things “to go back to normal.” As the parent of someone who just finished his first year of university, I see the challenges of the zoom classroom and understand the appeal of taking a break until this current situation is all over. But it’s not clear yet what the next “normal” will look like or when it may come. Some things may resemble what we remember; others will be forever different. While this uncertainty can be a cause of anxiety, it also offers a rare opportunity, especially for the next generation of global artists.

Emerging artists, designers and scholars entering universities today have a rare opportunity to explore what the arts can do and to encounter questions of the past with fresh eyes. Those who participate in this exploration, will set the stage for the future of creative practices to come. Now is the time to take part in these changes and to determine what kind of future we all will have.

Beyond the university, creative fields and industries are rapidly changing in response to the current crisis. Arts education will change alongside, working together with community and professional partners to navigate these shifts. Students learning today have the chance to participate in these discussions from the beginning and to prepare in real time for whatever comes next. This is what real experiential education is all about. It’s not just about adapting to changes as they come, but also having a say in what comes next.

As the Dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University,  I’m committed to supporting students in this work over the next year and beyond: to helping learners across the arts and design navigate these changes, prepare for the future, and be a part of a sustainable future for the arts. It’s not just about making things different; it’s about making them better.

Around the world and in many different kinds of institutions, faculty and staff are working tirelessly to adapt and to prepare for this future. But we need your help.

If only a few people participate in defining the future of the arts, then the inevitable changes to come will benefit only those select few. In the wake of COVID-19, we have seen just how essential the arts are to our collective and individual well-being and also how unequally the effects of this disease are experienced. We cannot afford to lose a new generation of voices and a diversity of perspectives now. The changes underway are too big and too important to be left just to established artists, no matter how experienced or talented. To ensure a sustainable and inclusive future for the arts, we need many different perspectives, most especially those who are just beginning their arts education.

So whatever you do, don’t give up. And don’t sit this one out. You have the opportunity to drive the changes that will define the future of creative arts and industries. A former coach of mine had a favourite phrase that hung over her desk: “Good things come to those who wait. But only the things left by those who hustle.” Now is the time to hustle.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone should risk either their own health and safety, or those of their loved ones and their communities. The first priority right now must continue to be our collective well-being. This priority is precisely why we need the broadest range of people engaging in the discussion of what comes next in arts and design. We need to continue to revise our practices with the most vulnerable in mind and to ensure maximum inclusion and participation for all.

We cannot afford to wait and we can’t just look back at what has been lost. If we’re going to get through this time together, we need to expand what’s possible. More than anything, we need to ensure that whatever changes may come our way, that they work for everyone.

That’s why I hope that you — young artists, thinkers, designers, scholars, and innovators —  will continue your creative and educational journeys this fall. Wherever you go, know that your voice, your perspectives are needed to help us all make sense of this time and to create a better version for tomorrow.

However those of us in the arts are working over the next year, it won’t be about equipment or technology or buildings. It will be about people and ideas and imagination. We will learn to communicate differently and to collaborate in new ways. These changes are too important and far-reaching to happen without the active involvement of emerging artists. To create an inclusive and sustainable future for the arts, industries, arts organizations and universities need you, the next generation, your ideas and talents, to define this future.

We need the next generation to define and improve the next normal. I can’t wait to get started.

Theatre, Dance & Performance Online

Updated: April 27, 2020

A regularly updating list of online theatre, dance and performances. Many are free or low cost, but your access may vary by location. I will continue to update whenever I have new information.

Recent Favourites

The Pina Bausch Foundation is making some full-length films available online for free. Palermo Palermo is available now with other films and links on her website. If you’re inside self-isolating, why not learn Bausch’s iconic NELKEN-Line?

Robert Wilson’s video portraits are available to view online. Gorgeous, meditative.

Canadian Content

For those of us in Canada, remember to check out all the offerings in Indigenous Films & Media from the National Film Board. Also, Telefilm Canada is making Canadian films available on CBC Gem without ads for the next 6 weeks and TIFF has launched TIFF-Stay at Home Cinema on Crave. (Apologies to those not in Canada, but more fun stuff for everyone below.)

