Let’s start with acknowledging my privilege. I am living in a spacious one bedroom home with my best friend, a very amenable kitten, lots of food, and strong support systems if things get really scary. Because of this privilege, like many other people, I’ve had a multitude of feelings these past three weeks that I have spent inside. Some I am proud of, others not so much. I am anxious, whiny, bored, experiencing “flu-like symptoms,” tired, sad, worried for my loved ones, overwhelmed with check-ins, yearning for more check-ins and also . . . curious about what’s next.
Mainly, I think I am experiencing two things. The first, is grief. For tragedy and death, for suffering, for those who have loved ones far away, and for my recently unemployed friends.
This week, a mentor of mine suggested I apply to my PhD ASAP because the performing arts ecology is about to be truly rocked. I don’t disagree. In a recent Toronto Star article, it is predicted that theatres in Toronto are about to lose a devastating $500 million in ticket sales this spring. I am worried for many of these companies and festivals across the country that form the bedrock of the Canadian theatre community. I deeply admire and respect many of the leaders of these organizations and believe in many of their mandates. I will say though, I am more worried for the people inside them than I am for the institutions themselves.
Which brings me to the second thing I’m feeling. Curiosity? If you know me, then you know that in my opinion, capitalist systems need to GO. I am curious (and maybe even stoked) about what could replace neoliberalism and capitalist greed. (Aside: That said, fracking, pipelines, and land theft are still considered “essential work” in this country).
In a YouTube video that surfaced in mid-March called Coronavirus Capitalism, economist Naomi Klein talked about two routes that American economy could take during the next few weeks. The first route is a bail-out of major industries like hospitality, tourism, airline, big business, oil and gas -- industries that can be detrimental to the climate crisis and the disenfranchised. The second route though, is an investment in clean industries and Green New Deal. Two options: We could save industries of the last century, or we could try something new.
If we apply this perspective to Canadian performing arts economy, the question arises: Are some of these major theatre institutions “industries of the last century?” For better or for worse, they certainly rely on capitalist structures (subscriber bases, huge corporate donors, endowments, land ownership, etc) to survive. Brick and mortar institutions that have been around since the 1970s rely upon systems that have been in play since the 1970s to exist. Although this makes me uncomfortable to write, I’m more interested in investing in the “Green New Deal” of theatre than I am of saving capitalist institutions that have remained largely unchanged for 25+ years. Now that the capitalist systems they rely on have been put on hold, what are we making room for?
When I think about the future of the live arts, I am grieving but I am also . . . curious. We’ll think of something? It might take us a while. In the same way I hope that capitalism topples in favour of something else, I’m hoping we don’t resurrect old institutions before we invest and imagine an entirely new phenomenon.
I am not advocating for a shift entirely to the digital. The act of gathering live will remain paramount. In the likely case that this won’t blow over any time soon, people trapped in quarantine will be craving liveness and community and gathering more than ever. We are already seeing this with balcony singalongs and group fitness classes. Folks around the world are applauding for health care workers at a specified time each day.
Like the scheduled applause, the act of social distancing is one of the most global acts of participation in history. We won’t call it art but many people are certainly taking part. Participation works best when everyone is doing it. All you have to do is play along. Sometimes it’s scary and confusing, but it’s often for good. One billion people for common good. That is participatory work.
Because of this participatory effort in play over the last two weeks, I am unsurprised that Canadian artists who make participatory work are the first to begin to experiment with producing work right now - Outside the March, DLT, Convergence and Theatre Replacement had all announced new projects within a week of Ontario declaring a state of emergency. After all, these artists were already experimenting with the relationship between the audience and the art in their work. Theatre Replacement’s Bioboxes happened inches away from your nose. DLT’s The Stranger happened two steps behind the actor. Proximity is just another kind of distance. Suddenly these artists are working to connect and communicate from as far away as possible. How can we be close when we’re really far away?
