From Stage Light to Blue Light: Artists Navigating Digital Performance
Vân Ánh (Vanessa) Võ performs on the đàn tranh during the film shoot for the film Vân Ánh (Vanessa) Võ: From Vietnamese Masters to Blood Moon Orchestra, now available for viewing by Stanford Live members at the Patron ($100) level and above as well as to current Stanford students. Photo by Kimberly Pross
There is nothing usual about Stanford Live’s fall season.
Pushed by the pandemic to abandon in-person performances, the pivot to an all-digital format has caused performing artists to rethink fundamental aspects of their art forms. How best to address expression, authenticity, distance, intimacy, framing, timing, transitions, the audience-artist connection? How to convey sensory elements such as touch, smell, breath, visuals, and sound in virtual spaces? Importantly, the latency and physical distance of Zoom and other digital platforms disallows the instant give-and-take that occurs in a live performance, where audience response is integral to spontaneous choices made by the performer. An artist’s antennae that once picked up and signaled according to audience energy—cruise with this audience, they’re hooked, or, ramp up, this crowd’s sleepy or doubting—droops or flails in the digital abyss. Even live chat feeds cannot replicate the subtle body language sensitive performers rely on to gauge audience receptivity.
Thankfully, artists are lifelong learners and skilled shapeshifters, as evidenced in conversations with four solo artists or ensembles who are finding ways to reconfigure their art in virtual spaces in Stanford Live’s fall season. Vietnamese musician and Emmy Award–winning composer Vân Ánh (Vanessa) Võ and San Francisco–based Kronos Quartet are included in Stanford Live’s short film series; comedian Colin Quinn appeared in a virtual book tour stop; and the interdisciplinary performance collective Manual Cinema presents a world-premiere online adaptation of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol in December.
Comedian Colin Quinn went on a virtual book tour this fall for his new book, Overstated: A Coast-to-Coast Roast of the 50 States. Photo by Mike Lavoie
Ironically, for artists moving to virtual formats, the first step in reimagining the immediacy and sensory rewards of a live performance is to abandon the idea that the same experience can be created online. Programs that would fill Bing Concert Hall with vibrant sound and visual stimulation enjoyed by elbow-to-elbow audiences are now played on small screens in viewers’ homes. The artists say that conversion from live to virtual is complex, stimulating, and doable, but involves compromises.
“You’re essentially talking to yourself on Zoom. It’s quite lonely in a way a face-to-face meeting isn’t,” says Kronos founder and lead violinist David Harrington about conversations held with Israeli composer Victoria Hanna. The upcoming project required each member of the quartet to become a near-recording engineer. “We had to make films of ourselves. We’ve had to learn a whole lot more about how to operate microphones and cameras. We’re recording eight campaign songs by Michael Gordon. We do Sunny’s part, then Hank’s, then John’s, then it gets to me.” The final stages of the rehearsal sample include work by a sound engineer in the Netherlands, then an arranger in Germany, and afterwards, layering on Hanna’s vocal contributions. “It will be like a virtual letter,” says Harrington.
For the film, he says the challenge is “playing into computers, not into a more-than-music gathering.” He suggests that dramatizing or exaggerating their body language and closeup clips that show water shivering in a glass when struck by a mallet or how rosin on a bow hair causes an angelic sound, will make up for some of the excitement lost by virtual formatting. Harrington worries about young music groups that might not survive, or might never materialize at all. “The world is crumbling around us,” he says, but adds that “it’s important all people take care of themselves, accept responsibility as leaders, and work our way out of this.”
The Kronos Quartet leaned into the digital format to create a unique viewing experience through close-up shots such as footage of water moving in a glass struck by a mallet, which will be part of their second film to be released in 2021. Photo by Kimberly Pross
Võ has selected the program for her short film with a keen eye on the online audience’s attention span. “Online, I have to balance being entertaining, meaningful, and special. I have chosen three songs, so each song has to be drastically different, has to introduce something totally new. I have to set up my instruments between the songs and go directly in—no explaining or slower set-up time I usually use.”
Although her performances are often multimedia presentations that include music videos, Võ instead uses part of the film to talk about learning music from master teachers and Vietnamese culture, history, and traditions. While she appreciates the geographic reach of a virtual space that introduces her work to a worldwide audience, she says, “Live concerts make us feel we are human. I don’t think humans are born to be online at home. We establish community and touch each other profoundly when we are together, in person.”
Brooklyn-based stand-up comedian and author Colin Quinn’s new book, Overstated: A Coast-to-Coast Roast of the 50 States, picks up today’s political scene and the state of our union for a look-see. The Netflix and off-Broadway star has appeared on MTV and SNL, among others, and says that the only new skill he’s acquired since the pandemic shutdown is to have lower expectations for laughter. “Which is actually the ultimate confidence, because it means you don’t wait for the laugh but you assume it’s there.”
Live concerts make us feel we are human. I don’t think humans are born to be online at home. We establish community and touch each other profoundly when we are together, in person.
Launching a book on Zoom versus by book tour is easier because he avoids having to travel to six locations in one day. But zooming from home may come with a downside: “How it affects sales is something I don’t know yet. I can’t imagine it helps,” he admits. Stand-up comedy, Quinn adds ominously, “will be as disembodied and bloodless as the rest of society because of COVID-19 and the lack of human interaction.” Mixing irony and reality, he says, “Good masks make good neighbors. But for comedy? Maybe not.”
Manual Cinema Co-Artistic Director Julia Miller says that, long before COVID-19, all-live theater companies including video in performances was part of the artistic trajectory. Having already worked within digital limits, such as what’s needed for overhead light trajectories and to display Manual Cinema’s terrific puppetry and shadow imagery, the artists were already accomplished problem-solvers. Even so, Miller says, “removing the live audience from the equation has been pretty wild. It’s odd, but you still get the pre-show jitters when there’s no one else in the room other than other performers.”
Manual Cinema's Christmas Carol will be performed live in a socially distanced manner from Manual Cinema's studio in Chicago and live streamed for audiences at home from December 17–19. Photo courtesy of Manual Cinema
No longer able to invite audiences to join them onstage for a close, hands-on look at the mechanisms employed, the online presentation will substitute a live chat Q&A and backstage video tour. “It’s still seeing into the void of a digital exchange, but we’ll do it in a way that’s impactful,” she promises. The adapted Christmas Carol story being told by a woman on a Zoom call was developed, tested, and refined during the summer months, while Manual Cinema’s anniversary programming kept audiences connected online. Strong interest in new works premiering this fall maintains the company’s bottom line until a return to live theater is possible.
Miller says the pandemic brings inequities into sharp relief. She mourns the small, storefront theater companies that may not survive and wonders if for-profit performing arts models are the wave of the future. Despite feeling discouraged on low days, she sees silver linings in the adjustment to virtual space. “The cool thing about putting things online is that audiences are expanded. They have access with just clicking a link. The theater community is scrappy and used to doing a lot with nothing. People have been pushed to be creative in new ways, find new platforms to get work out. Expansion, more accessibility, and creativity—it’s exciting.”
Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by San Francisco Classical Voice, WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, East Bay Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others. She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.