Ontario’s Music Together program is helping musician continue to produce and get paid while live venues remain closed. Artists can apply and the rest of us can enjoy ‘live’ music while sequestered at home. (Donations gratefully accepted)

Lists & Collections

  • Dance Archives Online compiled by Rachel Carrico and Jarrod Duby
  • Dance Dispatches Dance at Home: list of sites, links and other resources for dance
  • Maria Delgado’s Latin-American Streaming Films List.  Thanks, Maria!
  • Ollie Jones’ google doc of Theatre Resources here. Thank you, Ollie! (twitter: @oelj)
  • Kalle Westerling’s (ever the excellent online resource) calendar of events here.
  • New York Theatre moving online here. Thanks to Jonathan Mandall for these!
  • Playwrights offering writing workshops online. More here.
  • Society of American Archivists Performing Arts Section google doc here.

Online Plays & Performances (collections, ongoing)

  • The Globe and Mail has a list here.
  • The Guardian has a list here. (Updated regularly)
  • The New York Times has a list here.
  • The Observer has a list here.
  • Pointe Magazine has a list here.
  • The Art Newspaper has a list of online & virtual exhibits here.

Individual Performances

Digital Reads & Audiobooks

If you’re sequestered with a theatre and performance library, you can support global theatre graduate students by scanning and sharing your personal library with grads through the Personal Library Loan site. Thanks to Chris Woodworth for this great initiative.



Resources for Teaching Theatre & Performance Online

TL;DR: overview of some readings, links and other resources for taking your theatre, dance or performance studies course online.

In response to the coronavirus and COVID-19, theatre and performance studies courses are moving classes online in a hurry. Welcome! Some of us have been hanging around here for a while and are happy to help. For those curious about what to read or resources for online videos and films, I’ve created a quick and dirty list of resources that I’ll update when I can. Here are some things to get you started.

I’ve created a few different lists. If you want to read about many of the same titles with more context (for you or your students), there’s a chapter in my book co-authored with Jennifer Parker-Starbuck and David Z. Saltz that outlines many of the key texts in detail. The book is Performance and Media: Taxonomies for a Changing Field (2015) and you want Chapter 2: Texts and Contexts. (If you need a copy of just this chapter, let me know.)

But if you’re here because you’re self-isolating and your classroom is now powered by zoom.us, you and your students probably aren’t interested in the history of technology on stage; you’re probably trying to figure out how to get through the rest of your semester with no actual theatre to attend.

At the risk of self-aggrandizement (too late; I already self-cited above), a practical essay to get you started is my “Theatre Squared: Theatre History in the Age of Media,” which you can download. Don’t let the history part fool you. This is mainly about how to watch and teach videos of live performance. It was written with teaching in mind and I’ve found that it teaches pretty well at multiple levels. The other essay I’ve written about this is “Unseen: Performance Criticism and Digital Recordings.” Unseen is – fittingly, enough – behind a paywall, but I imagine that if you don’t have access to the essay, the good folks at Yale and Duke UP probably wouldn’t mind if I shared a .pdf. So, do try to download, but if you get stuck, let me know. Both of these essays are about how to watch theatre online or on video. They’re fairly short and to the point.  As you think about the potential consequences of watching a whole bunch of theatre on video, I stand by my earlier manifesto: “Theatre is Media: Some Principles for a Digital Historiography of Performance.” Feel free to skip to the bullet points.

I wrote a couple of these at the invitation of Jacob Gallagher-Ross and Miriam Felton-Dansky, who co-edited some great issues of Theater on “Digital Dramaturgies,” “Digital Feelings,” and “Spectatorship in an Age of Surveillance.”

More recently, Lindsay Brandon Hunter has written “Digital theatricality: flickering documents in unsteady archives” for Amodern 7. Kalle Westerling has been writing about theatre, performance and the digital humanities for a long time and has shared a great reading list on his website.

Things to Watch When the Theatres Are Closed

Rather than thinking about how to watch, you’re probably more interested in what to watch. Happily, there are a lot of resources now available. My favourite, which I’ve noted else where is ontheboards.tv. Created by the Seattle venue On the Boards, this is a great collection of exceptionally well-filmed contemporary performances. Shows include Ralph Lemon, Young Jean Lee, Temporary Distortion, among others. I’ve seen shows there both live and in recordings and they’re fantastically different experiences, but equally great. Highly recommend. I’ve also mentioned Howlround Theatre Commons and Spiderwebshow, where “Canada, the internet, and live performance connect.”

There’s also, kanopy, which has a performing arts section and is often accessible through your university or college library. Other resources include Digital Theatre and Drama Online, among others. For those interested in music concerts, the Berlin Philharmonic recently played in its Digital Concert Hall. They played a stunning concert recently to a similtaneously empty house and a diverse globally distributed audience.

