I’M WORRIED FOR THEATRE

            We all want to focus on the silver linings of the pandemic—and of course, when was it a negative thing to do so?  But I am worried; in this hunt for the silver lining, we are losing what makes us human—especially in terms of theatre and its role as community and therapy. I have been in this course since we were all bouncing in our chairs, already packing our suitcases. We all sipped red wine as we watched and became part of the performances we saw. We played games, and I met one of my best friends to this day. At that time, theatre was all about performativity, inclusivity, and community—more so than it had ever been before especially with the new inclusion and space on-stage for minorities. Although, we all want to find the silver lining, I think it is my responsibility to bring up the concerns I have with post-pandemic theatre culture. We were already a struggling art—although more endangered than extinct. 

Every Brilliant Thing

  Using my introduction to Destination Theatre as a reference to a pre-pandemic time, the theatre, meaning the artistic space and the physical one, and the concepts around what made theatre, well, theatre, were on the basis of humanity, connection and emotion; “Theatre can illuminate and stimulate mental and emotional activity, those primary targets of therapeutic intervention. In the arousal of emotion, theatre can coax us to empathically identify with others,” (Walsh 1). although the lack of an audience in Zoom/recorded performances removes the connection with the other human experiences. In many strides, as seen in Every Brilliant Thing, where we were expected to act as a community by behaving as individuals, and as Fişek writes, “this connection between transient feeling and communal belonging […] is interested in the progressive potential of theatre-making and theatregoing.” (Fişek 21) Theatregoing—may be a lost term, as it seems now it is more ‘theatreattending’. The pre-pandemic world understood that community is allowing for individuality, allowing a space for minorities, allowing for humanity. Although even in writing this, I can recognize that “often connected to the idea of public sphere, as well as the seeming unity of public opinion”, (Fişek 28) However, I believe this is the issue. Individuality has been removed from the concept of community, as if it has forgotten its core, and theatre will always remind us of what it means to be a true community—everyone coming togetherfrom different walks of life to perform and build further communities within the messages of their art. Upon my viewing of in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House performed by the Young Vic Theatre company, although I enjoyed the production, I missed the sounds of the audience—knowing everyone in the room felt the same, or differently than I did, “others invoke community as a moral imperative, a necessary strategy for enduring the alienating effects of modern life;” (Fişek 11) it began to feel like a movie, but all done in one take. “Theatre, like therapy, can prompt us to reflect upon our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours in the presence of others,” (Walsh, 1) and without this other presence, I am worried that the essence of temporary community within the theatre sphere will be extinct—the aspect of theatre that sits at its core.

Caroline Martin (Kristine) and Hattie Morahan (Nora) in ‘A Doll’s House’ performed at the Duke of York’s

            The pandemic limits the bounds of theatre, removing the theatre completely, and removes the voice of the individual therefore creating a lack in personal artistic opinion and expression. “Following this current pandemic, the world will certainly encounter systematic change and new technologies–what the political economist Joseph Schumpeter might have described as “creative destruction,” when new innovation disturbs the economic system and elicits deep-rooted” (Urkevich 1) For anyone to go against the mainstream ideologies is seen more as an act of rebellion, dividing our communities politically, than it would be an artistic statement. Lessening the voice of artistic expression, while taking away the actors’ medium—a live audience and a stage. 

Lockdown Theatre: Surprising Lessons in Collaboration

Entering this second half of Destination Theatre, I was very hesitant to engage with digital theatre.  Up until this course, my only experiences with virtual theatre had included recordings of previously performed shows and script readings over Zoom; while both of these formats have their benefits, as a stage manager by trade and a musical fanatic, I tend to watch shows for their big-budget technical design.  Given this prejudice, I was expecting the lockdown-adapted (and thus recorded from home) YouTube production of Athena Stevens’ Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels to resemble a shabbily-produced student virtual show, with dirty sheets hung up as backdrops and dialogue not actually lining up with the video.  However, from the very first episode, I found this show to be incredibly nuanced and intricately put together.  

Cover art for Athena Stevens’ Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels YouTube premiere.

