COVID-19 has not been all bad news for the theatre industry. At the risk of toxic positivity, good things are happening. Good things, that if it weren’t for COVID-19, might not be happening in the same way, if at all.
One good of this quarantine situation is that suddenly, in an odd way, theatre is more accessible than ever. Taped productions that, to many of us, had been inaccessible due to distance or expense are suddenly being offered on YouTube, BroadwayHD, or Disney+. Many corporate training events, virtual classrooms, and community town hall conversations have been enlivened by professional actors performing a customized comedy or drama tailored specifically for that context. Most importantly, we are in the midst of a profound opportunity to stop and look at our industry together from a systemic perspective and see which practices are working and which practices need to be jettisoned so that we can all reach new heights and move into a better and more colorful future.
The Zoombie Apocalypse
Though the ‘Zoombie Apocalypse‘ might be upon us, in 2020 live theatre isn’t dead. The feeling of belonging and communal excitement that comes from being a member of a united audience remains hardwired into our DNA. No virus or pandemic can steal that from our human experience. There’s a power and excitement to the collective experience of a live performance that the screen just cannot capture, no matter how many channels of audio are applied or how high the screen resolution. I used to think this is because of the skill and talent of the performers, or the power of the writing itself, but lately I wonder if it has more to do with the power we feel in ourselves when we are a member of an audience, or crowd, or party of people united by looking and listening in the same direction for a few hours. I think the future is bright for the performing arts, because during COVID-19 we’ve felt the void they’ve left in our shared cultural experience, and even more in our individualized craving for community.
Given the inherent instability of the theatre business, any theatre professional learns to be ready to “yes, and” any situation, even when the world suddenly says “no, hold please.” In March, when the commission arose that led to LAG: A Zoomsical Comedy, our artistic director (Ariel Fristoe of Out of Hand Theater in Atlanta, GA) had just cancelled the remainder of our live season. She knew we needed to both pivot and keep creating, but how? We had a lot of ideas about how, but nobody on our team knew exactly what final form this piece would take, or exactly how we would pull it off. Everything was changing so quickly, and we realized that we had to give up trying to create something with a long shelf life and, instead, concentrate our creativity on what we were experiencing in that moment. Working this way, with an unwavering focus on “right now” made any thoughts and hopes of what we might be doing by autumn seem like something we’d have to deal with when autumn came around. Now, as the colors of autumn shift into view, the same hopes and thoughts remain, that someday we’ll have our live audience back, that our industry will have taken this time to evolve, and be better than ever, and sooner than later.
On May 30th, Out of Hand premiered LAG, an original zoomsical. For anyone hearing this term for the first time, a zoomsical, broadly speaking, is a comedy or drama in which singing plays an essential part, and is filmed and/or presented utilizing video conferencing software, most often, Zoom. In my favorite zoomsicals so far, the constraints and realities of interacting virtually are an important part of the story. In other words, the audience is watching characters who are faced with life together online, in one way or another. Unlike other forms of screened entertainment we’ve been seeing this year, the zoomsical, because it blends a story with singing, spoken dialogue with lyrics, and actors silent reactions with underscore, has a unique ability to reflect the unrequited desires for contact — and the strange new opportunities for connection! — that so many of us have encountered in the “Zoomification” of life in 2020.
It’s my great hope that one day, LAG: A Zoomsical Comedy will be performed on stage, for a live audience. Until then, it’s alive today as something new, something in between stage and screen, an indie short film comedy that is being offered for your own socially distanced production through theatrical licensing. Another good thing, that if it weren’t for COVID-19, might not be happening in the same way, if at all.