By now, you’ve probably become an amateur expert on one or more of the various video-calling platforms made ubiquitous by the pandemic. Indeed, with the technology of Zoom and Google Teams and FaceTime at our fingertips, we could make the argument that functionally, social distancing hasn’t really changed the substance of our daily lives at all. The medium may be different, but the meat of the message is the same, right? We can still have school. We can still have book clubs and fitness classes and theatre — even the unique brand of theatre done at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse. Maybe we can’t be in a room together, but we are living in the future, with technology that can circumvent that pesky problem! Right?
By now, you’ve probably also become an amateur expert on the infuriating limitations of the one or more various video-calling platforms made ubiquitous by the pandemic. I often use FaceTime with my friends and Google Teams with my family, and I have been using Zoom to teach Shakespeare for over two months now. I feel as qualified as anybody (and perhaps more qualified than most) to add my voice to the growing chorus of frustration, dismay, and despair about using these programs to replace schools, fitness classes, book clubs, theatre, and indeed all forms of social interaction as if such a thing were possible, or perhaps even desirable. The latter may be true for some (I can’t speak for everyone) but it doesn’t matter because the former is not true for anyone. Virtual Life is not Real Life, and Zoom fatigue is real. The face on the screen is not in the room with you, even if it is able to see you and respond to you in something close to real time (what I call “social availability”). The illusion is compelling, but not complete. Which is why I’m so tired, and a little bit worried.
On May 7 Joseph Haj, Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theatre, announced on YouTube that the Guthrie would be cancelling the entirety of their 2020 season in response to the pandemic. In his announcement, he talked about why they decided to cancel the season rather than film the productions and stream them for viewers instead, as so many theatres (including the American Shakespeare Center) have suddenly had to do:
“Watching actors perform on screen is engaging and entertaining; it’s an art form in and of itself and we have a name for it — that’s what ‘film’ is, and that’s what ‘TV’ is — but I don’t think it’s theatre. The very premise of theatre is gathering people together in a shared space to enjoy a shared experience.”
“Being in a room together” is theatre’s contextual baseline. It’s the bare minimum requirement we need to meet in order to do the thing we do. At the American Shakespeare Center, context is everything — we put Shakespeare’s plays up in a room that looks like the one Shakespeare used — which perhaps gives us a better perspective on the consequences of severing the form from its format. Shakespeare’s plays were no more intended for Zoom than they were intended for film or indeed for a modern Broadway theatre with a proscenium stage and a darkened audience. Can they still be done well in those other contexts? Absolutely! (Shakespeare’s dead, and who cares what he intended, anyway?) But we’ve also found through experience that it’s really hard, and any success is often due to Shakespeare’s plays themselves being good enough to survive being transplanted into a totally new medium.
Zoom may very well be its own brand new performance medium, and we should explore that medium to the fullest of its potential rather than try to twist it into serving as a permanent replacement for the live theatre it so emphatically is not. If we release Zoom from the responsibility of replacing the entirely different medium of “live theatre” and just let it be the thing that it is, we may find much to enjoy about it (like Bill Irwin’s 10-minute play In-Zoom).
Applying this theatrical conclusion to the realm of education leads me to believe that we really need to stop thinking of online learning as a 1:1 replacement for the physical classroom. It’s not, and if we release it from that context then we have a better chance of figuring out what it actually is. What can we do online that we can’t do in the classroom, and how might we keep doing whatever we find useful about online learning once we’re back in that classroom?
The virtual realm has endless potential for both the theatre and the classroom, but we’re all missing whatever that might be because we’re so focused on using it to facsimilate what we’ve lost to the pandemic instead. But what we’ve lost to the pandemic is something that cannot be facsimilated — genuine social interaction — and we’re burning ourselves out trying to make it happen anyway. We need to stop and recognize that our technology has given us a stopgap, not a reprieve. We should be using these video platforms to tide us over until we can get back in the room together, not so that we never have to.