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As Pandemic Continues, Theater Becomes Increasingly Personal Online

See performing arts are faring in a pandemic on "Southland Sessions" E4: Dance Break. Watch now.

For the first three weeks of Safer at Home, immersive theater company Capital W didn't try to make art. Instead, co-founders Lauren Ludwig and Monica Miklas checked in with collaborators to see how they were doing. People were so hungry to connect that something clicked.

“What have we been doing all this time as immersive theater artists if this isn’t the moment to use it?” Ludwig asked.

Immersive theater is often intimate, with performers and actors in close contact. Capital W’s “Red Flags” was a “date” between you and a young woman you’d met on a dating site. “Rochester, 1996” explored a queer teen’s Christian upbringing, largely from within a cramped church van. With those kinds of experiences off the table, could intimacy be replicated online?

Capital W reworked “Red Flags” for Zoom, where audience members seemed less inclined to play armchair therapist to their troubled date, and more into empathizing about how we’re all living in trauma now.

Capital W also launched “What Do You Need?,” a series of four meditations about connecting to the present moment. Miklas’s contribution was a personalized meditation she read as you took a bath. Ludwig helped you conduct a ritual. Martha Marion prepared a custom playlist for dancing, and Mason Flink took you on a walking tour of your neighborhood’s plants. Each was incredibly bespoke, shaped by how the guest answered a pre-show questionnaire or responded inside the experience.

I did Ludwig’s meditation in early May. She asked me what I wanted out of my ritual, then sent me a list of supplies based on what I had at home. Over Zoom, she led breathing exercises, I sketched scenes in a notebook at her suggestion, and she sent me on a mental journey. After it was over, she read me a poem. She was one of the first people outside of my household I had “seen,” albeit virtually, sans mask, in weeks.

I had wanted that connection with another person. Other audience members wanted to relax, experience a sense of lightness or process grief. Miklas said one person told her they used their bath meditation for “a good cry.”

Monika Miklas records a performance for "What Do You Need?" | Capital W
Monika Miklas records a performance for "What Do You Need?" | Capital W

In many ways, “What Do You Need?” became more intimate than Capital W’s real-life shows had been. Each piece was tailored to its sole audience member, but it was more than that.

Miklas had offered her friends meditative baths before the pandemic. She'd invite them to her home where she'd draw a bath, make tea and play a pre-recorded meditation over a Bluetooth speaker while she went elsewhere. On Zoom, the guest turned their camera off, and Miklas did the meditation live.

“I would have moments where I’d pull myself out of it and be like, ‘This is incredibly intimate,” she said. “You’re literally naked, and someone who maybe is a stranger is talking to you.’ It’s an incredible amount of trust. I’m trusting that they’re not going to do anything weird. They’re trusting that I’m going to hold space for them and be mindful and sensitive to how vulnerable they are. But, of course, making yourself that vulnerable allows for the magic of intimacy to happen.”

Not only do the experiences change the participants, but even the organizers as well. Writing for each person gave Miklas a renewed sense of purpose after she found herself slipping into depression and cycles of negative self-talk at the onset of the pandemic. For Ludwig, she found being present with someone else became a rejuvenating “well of energy.”

“To go into that space, to lead somebody else there, I have to go with them,” she said. “So, I am also in the meditation. I am deeply dropping into my own imagination.”

Capital W has since finished its run of both shows, but is offering two new shows inspired by the current events in California: “Fire Season” and “A Call From the Resistance.” “Fire Season” takes place outside at Paramount Ranch, where guests explore trails independently while listening to a broadcast of essays on wildfires, mythology, motherhood, and climate change. Paramount Ranch burned in the 2018 Woolsey Fire, the remnants of which are still visible as you hike. “A Call From the Resistance” is a free, remote show in which one of the resistance’s “volunteers” will help you process the political climate, America’s past, and a possible future.

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Immersive artist Shayne Eastin found increased agility and surprising connections when she pivoted to online shows too.

Before the pandemic, she was preparing to launch two new theatrical works, acting in a web series based on the tabletop RPG “Vampire: The Masquerade,” and about to start a motion capture job for a video game.

When it all stopped, Eastin felt depressed “but it was almost like a depression of the collective consciousness.”

“I began thinking about the comfort I needed and the answers I would be looking for, and I tried to build a show based on that while maintaining my personal brand of theater, which carries themes of sci-fi, the supernatural and suspense,” she said.

