I’ve managed to keep busy during the time of COVID, and it’s been good. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been fortunate to have worked fairly continuously in one way or another, on good jobs and gigs that are nothing to brag about, for decent money or for none, during this pandemic pause that has cost the world so much. I feel no small amount of survivor guilt when I’m reminded of how many actors haven’t been able to work at all, how some have packed up their careers and moved on to something else. It’s more bitter heartbreak in a business that’s already heartbreaking enough even without coronavirus, and I’ve managed to stay busy, at times the source of no small measure of survivor guilt. But I’ll be the first to say it – I’m very, very lucky.
On March 12, the night the New York theatre scene as well as film and television effectively shut down for a still undetermined amount of time, it was not only the well-being of the arts and entertainment industries that was threatened but the very identity of each and every person who worked on the hundreds (if not thousands) of projects in performance, production or development. “Work,” though, is hardly a term that captures in any genuine way what we do – it’s certainly a part of our job description and our lives; but in essence, it’s just a channel for who and what we are. Actor, stagehand, designer, director, composer, dresser, playwright – these are job descriptions for something most of us felt called to do. Even the term “vocation” seems insufficient, especially when it’s as much a curse as a calling. All of these words only hint at our true selves – our identities – and yet the things that made all of it possible for many of us vanished when the lights went out in the spring of 2020. And the heaviness in the air, the ghostly empty streets in the days and weeks that followed, and the climbing case- and death-tolls were signs that this cesura, this pause was different than just being between gigs. This was existential.
But adversity is the mother of invention and the creative spark is impossible to extinguish. In ways that most of us could never have imagined – because we never had to – the impulse to make a new and different kind of performance medium emerged using a language most of us were well-versed in but hadn’t yet explored as a collaborative creative instrument: the internet. I don’t know how long it took for the first live-stream multi-character play on the group meeting internet platform – ZOOM being the most obvious example – but it couldn’t have been more than a few weeks, even less, before actors were once again finding a way to make theatre. And it wasn’t necessarily because we wanted to make theatre on ZOOM – it was because we had to. Our identities demanded it.
In no time at all “zoom plays” were ubiquitous, owing to the ease and convenience of reaching out to friends and acquaintances and saying “hey, you want to read something I wrote on Zoom,” or institutional theaters continuing to develop projects in danger of being still born owing to the shutdown; or producing fund-raising events to make up for their sudden loss in revenue. Fairly soon we were watching concerts, cabarets, benefit performances ad nauseam – most of which were being produced quickly and cheaply because the performers unions were far behind the curve is recognizing the cost/profit model that was being taken advantage of by almost everyone concerned. But no matter, theatre – or something passing as it – was alive and well on countless little squares on laptops across the world.
Of course, months later, after countless performances on Zoom, Streamyard, and other streaming platforms, of concerts, recitals, readings, plays, musicals, even ballets, there’s still a debate about whether this is satisfying, rewarding “theatre.” Actors I’ve spoken with bemoan the absence of the warmth and vibration of bodies in the same room, of close eye contact, of instinctually picking up another actor’s energy – of being able figuratively to toss the ball back and forth and discover that magical space in the air between each other where there was nothing before, that lasts for an instant or two, that is for the beholder a moment of real theatre. And that point of view is not wrong – it’s definitely not the theatre as we know it. But I would offer that it’s a different kind of theatre, and that the opportunity to engage the audiences imagination, and to pull them into that magical space, to illuminate something in their minds’ eye is just as strong and possible as ever. It’s unexplored territory for most of us – it’s not stage, it’s not film or TV acting. It’s different, something that perhaps needs its own name. But it requires developing an original relationship with a new and sometimes unfriendly and often unreliable technological medium. And it requires developing new skills, aimed at mastering the new story-telling medium we’re in the very process of inventing. Unless we’re simply content, in this post-COVID and post-George Floyd world where so much of what we did on a daily basis was revealed to be inexcusably broken, to go back to what we were doing before (and I’m not convinced that’s possible – but that’s the subject for another blog entry at another time), one obvious question for each of us is: what is more exciting for a creative person than exploring the undiscovered country?
We’re told early in our development as artists that we always need to find new stories to tell. I think that COVID is also telling us we have to find new ways of telling them. Most artists will admit that their best work is made when they’re unable to work within the confines of their comfort zone. That time for every one of us is now. I’m happy to be exploring that new wilderness and I’m thankful that people keep asking me.[nota bene: the images included in this entry comprise a random selection of some of the work I’ve done during the theatre shutdown.]