Expanded Performance Category

All Hanging Out Around Things We Love

by Matthew Austin, MAYK

Back in February, in what would be my last live performance experience as an audience member, I went to see Anna Meredith at Trinity. The crowd were fascinating: old-school metal-heads moshing to my left; a couple in their late 50s arm in arm to my right. Everyone packed together, elbows jostling, weaving through the crowd to get closer to the front; Anna Meredith’s glittering, swooshy rhythms making all of our hearts beat faster.

In November it was five years since Sanctum, the project by Theaster Gates that we produced with Situations as part of Bristol Green Capital. 552 hours of continuous sound, 24 hours a day for 24 days, in a beautiful wooden structure in the bombed-out ruins of Temple Church in Bristol. An epic journey of togetherness; a gathering space that took on its own meaning for anyone who encountered it. A space where you could spend time alone – just you and the person performing – or with a crowd of people.

Assembly, gathering, coming together, has been almost impossible over the past few months. We have gathered virtually of course. Tiny rectangles on screens. But those moments of human connection where the hairs bristle, where you can feel the energy of people around you, where you can smell the people around you - those have been few and far between in 2020.

There was a widely shared blog in the early days of the pandemic by Nicholas Berger called ‘The Forgotten Art of Assembly, or Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making’, in which Berger shared a quote by Chinua Achebe from Things Fall Apart “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”

"those moments of human connection where the hairs bristle, where you can feel the energy of people around you, where you can smell the people around you - those have been few and far between in 2020."

Being there when you can’t be there

As part of our research for the Expanded Performance programme, we have been thinking about isolation. And specifically about how we might be able to use technology to create a sense of togetherness for people who are watching live performance from a place of isolation.

I don’t really want to write a blog about live streaming and how it’s brought theatre into people’s homes like never before. We know that we have made some pretty radical changes to the way we understand how to experience theatre over the past few months. We also know that there is a risk that as soon as we’re able to ‘go back to normal’, many of the people who have ‘pivoted’ online will slip easily and quietly back into the way they worked prior to the pandemic. And that means that lots of people who excluded even before the pandemic will be left behind.

We’re interested in what makes a meaningful and rich experience for an audience member, that gives them the sense of being part of something – a gathering. What does ‘being there’ mean when you can’t be there.

So perhaps we’re not asking ‘how can we use technology to give people who are isolated meaningful experiences’. Perhaps we’re asking ‘how can we use technology to bring people together in virtual or physical space to enhance their experience of live performance’?

On the BBC Radio 4 programme The Digital Human (which also features Expanded Fellow Ellie Chadwick), Canadian music duo Blond:ish talk about using Twitch and how previously her interaction with fans at gigs would be ‘a smile’ but with going live on Twitch “the sense of connection is insane. We’re all around the world, and we’re all hanging out around things we love”

Marketing people have been talking about this for a while in relation to how we talk to our audiences. Whereas marketing used to be about selling ‘push’ marketing, now it’s all about conversation and connection (‘pull’ marketing). However much you believe that to be genuine, of course. Is Miley Cyrus really telling people to shave their heads, or is it her social team making sure her new album is shared and shared and shared.

We’ve played around with some gentle ideas over the past few months: a crowd-sourced, all request playlist for what would have been our opening party of Mayfest 2020; an intimate solo audio experience version of Raquel Meseguer Zafe’s A Crash Course in Cloudspotting where audience members were sent a beautifully-made booklet to read alongside the audio work (Raquel talked about wanting the digital version of her work to maintain a sense of ‘gathering’ rather than it feeling like it was being ‘dispersed’); the beginnings of transforming Verity Standen’s gorgeous Undersong into a binaural sound piece; the streaming of Still House’s Of Riders and Running Horses as part of Bristol Arts Channel.

For me, it’s not the making possible of the experience that’s the thing, it’s the way in which we are made to feel part of something with other people that makes it special, in the same way that we like to gather in a theatre bar and drink before a show (sometimes we like this more than the show). Theatre is not a solo pursuit. People will only not feel isolated if they are able to experience something and feel like they’re not on their own.

Facebook, obvs, has caught onto this with their Watch Party feature. I also feel it through YouTube chat when watching a live stream. But some other, more imaginative tools have achieved the same thing for me recently.

"If we want to create a world where people who can’t be there can be there (either because of geography, health or otherwise) then we need to look at what the quality of experience we want audiences to have."

Half an experience?

A few weeks ago at my kitchen table, after dinner I went to Duckie’s 25th Birthday Party. Peering into laptop screens were veterans of London’s alternative LGBT scene dancing along in their living rooms with younger LGBT people who probably weren’t born when Duckie started. Duckie had really thought about how to involve their community in the event – people had submitted photos of themselves that were stuck onto cardboard cut-outs of people dotted about the room. Jonny Woo – the host – weaving in and out of the ‘crowd’ as he introduced each of the night’s acts. I would consider myself an interloper into Duckie’s community – I’ve only been a handful of times – but there was something wonderful about feeling part of a family that night.

I felt similarly as an attendee of GIFT’s post-show cocktail party with Bert & Nasi and Artres Bandes. It was a genuinely fun and open and not cliquey way of feeling like you were at a festival in Gateshead when you were in Bristol.

But I am yet to see something which tries to engage both live and digital audiences simultaneously without the digital audience feeling like they’ve got half an experience.

As usual, Tanuja Amarasuriya puts it better than I ever could in her Expanded Performance blog:

I’m interested in how technology might elicit and enable this “emotional immersion” for audiences in different ways – including where the audience may be physically separate from the live performance. How can different technologies evoke a sense of liveness that isn’t about trying to replicate what a live performer does, but that creates a sense of liveness on its own terms?

If we want to create a world where people who can’t be there can be there (either because of geography, health or otherwise) then we need to look at what the quality of experience we want audiences to have? Why are we bringing these people together? From there we can begin to design experiences for people ‘in the room’ and people ‘in their rooms’ that have the same purpose but different qualities.

Image credit: Max McClure