The result, “Out There,” is a short, tense, and yet oddly heartwarming piece that takes place over Zoom. Eastin plays an FBI agent who brings you in for what feels like a remote interrogation, though there’s nothing to insinuate you’re in trouble. There’s just something you don't remember, and what you do remember may be incorrect.

Shayne Eastin performs "Out There" over Zoom | Shayne Eastin
Shayne Eastin performs "Out There" over Zoom | Shayne Eastin

Despite the lack of in-person contact or theatrical flourish, Eastin, like Ludwig and Miklas, says it’s been even easier to achieve vulnerability and intimacy with her audience. Some people cried. Others got angry not at Eastin, but when left to weigh the difficulties of their lives with the revelations unearthed by their experience of “Out There.”

“I think that with headphones on, in your own secret phone call from the comfort of your own home, it might be easier to access feelings or suspend disbelief,” Eastin says.

Jose Richard Aviles — a dancer, poet, singer, urban planner and all-around performer — described the new dichotomy of voyeur and exhibitionist as part of the intimacy. The frame has become the stage while one's home is now the theater. With their webcam on, the artist is now keenly aware of their face and home while performing. If you’re in a virtual ‘audience’ on Zoom where your camera is on — such as in The Geffen’s “The Present” — audience members may be watching you and peering into your home.

Jose Richard Aviles | Argel Rojo
Jose Richard Aviles | Argel Rojo

Aviles performed a 45-minute show, “Callejera,” over Instagram Live. They draped a scarf over the camera to simulate a rising curtain when the show began. They strategically placed costumes and props around their house to seamlessly transition from scene to scene.

“I am dancing in my room like no one is watching while there’s a lot of people watching,” Aviles said.

 I didn't see Aviles's Instagram show but signed up for a one-on-one poetry reading via The Poetry Brothel. When I first logged into Zoom, I could see Aviles’s family in the background and hear a baby cooing. They settled to a quieter upstairs bedroom where they pointed out the Michael Jordan sticker in the background was their brother’s. I was Zooming from my bedroom. The poem they read to me was about the pronouns they relate to — he, they, ella, desmadrosa. It was funny, touching, and, when read from one bedroom to another, incredibly personal. It felt like I was having a slumber party with a stranger who quickly no longer felt like one. It reminded me of the chance encounters we no longer have with people in bars, in lines, on public transit, where someone would reveal a bit of themselves to us.

For Aviles, the transition from the stage to the internet has been a matter of rethinking composition. Aviles notes that artists are, by nature, problem-solvers.
 "Sometimes, these images just come into our minds, and our job is to create the condition to physicalize that image," they said.

If your body is now larger than the stage because it’s become a small square in someone’s hands, you can experiment with that, perhaps by using just your fingers to dance. And even though your audience may be on mute and far away, Aviles can still tell when they connect.
"You always have one or two people who have not muted their microphone, and you hear background noise, and that’s fine. You learn to be in the moment. But I sing in the beginning [of my piece] and the resonance of this note, I knew to myself — I don’t know how to explain it — that I had everyone’s attention. And that’s the thing we miss so much as artists, that reciprocal relationship. So when I experienced that moment, I knew there’s still a way to captivate an audience.” Aviles also shares his poetry and performance on Grand Park’s Easy Mornings video series.

It’s these unexpected moments that nurture both the performer and participant during a time when in-person interaction is rare. If we’re willing to experiment with a medium we once mostly used for awkward work meetings, we can learn about ourselves, our capacity and need for intimacy and empathy and how we connect with art.

We can also use this medium to collapse physical distance. Artists can perform for or connect with audiences across the world. Eastin had hoped to provide an access point for people new to immersive or interactive theater; now, she plays in small towns for people who've never done anything like it.

“Doing this show has given me such purpose and perspective in such an uncertain time. I've made connections with people that I will never forget,” Eastin said.

One audience member in Florida even engaged Eastin in a long philosophical conversation about her show’s themes.

Ludwig encourages anyone who feels the urge to create to do so now, even if things feel strange.

“Anyone who’s waiting for things to change to make theater again, I really wish they wouldn’t because we desperately need theater and connection,” she said. “We’re in a unique moment now where I’ve encouraged people to think smaller, be more localized, reach out to just your community, do something for just your household, do something that’s just online for 20 people. Find ways to do this because it did actually feed a very similar part of me — and I think a part of our audience — as our live shows did.”

Top Image: Empty red velvet chairs | Felix Mooneeram / Unsplash

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