by Guest Blogger Gemma Soldati
For most purists, the notion of “live-streamed,” or “on-demand,” theatre feels antithetical to the spirit of theatre. I myself have lamented the inability to look an audience in the eyes and hear them breathe. When COVID-19 struck, Amrita Dhaliwal and I were on tour with our Hollywood/Edinburgh/Melbourne Fringe show The Living Room, a comedy of grief; a two-month long tour across the US and Melbourne, Australia. As everything was cancelled and I watched our careers screech to a halt, I knew what to do. Amrita and I had built a show about it. I had to grieve.
I skipped the denial phase and went straight to anger at Delta Airlines for not issuing refunds initially. It wasn’t long until the depression set in. I laid in bed for days checking the New York Times latest COVID-19 stats, paralyzed by the graphs. It was around this time I started to see the writing on the wall and accepted that it was over. There would be no shows, no rehearsals, no collective catharsis or effervescence. Theatre was dead.
But what to do with the dead? Bury it? Burn it? I did both. All summer I stood in soil that held my performative impulses down below the seeds I planted. I lit candles that illuminated a new room in my mind, one that showed me my passion wasn’t dead, just my practice. So, I searched for new practices. I found Batik and began sewing like a mad woman. I drew pictures with an untrained hand. And made shadow puppets. I hunted down music with unprocessed sounds and distant voices.
Eventually the bargaining stage of my grief came in the form of the new solo show I was hoping to premiere at the (ultimately cancelled) 2020 Edinburgh Fringe. In the fall, an Artistic Director of a theatre in New Hampshire (where I’m currently based) approached me. She wanted to commission me to create a new live show during the pandemic. It felt like a clandestine operation. Like grave diggers in the night, we raised the dead with patience and focus. And thus my latest show came to be. But, there was a COVID caveat. It had to also be live-streamed. I shuddered. It was like performing my show from outer space – like Mike TeaVee in Willy Wonka floating above his parents as a million little signals. Ultimately, I accepted the offer. The 12-person max audience of masked faces was a wonderful sight, but the real gift came from the ether. Friends from Australia writing to say they woke up early to watch. Godchildren in Santa Cruz talking to my character on the screen. They couldn’t see me sweat, but they could see the signs of life.
Now the Edinburgh Fringe, among many, are adding digital elements to their festivities. I will be featured in this new virtual reality. And while I am dismayed that I cannot be present for my show The Adventures of Sleepyhead, I feel that I’ve sent an ambassador to represent me – much in the way a painter must feel when their work is viewed without them at the gallery. Digital audiences will undoubtedly have a different experience of my work and I will too, but just like a person listening to a conversation from another room, curiosity is piqued and for me that is enough.
When people say, “theatre is dead” they fail to acknowledge the natural cycle of death and rebirth. And to those of us who are worried that this move to embrace digital shows will threaten the life of live theatre, rest assured knowing that it is in our biology to come together, to sing, dance, talk, emote, touch, reenact and play. No human invention will ever replace that.
Gemma Soldati is an American performing artist. Her focus is clown inspired work developed in front of live audiences.
Read more about Gemma and her work at gemmasoldati.com.