So far, this work is lo-fi. Because many artists are being forced to adapt their practises quickly, the aesthetic is not precious. It’s raw and intimate. It’s your cat walking across your Zoom call. It’s talking over each other and audio that cuts in and out. There is no rehearsal. That’s what excites me. It’s entirely uncharted territory. Less of a rebirth and more of an emergent phenomenon. If systems we once relied upon (like capitalism and gathering in groups) have been disrupted, I guess we have to get creative. Sometimes, we have to make something with nothing. I don't think it's right to patronize digital work as "quantity over quality". Everyone is trying.
To be clear, in my opinion, this is not a crisis-tunity. This is a terrible thing that will make something new. To move forward we’re going to have to grieve but also we’re going to have to (eventually) pick ourselves up, innovate, and make new work for this new world.
J: Here we go. I’ve been thinking about our initial question: What does participation look like in the age of coronavirus? One thought is. . . you know. . . that it’s over. That participatory theatre is now essentially dead or has been damaged in some way that it will not recover. That’s a very apocalyptic view. But this is a really transformative moment and the kind of intimate community gathering that we were seeing in some of these shows: touching strangers, packing in together closely in small spaces, maybe that is now suddenly just . . . done.
M: When we did the show at the Grad Club last week, at first the show was about activism and then when we did the show on Friday, just as the quarantine restrictions were starting . . . everything changed. This show was now about the importance of gathering together. The lines didn’t resonate the same way. After the show people came up to us saying, “Thank you.” It was like the end of the world. It was like the last time we were gonna gather. I think you’re right, that’s it’s over and also that it was sacred. I think this is gonna change all theatre and all live arts, like you said, specifically the forms that we’re interested in.
J: I don’t think it does harm to our project, though. In fact, I think it makes the project wistfully, sadly, really relevant. There was this moment, this thing was happening.
M: In retrospect, it feels sacred. The thing we have lost.
J: Sacred. And we have already seen and collected a lot of the work of that moment. We have enough data that if we didn’t see any more shows we could continue. It would be like a historical book. Which is kind of weird. But still ok I think? I think we should try and do exactly what you understood when the Grad Club show changed its mood. We should think through what that kind of work meant, which we can now see more clearly now that it’s gone.
M: You said your first thought is: “It’s over. It’s dead.” I’m curious about what the second thought is.
J: Oh the second thought is. . .well a couple of other thoughts. . . but the second thought is: What fills the gap in the short term? The impulse to participate doesn’t go away. The same founding circumstances we identified are still relevant. We still live in a Web 2.0 world. We still live in the Anthropocene. Those drivers still exist. So then what does participation look like if we’re not present in body?
M: A few weeks ago we talked about the definition of participation as taking part. For the past few days I’ve been obsessed with the arts and culture response. And the notion of taking part. Now, we are taking part with such a bigger group. Because . . . the internet. When my roommate and I did Choir!Choir!Choir! online last night, both of us were weeping because these were songs we had just sung with C!C!C! at the Isabel last June. This time, nine thousand people tuned in online. It was a cool triple lens of “wow participation is over” but “wow it’s beautiful it happened” and also “wondering what’s going to fill the gap.” When we’re participating in a kind of recreation of a gathering, I can see both “this is a new gathering” and “I’m also happy that I did the first gathering too.” It feels like a memorial.
J: Because it is about the things we’ve lost and trying to recreate but also feeling the nostalgia. So, yes we might watch NTLive streaming but we’re not just watching it as a standalone artifact, we’re watching it as nostalgia for live theatre.
M: Yes! Exactly! And I even felt that last night, I felt amazement and nostalgia at the same time. Like “Wow the internet is amazing!” but also "remember when this was real life?”
J: Yeah. So I think that’s really interesting. It will be really interesting to track how live arts industry will try to fill the gap. We’re already seeing some livestreaming. I saw Theatre Replacement is going to stream MINE tomorrow night. Um, so there’s that, C!C!C!, so I think we should just track those things. Starting with this moment of cancelling everything. The cancellation of live is first.
M: Oh yeah, new catalyst. New epoch. As of three days ago, every theatre in this country cancelled things. But you’re right, some new things have popped up. But we still have a different nut to crack. Or I guess the same nut to crack. Artists have to figure out how to actually interact without live presence. Last night with C!C!C!, the reach was very obvious, the warmth of understanding there are many people across the country doing this, that was very obvious, but interactivity still felt near impossible.
