Emilie Collyer finds her way back to the magic of theatre through four Melbourne Fringe shows
I’ve become quite comfortable with the routine. Hours on end in this mess-piled study, logging onto Zoom, clicking into Facebook or YouTube to watch an event from the safe anonymity of the screen.
Melbourne Fringe festival begins, pushed back from its usual September slot and reimagined as a mostly online event. There are a few in-person events. I’m not quite ready for those, but I am keen to see how artists are prodding at presence, at liveness.
So, along with many other events, I book tickets for four Zoom-specific works that, in various ways, make this promise: Fat Kids Are Harder To Kidnap on Zoom, A Suffocating Choking Feeling (Digital Experiment), WE ARE AIR, and Take Over! 2020 : The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus – LIVE.
You’re (not) on mute!
The anthem of a pandemic. Cursor hovering over that little microphone. Is the red line through it or not? Who the hell hasn’t muted? I hear weird crunching or the low tone hum of a TV in the background. I am always on mute. Obsessively so. Don’t want to be a bother, get caught out.
At the start of Fat Kids Are Harder To Kidnap on Zoom the invitation is overt: “Keep your videos and microphones on! You will be participating! We want to see you!” The terror! I didn’t dress for this! I have no makeup on (nobody cares). There we all are, us obedient ones anyway, cameras on, grinning faces, picking up the vibe that this is a feel good show so the onus is on us, as well as the performers, to bring the jolly.
That’s the main difference between Zoom theatre and live theatre, right? I mean, this kind of Zoom theatre with cameras on. The audience can all see each other. Not to mention ourselves, which is a whole new level of weird. Watching our own face as we watch each other watching a show. We are part of the show. Our energy is not just permeating the space, it’s up front and highly visible. The pressure!
Luckily, this theatre troupe is pure joy. The aim of the game is 15 shows in 30 minutes. I remember seeing The Neo-Futurists in Chicago years ago, whose flagship show is 30 shows in 60 minutes. The two shows are structured the same way in that we, the audience, get to choose which show, or scene, the performers enact next.
The scenes are numbered. We shout the numbers out. It’s a low level of participation. It’s one that, as the performance begins, I find myself really committed to. My competitive streak emerges. I want to be the first to yell the number of the next scene. I want to keep the pace up. I want the performers to feel wanted. We have been given a list of the scenes, with a few of them marked as “favourites” by the performers. Of course these ones pique my interest, my enthusiastic shouting, the most. Later, my partner will ask why I was yelling at the computer,
“We were involved!” I will say. “We had to shout the number of the next scene at them!” I think I am still shouting.
I can’t believe how pleasurable this small act is. The show is also a delight. Fifteen sketches very much made for the present moment. Plenty of Zoom humour. Some sanitising obsession. A serious political piece dropped in the middle. We are not asked to participate in any more confronting ways.
I come away literally dizzy with delight. I have attended a lot of readings and panels and book launches online this year. Comedy hasn’t really been on my radar. And honestly, the energy, the smarts and the mad comedic skillz of this troupe almost has me in tears as I am reminded how important this activity is: to entertain.
My fingers aren’t fast enough / think of something funny / clever to say
As soon as the sole character in A Suffocating Choking Feeling (Digital Experiment) mentions she has her own Instagram account I am on my phone, searching her, finding it, following. I love a show that mixes fiction with reality.
We the audience are, again, visible to each other. But we are safer in the realm of videos and microphones off. The show doesn’t begin in an immediately live space, although clearly the performer is “in the room” with us. We are viewing a series of Insta stories, short videos, all shot and delivered as if we are the character – Simone Hamilton’s – social media followers.
I like this conceit. Using one platform to exploit another. Building a story via how we use social media – as an ad hoc, personal, filmed, rough, manipulative, promotional tool. How we are all doing this, all the time. Creating and curating our stories, our lives. The intimacy of the screen, of watching alone while knowing others are watching, captures that same voyeuristic, alienated enjoyment of doom scrolling, revenge scrolling, stalker scrolling – whatever your jam is.
As Simone tries to build her music brand and cottons on to how serious illness can be a powerful hook, I literally watch both my phone and the screen as she updates her Instagram account: Singer, living with cancer #thrivingnotsurviving.
There is such delight and risk in this. Instagram, unlike a private Zoom show, is public and exposed to anyone who stumbles across the account. I like how the writer and performer Simone French is delving into this ficto-realism. I think she could exploit it and pursue it even more. The account has just a small number of posts. What would the audience experience be like if we found hundreds of photos and videos there? A whole other parallel world of the show?
Other than this dual platforming, I am a passive audience member, until about the three quarter mark of the show when Simone Hamiltons appears in the Zoom meeting. Live. To chat with us. To ask questions.
I want to join the game. I want to ask her something in character that will also be witty and fun. Others are jumping in. The chat is filling up with questions. My tension rises. “Chat” has become the equivalent of trying to get a word in at a meeting or a dinner party. You are not sure anyone will notice or hear you.
I type furiously, fumbling, having to fix typos. There. Got it. And honestly, the buzz when Simone says my name and answers my question is real, even though she is a character, this is a contrived event, none of it is “real”. It is real. It’s about how we are seen and how we want to be seen.
Chat has added a whole new dimension to performance works. Because unlike the meeting or dinner party, in some instances, chat goes on while a performance is happening. It’s a meta layer of communication among the audience that is impossible (or impossibly rude) in a live theatre setting. “Saving the chat” has become a thing. Using chat to trawl back and check peoples’ reactions and responses. If it’s a chat where much or some of the audience know each other, in-jokes quickly emerge. Chat can be used too, as a performance element in itself.