And, many artists host videos of their work on their websites. Again, a personal favourite is Kris Verdonck, who makes interesting work with great video documentation. The Wooster Group now has short outtake videos and Big Art Group has short videos from all its performances. As noted in a twitter exchange earlier, The Theatre Times site also has tons of resources on contemporary performances and transmedia.

If you’re in the mood for an incomplete, top-of-mind lit review, here’s my reference bookshelf on such topics:

History and Theory of Media on Stage

  • Brenda Laurel’s Computers as Theatre (1993)
  • Philip Auslander’s Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (esp. chp. 1, 1999; rev. ed. 2008)
  • David Z. Saltz’s “Live Media: Interactive Technology and Theatre” Theatre Topics 11.2 (Sept. 2001): 107-130.
  • Susan Broadhurst and Josephine’s Machon’s Performance and Technology: Practices of Virtual Embodiment and Interactivity (2006)
  • Freda Chapple and Chiel Kattenbelt’s Intermediality in Theatre and Performance (2006)
  • Matthew Causey’s Theatre and Performance in Digital Culture: From Simulation to Embeddedness (2006)
  • Steve Dixon’s Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art and Installation (2007)
  • Susan Kozel’s Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenologies (2007)
  • Chris Salter’s Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance (2010)
  • Sarah Bay-Cheng, Chiel Kattenbelt, Andy Lavender and Robin Nelson’s Mapping Intermediality in Performance (2010)
  • Jennifer Parker-Starbuck’s Cyborg Theatre (2011)
  • Steve Benford and Gabrielle Giannachi’s Performing Mixed Reality (2011)
  • Rosemary Klich and Edward Scheer’s Multimedia Performance (2012)
  • Sarah Bay-Cheng, Jennifer Parker-Starbuck, and David Z. Saltz’s Performance and Media: Taxonomies for a Changing Field (2015)
  • Maaike Bleeker, Transmission in Motion: The Technologizing of Dance (2016)
  • Andy Lavender, Performance in the Twenty-First Century (2016)

These are mostly histories and theories of technologies on stage and in performance, but they can give you a good overview on what a lot of us have been reading for the past 2 decades or so. If you’re just getting started with your students, I recommend the first chapter of Auslander and dipping in and out of the intermediality anthologies. Especially Mapping Intermediality has some fun key words that you can follow around, depending on what you’re looking for.

I’m sure I’m missing tons of great stuff here, so feel free to post in the comments.


Since you’ve read all the way through this long, self-indulgent post, you deserve a bonus. So, here’s an online performance assignment I’ve been planning for a while. I won’t have time to teach it for a while, so it’s yours for the taking now.

Gather a collection of live theatre presented in films and use that as the basis for your exploration of theatre and media. What’s fun is that many of these theatre shows are made up or imagined, but they’re always interesting. As a suggestion, look at the use of theatre in Persona, Waiting for Guffman, and anything by Pedro Almodovar (he has the best theatre in his films, often totally made up). I’ve been wanting to work on an essay for a while about why films stage theatre within them and why. I don’t have any good answers, but I would be very curious what other people are thinking.

Happy watching!

Performance & Media: Notes on The Irishman & Cats

TL;DR: The Irishman & Cats have some surprising similarities in their integration of computer technologies and live performance. I look at both with attention to the “live” performing body amid digital distortions. [2848 words]

Although it may seem odd to compare The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2019) and Cats (dir. Tom Hooper, 2019), these two films were among the most interesting for their mutual engagements combining live performance and computer technology.

I saw Martin Scorsese’s film The Irishman (Netflix) twice without interruption for the 3.5 hours: once on mid-size television with modest resolution, and again in a single-screen cinema house (Regent Theatre, Toronto). Overall, I agree with critics who argue that the film is probably too long (to me, it felt rather ponderous at moments) and it’s unfortunate that all of the women who speak in the film have about a dozen lines split among them over 3.5 hours. But, I found the film interesting for other reasons, namely its intersection with digital media culture and movie history.

For similar reasons, I attended Cats, but only once in a multi-screen cineplex. Although the stage version was playing simultaneously in Toronto, I didn’t return to the stage musical. It’s a show I’ve seen a few times on stage and I wrote about in an chapter for the Blackwell Companion to T.S. Eliot (ed. David Chinitz, 2009). In case you’re interested, the essay is available here.

