In the olden days of live theater, my cat Zainab would not have distracted a performer from their job. But in the now of Zoom theater, when I am “dialing-in” from home, it’s an actual risk.
Zainab and I participated in a show in the newly digitized Ice Factory festival, we need your listening, created by Velani Dibba, Ilana Khanin, Elizagrace Madrone, and Stephen Charles Smith. It takes an unusual approach to “one-on-one” theater.
The “one-on-one” format was not me face-to-face with an actor or even watching each other through Zoom. But I was on the screen of a device on Zoom and that device was carried by a pair of hands and placed in front of other device screens containing different performers on Zoom. Device-to-device we met in the same room. And in one instance, Zainab impatiently joined in.
Rather than a stage manager using Zoom to blast a digital image seamlessly to my screen, here there was an analog mediator doing the physical moving and arranging. Grabbing hold of my screen and carrying me away, sometimes I would arrive when the performer was in mid-monologue and, at other times, they seemed to be waiting for me.
As my screen was transported through the room, sometimes I was cast into darkness with just disembodied voices warbling in the background. I could see glowing screens far from me. I never knew where I might land or who I might meet. Geography was unknown.
It all ended up a sort of a Zoom roulette, but intentionally constructed to cast light on our layers of separation.
The audience was kept small and we could see each other at the start as we milled around the digital lobby in gallery view on Zoom. But we were instructed to shift to speaker view for the show and the other faces went on their own uniquely crafted journeys I guess.
At the start of the show, the audience was asked to engage in the “radically active listening.” It was purportedly unscripted and the actors would be sharing “things we feel right now.” Audience cameras were on, so the performers could see us and speak directly to us, but we were muted. Another kind of mediation.
Some performers asked questions of me and instinctively I found myself broadly shaking my head “yes” or “no.” I also inadvertently admitted to being a fan of a TV show I’ve never seen (I confused The OA with The OC). Maybe not the best evidence of my radically active listening.
I got a compliment on my glasses (thanks Sam Gonzalez), but then was whisked away before a connection was allowed to develop with a bit of disappointment in Gonzalez’s voice. Or was I projecting?
In the snippets of stories I heard were recipes shared, childhood memories, adult recollections, and ways these artists liked to engage in listening (for one, it’s more effective if you sit on the floor). At only 30 minutes, the brevity of these interactions and the impersonal nature at times made me wonder about the “need” in the title. I maybe inadvertently expected a more politically focused evening.
There were stories that touched on identity, analysis of American culture, race, and familial connection, but I got whisked away from them far too quickly. When I arrived for each interaction, I would have to strain to see an actor’s name on their screen. I was not sure how to serve this work.
I really like the sensation of showing up for a performer. In one-on-one theater, it can feel like a whole-body demand. Active listening can be intense. Some people avoid it because of this. But have grown to enjoy my presence as part of the show.
While I listened (I will chalk the TV lie up to struggling to hear the audio, apologies Julia Greer), I often did not feel needed any more than I might in any show where I’m an audience member out there in the dark.
I wanted to honor each story and each person, but the show wasn’t quite asking me to do that. Or if it was asking, it was not letting me. One performer told a really personal story about dropping out of college, but I could not see her name and her screen was blown out too brightly to see her face. Her humanity (and performance) was somehow structurally erased and it left me pained.
Maybe this was all meant to be a reflection on our New York lives, when you hear an interesting story being told between people on the subway, but they leave before you get to hear the story end. We brush up against each other, but we do not always connect. These days we aren’t even allowed that kind of proximity. But eavesdropping is not the same as listening.
There were moments that the format, framing, and storytelling worked. Hilary Asare shared her exhaustion after creating a show last year about Black joy and the root of why she was driven to do so. It was the rare interaction where I got to hear almost her entire story. It came shaded with such details and context I left it richer and more informed. The need for me to listen was clear.
In a way, Zainab’s uninvited presence made for one of the few moments of being truly together in a room with an actor. Performer Sam Im was supposed to read a letter on “what was radical about listening” for his portion of the show. He attempted to do that when Zainab leapt up on my lap and “entered the chat.”
There’s only so long two people can ignore the aggressive presence of a small black feline in the “room”, with a black tail flitting about the screen and thwacking me in the face. As Im was talking about the radicality of individuality, Zainab asserted her own. Finally, he acknowledged her being there and shared that he recently got a cat of his own. For a moment, it felt like we were united in cat.
I will take that connection.