Finding Unrestricted Creativity in Confining Times

This year I had the privilege to experience this first-hand in Theatre Western’s Drink to Me Only as an actor, which resulted in a performance that while exciting for the cast, struggled to create that essential connection to audiences due to limitations of streaming and the show’s conventional nature. While we made the most out of a difficult situation, I think this experience demonstrated the limitations we have placed on ourselves in what stories we tell onstage.

Theatre Western’s Drink To Me Only

The experience that has stood out to me was Split Britches’ Last Gasp WFH and the workshop with Lois Weaver, as the most unique aspect of this performance was that despite being a performance slated to occur on a stage, when the pandemic forced them into lockdown they managed to recalibrate with only a small team which comprised of “Weaver direct[ing] and the two women [Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver] handl[ing] the sound and lighting themselves, with the help of a remote team that included technical designers and a choreographer” according to the New York Times.

A screen shot from the show, which was scheduled to be presented live and ended up on Zoom
Credit: via Split Britches

Due to the duo’s ingenious decision to not even try to remain within the conventions of theatrical performance, I think this navigated the problems which digital attempts of more conventional performances can not avoid. Despite Peggy Shaw not being able to remember lines anymore, this too is creatively circumvented by Peggy “wear[ing] big headphones to listen to the words Weaver feeds her during monologues” that remarkably demonstrates “there is no attempt to hide what’s going on” (The New York Times).

It is this unfiltered, painfully earnest experience where the strength of Last Gasp WFH really lies. While the filmmaking utilised may offend some theatre purists, this is exactly what helped convey the story in such a creative yet reflective manner. In the workshop with Lois, she mentioned that she sees herself as a performer, but not necessarily an actor as she only conveys her own story, never someone else’s. While this may seem like the antithesis of acting and theatre, Lois’ approach to performance creates exciting and insightful art which thrives without necessitating a group experience.

A photo of my performance draft from Lois’ workshop. While nothing out of this world, the instinct Lois encouraged helped me create something different yet entirely authentic to me.

In the workshop, Lois frequently discussed acting on “instinct,” which was baffling as acting for me usually requires a great deal of thought in preparation to work with others. But as the last year has demonstrated, it does not matter when the communal spectacle of theatre is unavailable. With lockdown forcing us all to look inward, more than ever we need to creatively express our own stories to process this trauma together. Ultimately, the most insightful experiences from the limitations of this year are not a result of chasing some idea of conventionality, but like Last Gasp WFH embraces the isolation as a chance to experiment. Even though personal, grounded stories may seem like the last thing one would want when “normalcy” returns, it would be a huge mistake to not follow the cues of Spilt Britches and champion theatre that attempts to make sense out of our chaos.

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