My first thought on Scorsese’s Irishman is its similarity to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). There are some fairly superficial similarities. Both are big-screen, large-scale films about outsized political figures more or less based in history. Scorsese focuses on the historical figures of Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sheeran, and myriad other figures in the history of labor politics and the American mafia. We know it’s historical because upon introduction, many of the film’s characters, both central and peripheral, are frozen on screen to reveal the date and method of their (mostly violent) deaths. It’s a film knowingly created about the past and it makes repeated claims to historical truth and accuracy.

Citizen Kane though nominally fictional was modelled on William Randolph Hearst. Indeed, Welles’ film ventured closely enough to the truth that it prompted extensive efforts by Hearst and his executives to prevent the film’s release and thereafter to discredit it. (New evidence came to light in 2016 with details in a Guardian story that year.)

Both films begin with a central nagging question: what is the meaning of “rosebud”? and “Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?” They both feature early scenes of memories told from nursing homes by weary elderly men in wheelchairs: Robert De Niro as the aged Frank Sheeran and Joseph Cotton as Jedediah Leland. Both films retrace the histories of long and eventful lives at the extremes of their societies. But more interesting than the thematic and plot similarities are the parallels in their respective making, especially with respect to acting.

Key to both films is the role of the ensemble acting company. Welles worked with his young company from the Mercury Theatre and Scorsese with the informal cohort who have populated nearly every Scorsese film since I Call First (1967 with Harvey Keitel) and Mean Streets  (1973 with Keitel, De Niro). Scorsese highlights the centrality of a consistent company in his interviews about the film. As reported in his interview with Esquire magazine:

“De Niro is the only one who knows where I come from,” Scorsese says. […] That deep connection of experiences makes finding young actors to play young versions of De Niro, Pesci and Pacino pointless, he says.

“Even if they come from a similar area, the context of time is different. You’d have to explain who, you know, who [jazz singer] Billy Eckstine is or, you know, [singer and actor] Jo Stafford, as opposed to Patti Page as opposed to Ella Fitzgerald. And then you go into rock’n’roll. So he just knows the context.”

Perhaps ironic, given his claims of authenticity of time and place, Scorsese turned to contemporary digital techniques to de-age his actors, especially De Niro so that he could work exclusively with his core company. These techniques have received quite a bit of attention, including a recent story from the CBC-The National to which I contributed an interview (cf. “How digital de-aging is changing the face of movies“).

Because of the limitations of working with a fixed group across multiple decades in the plot, Welles also had to use new techniques to appropriately age his young actors. As in The Irishman, the special effects played a key role in the film. According to Citizen Kane‘s make-up artist, Maurice Seiderman: “When Kane came out in script form, Orson told all of us about the picture and said that the most important aspect was the makeup” (see “Making Up KaneFilm Comment, 1978). By many accounts, Welles’ make-up took up to 3-4 hours preparation before filming.

So what does this have to do with Cats?

As with both The Irishman and Citizen Kane, the film Cats faces a fundamental problem: how to create convincing distortions of the human actor on screen. Welles uses make-up and the actors’ physicality to age his characters across multiple decades, sometimes within the same film sequence (e.g., the wonderful breakfast-table sequence that details the decline of the Kane marriage). Scorsese uses the latest in computer technologies–specifically, the MEDUSA facial capture system from ILM–to de-age the faces and hands of his actors, while also employing a “movement analyst” to assist with the physical portrayal across decades.

[Aside: Viewers have debated the credibility of these effects, including the unnatural smoothness of De Niro’s face in the flashback sequence to Frank Sheeran’s service in World War II. To my eye, De Niro’s digitally altered face closely resembles the central character from the videogame Call of Duty: WWII:


It may be that viewers who have received more WWII history from Call of Duty than from, say, Ken Burns’s documentary miniseries The War, will find Scorsese’s depiction the most convincing. There is more to say about the impact of videogames on the historical imagination, but that’s for another post or two.]

