Thursday, May 21, 2020

Kathy Hsieh Reflects – Zoom Edition

Kathy Hsieh (John Ulman)

Kathy Hsieh is all things arts-related, really. She knows virtually anyone/everyone in the theater community (at minimum) and has headed up her own theater company (SIS Productions), written many plays, directed plays, acted in scores of productions on stage, and been an employee of the City of Seattle in the Office of Arts and Culture for 17 years!

She’s also a delightful and thoughtful conversationalist and a deep-thinker on subject matter. She has presented talks about aspects of arts-and-communities-of-color all over the world.

So, I thought it would be fascinating for me, and hopefully also for my readers, to discuss various aspects of the arts during COVID-time. We’re all going to be making huge changes in how, when, and where we experience the arts. None more particularly than theater, dance, and other live in-person events.

For our first conversation, we took on the explosion of theatrical events that are being presented either on Zoom or the free streaming opportunities from theaters like National Theatre Live, Lincoln Center, BroadwayHD, and local events (many on YouTube channels).

The question: Is it theater?

KH: Theater is its own experience and Zoom is its own. Film scripts (for instance) are very different from stage plays and you can’t take film and plop it on stage or vice versa. A lot of writers, when they’re writing, envision the arena it might be best done and the Zoom platform needs to be thought of as a specific place to write to and a way to take advantage of the unique aspects it provides.

My way of talking about this time – over the last couple of months… I’m an avid theater goer and see usually 150-200 shows a year, most of which are theater (performances). I’ve always done that my whole life – at least since high school. Watching theater, there’s something about being in the audience. There’s a palpable, visceral energy that you can feel in your gut. At a deep level where you know the performers, including people you never see, have worked together for weeks. And that energy they have on stage fills the entire venue – whether it’s a small or large house. And that energy they exude, we the audience feel. And we give that back whether we’re laughing or crying or you can hear a pin drop. The performers feel that back and forth of energy, the reciprocal exchange.

In the rehearsal room, you feel that energy, but you always know that something is missing, a final ingredient. When you add the audience, it’s the reciprocal back and forth that creates the wholistic magic of theater.

So how does that translate into the virtual realm? The reality, it doesn’t. Now we can’t gather and have that reciprocal energy exchange, which I believe is the heart of theater.

In the virtual realm, it’s hard to capture the same essence. What I think needs to happen is we need to realize that if it’s using Zoom or other online platform, we’re creating in a virtual way another form of art. A technological form of storytelling, but it’s not theater.

In this new realm, we shouldn’t be trying to emulate the theatrical standard, but create a new way of telling story. Some people will say “what about streaming?” like National Theatre Live does. In this stay-at-home time, I have appreciated that format, but it’s more of a documentation of theater. It’s still not the same experience of attending theater when you’re actually in the audience. I appreciate that documentation and have enjoyed the archival productions. It’s a way of seeing something (in London, as an example) I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise.

One (online) performance that was created that wasn’t trying to create theater, but used an online platform (in an excellent way), is Hershey Felder, who just did a benefit performance staged in his home in Italy. He set it up like the set of his play that he does about Irving Berlin.

He performed the whole (Irving Berlin) show, but working with his team, they took advantage of the platform. It was livestream but they intercut his live performance with video images that integrated different characters that he talks about. They were able to find archival videos and hear their voices, like (the singer) Ethel Waters singing an Irving Berlin song. It became a beautiful meld of live theater mixed with video. Out of all the things I’ve seen at this time, I appreciated this the most.

In the pre-show, Felder had Berlin’s family chat on screen from wherever they were in the world. It wasn’t trying to be theater, but it was using that platform for a new reality. In this way, it was different than what can work well in theater, and it’s an example. Some people are trying to emulate a live theatrical performance instead.

Danielle Mohlmann’s play Nexus is another innovation. (Note: Danielle Mohlmann, a local playwright, worked with several pairs of actors to perform her work on Zoom over the last weeks.) Two people who are sheltering in place do a play about two people who have a relationship over time. Actors in couples around the country, rehearsed and performed it on their own and each of them with a slightly different take. People ended up seeing it several times. Danielle asked people to keep their audio unmuted so the actors could hear if people were laughing or responding.

(There was an online NYC performance of) Significant Others, by Joshua Harmon. You could tell the actors tried desperately to connect with each other, but it’s not the same. Shows that are not meant for Zoom, you have to consider if it’s going to work. Solo shows are the most easily adaptable, but any two-person show, unless they build on the concept of two people who are sheltering in-person, will be difficult and I don’t think that works as well.

Whatever imagination can bring will create what can be done with the uniqueness of this platform. For instance, Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends is written for the audience going into different rooms so that eventually you get to see all the scenes. I can imagine someone writing a play and using zoom meeting rooms where individual actors are doing their monologue or scene and you rotate people through the rooms and then come back all together.

Where Zoom has more possibilities is where work can be workshopped, because we can’t rehearse and perform on stage. More theaters are doing readings. It’s still not ideal, but it’s provided a way to rehearse and hear the script out loud. That’s of huge value because new work development sometimes gets short shrift. We don’t always have a lot of time to rewrite and hear our scripts. It’s a good time for theater to use this time to build scripts for when theater reopens.

It seems to be more a meld of film acting, where the actor has to imagine the scene partner in their head, in order for an audience to believe that the actor is talking to someone in the same room.

Looking at what we can do now is going to get us farther than looking backwards. What is possible and what we can make now is what is going to create this new world. Artists are creative and I think there are whole worlds of possibilities that may come out that we haven’t even imagined yet.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a good blog. Would love to hear more. Do you have any thoughts on the current state of theater? Or anything else?


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