This week was instructive in so many ways. It allowed me to practice some new tools gained from the training I’ve been doing. I wanted to share the nitty gritty with you about what started out the week as a potential failure and which I turned into a gift.

I’m coming up on the second anniversary of the loss of my husband. The week before had been the one year anniversary of the loss of a dear friend’s husband, and somewhat confidently, I’d shared with him that the second year was easier than the first. I think I can still say with some shred of credibility that that statement is true. However, this week, I ran smack up against the corollary that grieving is an ongoing process, and just when you’re feeling like you’ve got it handled, it comes up and flings an icy bucket in your face.

Two years ago, as I was assisting Jimmie to the ultimate finish line, my colleague Oliver stepped in to teach my GESM course which is entitled Theatre Scene. We’d been gearing ourselves to the final project, and Oliver came in as a Professor of Playwriting and introduced the class to Tennessee Williams, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, expressly this quote:

“…The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from ‘pat’ conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience.”

Tennessee Williams, The Cat On a hot tin roof

Back in 2018, I incorporated this discussion into the final paper project and have since then utilized it as a screen through which the students can process their experiences of the plays we’ve read and seen. This semester affords an even more powerful use of this quote. This semester, I decided to have the students read the entire play, watch the movie and a stage version of the play available online, and came in this last Tuesday to discuss both. I’d struggled with preparing my lecture, and found I was really having so much trouble putting my thoughts together. Finally, moments before the class met on Tuesday, I realized that what was impeding my organization was pure and simple grief. The focus on this assignment transported me in time to the events which had necessitated it; I suddenly found myself in a ditch about my personal loss which in turn crippled my prep for the class. I debated whether to tell the students about the metaphoric flat tire I’d gotten on the way to class but with twenty minutes at the end of the class unfilled, I decided I’d be straight up about it and we ended up watching 20 minutes of a film instead.

Cut to late Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning, as I grappled with constructing the second lecture of the week. I sat and looked at the obstacles, and suddenly the answer to my teaching block was obvious. Rather than avoiding the grief around my husband’s death, I thought “What knowledge would I need to gain so that the payoff in the future could be much larger than what this is costing me now?” It was suddenly so obvious. Jimmie himself could provide me with a portal into that time, with his first hand experience as an actor in Greenwich Village in the 50s. I embraced him, pulling his book down from the book shelf and reviewing his legacy in the off Broadway theatre movement, his presence in the period of time when Williams was grappling with how to talk about Brick’s sexuality as not being the central topic of the play. And I did what any self-respecting academic in crisis does – I went to the library. (Virtually of course). There, I encountered an article by John S. Bak which afforded a strong tie in to last week’s module on Censorship and Funding.

“sneakin’ and spyin'” from Broadway to the Beltway: Cold War
Masculinity, Brick, and Homosexual Existentialism

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press
For additional information about this article
[ Access provided at 1 Nov 2020 19:02 GMT from University Of Southern California ]

Then, armed with an excellent documentary about Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller entitled American Masters: None without Sin: Part I, I was ready to go to have a conversation about William’s reasons for obscuring Brick’s sexuality by contextualizing the play as a product of the Cold War and the intimidation tactics of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Had I not listened to the inner critic who was lambasting me for my weakness and lack of preparation, I might not have embraced the wealth of experience of my husband in this relevant world and the directional arrows he was pointing for me to prepare for Thursday.

I had my cake and ate it too, this week.

Outside of classes, this eleventh week I didn’t have tech and so was able to fill my evenings with some extra curricular theatrical outings. I “attended” a performance of Scenes from Metamorphosis by Mary Zimmerman at Occidental College, and beamed myself over to Northern Ireland to attend the Big Telly/Creation Theatre production of Macbeth. Last night, I jetted in to the Digital Theatre space of Center Theatre Group to watch performance artist Kristina Wong’s play, Kristina Wong for Public Office. Today I did a double header, attending two work light rehearsals for our upcoming MFA Y3 Rep shows, Motherf**ker with The Hat and Pipeline, both in a simple zoom meeting format.

On the one hand, the first three were research outings, to assess the technical accomplishments of a newly conceived workforce of theatre practitioners who have overcome challenges to present theatre productions to a virtual audience. I’ve gotten quite opinionated over the last several months, as I watch what “works” and what doesn’t in the use of various tools. Here’s my takeaway.

