Covid-19 has reshaped the way actors express themselves and the way audiences experience and receive live performances.
What was thought to go away in a couple weeks, in the months of March and April 2020, an unheard of virus completely disrupted every rehearsal room and live show, which in turn grounded every performer and entertainment company to an unexpected halt.
After the blow of it all, creatives slowly found themselves gravitating towards technology to connect with their audiences, which unexpectedly came through for them in unique, and quite positive and enriching ways.
Whether it was to simply keep human contact alive, read plays together, brainstorm ideas (and once those ideas were sourced and deliberated on, they were executed and presented on the very same platform) for their audiences, family and friends, albeit predominantly from home due to restrictions and national lockdowns globally.
Over a year later, we now see theatres, creatives and performers slowly planning an in-person return this summer and autumn, with social distancing measures in place.
Last week, I was invited to see a first rehearsed reading on stage at London’s Almeida Theatre in Islington, and it was the most exhilarating experience, to say the least. To be in the room again and to take it all in as well as observe others take it all in, was certainly like a recalibrated, cleansed palate experiencing taste for the first time again.
An even more crucial point in the evening was the post-show discussion with the panel of artists and the socially-distanced audience questioning and discussing our humanity, and what the play meant to everyone individually. There were moments and minutes when the entire room just sat in silence taking in what was said. You could sense the unease of certain topics and subject matters, the shuffling of discomfort, as well as some feeling the relief and ease to express how they were digesting what they just had witnessed on stage.
When talking to audiences who have seen shows online this past year, some of the feedback of the digital experience included comments like, "It somehow lacked the eeriness of being in the physical presence of the art for me!".
Others shared, "I felt disconnected at moments because ultimately the screen reminded me it was a virtual experience and I wasn't in the room with the others to feel the tangible things you feel when you're in the room. But I must say in the stage productions that were filmed specifically for online viewers, the camera made me feel welcomed and in the room".
What we now know is that the uncertainty of the past year has changed the way creatives, performers and performance companies approach their craft. What is even more striking is the change in the way we all have had to relate to our audiences.
Take my very first performance of this year in January, Borders and Crossings, written by Nigerian playwright Inua Ellams and directed by Bijan Sheibani for Under The Radar Festival. Produced by the Public Theater New York and the UK’s Fuel Theatre, it was technically brought to you through my laptop, the hand delivered ring light, studio and mic setup, in my shared sitting space within my small London flat in the midst of a harsh winter. We were given the freedom to choose our wardrobe and do our own hair and makeup, which was a fun experience in itself, given I got to dress my own character, for once.
My fellow actor, Sope Dirisu, in the Borders and Crossings performance was also in his flat on the other side of London; and yet the audiences around the globe experienced our unique rapport and story-telling, making them feel like they were right there, in the same room with us, sat right next to each other escaping from Eritrea by foot and then managing to get on a lorry through the Sudan desert to Libya, followed by another journey on a boat to Lampedusa, Italy.
If you saw the performance, you would have seen that our characters made new friends on their journey for a better life, friends from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Syria. They also sadly lost some friends to the sea or as they called it, the “blue desert”.
Every night, after every performance, we held a live Q&A with audiences that hailed to be tuning in from New York, Medellin, London, Dublin, Glasgow, Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, Asmara, Lagos, Beirut, Dubai, Hanoi, Istanbul, Berlin, Madrid, among many more cities worldwide with such emotionally filled reactions, responses and feedback.
Who would have thought a performer can reach an audience from their home, in fact every continent? Is this what a digital platform can provide for the experience of the performance arts? No one had to book a flight and come to the US to watch our show, they only needed access to the internet with a free Zoom account to connect to the live-stream. How did that feel for the audience member, in place of an in-person attendance?
The overall sentiment appeared to be one of gratitude. Audience members were grateful for access but agreed it did not replace the visceral experience of a live performance.
What about the actor? The creative? The performer? What does it feel like not having their audience there with them in-person? Experiencing and feeling their energy, tics, and reactions?
After speaking with many fellow performers, writers, directors, and producers around the world, it appears that they agree the physical presence of a live show cannot be replaced. Yet it still has somehow provided a sharing of stories as well as a way of continued living with purpose, and making ends meet.
Many artists shared the curiosity of simply wanting to know to what extent new ways of performing will remain - for both performers and audiences - after the pandemic.
What enhanced it even more was artists continuously inspiring and supporting each other.
One wonderful artist I met (just after the second national lockdown was easing up again) was international award-winning, South African rising star Kgole Giggs. His poetic pieces of art really showed me the essence of the adversities we face right now around the world.
“The world slowing down has allowed me to reflect more on where I come from in order to understand more where I would love to see myself and work this coming decade,” he said.
Our serendipitous meeting happened thanks to Signature African Art gallery, which was exhibiting his work at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair and we are now in the works of putting an original collaboration together towards the end of the year.
One thing artistic directors and producers shared with me is that now a lot of time is saved not having to fly artists in, which additionally meant there were less scheduling conflicts. Many producers I spoke to really like the idea of now being able to extend access to everyone that may not be able to attend a show in-person and can then watch it online and also pay less for a ticket.
Technology is certainly here to stay and evolve. As a result of the global restrictions over the past year, there has been a push to think outside the box and try new things. However, does this new channel have longevity in the years to come?
These new forms of live shows and performances the pandemic has given birth to has allowed audiences to continue to engage with performers; however the majority agree if you can be in the room, go! The adrenaline, anticipation, affection, the community and engagement we all receive from being together in-flesh appears to be irreplaceable.
Either way, what is a performer without its audience? And is not the audience non-existent without the performer?
Hope is perhaps the ultimate resource of what keeps us all going during these strange times.
I leave you with Joy Williams’ beautiful words expressing the world’s never ending hunger for the performing arts:
Hungry, I come to you
For I know You satisfy
I am empty but I know
Your love does not run dry
So I wait for You
So I wait for You
I'm falling on my knees
Offering all of me
You're all this heart
Is living for
Broken, I run to You
For Your arms are open wide
I am weary but I know
Your touch restores my life.