End of an Era

Ever since the pandemic began, my theatrical activity, like that of most folks in the arts, has been confined to zoom.  (Except for the one-day digital film shoot I did a little while ago, but I already wrote a post about that.) Private readings, public readings, academic readings, all done from the confines of my Brooklyn apartment, for an audience of pixels in little boxes on my laptop screen.  Said audience, of course, seeing me as nothing but a mass of pixels in a little box on their own little screens, all of us alone together.  For a large portion of these events, this audience has been my fellow members of the Naked Angels theater community, and the performances have been the weekly Tuesdays at Nine cold reading series for which I serve as co-Creative Director.  For the past twenty two months, with the exception of a holiday get-together in December, our ongoing readings have taken place over zoom.

Well, this Tuesday’s meeting will mark the last of these regular zoom readings.  We’ll still have them on occasion, but beginning February 1st, we will be live and in person at our new venue (the Center at West Park – if you’re in New York, feel free to come check us out).   This strange interregnum, these months of our dependence on zoom, is at an end.  And this seems to be the case for many of the smaller theater organizations – as the omicron wave (knock on all kinds of wood) begins to recede, long-term plans for in-person programming are resuming.  It feels like the entire industry is giddy at the prospect of leaving digital theater behind as a distant memory.

Which I get; I’m as anxious for this ordeal to be over as anybody.  I feel my theatrical muscles atrophying by not being up on stage.  I miss the feedback of an actual audience.  My cat is getting really annoyed at having her routine disrupted every Tuesday night.  I will breathe a sigh of relief when remote theater is no longer necessary, as will most of us.

But still – we invented a brand new performance medium.  Because make no mistake, that’s what zoom performance is.  It’s a strange hybrid; calling it zoom theater is a misnomer, since it has little to do with theater at all.  It borrows more heavily from television’s smale-sized closeups and radio’s theater of the mind, with a dash of vaudeville’s anything-goes attitude thrown in.  But there’s a unique connection with the audience in this new medium – instead of all being in the theater together, we are all of us, performer and spectator, in the same bizarre predicament of using this jury-rigged business software to share our stories.  And in the past two years, many of us have written stories specifically for this fledgling medium.

A medium which so many of us are gleefully ready to destroy.

Are these new stories good?  Who knows?  (Full disclosure: I’ve written three such scripts myself – Trivial, Ascension Monday, and For the Benefit of Jimmy Mangiaroli – which you can check out at my New Play Exchange profile if you want to judge my contributions to this medium.) In all likelihood, the bulk of them are strange, awkward things that will quickly be forgotten.  But that’s true of any new performance medium.  You don’t see a lot of commercial movie houses booking screenings of the Edison shorts, or Broadway revivals of Gammer Gurton’s Needle.

I feel that we’re at the embryonic stage of something that, decades from now (assuming humanity survives that wrong, ha ha, we’re doomed), we’ll take for granted.  I have no idea what that might ultimately be, but my natural inclination is to be excited to find out.  Which is why I find it so bewildering that so many want to snuff out this strange new thing before it has any chance to develop.

I get that we want to forget that this nightmare ever happened – but forgetting our misfortunes never works.  We came together and improvised a new way of storytelling into being, developing odd new skills along the way.  I think that’s worth remembering, and worth celebrating.  Because I have the strangest feeling we’re going to need those skills in the future.

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