At the risk of offending and with apologies ahead….Unifying backgrounds so that actors can be “blocked” to speak together has the effect of distancing me from the play and the experience. I look at what is essentially a technological gimmick and I find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s a really cool picture,” but I’m no longer listening to the story of the play, mesmerized instead by the technique. I’ve left the world of the play no matter how stunning the visuals are. I think it tends to take the actors out of the play, too. One of my colleagues has been lamenting this fact recently, and it wasn’t until I saw these five shows this week that I began to cement in my mind what it is that I’m seeking from a digital experience.

With the Kristina Wong experience, watching a solo performance beamed from an empty theatre also didn’t transport me in the way I’ve sought. No matter how inventive the camera work is, the magic sauce was missing:

Engagement and interaction. It’s what we’re all seeking from our individual or familial bubbles of isolation. The only way to get there is for the actors to go really deep in the right material and offer up their souls for us to witness; this is what happened for me both in Macbeth and in the two work light plays. This is a possibility with well trained actors with experience. It is much harder for students in the middle of acting training to accomplish. When two actors are supposed to be “in the same room” (when we all know they are not), what becomes less important is what the background tells us and what their connection with each other is. The power of the form – camera right there in their faces- allows us to witness their impact on each other like the brush of an angel’s wing on our brains and hearts. But metaphors aside, by committing to their character’s journey and truth, we feel it just as powerfully as if we were watching them in the physical space of a theatre. Maybe more so. Again, the caveat here is that actors need to have significant experience on stage to be able to master the zoom framework.

Apart from excellent acting, the other signal of success is audience engagement and the anticipatory event that theatre delivers. In the olden days (i.e., before last February), everything leading up to the event prepared me for the specialness of the theatrical event. Going online and purchasing the ticket – typing my sixteen digits credit card number, the expiration date, the CVV code. Receiving the acknowledgement email thanking me for my patronage. Printing that out and folding the printout and slipping it into my wallet so that every time I had a cash transaction over the days between purchase and the show, it peeked out at me and said, “Your theatre date is coming up! Here I am, your ticket!” The day arrived, I got into my car, most likely scurrying away from my job late, driving across town to the theatre, grabbing a bite to eat or forgoing food for the solace that a good theatrical experience delivers. I parked, walked up to the theatre, showed the usher my ticket, was handed a program, and sat in my seat as the lights around me dimmed. There was a collective frisson of breathless anticipation (my favorite moment of any theatrical experience) and up came the lights on stage. We experienced that terrific equalizing moment together. In the next two hours or 90 minutes a powerful incubation of ideas and feelings, images and emotions happened to both actors and audience. The play ended, the lights came up and we were given the opportunity to applaud the actors who’d just entertained us. I turned to my left and right and saw exactly how what I’d just experienced had affected the others. On my way out, I clasped my folded program to take home to read and relish what I’d just seen. If it was really a good show, I would relish many moments of discovery about the play as I relived it over the next several days.

Some of those steps still exist in the digital theatre. But more common than feeling the security of the untorn tickets in my wallet, there is the nervous insecurity of wondering if I’ve calculated the time difference right, and “where’s the link?” and then, after logging in, “here I am in an anonymous space of passive viewing” – the fourth wall between myself and the actors is even more impenetrable than that between me and the other audience members who don’t exist in my experiential realm. And the icy feeling of isolation returning as I hit the “leave” button (Abbandona, coincidentally, in Italian, which seems far worse).

I’ve had two exceptions to that experience, and I think this is really why those two were so impactful. The Geffen Playhouse’s The Present, with the deft weaving of Helder Guimarães’ vulnerable story of how he as a young boy coped with quarantine resulted in that evening’s magical demonstration of his adeptness with cards. In this theatrical present, Helder shared his story and craft while engaging us as participants. We reveled in the pleasure of shared astonishment, giggled together with surprise and delight; I saw the show twice, the second where I was sealed off as a passive viewer, but while the tricks unfolded, I still shared the event via text with my brother and his wife, viewing and participating from their apartment fifteen miles away.

