It’s about two and a half weeks since the theaters closed here in NYC. It was the Broadway houses that were closed first, by order of the governor; the smaller houses followed suit almost immediately, even before the stricter rules about social distancing and closure of non-essential businesses came into effect. It’s been two and a half weeks since any conventional sort of live performance has taken place.
Performances have been taking place, though. The video conferencing platforms that we’ve all become accustomed to – Zoom, Google hangouts, and whatever else is out there – have been repurposed as a performance medium. So far I’ve been in three of these – two with Dead Playwright’s Society, and one gigantic Zoom meeting featuring a hundred or so members of the Tuesdays at Nine community. The panels appear on our various screens, reminiscent of The Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares, and we speak the words of whatever pdf copy of a script we happen to have. It’s keeping us connected in this strange time, and scratching our itch to perform.
But what exactly is it?
It’s hard to shake the sense that some strange new medium is coming into existence here, one which will eventually have its own conventions and standards. But are there enough parallels with existing mediums to start to understand it?
For starters, it isn’t theater. Theater assumes that actors and audience are all sharing the same space – which is the very thing we’re trying to avoid right now. And yet it’s far easier to read theatrical scripts over this platform than it is to try and use it as a vehicle for filmed stories. It certainly looks like television – it’s on my screen, after all – but the image is necessarily static. The focus is on the words, not on what any of us are doing. And the things we’re doing are in a vacuum – it’s hard to react to actors who aren’t there, and in any event you can’t see the reaction, or at least focus on it. Either you’re looking at all participants at once, or, depending on the algorithms your platform uses, you’re looking just at the participant who is speaking. Whatever this medium is, it’s not conducive to reaction shots.
The closest analogue to what we’re doing now would be a classic radio play, in which the actors simply read the script into the microphone, and the audience, seated around that glowing old-time equipment, would conjure up a world in their imaginations. But today’s makeshift audiences aren’t sitting in the dark. We’re staring at our screens, staring at our far away friends, clicking back and forth between that and their social media accounts and whatever news sites we have open, desperately trying to drink in as much data as possible. It’s a different audience dynamic.
And that dynamic will go a long way in determining whatever this new art form winds up being.
Now, I’d much rather we stop the spread of this damn virus, meet up with all our friends in person once again, hug each other, have a drink, and get back to the plays and the films and the all the other things we’d been doing before this hit. But Pandora’s Box is opened. These montages of tiles, each tile a face and a voice, will be with us for a good long while – and who can imagine what they’ll wind up having to say?