The rise and fall of Zoom theatre (and the power of verbs)

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It’s always exciting to be around for the start of something (well, something other than a global pandemic).

There’s a thrill to watching a form take shape. The joy of discovery, the thrill of seeing a thing take shape before your eyes. And, if you have a hand in it, the pride of creation. It’s the twinkle in someone’s eye when they tell you about some hot band, “I saw them in a basement club with 150 people!”

Weeks ago, that was the joy of theatre via Zoom (or Facebook or any mediated webcam form). There was something resilient and brave about watching the theatre find a new form; something boldly defiant about not allowing distance or disease keep the show from going on. It was fresh, it was uncomfortable. It was oddly domestic and intimate (suddenly peering into actors living rooms). Many of us were just transitioning our new socially distanced existence and, if we had the privilege, our work lives to this same awkward platform. Zoom theater was catching us where we lived (both literally and figuratively). It’s distance and awkwardness was ours. The actors were struggling to connect … and so were we.

But that was eons ago (maybe two weeks?). The time signature of a pandemic is different (as we are all painfully resisting).

After those first brave zoom pioneers came the flood. Everybody is zooming a reading now. What started out thrilling has quickly become rather ho-hum.

Part of that has to do with theater not photographing well.That’s not a dig at actors but at the form itself (or maybe more accurately what we’ve done to the form).

At the same time that the zoom reading has filled our screens we’ve seen the other artforms find their online homes. Dancers pirouetting in kitchens, musicians strumming from their living rooms. It’s thrilling. We recognize the form, we appreciate the technique. Why is that working?

The simple answer *is* the visible technique.

I fell victim to this reality years ago when I was coordinating an arts website. We needed photos for each of the arts. I hired a great photographer and we trudged our way through artists studios and dance studios. Potter at the wheel - check. Dancer at the barre - check. Even video editor at video console - check. Then, as luck would have it, we made our way to the theater last. There we were in a rehearsal room with a playwright and a couple of actors in street clothes. We went to setup the shot and we just got a couple of people standing around in a black room. You couldn't *see* the theatre. The technique didn't photograph. You couldn't distinguish the art from the everyday. If they had been in period costume or clown makeup - you could point to that - you'd recognize those nouns. Theater, at least good theater, doesn't live in the nouns, it breathes and connects through its verbs. And it's hard to photograph a verb.

That's what we're stuck doing on zoom, trying to capture the subtle, fragile verbs of the theater on a shady internet connection.

And it's all we've got...for now.

We won't be back in our theaters, physically, for a long time.

Many of our more professional theaters won't come back (or as an email from a major funder posed it yesterday, they will find their way to a "dignified dissolution").

The theaters that survive won't do it because of zoom. They'll survive because they'll focus on what their audiences need and the verbs that bring it to them.

For me, that's what KCRW is doing right now: focusing on the verbs. Right now, KCRW is helping me stay connected, making sure I'm in touch with all the things I'm distant from at home.

And we can only do that critical work with your support.

If you can, give today. Give to ensure that KCRW can continue its vital work through these unprecedented times. Become a member at $ monthly.

Today and tomorrow only, your dollars will be doubled up to $25,000, thanks to the generosity of longtime KCRW Board Member Deborah Ramo and Jim Ramo.

Give to keep KCRW as strong as ever and keep us all connected.

Be well,