With the show in Northern Ireland, Macbeth, the word of mouth was amazing and I knew I was in for something really special. I booked my ticket, receiving the email that said I’d receive my link 30 minutes before the performance began. The 9:30PM UK time translated (I thought) to 2:30PM PDT. Hearty disagreement by my colleagues had me in a tizzy at 1:30 when I hadn’t received the link. But of course, at 2:00PM, the link arrived, the usual zoom instructions and then some additional titillating instructions.

  • Please ensure you have downloaded Zoom to your device If Zoom is already on your device, please ensure that you are running the latest version. 
  • Technical support will be available before and during the performance on telephone number here. Please do not reply to this email.
  • Please view the performance in SPEAKER VIEW and in FULL SCREEN.
  • For the optimum experience, we recommend that your CAMERA IS ON. Should you need to switch your camera off during the performance, you may do so. 
  • For archival purposes, this performance will be recorded. Please turn off your camera if you would prefer not to be included in the recording.
  • Oh and finally, please draw the curtains, dim the lights and lock the door. 

These last instructions gave me the same frisson that the tickets in my purse usually do. I thought that they were just a joke, but in fact when I tuned in, they did instruct us to draw the curtains and dim the lights. Several of my colleagues were in the audience and knowing a bit about the geography of the backstage of a webinar at this point, I appreciated that the audience members were all made “participants” in the webinar, and as such, we were “backstage” with the cast, able to watch them offstage as they made costume changes and returned as other characters. It was the virtual equivalent of seeing actors making changes “a vista” on stage in a live performance. Also, there were several points in the play when unsuspecting audience members were placed into the action, which was a delight. In the review, Ellen Lavelle quotes the Festival Director of the Belfast International Arts Festival (BIAF) Richard Wakely:

“Importantly, these productions are interactive, not passive. With that comes another layer of complexity in delivering a seamless production that is directed and performed remotely. It also demonstrates how much the storytelling medium has progressed in a relatively short space of time. In April and May, when the digital stage came to the fore, audiences were spectators consuming stories.

“However, now we’re seeing a shift in focus to a strategy that is aimed at ensuring the best elements of the theatrical experience – audience engagement and interaction – are reflected in new productions in this era of the digital stage and our socially distanced world.”

Richard Wakely, Festival Director BIAF

What is encouraging to see is the creativity of the human mind, the resiliency of the spirit and the inevitable presence of theatre artists finding solutions to the problems posed by the pandemic. We need to be patient with ourselves as we strive to do this well. There is much learning to be done about what is effective and what isn’t. But you will always be headed in the right direction if you bring your authentic experience to the forefront to share with generosity. This is the moment for us to stretch our capacities for adaptation and vulnerability.

And of course, we need to go vote. In the spirit of appreciating my students’ work, I attach some images from their Voting Stickers they designed for class earlier this semester:

Ron Vincent Aspuria III
Halle Thompson
Cole Dubrow

Scott Castillo
Gracie Flynn
Rylee Mora
Claudia Rodriguez

And a last invitation to share our student Production experiences, designed to engage and interact with their audiences. and the most recent one: which you can access here.

4 thoughts

  1. Els, this recent post really touched me very deeply. I’ve been saying that as long as I know that Gerda is a safe and content that I would be fine. Hasn’t worked that way…. Not getting easier and you put your finger right on it.

    Thanks, and love, Don

  2. Thanks, Don. Your situation may be harder than mine. I’m reading a book my brother gave me called “Life is in the Transitions:Mastering change at any age.” By Bruce Feiler. I am finding it very interesting and helpful. Thanks for reading and commenting.🥰

  3. You write so beautifully. My dad really appreciated your wisdom on grief as he navigates his new world. Hugs. Also, we too miss our theater dates. So, got dressed up, ate at the table, then sat in darkened room to watch “What the Constitution Means to Me” since we were going to see it in the theater. Felt almost…not quite, but closer to an experience…. love you Els. Stay safe (Covid, smoke, the fall of democracy…)

    1. Hi, Amy,
      Love that you got dressed up. I got dressed up today for the election, peeled the sticker I’d saved from my mail in ballot, and went to tech my two classes with it up on my shoulder so it showed in the camera. Loved What the Constitution Means to Me, but sat in the farthest house right seat when I went to see it. You guys stay safe as well. Gnawing on my knuckles tonight,

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