            Produced and recorded entirely from within each of the actor’s homes, this show had extremely limited access to lighting and set resources.  Rather than a typical process of buying or borrowing set and props from other theatres or individuals, these scenes were put together using only what was already within each home.  This could not be more opposite from my experiences with set design, which often involved a director and myself sitting in a blank rehearsal room dreaming up a list of furniture or structures we would build or buy to dress up the stage as we liked.  Upon further reflection, I do not believe I have ever witnessed an actor giving input into set design.  In the live Press Night Q&A streamed on YouTube, Anna Reid (the Designer) reflects on the creativity required to create a realistic, aesthetic and thematically meaningful set using only the actors’ home and belongings. Allowing for this opportunity of actor involvement in set design is actually quite an important shift, especially in a show such as Late Night Staring that takes place within the characters’ respective homes. 

In the same Press Night event, Evelyn Lockley describes how analyzing her home for recording actually elicited feelings of insecurity during the rehearsal process very similar to that experienced by her character, 1, in this production. In Episode 19, 1 discusses the embarrassment and turmoil following her recent romantic struggles while angrily cleaning her toilet; the symmetry of her character exposing her feelings while Lockley herself exposes her bathroom (from an angle I certainly would not allow in my own home) is really intriguing. This collaborative approach to set design thus has positive influences on both the production value of the show as well as character development!

Evelyn Lockley in Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels (Episode 19: F king Fairytales).

Due to the complex involvement of the actors at every step of the design process and the thought given to every little element of the (many) different scenes and settings, this show has completely changed how I will approach creating and seeing theatre productions in the future.  In a post-Covid world, the framework provided by Late Night Staring regarding how to produce theatre from home and with a smaller budget will hopefully lead to the staging of previously unheard voices and stories in a more accessible way.

Press Night Q&A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzKl1E8aI8U&t=1685s
Finborough Theatre’s Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJsEylgsJCQ&list=PLtipa63U6G79XsOSPqR2V2yw2KBnOe-Ub

“Last Gasp WFH” and “I can’t breathe”: BLM and Politically Engaged Theatre

Given the preponderance of feminist discourses in our current political context (e.g. with the #MeToo movement), I was excited to watch Split Britches’ new digital performance “Last Gasp WFH” (which stands for Working From Home). Since 1980, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver of Split Britches, the lesbian-feminist performance troupe, have been creating politically engaged theatre. 

My excitement, however, was momentarily stalled. I was nervous this performance would be a product of white feminism, instead of inclusive intersectional feminism. This was an assumption on my part because Shaw and Weaver are in their 70s and were part of the explosion of second wave feminism, which took place between the 60s and 80s. I tend to associate second wave feminism with white feminism and its exclusion of women of colour and trans and non-binary women. Fortunately, I was able to push my biases and worries aside and muster up the courage to watch. And boy oh boy I was pleasantly surprised!

This past year has been fraught with political tensions, economic uncertainty, and other challenges brought about by the Covid-19 public health crisis. Amid lockdown and stay-at-home orders, people become more politically aware, realizing that modern racism does not look like Jim Crow-Era lynchings. In 2020, millions marched, risking their lives to give voice to the lives silenced by police brutality: lives like Ahmaud Arbery’s, Breonna Taylor’s, George Floyd’s, and the list goes on and on.

Screenshot from “Last Gasp WFH”

The Black Lives Matter movement bled into the art Shaw and Weaver were creating. In a New York Times article, Elisabeth Vincentelli says that the play’s title, “Last Gasp” became “premonitory” (2020). Vincentelli writes that the title initially referred to “Peggy saying it was going to be her last show, the last gasp of democracy” but the meaning compounded as the play came together “…in a pandemic, where you couldn’t breathe, and in a civil unrest that was symbolized by “I can’t breathe.” The “Last Gasp” weaves the Black Lives Matter movement into the performance. From a monologue about how popular 1950s singer Johnnie Ray’s “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” was written by Johnny Bragg, a black prisoner wrongfully accused and incarcerated, to a Black Lives Matter poster in a background shot, to Shaw recalling examples of racism in policing and the broader American penal system. In addition to the Black Lives Matter movements, the performance addresses queerness, gun laws in the United States, and the systemic problems of incarceration. During my viewing, a pivotal moment for me was when Peggy Shaw asserted that prisons should be colleges. 

This digital performance is a timely, powerful, and politically engaged theatre production. As I said earlier, I was pleasantly surprised by this performance. It intersected queerness with feminism, race, and gender to become “among the most evocative art to emerge from the Covid era” (Vincentelli). I cannot imagine “Last Gasp WFH” taking place live and in-person and not during the pandemic and explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. I am so happy I never have to.