The film Cats (2019) doesn’t alter its characters in time, but rather in species, and here, it draws a clear parallel to the juxtaposition of The Irishman and Citizen Kane. Welles started as a theatre director, so he applies the techniques of theatre to cinema: make-up, costume, physicality, voice, and ensemble acting. Even as he shares with Welles an affinity for a consistent company of actors, Scorsese applies the latest techniques of screen special effects. Tom Hooper is a film and television director, who found success adapting the popular musical Les Mirerable (2012) to the screen. In Cats, Hooper adapts a stage production originally created through the techniques Welles used in Citizen Kane (make-up, costume, physicality), and replaces them with computer effects (created by Mill Film) not unlike those used in The Irishman: motion capture, digital animations.

Where Hooper and Cats fall short, however, is from a fundamental misunderstanding of the original source material. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score for Cats, though catchy is largely repetitive and, as many others have observed derivative from other sources (hello, Puccini!). The lyrics are drawn from T.S. Eliot’s poems written for his friends’ children. Although occasionally clever, the lyrics often veer into the ridiculous, as in the repeated chorus in “The Addressing of Cats”: “So first, your memory I’ll jog / And say: a cat is not a dog.”

Seeing only the 2019 version, one might wonder how the original show became a success. Having seen the show a few times in the 1980s, what I remember made the original so engaging was that it was first and foremost a musical about dancing. All of the other stage effects, including costumes, make-up, and scenery were carefully calibrated to create illusions of scale and immersion within the world. As I recall, the original production sent chorus dancers into the house with blinking cat eyes that in the dark were startling in their ability to convincingly convey the human dancers as cats (especially for those of us under 10 years old).

The original stage set included an oversized tire, debris, and trashcans that established the world and scale for the dancing cats. The original costumes augmented the dancers’ bodies in part by making their heads larger and furrier (to hide their human ears) and with colors and patterns that drew attention to the lines of the dancers and their movements. What many of us marvelled at in the original stage production was not that the humans looked like cats, but that recognizably human dancers could move like cats, including choreography well beyond the abilities of us normal humans. It’s a show about virtuosic dancing, which is why there’s no real plot and it doesn’t really matter.

As I’ve written before, Cats is basically A Chorus Line (1975) for felines. The show is structured as a series of  introductions and thus provides little more than an excuse for exceptionally talented and skilled performers to show off what they can do. There’s a fairly general “I Want” song early in both–“I Hope I Get It” and “Invitation to the Jellicle Ball”–framed by a key selection: casting for a show and the jellicle choice. Both shows end with the selection. That’s it. No plot twists, no intrigue. At the beginning, there’s a choice to be made, and by the end, someone makes it. End of show. In between, performers perform individual numbers and join in a few full-stage ensemble pieces. In short, it’s mostly about virtuosic dancing with a few opportunities for exceptional singers, who are given key moment for arias: Old Deuteronomy is a challenging bass part in the original; Grizabella is given the show-stopping number, “Memory.” (Remember, Webber wanted to be an opera composer and often imagined his shows as contemporary operas.) But, even allowing for a few key vocal numbers, the show is really about dancers.

The importance of dancing was acknowledged in the original Cats poster image, which featured tiny dancing bodies as the pupils of the cats’ eyes:


Cats Broadway poster (1981)

Director Hooper is presumably aware of the importance of dancing in Cats. He casts his lead with Francesca Hayward, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet in London (the make-up and costuming choices for her require a whole other post), and the narrator-cat Munkustrap is played by Robbie Fairchild formerly of the New York City Ballet.  However, Hooper’s respect for dancing seems to stop with the casting decisions.

The movements by the individual performers are obscured by their digital costumes, rather than augmented by them. The cinematography keeps up a fairly rapid editing pace, such that there’s little opportunity to appreciate the movements within a given number. This constantly moving environment also seems to change scale constantly. (The Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer scene felt particularly off. What cat paw fits loosely through a human-sized ring? See below.)

Screen Shot 2020-01-04 at 10.28.31

Screencapture: Francesca Hayward as Victoria in Cats (2019)

Elsewhere, Hooper seems to take the original text literally. The film’s climactic scene (such as it is) centers on a rescue of Old Deuteronomy from a barge on the Thames, where she and other cats have been captured by Macavity. Mr. Mistoffelees must successfully perform magic to bring the older cat back. That he fails multiple times before success seems to justify the repeated original lyrics: “Oh, well I never, was there ever / A cat so clever as magical / Mr. Mistoffelees.” But taking his magic literally means that Eliot’s wit in the original poems, which anthropomorphized very typical actions of cats as somehow magical and mysterious, is lost.

The joke of this song in particular is that the mischief of cats–sneaking food and playing with random objects–is recast as magic.

