So reads the headline of a recent article by Jon Pareles, entertainment writer for the New York Times. Pareles states that “art isn’t just the documentation of a physical feat. Artists construct their own unreal worlds: strange, gorgeous, eccentric, sometimes overwhelming illusions. Too many live-streams are strictly earthbound. Live-streaming lone performers at home adds up to claustrophobia instead of intimacy. This act of public performance, which once conveyed sharing and emotional communion, projects isolation and limitation instead.”
“Theatre exists in the coming together to share air, the ritual of real life, ephemeral and transitory, with the very real possibility that something totally transforming will reveal itself.”
So says Christian Penny, former head of the New Zealand National Drama School who was the head of the directing program while I attended graduate school at this institution. This has been the mantra of Piknik Theatre since its inception in 2008 and I think it applies to live performance of every stripe. “We’re all in the room and the same air molecules are vibrating,” is how Pareles describes this vital element of live performance. We can come up with arcane and technological wizardry to allow performers in various locations to bring something approximating live performances to the virtual environment but without an audience sharing the same air, feeling the same vibrating molecules with performers, it’s just like watching the new baseball season on television that’s taking place in empty stadiums.
It’s a bleak time for audiences and an even bleaker time for the artists themselves. When unemployment and payroll protection benefits run out, these folks will be out of income for the foreseeable future. Some may be able to teach (although why anyone would want to prepare for a career in the performing arts at this time is cause to question their sanity; might as well major in Latin). But most will be looking for new careers. Professional theatres will not be opening until 2021 at the earliest. If the American COVID response has taught us anything, it’s taught us that no one has all the answers. The best scientists practice humility about expectations for treatments, long and short term symptoms, effective preventative measures and the ability of a vaccine to create some sort of protection. The best options today are wearing face coverings and avoiding people indoors. That pretty much rules out most of the performing arts that have been scheduled in the last few hundred years.
There’s resignation in the binary thinking that theatre and the performing arts are either the same old, same old; or nothing. It relieves us of the responsibility to find new and unique ways to communicate and create the imaginative illusions that inspire (“breathe in”) us all. But time has demonstrated that artists are driven if nothing else. There is a once-fringe-now-mainstream theatre company called Complicite that has begun exploring, according to their website, “visually rich stage language, which layers physically beautiful performances and tightly choreographed ensemble work with innovative lighting, sound and video design.” I was fortunate to stumble onto a production they did for a National Theatre (UK) fundraiser: The Encounter. Here is a piece of work – years in the development – that takes sound design in performance to a new level. The story behind the production is nothing extraordinary: man goes into the remote jungles of the Amazon to connect and photograph a tribe that had little or no contact with the outside world. But the way Simon McBurney (Complicite Artistic Director and sole performer in the piece) uses sound and technology to bring the listener, the audience, into the story is spellbinding. We feel and hear the jungle in a very visceral way. We connect to the protagonist and the members of the tribe he encounters at a really primal level. Just by the sounds created.
We don’t need a stage to create sounds. Or a live audience; the audience for this production was all equipped with headphones so each person was lost in their own world of sound and experience. You could be visually impaired and still find yourself immersed in the experience of the story. Before the age of television, audiences would glue themselves to the radio in the evening. One Sunday evening, October 30, 1938, millions of Americans tuned in to a seemingly bland broadcast of dance music when the radio announcer interrupted with the news that large explosions on the planet Mars were shortly followed by the landings of alien spacecraft across the country who were inflicting poisonous gas attacks on unsuspecting innocent victims.
Listeners went ballistic and panicked by the thousands (although how many thousands actually believed the fake broadcast is disputed) and this production of War of the Worlds by Orson Welles Mercury Theatre is considered a benchmark of the impact that the medium of radio could have upon a willing audience. All theatre depends upon the willing suspension of disbelief by an audience (do we really think Romeo poisons himself or that Juliet takes his dagger and ends her own life?), and radio or audio performances can play upon our imaginations as powerfully as any other medium. Most importantly, it is a medium that works in the age of pandemic. We’re not able to share air, or experience the vibration air molecules on any other part of our bodies except our ears. But oh how powerful our audio imagination can be when we have little other stimulation from our other senses.
There is still no COVID vaccine, and every close personal encounter is a risk — particularly indoors, where breath is expended on acting, singing, and playing instruments. Curiously, the invading Martians in Welles’ radio broadcast were all overwhelmed by an earthborne virus for which they had no immunity. Piknik Theatre will be attempting to recreate the impact of War of the Worlds or The Encounter in the upcoming months with the premiere of an original audio work based upon Steamboat’s frontier beginnings. You’ll be able to strap on your headphones and hopefully find yourself in a new world of overwhelming illusion that is so critical to the art of performance. Because we are artists, after all, and we are driven to create.