People often find themselves drawn to theatre because they enjoy creating in the same space as others, breathing together, watching each other’s body language, reading the energy in the room. Needless to say, having our interactions separated in both space and time from our immediate experience has proven to be quite a challenge. What I have found to be particularly interesting throughout the process is how proximity (or lack thereof) affects our relationship with time and our ability to manage it.
There are the really practical things, such as teaching kata, that have ultimately demanded more of our attention and stretched on and expanded until we realize they have invaded more of our lives than we ever thought they could. Things that would have, under normal circumstances, taken all of two minutes to demonstrate (as the teacher) or copy and learn (as the student), suddenly ends up taking fifteen. For example, how to hold the yamabushi prayer beads. Relying on a strange mix of on-screen monkey-see-monkey-do accompanied by overly elaborate and detailed verbal descriptions of what we want the other person’s body to do is a painfully slow process that has required everyone to become more patient with each other. But fundamentally, this obstacle has rather straightforward accommodations: more patience and more time.
On the other hand, something like the dreaded Zoom lag has required more creativity in our approach. Those few seconds that typically makes themselves known when two speakers accidentally end up talking over each other have taken on a whole new meaning in online performance. Beats between lines became harder to count, syncing movements between actors was significantly more difficult than anyone thinks it should be, and overlapping lines to build rhythm seemed like an impossibility. We found solutions, albeit solutions that in principle work against everything we are used to. Theatre is a dialogue; we listen to what the other actor has to say and then we respond. So I have the utmost respect for the actors who tirelessly practiced over and over until they retrained themselves to start their lines at the most unnatural times (often before their scene partner was done speaking). This isn’t even getting into day-to-day adjustments that they needed to make on the fly when the lag changed slightly because someone’s internet connection happened to be just slightly better or worse than the previous day.
Time got even more wonky once the digital tech and recording layers were added to the process. Not only is there a slight lag between when the actors speak and when they come through on Zoom, there is a two second delay between the Zoom output (specifically the audio output) and the OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) output (being streamed back through Zoom so everyone can see) so the director is constantly attempting to mentally reconcile the fact that the audio is ahead of what they’re seeing for 15 – 25 minutes, depending on the piece. Then an even longer delay (we’re talking 10-30 seconds here) happens once the output is streamed to YouTube as part of the recording process. While the YouTube stream eliminates the audio-video synchronicity issues for the observing director, it distinctly separates them from the performance itself. They’re so far behind the actors that if there is a hiccup that might warrant a stop, the actors won’t know until they’re long past the moment and if something really serious happens that requires the actors to start over, chances are they’ve already restarted by the time the director returns to the Zoom room to check in. It is sort of paradoxical. The very lag that challenges the notion of the true “liveness” of virtual theatre is the very same thing that forced us to reevaluate our understanding of immediacy and to be hyper aware of the present.
Even though the Remotely Kyōgen production is pre-recorded as an attempt to minimize unforeseen technical issues, the element of liveness is still very much present. The way these pieces are recorded limited the types of post-production editing possible. MushZooms 2.0, for example, is recorded in a single take and the actors are continuously on screen for the entire time. As a result, no way to slice and dice and then recompile all of the best takes into a single final cut, unlike in much of film and television. All the director can do is sit and hold her breath for what feels like the longest 14 minutes and 6 seconds ever, hoping that nothing disastrous happens in the last 30 seconds of the piece which would force a retake from the beginning. I hope that that feeling of liveness is still able to be felt by the audiences watching the program.
– Jane Traynor, Mango Yamabushi & MushZooms 2.0