Such is the case in WE ARE AIR where I find myself:
Chasing rabbit holes dizzy with tiny narratives
This was the most technically, Zoom-ically ambitious show I saw at Fringe. Upon entering the Zoom, the audience was invited to download a virtual backdrop. My old laptop struggles with these. I end up with a speckled, dream-like blend of my face, the backdrop and my room. This quite suited the aesthetic and the tone of WE ARE AIR, which was trippy, messy, chaotic and exciting.
Aside from one fully “human” performer, the actors – our hosts – all presented as avatars, so the immediate sensation was of being inside a children’s television show or a fever dream. We arrived at the main room and were informed it was a “choose your own adventure” kind of show. We could leave that room and go to break-out rooms any time we wanted. There were different performances and experiences happening in each of these. It felt like a virtual version of Punchdrunk’s iconic Sleep No More that I attended in New York last year, which creates a version of Macbeth throughout a multi-storied, multi-roomed building.
Along with the performances and experiences, a whole layer of narrative built up via the chat. Some of it was instigated by the performers, but the audience started to get right into it as well. I noticed people changing their user names to join in on narratives and story lines and jokes. I got keenly involved in a small story line where I was effectively “passing a note” from one performer who liked another, via private chat. I loved this. I could have had more of this. The chance to create a private experience happening in and around the shared, public moments.
I also yearned to be able to spend longer in one room, with one narrative. We got tossed in and out of rooms a fair bit. This had its own adrenaline-inducing enjoyment, but a few moments of longer stretch, the ability to go along with a story that maybe went for 15 or 20 slower minutes, would have been rewarding. Perhaps in something other than a festival setting where hour-long shows are de rigueur (even online), this piece could be extended, to allow for those shifts in pace and experience.
As the show ended, the audience chat lingered. People were still invested. We were still – in a sense – in character. They were carrying on conversations about things that had happened, allegiances that had been formed. I imagine this is something like what happens in the world of online gaming, a sense of ownership and investment. What was so clever about this piece is how the performers created a world so quickly and gave the audience agency to not only engage with the world, but to feel a part of it.
To a dark room, a slow world, a little theatre magic
The pace of Take Over! 2020 : The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus – LIVE could not have been more different.
I booked for the live performance at 11pm on a Saturday night. There were technical difficulties that meant the show was delayed, although – as with a lot of Lipson’s work – there’s the lurking conviction that the “problems” are totally choreographed. Here the chat came into its own, as the audience threw banter back and forth about the delay being part of the show, being a meditation, being all kinds of things.
This felt like such a sweet, painful, connection with live theatre. Things go wrong. Tech fails. Audiences wait. We are together in the anxiety, the generosity, the waiting.
Once the issues were corrected, we were all sent to another site which meant the chat was disabled. This was, I imagine, unintended, but in a strange way, it added a sense of togetherness. We had all been chatting and now were here, alone, together.
As we “arrived”, the two performers, Mark Wilson and Brian Lipson, were on screen, each in their own homes. On Zoom. Talking to each other, to us. Were we all “there yet”? Talking about the delay, Lipson asked Wilson: “Do the Fringe people know it means the show will run 20 minutes longer? They won’t cut us off at midnight will they?”
The conversation eased its way into performance. We were invited to light a candle and to turn all other light sources off. Such a simple gesture, but boy, it made a difference. This was two very experienced and passionate theatre makers doing all they could to recreate a theatrical experience. It wasn’t the same as being in a theatre – in fact, asking audience members to light candles in a theatre would be an OHS nightmare – but using the tenets of theatricality to create atmosphere.
And so unfolded an hour of Zoom theatre that was the most “theatre-like” experience I have had on Zoom. The actors moved between frank, sometimes awkward, unscripted conversation and the presentation of their version of this play by Christopher Marlowe. Performances were honest and simple. A rendering of character and story.
There were a couple of moments of theatre magic where the visual effects made possible by a screen were used to brilliant effect. For a time, the screen was completely dark – another theatrical device that I had not felt or seen on Zoom. And a true gasp from me and my partner, as the screens came back to life and the two performers had swapped sides on the screen. For half a second I wondered: how did they do that? How did Wilson and Lipson get to each other’s houses? Of course they didn’t. But that half-second of Zoom magic was pure pleasure.
And finally, in the last scene, Lipson turned all the lights on his room. It was an ordinary room. We have seen so many ordinary rooms this year – the real studies and bedrooms and kitchens of the real people we know. He completed the play, the emotional climax, acting his heart out alone in that room. Giving his all in the silence, the aloneness, the awkwardness.
All so we, watching, would feel less alone. So we would feel, as throughout all of Fringe, that we were and we are part of a community. One that loves to come together to imagine and create and provoke and laugh and gasp. One that will find ingenious ways to do this when the world halts the usual ways for a while. A community that seeks out liveness and shares it, in whatever small, glitchy, generous ways it can.
Fat Kids Are Harder To Kidnap on Zoom, written by Melissa Sim, Jeremy Au Yong and the cast, directed by Melissa Sim. Performed by Ross Nasir, Pavan J Singh, Nicholas Bloodworth, Victoria Chen and Vester Ng.
WE ARE AIR, created and directed by Cassandra Fumi, presented by Monash Centre for Theatre and Performance.
A Suffocating Choking Feeling (Digital Experiment), created and Performed by Simone French in Collaboration with Tom Halls, presented by TomYumSim.
Take Over! 2020: The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus – LIVE, by Brian Lipson and Mark Wilson. Presented by Arts Centre Melbourne in association with Melbourne Fringe.