A Warm Coat in April – honing the art of the virtual live show

It’s one year on and there is every reason to be optimistic. Thirty-one million people have been vaccinated in the UK, over five million have had their second shot. Last week there were no reported COVID deaths in London. Next week, things will begin to open up again, to a level we last had in November 2020. The very last time I met with my friends for a sit-down after-work drink in Soho, braving the winter outdoors just for the pure pleasure of each other’s company, knowing we would be missing, not one, but two of their birthdays.

Five months on, Easter Sunday has just passed. On Monday, we met friends in Hastings for a ‘Scandi’ picnic. Outdoor lunch in their garden. Typical April weather, we went through all four seasons, visited mid-way with a tiny sprinkling of snowflakes.  At first, we thought it was blossom petals, but the tiny flakes on pristine black linen napkins confirmed: snow. It passed swiftly and we made the best of the day and of each other’s company by moving the lunch table around the garden, following the sun.

I had arrived in a lightweight spring coat, knowing that our host, Colette, had promised blankets, food and alcohol-laced coffee. Luckily for me, Colette had decided a much-loved 1950s wool swing coat needed a “longer body” than hers. Colette found me a furry hat and a pair of dark glasses. In an instant, I had been transformed from grump to glam. I pranced around a bit, mad as March hare (as they say) singing, ‘Dr. Zhivago! Go! Go! Go!’

These are the kinds of things that can’t happen on Zoom, no matter how sophisticated your background screen is. Though I shudder to imagine how much more difficult these lockdowns would have been without technology, virtual space is no substitute for live interactions. There is no virtual equivalent of being given a warm coat in April or resolving the mystery of whether a flake is a blossom or snow.

Like many performers, I have missed live space in ways I have found unexpected. There is lots of talk about ‘skin hunger, more so for people who live alone and have had to endure months of no contact with anyone other than those in their ‘bubble’. Air kissing has morphed to air hugging and it is to the air that we have all brought our attention to; the air that we breathe, the air that gives us life and is also now our greatest threat. I can’t be the only one who has inadvertently held my breathe under my mask while passing a particularly heavy breathing jogger, can I? In November, I was beyond relieved to be put back on part-furlough and told I could work from home. I dreaded going back to full furlough, to be so cut-off from my workmates, but I think HR was worried that I might actually accost a non-mask wearer. I’m not saying that their fears were misplaced. Commuting from my new flat in Hastings to Tottenham had begun to feel like running the gauntlet. Impossibly stressful, full of perceived threats.

Since the first lockdown, I had, like everyone else spent many hours online; many celebrations, socials, writing workshops, book launches, open mics, performances. One highlight was gifting my mother a new mobile phone so we could face-time each other between South Africa and the UK. What a pleasure to see her beautiful face. To check in a few times a week and see how she was doing, even though I was short of scintillating anecdotes and exciting opportunities, just touching base was comforting for us both.

I actually took part in an online panto ‘Snow White’ with some friends. Many people got pressganged into it but the night itself was wonderful. My friend Alexander Blair, upped the ante by posting pictures of the corset he was handmaking for his turn as the Panto Dame. My flatmate turned his bedroom into a green screen studio and created an entire backdrop scene with a hilarious turn with a graphic bear that popped up behind him so that we could all shout, ‘It’s behind you!’ in our separate rooms. I was laughing so much the tears running down my cheeks moistened the glue on my mustache. Prince Charming, under-estimating her time between lines, went out for a fag and had us shouting into the void for him to come back, hilariously trying to stay ‘in character’ at the same time, as we were recording the performance. Mad Pirvan who was playing Snow White amid a projected wood forest, kept valiantly trudging on. It was beautiful, wonderful, chaotic fun; but we all vowed to do this in person as soon as we possibly could. I don’t think there has been a single virtual event that has not left us hoping and longing for a live-live, though equally, I think we would all happily forego traveling for meetings while slowly building up the courage to keep our cameras off.

I have been playing around with different ways of performing (other than being sat in front of the camera). My bedroom is also an office and is large enough for me to create studio space in it. I have got a small kit of ‘stuff’ together, some bought, some begged, some borrowed: a good webcam, a stand to hang different backdrops, access to a good mic (when needed), a light kit. Virtual performances, like other performances, still need to look visually good. For the Poets for the Planet FRESH: Eco-poetry open mic, which we started last summer, we ask readers to check that they have good light and good sound. It makes the world of difference having illumination from either the front or the side. Often this is as simple as moving a sidelight or changing the position of your camera/laptop. I was advised that if I had a mobile phone, using the camera on that for Zoom would be better than using the default camera on my laptop. It is still good advice. It took me ages to work out that you can buy a relatively inexpensive cam card  (£15-£20) to transform your DSLR camera into a webcam. I have done this for live feeds when I have needed to use a better low-light camera and it works a treat. High-end cam cards cost about £110 and are probably well worth it, but you can definitely get away with cheaper ones, though they may be less reliable in the long run.

One of the great advantages of virtual live performance has been the de-territorialising of events. Most events now will attract participants from across the UK and across time zones and have access to events streamed from other places. It has been wonderful to connect with The Poetry Brothel New York, even if that has meant staying up till 3 am so that I could. Virtual relationships are just as meaningful as those in the flesh and I can’t imagine doing another event that does not make some provision for people (both audience and performers) who cannot be there physically, to have some virtual access. It may also work for performers to increase their income streams at a time when social distancing means limiting the numbers of in-the-flesh audience members.

My most creative performance online was for ‘Maiden / Mother /Crone’ – a project by ‘women of words’. The organisers were very open about how the performance could take place: either pre-recorded or live. After a slow start, I became really excited about the performance, choosing a mixture of pre-recorded and live performance, but sod’s law, despite having a great idea and structure, a ‘little match that could’ refused to blow out, resulting in a tussle in what Henni Saarela, who had designed the music for the piece described as ‘Woman vs Fire’. This small delay effectively put the live actions out of sync with the pre-recorded poem, music, and projected imagery. When it ended (all the excruciating six minutes of it!) I collapsed in a ball of tears. So much work and not at all the result I wanted! The organisers and friends who saw it assured me that it was not as bad as I imagined, but when I saw the footage played back, it was so much worse! I berated myself for not just releasing a pre-recorded set, but really, I love live shows, as it does mean that every time you do it, there is some variation. Any performer who does a long run will confirm this. It doesn’t matter if you have performed a piece hundreds of times, every performance is unique.

I am so looking forward to venues opening up again, but I still have a sense of unease. Some internal warning against being too optimistic. A reluctant realisation that it may still be some time before things will return to normal again or indeed that we may have to contend with a ‘new normal’ for some time. My interest in performing multi-sensory, close-quarter readings still looks like another world away. How do we even begin to transfer the world of the senses over digital media?  How would I even begin to translate this into live space in a socially distanced, COVID-friendly way? What is the relationship between the senses and intimacy? For the moment I will have to content myself with being happy just to be able to do any live-live (not virtual-live) performances, even socially distanced ones – but I hope as we return to normal, we don’t lose our capacity or will for de-territorialising events and making access possible for those unable to join us in live space. To extend the offer of a warm coat in April across digital means.

You can subscribe to my YouTube channel where I will post new videos of performances.

https://youtu.be/ajvpv-yK2uA

PREMIERE OF HEKATE – a filmed live performance

Tues 27/04/202:  8pm

https://youtu.be/ylPQFKflt5Y

Payment by donation.  The recommended price is either the price of a  coffee or a cocktail.

https://www.paypal.com/pools/c/8yU0vnz8TW (till June 21) or https://paypal.me/debrawatson

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