Performers on Lockdown Turn to Their Smartphones – The New Yorker

Posted: April 9, 2020 at 12:42 pm


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Nine days, which feel like nine weeks, have gone by, as of this writing, since Broadway went dark and New Yorks theatres closed their doors. By the time you read this, it may well feel like nine years. The suddenness with which the citys performance ecosystem has vanished defies comprehensionits as if the Great Barrier Reef had died overnight. Grasping for comparison, we have to look well beyond the proximate disasters of Hurricane Sandy and 9/11, when, ultimately, the shows went resolutely on. Theres been some optimistic speculation online as to whether Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine when the plague forced the Globe to close, in the summer of 1606. (A comforting thought, if you happen to be both a genius and good at focussing in times of existential crisis.) During the Second World War, London initially shut its theatres and cinemasa masterstroke of unimaginative stupidity, George Bernard Shaw called the decisiononly to reopen many of them when it became clear that morale needed boosting. But keeping calm and carrying on is not in the pandemic playbook. We are our own threat. The enemy is within.

Whats immediately apparent, in a suddenly theatreless world, is how difficult theatre is to replace. The mechanismbodies doing things in front of other bodiesis too basic. (Or bodies cavorting with other bodies, as the case may be; among this seasons now suspended offerings was Taylor Macs new play, The Fre, in which the audience was seated in a ball pit.) You can tape theatre and stream it, for which I am hugely grateful, not least because it gives more people access to shows. But what you watch through this method is inevitably only a facsimile of the real thing. Its like eating a food that you can smell but not taste.

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I hope it doesnt sound too prematurely elegiac to say that one of the things I miss about going to the theatre is the going: leaving home, travelling, with a sense of purpose, to a specific place at an appointed hour. I miss threading my way through the obstacle course of Times Square, secretly proud of my agility. And I miss being part of an audience, one soul among many. I even miss the reliable, infuriating madness of other people. Dear Elderly Sir, who inexplicably texted throughout Greater Clements: I may not think highly of you personally, but I hope youre doing all right. Dear Madam, whose chromatic, flutelike snoring during the first act of The Ferryman led to an intra-aisle shushing war the likes of which I have never heard before or since: my best wishes to you. To the tweens who packed together in a line around the block, just before the advent of social distancing, for a preview of Six: your energy was infectious, I hope only in the figurative sense. Please stay home.

Theatre artists and technicians are out of work right now, which spells terrible anxiety and financial distress. It also means that creative people are trying to find creative things to do. If there is one silver lining to this crisis, its that it hit in the age of the smartphone, when performance is everywhere. So we find our perspective shifted. The ratio is now one to one: me watching you, my screen to yours. Glamour? Mystique? Polish? Shine? No, no, no, and no. But who needs them? This is a time for the curtain to be pulled back.

Instagram Live, previously a place for celebrities to offer the public slick glimpses into their worlds, has been repurposed as a cabaret, abuzz with performing artists doing what they can for us from their living rooms. Patti Smith and her daughter Jesse Paris Smith squeezed together to serenade their followers through the screen. The sublime jazz singer Ccile McLorin Salvant, with Sullivan Fortner on the piano, gave an impromptu concert; it looked as though the pair were performing for their own pleasure, which, in turn, bolstered ours. Rosie ODonnell raised money for the Actors Fund by chatting, via video stream, with other performers, including Cynthia Erivo, Patti LuPone, Idina Menzel, and Chita Rivera. LuPone showed off her jukebox. Andrew Lloyd Webber sang Happy Birthday to Stephen Sondheim; Stephen Sondheim sang Happy Birthday to Andrew Lloyd Webber while vigorously washing his hands. Alan Menken, at a piano stationed in front of a grandfather clock, performed a career-skimming medley that ended, on the nose, with A Whole New World, from Aladdin. The lighting was reassuringly awful. Watching these bits was like getting stuck on a FaceTime call between the famous: cute at first, then a little boring, but endearingly nerdy, with Channel Thirteen fund-raiser-style energy.

It must be hard to make original work under these conditions of general menace, but some performers are persevering. The best Ive seen in the past week was produced by the 24 Hour Plays, an organization whose regular stunt involves putting together plays and musicals that are written, rehearsed, and performed in the space of a single day. On Instagram, the group has been hosting a series of viral monologues: new, very short pieces that were commissioned from homebound playwrights and performed by homebound actors. The first installment, still available for viewing, was posted on March 17th. No surprise that the subject most on the minds of the playwrights was disaster. In a monologue by Lily Padilla, Marin Ireland, playing a dissolute young teacher, delivers, directly into a phone camera, what we soon realize is an application to be abducted by extraterrestrials. Shes ready to be beamed up and away from this cursed planet, but the question is whether the aliens will have her. What I would contribute to your galaxy? she asks, chewing her lip. Well... I am enthusiastic. And I... think thats an important quality on any team. In just four minutes, Ireland, with her big, distant, unreadable eyes and expressive mouth, sketches a portrait of a woman who wants nothing more than to trade in her known life and surrender to the intoxicating unknown. Honestly, Im afraid the world is burning, she says. And its not that Im afraid of dying or even catching fire. I just dont want to watch.

Part of the pleasure of the 24 Hour viral monologues lies in seeing what actors do when left to their own devices, far from the smoothing, sculpting hand of a director. The selfie-video format has the feel of an audition tape, an allusion that the great Richard Kind makes explicit in a quick, clever monologue by Jesse Eisenberg, in which Kind asks Hollywood to cast him against type, for once, as a Gentile. In a piece by Stephen Adly Guirgis called L.A.Yoga Motherfuckers, Andre Royo sits in a car and launches into a disgruntled, hilariously unhinged rant about civility and these Bernie bros and their Bernie hos, who appear to have chased him out of a yoga class after he expressed support for Joe Biden. A coronavirus joke falls flat, but its good to see playwrights bringing new characters into the world to respond, in the moment, to the same things that were responding to. Free from motive, free of the harness of plot, they flicker briefly alive to share these strange times with us and then disappear, but not without leaving a mysterious, human trace.

In good times, we want performance to shake us and stir us, to horrify or delight, to rouse, to make us feel strong things. Daily living can dull the senses (including the moral one), and we ask the theatre to help us sharpen them again. But in a time of fear and strained feeling, when we are thinking non-stop about our welfare and its connection to other people, its comfort that we want. Thats why, while watching the 24 Hour viral monologues, I thought of one of my preferred forms of digital direct address, the soft-spoken parallel universe of the Internet genre called ASMR.

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Performers on Lockdown Turn to Their Smartphones - The New Yorker

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April 9th, 2020 at 12:42 pm

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