by Todd Ellis, Director of Teaching and Learning, Grayson College

This post is the second in a two-part series and is, in part, a response to last month’s post, Ready Player One, Hamilton, and Me: ‘Liveness,’ Mediated Communication, and Building Relationships in a Virtual World” by DigiTex Executive Director Judith Sebesta.

I recently “attended” my first virtual play. North Central Texas College Drama and Grayson College Theatre collaborated on the play adaptation of Orwell’s 1984. Wow, what a truly heroic, timely, and exciting production that was! I saw the process firsthand because my wife Alison is the director of Grayson College Theatre, and I could hear rehearsals happening every evening from my living room, live-yet-extremely-mediated over Zoom.

Directors Thom Talbott at North Central Texas College and Alison Trapp at Grayson College won Excellence in Collaborative Education awards from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival for this virtual production.

The question “What is liveness?” was foremost in my mind as I watched this amazing and challenging technical feat. While I certainly very much enjoyed “attending” this “live” theatre in my skull jammies and with my pup in my lap, I found myself on the paradoxical verge of tears and joy for the heroic attempts of this ancient art form to continue to stay alive and relevant. A large part of the drama for me, in addition to the mediated-yet-live drama itself, was simply the bearing of witness to the newly critical precariousness of drama itself as an art form. I wondered if my own emotional reactions were examples of the “softening of culture” about which the Rutgers intellectual Naomi Klein was lately speaking?

What constituted the liveness of this virtual production of 1984? It was certainly the shared mics and projected facial images in real and unedited time. There was some very quality live and unedited acting within the confines of a movement space of about six square feet for each actor. It turns out that so much of live acting occurs, indeed, in the face and especially the eyes. However, since there was no blocking, actors couldn’t elaborate contextual clues via spatial positioning. This was something I could actually do in Mozilla Hubs, clunky though it was. I could move to the porch and mope and blink to my heart’s content, for what it’s worth.

Did the liveness in this virtual 1984 consist of the vulnerability of actors being unable to evade or edit mistakes? Not that there were any; the actors seemed remarkably flawless. But I was hyper aware of the possibility of a mistake happening unlike anything I experience when I’m watching Netflix. Yes, there was the occasional random dog bark during one evening’s production, but that’s our new world and I thought the distant bark went well with the tone of menace already present in Orwell’s work. Does liveness now mean random barks or the surprise appearance of puppy faces poking into our frames and licking keyboards? It apparently does in my world. My enthusiastic border collies are like reminders of healthy chaos and my ultimate inability to control much. It’s certainly authentic.

There is a cutting-edge reality to the possibility of error in virtual theatre; it’s authentic in that sense. Actors might mess up, speak out of turn, forget a line! Alison told me of a technical issue that was only solved by having actors push the boundaries of what little authenticity they still had. There was an obvious time gap after actors spoke caused, apparently, by a delay in the speed of electricity moving over numerous power cables. Some of the actors weren’t even in the same state. So the directors asked the actors to break a cardinal rule of acting by anticipating when to speak. They had to speak their lines early in order to achieve lifelike speech patterns that made up for the slowed mediation of electricity in power lines. I found myself thinking increasingly of the polarity between authentic and inauthentic and liveness vs. aliveness and about how the actors had to use moments of inauthenticity in performance in order to achieve authenticity through the mediation.

Theatre is live. Virtual theatre is live as well, but not to the same extent. Virtual theatre is a more mediated liveness. Virtual theatre is clearly more live than, say, a Netflix movie. But what does that mean for my experience of it? Other than the back-of-my mind thought that this is obviously being performed in real time, it also means, not so obviously, that it is more vulnerable, spontaneous, and unpredictable. In short, it is more alive than is film in a world now obsessed with a growing realization of an emerging nearness of potential death.

At one point during the Halloween performance for 1984 an actor saw on his computer that Streamyard, the video hosting platform for the performances, was draining his battery and his computer would die in 15 minutes. He managed to message the quick-thinking and highly competent stage manager who immediately decided to access a recorded performance from a previous night, fast forward it to where the live play currently was roughly in real time, and switched from the live performance to a recording of a previous live performance. The audience only saw a brief black out. The more observant in the audience may have noticed a changed hairstyle in one of the actors. So, mediated liveness merged with recorded mediated liveness. I don’t have an adequate vocabulary for this.

I used to live in downtown Salt Lake City. In place of a TV set, I had a set of binoculars in my living room for guests to watch the always live human drama unfolding on the bustling streets below. This was the truest degree of liveness achievable, I think, as the unscripted spontaneity and unpredictability of a Freudian attraction, aggression, and indifference played out below in periodic bursts live before our lens-mediated eyes. It was also mediated by four floors of distance.

As I get pandemic fatigued while the virus expands, I realize I may need an algorithm to help me decide how much aliveness I’ll risk in any scenario for the sake of collaborative liveness. Live is always a mediated form of life. In the end there is just life and everything live is a mediated abstraction from that lived, transient, and ultimately inexplicable moment. How much un-mediation will I risk today for authenticity’s sake?

“So get away from the screen, go outside,” I tell myself every evening, even as I increasingly choose not to follow my own advice, “into the synchronous presence of life in the world now, such as it is, predictably unpredictable, my breath mediated through a mask, and just hang out with an un-mediated tree or a puppy.” Tomorrow I will log in again to mediated life in order to help keep myself and others safe and alive.