Rabbit Holes in a Virtual Maze

We’re entering our first week of full on teaching on Zoom and here are some of the aftereffects. Any teacher whose teaching on line trial by fire week coincided with Spring Break’s start knows that we had a week to flounder around on the interwebs and try to convince everyone that we can be masters of the pedagogical online universe. There are people who do this for a living and are quite good at it. Then there are those of us who teach theatre, the foundation of which is being in the room, performer and audience, sharing an experience that shimmers across space. I hate to break it to you, but there’s nothing liminal about the experience of teaching online, no matter how successful the technology is at making you feel like “you are there.”

Here are some early findings (anecdotal and enormously unscientific, but personal to this subject.) Again, I’ve really enjoyed my time as a teacher and colleague so on my way out…

I had two production meetings yesterday. There were tops 20 people in each of the “rooms.” NB: we are not in the room together, as much as we want to convince ourselves that we are.

  • My internet connection was unstable. How did I know this? Because everytime I spoke, someone would follow by saying things like “We can’t hear you, Els,” or “You sound like you are in the bottom of a large well.” “Try turning your camera off to improve your connection.” I resorted to chatting with them in the chat, fingers flying like a fiend, my heart racing about my connectivity in conducting a class with 96, only a week away.
  • Even with my poor internet speed, the skepticism of the students about what we were doing moving forward to complete our classes this semester was vividly clear. They weren’t buying it.

Faculty are working to invent things to stay the course in this unknown abyss of online instruction. We spend huge portions of the day sharing ideas with our colleagues and reworking amended syllabi that will reflect those ideas. But basically, we’re making it up and the back and forth and to and fro with colleagues takes hours and is exhausting. Yesterday I spent from 8:30AM until 11:30PM online with a brief venture outside for two and a half hours of driving things around town for our mask project. Its’s not the students’ fault that we are here. It’s not the faculty’s fault. And as much as the president wants to lower his xenophobic disdain on the bat guano in China to whom we may owe this pandemic, it’s not China’s fault either. Globally, we were not prepared. And as it gets more and more real, and closer to home, we all feel the anxiety.

When I finally went to bed last night, my body was quivering to the point that I started asking myself if I had the CV. But no, I think I was just in a state of exhaustion, over-stimulated by the screen and being “on” all day. This after one day back from Spring Break. We know from research that exposure to screens and the blue light can be disruptive to sleep. What are the effects of spending the entire day glued to our monitors with only brief moments of respite to walk 100 feet to the refrigerator? (A well worn track in my living room carpet shows me that I need to broaden my route.)

This morning, I woke at 3:00AM, fixated on the green light from my smoke detector, which from the position on my right side where I was lying, was in the upper left corner of my “screen.” Panicked, I thought it was the recording light of the class and that someone was trying to chat a question. I found myself fully alert, pawing at the adjustable bed remote on my nightstand, thinking it was a mouse on a pad. Funny? Yes, but a little terrifying, too.

These are not the behaviors of your professor that you may want to see reported, but face it, we’re all lab rats in a great societal study.

Over the weekend, I took solace in the online fundraiser for Actors Fund, Stars in the House, a twice-a-day house party with Broadway’s finest, co-hosted by the charmingly snarky Seth Rudetsky, star of Sirius/XM Radio’s On Broadway. He and his partner, James Wesley, can be found at their kitchen table twice a day, at 2PM and 8PM Eastern Time, luring Broadway stars to their desktops to share their talents over the questionable microphones that we all are experiencing. Amazing interviews peppered with stories of the shows they’ve done over the years and songs performed to tracks or the live accompaniment of their partners. If I could sing like some of their guests, I’d be doing it rather than chatting feverishly in my chat box. (Remove the h and we are in a cat box.)

Please forgive the screed. We are all in the same situation, students and faculty. Stuck at home, far from their friends, in their childhood bedroom which may or may not have been converted into a craft space in their absence, we are aliens in this brave new world of internet pedagogy. Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that this is not where we belong. Any of us. Students of the theatre, or practitioners/professors of the theatre practice.

Take some deep breaths. Lower your shoulders. Put on your meditation app. Or better yet, don’t. Stand up and go to the nearest window and look outside at the Real World. What do you see? Breathe. Breathe again. And remember. What we do is improvise. Think outside the box. Refine and refine and refine until we get it right.

Conditions are currently not ideal. Let me say that again. Conditions are currently not ideal. And I’d warrant may not be so for some time. This is what theatre people do all day. we deal with uncertainty. Budgets are uncertain and frequently we need to adapt designs to fit into them. We adapt. It’s our greatest weapon.

Take a moment to acknowledge that despite the reassurances, our future is uncertain. I had a text from some dear friends yesterday that I shouldn’t answer because I was driving all over hell and back in my car, but it was simple:

Is there a daily limit on Rabbit Holes?

Not these days!

I then referenced the brilliant Liz Callaway. If you don’t know her Auto Tunes series, go to her website and check them out. I can’t think of a better accompaniment to these times than her car bound rendition of “Children Will Listen.”

These are things that keep me awake these days besides the blue light or the green lights of my bedroom. What does the future for our industry look like? Will we ever feel comfortable sitting elbow to elbow in the dark sharing the magical liminal space between audience and performer? What about our homey practice of greeting our theatrical colleagues with a warm hug? Will we even need the services of the new field of Intimacy Coordinator in a post COVID-19 theatrical world?

Wow. Talk about a Rabbit Hole.

Okay, rather than going to go out on a complete downer, I’ll let Liz take us out on this more hopeful note with her rendition of Beautiful City from Godspell. Check out the amazing synchronicity of the ambulance driving by at the end. As she says, “Wow.”

Let’s adapt and bring a spirit of generosity to the work that we find ourselves doing, unwillingly. Remember that each of those students and faculty members that you find yourself gazing at through the window on your laptop are characters in a play that they didn’t want to be cast in. It’s the actors’ nightmare writ large. Let’s guide each other to find our way back on stage together.

4 Replies to “Rabbit Holes in a Virtual Maze”

  1. Els! These posts keep getting deeper and more profound. Thank you so much. I love Liz Callaway, seeing her in a cabaret club is the best!

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