J: Could you see or hear other people or you just knew they were there?
M: You knew they were there. But we couldn’t interact. The C!C!C! dudes were trying to keep up saying, “Oh, hi Ann from Sault Ste. Marie” or “Oh you wanna hear this song?” but you couldn’t feel interactivity.
J: And also the joy of C!C!C! is all of the voices rising together. What’s that term I learned in first year psychology? Psychic effervescence? That’s why we sing together in religious settings because voices rising together . . . there’s something in it that’s moving.
M: And that kind of work had to happen in imagination last night with C!C!C! There were a few songs, like classic songs, that they would stop playing and say “your turn” and then they would be quiet on the stream for a second.
J: Oh wow.
M: And Laura and I were singing in our apartment and I could feel the work of this effervescence but it had to happen in my brain. It still happened though! I still got chills thinking . . . how many people are doing exactly what we’re doing right now. But that was an imaginary work instead of a felt thing in real life.
J: So the other thing that struck me, apart from wondering about the response of the arts and culture industry, is that through social distancing, self isolation, the mass migration of everybody “home” over the last few days, we have witnessed a huge act of global participation.
M: That’s true! And social distancing doesn’t work unless everybody does it.
J: Right. So we’ve been talking about democracy as our big example of participation but this is it.
M:I also just reread your draft entry on emergence for the book in progress and one of the things that struck me is how emergence relates to theatre participation versus how it relates to the biological functions where it appears is that these kinds of pattern shifts take a lot of time. In order to actually make a new pattern of movement it takes . . . duration?
J: Either duration or many many iterations.
M: At the same time?
J: Like an algorithm that runs really really quickly has many many many repeats so it is time dependent but sped up.
M: So then . . . I feel like this global quarantine moment is the closest that I can fully understand to this being an emergent behaviour.
J: Right yes, I think so. Because something different will come out.
M: It’s not about returning to normal. It’s exactly what you talked about in that entry about how complexity emerges.
J: Right at the end of that article I talk about phase change? I think this is phase change. You know, it’s like we’ve suddenly dropped the temperature and as humans our behaviour is still the same, but because of the phase change we’ve produced some kind of different thing. Like turning water into ice. And I think the reason we can consider this to be an emergent phenomenon, which is exactly what that entry is trying to get at, is scale. Just massive, massive scale. I don’t know, a billion people are participating in social distancing? That makes a new phenomenon, it makes . . . something. I don’t want to call it art, but it is a participatory experience.
M: Can we think of any other times besides epidemics or pandemics where like a full global shift happened? War?
J: War, yes.. Maybe at the next level down from that . . . watching the Olympics? What other phenomenon gets millions of people to do the same thing? Millions and millions of people travelled home and then stayed home. And so now all of us are in our little home pockets.
M: Speaking of that, capitalism is a big hurdle to overcome with this major global ask: Stay at home. Don’t work. Don’t go anywhere. I feel like everyone’s act of staying home is an acknowledgment that all of the systems are going to change now.
J: There is something in that. We’ve said this before, you can’t participate alone. So here is a thought: Even though we’ve been saying that participation is imbricated in neoliberalism and individualist entrepreneurial capitalist thinking, participation also resonates with socialism because it’s collective. You have to be with other people, you have to be in sync with other people in order to participate.
M: All of this just keeps bringing me back to the same question. What does art look like that only exists within these new circumstances? Social distancing I mean. These new circumstances are not a glitch but a feature. It’s not about how we’ll do the things we’ve done in a new way, it’s about doing a new thing. And like I said, maybe it’s because I am an artist and maybe it’s because I am positioned in a way that my next two projects can allow for social distancing. One of them is foldA. This is going to be a huge year for SpiderWebShow and foldA.
J: This is a huge moment for foldA.
M: Is it ever. The festival is perfectly positioned to ask the critical questions of this moment. What can we do because we have these digital and virtual tools? What does participation and gathering look like without presence? Or what does your digital body do? It’s a totally different reframed question. The pandemic is going to really change lots of sectors but really really change the live art sector for sure.
