In these socially-distant times, can we find ways to enjoy live performance together? Sibyl Kempson and her company, 7 Daughters of Eve, have invented an online form that shows we can.
Church of Zoom
On Sunday April 26th, an audience of 135 people joined a Zoom call. We were invited into an experience that combined the gestures of traditional religion with the particulars of Zoom. The vocabulary around the experience evoked religiosity while avoiding self-seriousness: it was not religious but relig-ish.
As an example, I arrived early for the 11am Sunday morning Joinification Ceremony and was held in the Narthex Waiting Room.
So was this going to be an out-and-out send-up, all mock and hijinx, or would the over-the-top set-up be able to generate the kind of real emotional connection that I look for in theater? And just how was real emotion going to show up on a group Zoom call? After an orchestrated hour of traveling through virtual holy spaces, my hope for shared catharsis – communion even – was fulfilled.
The company’s founder, Sibyl Kempson, is a playwright who has played with the absurd, fantastical, and fringe aspects of our shared belief systems her whole career–from reanimation in puppets to the cult of the Yeti to how we can notice sentience in potatoes and pumpkins.
From 2016 to 2018, Kempson made a cycle of ritual performances on every Solstice and every Equinox at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s location in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan. About those performances, Kempson has said, “I meant for them to be healing rituals, which to a certain degree I believe they were, and certainly not because I knew very much about ritual technology. I did learn some. We learned. We learned by doing.”
This latest project, the Church of FemAnimism, Kempson and her company continue to give the audience the chance to learn by doing. The surprising thing about the new work is how delicate it manages to be despite the blunt virtual platform on which it’s staged.
The company exploits facets of the medium in satisfying ways. The limits of a computer camera naturally make a proscenium fit for small characters: it’s a good puppet stage. Joinification began with a welcome from a totem animal, a crow named Corvid 91.
While many of us have noticed, with frustration, the trying nature of the green screen technology built-in to Zoom, it is amazing that the software can track your body and fill in the rest with a virtual background. It is less amazing when it makes a mistake, letting your bedroom suddenly gleam through your hair or erasing half your face. Kempson and her cohorts maximized the glitches, using the patchy body recognition to make themselves seem insubstantial, other-worldly (see Pic 1).
The transcendent vibe was heightened through a baroque selection of virtual backdrops, from Kempson’s own use of Arnold Böcklin’s 19th c. painting The Isle of the Dead to such architectural wonders as the Munich Kaisersaal and the Basilica Birnau of Bodensee, to more generalized locations like a patterned background, a video of licking flames, or a forest with beams of light bursting through the trees. There was even a baptism-like performance in someone’s bathroom. In this Zoom meeting, the gallery view resembled an actual picture gallery (see below).
Dress for Church
A good rule of thumb: when you leave the house, dress as if you or someone you’re with might be caught making history.
7 Daughters of Eve prove that rule holds true even in virtual meetings. Leveraging the fact that in this show the audience saw each other just as much as they saw the performers, the invitation email had encouraged costuming. I ignored it.
When I turned the video call on, however, I was surprised and delighted that it looked like a Burning Man Party. I turned my video off, rummaged in my house for accessories, changed my name to a funky alias, then tuned back in. The fact that I had felt underdressed made it seem like I was actually showing up somewhere. It mattered to be seen, just like in actual Church.
The audience-costuming was one part that made me feel like a truly novel thing was happening: as a group, we were contributing to a sort of durational painting on the screen. We were composing ourselves so that all together we made something beautiful. No one was making it happen; it was just happening, like a murmuration.
Exploiting the mash-up of Sunday sermon and Zoom meeting, an attendee named The Confessor Eleanor Hutchins Fish-Squid Woman invited us to confess to her via private chat. I sent a confession as a bottle into the ocean, not expecting anything more. However, later in the hour, I received a penance.
A chat box, from a certain perspective, is in fact the shape of a confessional.
Breaking a Fourth Wall that was never there
While gratitude is a value highlighted in Christian contexts, quite frankly, I usually feel grateful in meetings when they are interrupted or end. There was a suitable excuse for gratitude in this ceremony, one that touched deep into genuine thankfulness at the same time that it broke the imprisonment of staring at a screen. We were instructed to move.
Donna Brickwood, Mentress and Guide, appeared as a diaphanous wood nymph with beams of light coming through her body. “Close your eyes,” she said. Then, quite simply, I was no longer trapped looking at a screen: my eyes were closed.
“Now,” she went on, “Raise up your arms.” I did it without even knowing if I looked good doing it. I was not watching the thing happening; I was doing the thing. Just as I was getting tempted to peek, we got another instruction. “Look to the heavens.” I cannot recall if the Mentress asked us to be grateful, but being with other people and not feeling forced to stare at them was cause enough for hosanna.
I was ready to listen closely when the Mentress and Guide spoke.
Take a drink, sip up the earth’s energy through your roots, sip it up with your breath, Your life force energy.
Taking your hands now and drawing up energy from the earth raising your hands up towards the sky, up towards the sun, up towards higher planes of consciousness, universal support.
May we call upon our guides, our guardians, our protectors to surround us like the wind shielding us with a force field of protection, may we continue to look each other in the eyes and see beauty, light, and well being in the other. Reach high to the sky, allowing the sun’s rays to pour upon you.
May this light surround our Earth, and all of Earth’s creatures, the temple of creation, with peace, harmony and collective collaboration.
It was a delight to see the company find solutions for technical aspects of a performance in the absence of a theater. Where a lighting grid creates focus, Zoom has a “spotlight” feature. Instead of turning on a mic, they muted everyone else. To show bits of film, they switched to screen share.
The final beat of the Zoom performance found a way to also mirror theater. You could argue that a stage show doesn’t end at the last line, but rather when the audience finishes clapping.
In the Joinification, the spotlight returned to Kempson at the end, and she asked for a minute of silence. She rang a meditation bell while the spotlight then scrolled through the faces of the people in the audience. There was tense pleasure, brooding anxiety, and openness, among other things. I got to see what I wanted to see, was able to see, needed to see in the others. And thusly we strangers, joined together in holy Zoom, became a group.
A new financial model: Holding it together, together
Another innovation adapted for our times is the financial model proposed by the 7 Daughters. The Church of FemAnimism offers paid subscriptions to receive regular spiritual advice.
Using the Church model of giving money for spiritual return is clever, ironic, and also much deeper. When we come together for performance, we call it entertainment. Entertainment means “holding together,” or supporting each other. Theater is church. We join to share our spiritual longing and to work with one another to fulfill its needs.
Kempson adds, “The current crisis offers an opportunity – albeit with the heaviest and most grievous of strings attached – to find new modes of making and offering to the deities of our times.”
And that is what 7 Daughters of Eve is doing with the Church of FemAnimism. Kempson says she wants to “lavish the current age with new and also refurbished mythology and contemporary ceremonial practices.” It’s a new performance series from an innovative company; it’s a new church; it’s a new way to hold each other. Rather than buying a ticket to a show, the idea is to unite around a desire to be together in this new thing.
We’re not buying a seat, but we’re buying into the idea of encouraging into existence a new way of being together.
See more at the company’s Patreon, where you can sign up to take part in the next sermon.