He can play any trick with a cork
Or a spoon and a bit of fish paste
If you look for a knife or a fork
And you think it was merely misplaced

You have seen it one moment
And then it is gone
But you find it next week
Lying out on the lawn

It’s not just the text that Hooper takes too literally. Everything is portrayed in actuality: the songs, the dance, the setting, the costumes, the story (such as it is). But, it is the attempt to use the computer-generated imagery to create more realistic cats that most severely limits the film. Instead of augmenting the human heads with fur, he uses digital effects to create a more realistic cat-like head. Compare Elaine Page as Grizabella with Jennifer Hudson in the role:

On the one hand, Hudson’s digitally augmented appearance seems more realistically cat-like. She has fur instead of layered human-like hair and a furry neck and chest. Elaine Page’s costume is pretty clearly a wig and coat designed to obscure but not obliterate her human form. (Remember, she’s one of a few signing cats; the dancing cats perform almost exclusively in skin-tight leotards.) However, these differences make Hudson’s “coat” appear all the stranger. If we can see her own “fur” what is she wearing on top? The hide of a deceased relative or stranger? (The same effect occurs with Judi Dench’s Old Deuteronomy, who appears to be wearing at least one or two other cats.)

Throughout the film, the digital effects in costume and make-up draw our attention away the performing body to the juxtaposition between the real and the virtual. The digital overwhelm is, oddly enough, in contradiction to Hooper’s claims that the film works to maintain the “live” performances on screen:

It’s really more live-action than you realize in the sense that we shot it all live on set. With a couple of exceptions of Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly, where obviously it would be insane to build an oversized version of Piccadilly Circus. We built this world at sort of three times scale, so that humans could be looking at cats’ relation with the world. And my great dream with the visual effects was to find a way to add … To make the actors feline while preserving their faces and their real performances, and the integrity of what they did as actors and singers. To preserve the integrity of their live dance. (Hooper interview for Observer, 2019)

There are many excellent examples of dance on screen, so it’s not as if “real performances” by actors and dancers haven’t been compellingly conveyed in other films. I’m thinking of Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952) and West Side Story (dir. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961); as well as more recent Hairspray (dir. Adam Shankman, 2007) and even La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2016). The latter featured performers with signing and dancing skills far inferior to those cast in Cats, but managed to create far more compelling musical numbers.

In short, it is Hooper’s (mis)use of computer effects that destroys this sense of the live performing body, distorting not only the actual physical bodies of his performers (and weirdly fetishizing them, as various critiques have noted), but also their movements. And, like The Irishman, the impetus behind this choice appears to be a misguided sense of “authenticity.” That is, both The Irishman and Cats seem to be fundamentally misunderstanding what makes a particular acting performance compelling on screen.

The unnatural smoothness of De Niro works better in The Irishman because his blank stoicism is, in fact, a feature of his character and the times. Frank Sheeran is a largely blank canvas onto which others project their directives. He is fundamentally inexpressive and therefore unknowable. As Jimmy Hoffa says to Sheeran at one point, “Frank, you never reveal how you feel.” There’s also the way in which Hollywood cinema is always intent on preserving actors’ youth and is little else, if not a de-aging machine.

But, in Cats, the joy of the show comes from seeing through the artifice of the cats’ portray to the sophistication and skill of the performers underneath the costume and make-up. (Watch some of the online footage from professional stage versions and you’ll see what I mean.) Stage choreography, including real-time synchronization among performers, balance, and physical control is impressive because of the technical challenge. When such techniques are rendered digitally–as in the strange dancing cockroaches scene and extensive use of rigging in Hooper’s dance sequences–we tend to dismiss the whole thing as digital fakery. Thus, the very real skill and technique of the performers is lost.

Much of my recent academic writing has been about the negotiations of ostensibly live performance and distortions in recorded and digital media (more here, if you’re so inclined). I’m not convinced that one form of acting is better than the other and I suspect that improved techniques in digital augmentation will continue to shape actors’ performances on stage and all kinds of screens. However, there is clearly a danger in forgetting the pleasures of watching exceptional human bodies perform, even if they’re made to look older or dressed up as cats. One hopes that the next time Hollywood moves a big-budget stage show to the screen, they will remember to include a few more theatre people behind the camera and not just in front.





ASTR 2019 – hello!

