Attention – Experiences with online theatre premieres

Theatre streaming in the Corona pandemic results in an increase of the number of spectators, e.g. 10,000 instead of 600 for a live stream of “Zauberberg” at Deutsches Theater Berlin on 20/11/2020, 1. But what kind and what degree of attention do theatre performances get thereby?

The social trappings of presence theatre also work as an engine that increases attention. To watch two or even three hours silently, staring in one direction, with minimal shifts of gaze and attention, takes preparation. It takes collectivity. The mutual insinuation of expectation in the foyer brings our attention engine to operating temperature. You don’t do this alone.

Attention as a means of payment

By streaming performances, theatres enter the large attention market of the internet, where attention is billed as a means of payment 2. The scarcity of the commodity of users’ attention leads to competition for this scarce commodity. But it is not the commodity, the content of the media providers, that is devalued, but the means of payment, attention 3. It is faked, diluted, divided, dispersed. What can one do while streaming a video of a theatre performance: eat, drink beer, sleep, do gymnastics, make phone calls, write messages, browse through other applications, let the streaming image run along as a small picture.

Attention as a gift

A visit to the theatre is a collective gift of attention. You don’t get attention in return. It is not an exchange of equals and by no means always an exchange of equivalents. The thrill of thought and sense that a theatre performance produces in the audience is a gift in return, but of a different kind. This also true for streamed performances, but there, we give less. Somehow the gift of attention is tied to the physical presence of a human being. On the internet we are customers, we only give as much as we receive. In an auditorium, we are donors, we waste our attention. (At least temporarily, after that comes the theatre sleep for which the theatre critic Henning Rischbieter was famous).

The compulsion to sit for hours in narrow rows next to smelly neighbours, cramped behind towering ballerina knots or broad curly heads and confined to minimal movements, an imprisonment which so many young people cannot endure, results in a minimal gain in freedom: you can focus your attention as you like, left corner of the stage or right, this actor or that actress, that handsome back in row 5 or that enigmatic detail of the set. In a streamed performance, my gaze is directed. My body is freer, but my attention is constrained to a screen, directed by camera work, cuts and image editing.

Distributed attention

A theatre performance actually requires from the audience what is called distributed attention 4: it is best to have everything in view, to perceive everything: movement, light, language, music, speech. Concentrating exclusively on a screen, on the other hand, requires a “deepened concentration”, which in the 19th century was understood to be the root of mental illness, paranoia. We naturally resist this. We are trained in divided attention. We also apply this to the screen, cultivating and enhancing the ability to scattered perception of simultaneous events, which the city dweller has become accustomed to 5. But the intensity and duration of attention decreases. So it is only logical when Pınar Karabulut breaks up her online production of Marlowe/Palmetshofer’s “Edward II” for Schauspiel Köln into a six-part series. 20 to 30 minutes in front of the screen is enough 6. The collective, bodily presence of audience and actors, on the other hand, enables an increase in the duration and intensity of attention that cannot be achieved in other reception settings.

It is therefore wrong to ascribe an old-fashioned, deepened attention to theatre and a modern, disjointed attention to the streamed internet event. The theatre of physical co-presence encounters the same people with the same habits of perception as the video on screen. But physical co-presence and collectivity produce an increase in attention that cannot be achieved any other way. Bodies we pay attention to, pixels we pay nothing to. Bodies get our attention for free because we assume that they too can pay attention to us. We do this even if, as in the theatre of the fourth wall, the agreement is that they do not give us attention back but pay us back in another currency, the currency of mental-sensual stimulation.


According to Michael Tomasello, shared intentionality, the ability to adopt another’s perspective on something third, is a crucial prerequisite for the evolution of the human species compared to primates 7. This we-intentionality, the shared attention to the stage, this basic human disposition, is the reason for the pleasure of the collective theatre experience. Sitting next to others in a shared space and looking at the same thing with the same intention is an archetypal situation of humanity. This cannot be replaced by the freedom of movement in front of the home screen.

  1. cf. Sophie Diesselhorst, “Gekommen um zu bleiben”. in: Theater heute 5/2021 p. 27
  2. “The reduction of attention to a currency produces a kind of soul blindness.” (trsl. G.P.) Georg Franck, „Warum der Begründer der ‚Ökonomie der Aufmerksamkeit` immer noch goldrichtig liegt“. Interview with Klaus Janke, Horizont 24.10.2017.
  3. cf. Georg Franck, Ökonomie der Aufmerksamkeit. München: Hanser, 1998
  4. Petra Löffler, Verteilte Aufmerksamkeit. Eine Mediengeschichte der Zerstreuung. Zurich-Berlin: Diaphanes, 2014, e.g. pp 92-93
  5.  “Zerstreuung als notwendige Aufmerksamkeitstechnik” beim “Navigieren durch die moderne Signalwelt” Löffler, p. 332
  6. cf. G.P. “Im Irrgarten der Referenzen”, in: Theater heute 5/2021, pp. 54-56
  7. “Human cooperative communication is more complex than ape intentional communication because its underlying social-cognitive infrastructure comprises not only skills for understanding individual intentionality but also skills and motivations for shared intentionality.” Michael Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008, p.321

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