It is the end of Spring 2020. I am stuck in Italy. Theatres and studios are closed. I cannot travel, my potential students cannot travel. My work has vanished. And I have a new option in front of me. Teaching physical theatre on-line.
I am new to this remote option. Before Coronas, I have had occasional experiences with this option, uniquely through Skype, in the form of individual coaching sessions or supervision sessions, or directing sessions with up to three people together on the other end of Skype. Or I have recorded myself talking and then I have sent the audio or video to be watched in a differed time and space. But this was always with people with whom I had a previous live experience.
During the first months of the pandemic I have explored the Zoom medium and it has been very interesting.
The first observation is that during a zoom gathering I rely on my previous experience with the people I am connecting with.
I have had a few meetings, discussions and lectures with groups in which I knew only some of the participants. My perception of the known and unknown participants was completely different. It had very different “weight”. With the person I already know, I noticed that I can tap into my lived experience of a physical and emotional contact, which creates a shared space. And that space can contain a new experience that will expand and enrich our common story. People who have already met and who have been working and playing together in the embodied field, are already engaged with a space, which is, at the same time, physical, emotional and poetical. The zoom participants will pop into the shared common body and the experience can be very interesting. It can be fun and can fulfill some of the potentials of getting together.
If the meeting or the gathering happens for the first time on this medium, then I feel a terrible loss of reality and gravitas, and my engagement with the person is significantly dimmed. I question whether this is a viable option or just a very poor surrogate contact, that will be more frustrating than creative. At the moment I tend towards this second option.
Coming to something more specific to my practice of teaching movement theater, I have noticed that if the shared practice is based on technique and the learning of some “ forms”, my role becomes more “the instructor” who demonstrates certain techniques to be learnt by observation and imitation. The interaction with the audience is limited. In this case zoom offers some interesting opportunities.
During the first lockdown I held a series of classes reviewing the 20 Movements of Lecoq with a group of former pedagogic students. It was surprisingly fun and I think there is a potential of working on this format to turn it into something viable. Somehow the teacher on zoom facilitates individual learning processes on the other side of the screen.
But if the practice requires direct live interaction between the audience and the player, then we are in a very different scenario.
This is why a movement class on zoom has more chances than improvisation. The problem within the zoom space is that the feedback from the audience is unreceivable and unusable, for a variety of reasons. For example, the text and the sound of the various speakers cannot be heard at the same time and timing, and this kills the dynamic interaction between the actor and the audience. It is likely that, in the future, the zoom software will improve some of the current limitations, but I still feel that the quality and value of the audience feedback mediated by the bi-dimensional images, combined with and the lack of the shared physicality, will remain extremely frustrating. I don’t think a collective improvisation class on zoom has many chances to provide anything better than a poor surrogate.
Another observation is that when I am teaching standing in front of the small screen, my perception of the audience and my pedagogical use of it are extremely limited. And again, if I already know the people, I can tap into my experience of them. But if I have never met them, this makes my perception of the group close to nothing. And even if I can tap into my previous experience of the group, I feel very alone out there and I’m working very hard to maintain some connection with the participants. I can rely almost uniquely on my experience of my own body and my presence becomes more of a solo pedagogic performance. This makes me fundamentally sad.
My experience of lecturing on zoom was one of the most bizarre and frustrating moments of my teaching career. The aftermath was an intense physical unhappiness, something I could compare to a food poisoning.
I think we can keep exploring this zoom medium and find the best use of it, but, at the end of the story Theater on-line is not Theater. It is something else.
It seems to me essential to affirm and to defend the difference between Theater, which is a live event “in a shared space and time” (Amy Russell 2020), and television or videomaking. We can certainly turn our classes into recorded lessons that people will listen to in their own space at their own time, or we can turn our creations into videos that will be watched on YouTube or Vimeo. But this is another art.
It is important that we keep very clear the distinction between live theater and video making or cinema. I see a lot of confusion when actors, comedians and theater companies are invited to present their work online. As theater practitioners, we have always known that the video recording of a theater a piece will kill it, unless specific skills in film making and editing are used. And we are talking about the recording of a show with a live audience in it. Just filming theater and putting it online, or live streaming shows without live audience seems to me a catastrophic choice. Some kind of public euthanasia of an entire art form.
Funding a company to put their shows online is like paying someone to dig their own grave. I know we all have to bring our bread on the table but this is a poisoned cake.
Sometimes starving is better then eating junk food.
And these days, resistance seems the only way of protect our existence.
As a practitioner of movement based theater, also known as physical theater, I will resist with all my flesh and bones, muscles and masks, feet and legs, body and soul, to save it from a migration online that will declare its death by mutation.
The idea that theater can exist and thrive online is, simply, insane.