I’m currently at the American Society for Theatre Research. Perhaps you are, too! Today, I’m participating in a roundtable and giving a workshop on public presentations for academic research. Much of what I will say will be disappointing because most of what I can say on this topic is fairly well known and even self-explanatory. I’m certainly no social media influencer. But, I’ve had some success sharing my ideas with colleagues accros different media and I’m happy to share what I know. Sometimes, reminders on the familiar may be helpful. If you’re following along at the conference, or simply interested, here are my notes for my talks today, along with a few preliminary resources that I’ve found helpful.

Plenary Rountable &
Shop Talks: Presenting Work to an Engaged Audience
Sarah Bay-Cheng, York University
ASTR: November 8, 2019
Arlington, VA

Reminder: “Distillation & Delivery”

Public Presentation Types

  • Public lectures
  • TEDx Talks
  • Podcasts
  • Social Media Campaigns: IGTV, Stories
  • Remarks

Key Elements

  • Defined Audience – Clear Objectives
  • Key Ideas
  • Structure & Rhythm
  • Punctuation
  • Accessories


Anderson, Chris. 2016. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“Podcasting for Beginners: The Complete Guide to Getting Started.” 2014. Buffer Marketing Library (blog). June 18, 2014. https://buffer.com/library/podcasting-for-beginners.

TEDxEast – Nancy Duarte Uncovers Common Structure of Greatest Communicators 11/11/2010. December 10, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nYFpuc2Umk&feature=youtu.be.

The 110 Techniques of Communication and Public Speaking | David JP Phillips | TEDxZagreb. February 1, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0pxo-dS9Hc.

“The Beginner’s Guide to Podcasts | WIRED.” August 27, 2017. https://www.wired.com/story/podcasts-beginners-guide/.

Happy (Academic) New Year!

Happy New Year to all my academic friends: faculty, students, staff, and administrators. I again pledge a new year’s resolution to update the blog and website more frequently and one of these days, I’ll get around to it. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to a new crop of dancing polar bears here at Bowdoin College, great new shows from my faculty colleagues, and the beauty of a New England fall. Enjoy the coming semester and remember to savor the good stuff and let everything else go by the by (as my late grandmother used to say).

warm wishes from rainy Maine,


Upcoming Talks & Visits – spring 2018

Over the next few months, I’m looking forward to a series of talks and visits. March 9-10, I’ll be attending the Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces at Brown University and giving a public lecture on digital history and performance in museums. I love this conference format and am excited to connect with the excellent Sydney Skybetter and Kiri Miller among an *amazing* list of participants (though, honestly, if you look at the photos, I am the stodgiest among us). I’m giving a lecture, “Everybody’s Historiography: Playing the Digital in Museums” on Monday, March 12, 1-2pm in the Digital Scholarship Lab in the Rockefeller Library.

Next, I’ll be visiting the University of Georgia and meeting with David Z. Saltz in preparation for our NEH Summer Institute on Digital Technologies in Theatre and Performance Studies, June 17-19. (If you’re interested, there’s still time to apply. Deadline is March 1).

In April and May, I’m busy attending Bowdoin student performances, theses defenses, and end-of-the academic year festivities. But, then, I’m excited to return to The Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research at Harvard University, June 13-14. The deadline for applications to the Mellon School is also coming up quickly on March 1.

If you happen to be in the area for any of these, contact me privately and I’d love to connect.

Hello, Toronto! 1.19.18

I’m delighted to be back at the University of Toronto to deliver a lecture, “Everybody’s Historiography: History, Performance, and Playing the Digital in Museums.” I’ll be at the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies. Many thanks to Alexandra Gillespie and the U of T – Mississauga’s Jackman Humanities Institute Digital Humanities Network, and to Tamara Trojanowska at the Centre for hosting me. I’m delighted to be here.

The lecture includes work from visits to several museums featuring interactive digital history display, with primary focus on the extraordinary POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland (http://www.polin.pl/en). Many thanks to Bowdoin College, who generously supported my travel to Poland and elsewhere.

Interview with Paula Vogel

Well, actually, I just get to sit in a room, while Paula Vogel talks to me about Indecent, New York critics, and the danger of a theatre that fails to support its young artists. Inspiring, passionate, and fun. You can listen to it as a special episode of the On TAP (Theatre and Performance) podcast: http://www.ontappod.com/home/2017/10/6/on-tap-special-paula-vogel.

Don’t miss other monthly podcast episodes at: http://www.ontappod.com.