Performer Kimberley Twiner says that when live performance moves online, we lose something crucial
Xylitol doesn’t taste like sugar.
The inexplicable desire of the live performer is to be among other people. It’s about being in a community, about sharing. You can call all sorts of reasons why we’re driven to do it to the table– an urgency for story, the ego, the show pony, whatever – but fundamentally the live performer seeks an experience that is grounded in a physical connection between human beings.
It means risking vulnerability (which means the ability to be wounded). To perform live is to ask, will I be loved tonight, or will I be wounded? With live performance there is no mirror in which to see yourself: you don’t do it to contemplate your own reflection. Daringly, you let the audience reflect your offering.
The performer can feel when the human connection is strong and when it is more fragile. This feeling of human connection cannot be measured. It can’t be graphed or treated clinically. Live performance can only be caught in the pace of breath, the pit of the stomach, the melting of the heart, the twitch of irritation, the widened eyes, the upturned edges of the mouth – the wildness of the feeling body.
‘To be separated from a community, to be banned from human connection, is despair’
To put this wildness online is to decapitate the live performer. It separates the body and the mind. It puts the focus on the mind, the analytical side, the intellectual, the editor. It eliminates the physical practice of the artist that is grounded in the extra sense of feeling. (How long should I dance for? I will feel it out…) Putting us online cuts off the wildest part of ourselves: our arms, our feet, our legs, our pelvis, our heart, our genitals. The wilderness of the human body is lost.
To encourage artists to put their work online as if it requires no major gear change is an oversight. Behind the idea are good intentions, sure. But there is an unexpressed emotion behind the drive online: the real emotion of despair. To be separated from a community, to be banned from human connection, is despair. This despair is causing hasty gestures that may damage the performing arts more than help them.
When you work online, performance is curated, just as a Facebook account or Instagram account is curated. You have the awesome option of leaving out the iffy bits, the dodgy bits, the bits where that flicker of fear darts across your eyes. You get endless time to edit and re-record. You also get the option of turning off comments, to just put something out there and be unaffected by the responses. You can create the safest, most controlled mode of presentation.
But – newsflash! – performing is not safe, art is not safe. It’s full of risk. We go to watch humans engage in something dangerous! Opening night approaches and the safety net of that editor or curator begins to dissolve. It’s nerve wracking. You can curate and edit and curate and edit but you know that it’s time for you to be body-to-body in the room. The audience will be the judge.
Wishing you well, the editor watches from the outside. The audience is at the mercy of the performer’s presence, ready to feel moved. The performer has to be inside, to be with their show, the lines, the fellow actors: but also be completely outward, with the audience. This kind of inward-and-outward gymnastics could be called an actor’s presence and it’s goddamn riveting. Surely every acting teacher can agree that we are all in pursuit of some variation of ‘presence’. To be with the bodies in space sharing the commonality of the here and now.
In a performance, pushing the edges of that human connection and presence is play, just as there is play between the hinges of a door. Can I slam my audience tonight? Shall I gently close that moment? Will I sway rhythmically with them? Live performers are loved for their play because, in turn, it makes the audience playful. The audience becomes active in the practice of feeling. They are happy to be playing!
‘The performer has to be inside, to be with their show, the lines, the fellow actors: but also be completely outward, with the audience’
Humans are mysterious beings. As much as science may try to pin humans into boxes, there remains in live entertainment an inexplicable feeling that feeds the watcher. Science tells us it is co-regulation, which can explain how, when humans interact, they can adjust their emotions to support and regulate the environment. For example, a parent will regulate the emotions of an upset child this by being calm and soothing.
There are also mirror neurons: when you see someone performing a physical action, a part of your brain fires off as if you were doing that action yourself. So when an audience watches performance live, the audience becomes live too. The audience becomes the comedian, the dancer, the guitarist. They live another life.
When I watch someone online I watch them having an experience. The only person pushing the content along is the performer. My watching eyes and body have zero effect on the performer, or on the performance. I am not needed, an audience is not needed, for this event to occur.
I am reminded of my teacher saying to the class once: ‘If you do something onstage and feel it and the audience feels it then that is theatre. If you do something onstage and you don’t feel it but the audience feels it then that is theatre. If you do something onstage and feel it and the audience doesn’t feel it, that’s not theatre.’
Is this a tough approach? Not in my training. The theatre tradition I’ve trained in protests against a private experience: it thrives on the time shared by the collective. What can be achieved in this short time we have together? Without a doubt, live performance is up there with sports, religion and riots in how totally thrilling it can be to feel emotions collectively.
And this is the scary thing about the desperate mass jump towards making work online right now. The powers that be will see this. They will see that it is more economic. It’s easier. Wow, you can analyse it. It’s easier to count. It’s easier to pin down. The powers that be will say: so, why do we need a venue when people can do this in their own home? They will say, who got the most likes? They are worthy, let’s give them some grant money, they seem to have appeal. They will say, art can be online! Hooray! Finally, it’s obvious that those artists don’t actually need all the things they’ve been screaming for.
Online performance totally eliminates an embodied relationship, the chance for the body to be rocked, or to gasp when they see something. A video gallery tour totally robs someone of the embodied awe of the art piece. It appeals to the intellect, not the creative body.
‘I work in the field of clowning, and I see The Fool in all artists’
We see a complete halt in the entertainment industry, we see a push to generate online material (as if it’s some sort of easy leap). Do we then see a massive defunding of Australian performing arts organisations? That’s my paranoid side coming in. Is this a test to see where artists’ boundaries are? How willing are we to water down our most powerful medium?
But artists are naïve. And creative types, most of the time, are flexible, constantly ducking and weaving. I work in the field of clowning, and I see The Fool in all artists. They say, what happens if I stand on the edge of this cliff, with my bag packed and step off it? Live performance isn’t safe. Artists ask, for no gain other than sheer curiosity, what happens if I do this? What will my audience do? Will they gasp? Will they breathe in? Will they vomit? Will they heave? What bodily response do I want to elicit?
The circus performer asks, what if I climb to the top of this, then jump? The clown asks, what if I spend an entire hour trying to do this one menial task? The songwriter asks, what if I don’t speak this story, but sing it? And now in hopefulness, naivety, good will and with a tasty $1000 quick response grant, we are able to put our art online, despite ourselves and everything we’ve ever worked for.
Independent artists are rarely driven by financial incentives. They play with the edges because they are following a pleasure, a bliss or a feeling. It’s something they cannot get a feeling for until they face a live audience; afterwards they may edit their work based on what they learnt from that audience. We are in the practice of feeling together. Feeling is a two way street, a four way street, a bustling intersection. The very core of our work is collective. In doing so we risk people not feeling the same way, and we feel that in our dizzy gut.
Online work, a system based on non-embodied, curated and edited representation, is a one way dialogue with a passive viewer. There is no adjusting in the moment. There is no vulnerability. There is no co-regulation. There is no risk. There is no true human connection.
We have been duped into believing that these screens connect us more.
If we throw the deep importance of human connection away too hastily, the very soul of our art form is in danger. Do we value this ancient format, the ritual of storytelling in a community? Do we value this sharing?
Artists: stay true to your feelings. Is it something to not be seduced by a ‘pivot’? The lure of instantly translating your human practice into 2D is there right now, and feels like a premonition of an eerie future. As with Xylitol, it looks like a lolly, but it doesn’t have the taste of real sugar. And it probably won’t get you high.