J: And I think this is where we do have a big chasm now in our work. We will have to treat some of it as historical. We’ve encountered now a hard stop. England, 1642. The theatres are closed. Period. Now what?
M: We’re positioned in a network of a lot of artists who . . . Like Landline! Landline could still happen almost exactly as it happened.
J: Oh sure. You don’t have to meet. You get to walk. Walking is still good, you can walk outside.
M: It’s almost like there was a cohort of artists that were preparing for this! I’m surrounded by fear and anxiety from some artists, and optimism from others. Or at least an acknowledgement of change. It doesn’t feel like the end of something but . . . it sounds so corny but this is the start of something . . . else? It reminds me of everything you said about CdnStudio. CdnStudio didn’t work if you tried to rehearse a well-made play in CdnStudio. BUT if you embrace the glitch and the delay and the mess of it you’re going to make something new that requires it to exist. That’s kind of how I feel about many of the artists that we think about . . I don’t feel as worried for them as I do feel for the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival.
J: I agree with you. I think a lot of the artists that we’ve been working with are going to jump the gap.
M: I think so too.
J: I made a list the other day about which plays we’ve collected - exactly what you said about Landline - which plays we’ve collected could go ahead as is, more or less. Archive of Missing Things, totally. Landline. Even something like Zuppa Theatre Co's This is Nowhere, even though there are live scenes interspersed, they could be video they could be . . . there are other ways to do that. The main mechanism of This Is Nowhere, the scavenger hunt walk bit is still good. I mean some things yes, some things no. That’s what is interesting about this. Now we have maybe a different categorization of participation?
M: Like pre and post.
J: Pre and post. Or there’s the bodily kind and there’s a non-bodily kind. Or there is the interpersonal kind or interpersonal presence. I will have to think more of this but I think there is a new category that we haven’t considered. And what is the vision?
M: I think in the next few weeks it will be a slightly clumsy adjustment of doing traditional theatre on the internet. Let’s livestream it! It might be a little clumsy. Then I think in six months there will be a whole new birth of kinds of live performance that can only exist with distance.
J: I think you’re absolutely right. Because people are so responsive, people are adaptive, people are imaginative. Things will change.
M: I do wonder how the feedback loop will work.
J: How does the feedback loop work when it’s not just talking together? I’m thinking about Lost Together, how do you hand over the artifact? How do you give something across that space, now that there is a space. How do you pass the input back and forth and digital is one way. Maybe we’ll see mail? Maybe we’ll see like . . .phone in radio shows? Maybe they’ll be . . . I don’t know.
M: Well this is a good segue! Did you see what Daniele from DLT announced online?
M: Theatre on Call. He is organizing a group of artists to do a phone theatre festival. He’s thinking about how we bridge this distance. All of the art we’re going to make is going to both acknowledge it, celebrate it, complicate it. It’s not surprising to me that an artist like Daniele, who is already experimenting with what distance means, is the first to close the gap. Because proximity is also just distance. These artists have been playing with how close someone can get . . . it’s not surprising to me that these artists are the ones that are wondering instead, how far can you get?
J: That is really really smart. I really like that idea. Ok, write that down.
M: One more thing I want to talk about on this recorded phone call. I mean podcast. I mean, blog. Whatever this is. So we’re losing bodies. Like the body magic of people . . . I mean I just re-read your Cafe Sarajevo piece and . . .
J: It’s totally about bodies and proximity and “oops I bumped into you, pardon my elbow.”.
M: Pardon my elbow, how close can we get when we kick this soccer ball. I’m curious about how artists are going to capture the interactivity. I’m also thinking about how artists are going to capture a mass of people, in a way that is more meaningful than a view counter?
J: How will we know that people are nearby?
M: I don’t know if this is my coping mechanism or because I am an artist but also because I’m a socialist probably. I know that everything is going to change and I am in a moment of being aware that this is going to get worse before it gets better. But I’m really in a moment of intrigue of what “better” is.
J: I’m really curious to see what it will be.