I screen, you screen

Good morning! What were you supposed to be doing today? 

I had plans to board a plane to fly to my mom’s for Easter. After that, I had a week back at CCM, followed by three weeks in Washington DC, finally arriving in Llano for a “well-deserved vacation.”

That was before. Every day I think about how we’re living through an era the whole world will remember. 

Here at the end of week 3 in Llano, I hope wherever you are that you are safe and well. We are fine. We miss our friends terribly. We worry about friends who are sick, and have had a few to mourn. A much larger grief for the greater numbers is always in the background, along with a constant thrum of worry about our business, economy, and future. 

Our situation is fortunate. 

Every day, I’m discovering how to continue work and relationship with my students. To do this without the great equalizing factor of our school spaces is profound and enlightening. Their circumstances vary so greatly: who can or cannot practice, who can or cannot get home to their people, who is or is not still employed, who does or does not have a relatively safe environment. Meeting people where they are each day has taken on a whole new meaning. 

And yet there these artists are, engaging however they are able. 

Jordan, Victor, Amber, Erica, Victoria, Anyee, Shannon, Brenda, Tony, Raven, Carlos, Bin, Teresa, Justin, John, Yang, Victoria, Chelsea, Michael, Jordan, and Brittany: thank you. 

I’m thinking about these people at the start of their artistic journey as I also consider a debate among my colleagues that’s arisen in the last few days: whether or not we should be “making” during the quarantine. 

An article that’s gotten a fair amount of play has asserted that we should not. The writer’s pain and fatigue in the face of personal and communal grief is palpable and compelling. I respect their honesty. Their writing awakens major empathy in me. They make me think. 

One of the writer’s assertions is that too much of the current online performance isn’t good, and that it’s our “excellence” that we must preserve for the moment that theater is live again. I just don’t agree. Activity and connection spur creation. More activity equals more chance for real breakthrough, innovation, and genius. More activity also means more things that suck. Bring it, I say. Any creator knows that you often suck on the way to being great. As for the art that’s just mediocre? Well, it was always there, you just never saw it before. Now the only way we can connect is online. Make room.

Another assertion in the essay is that it’s disrespectful or shallow to do your high school choir Zoom collaborations or one-minute play readings while people are dying down the street. I feel and acknowledge this pain: what does our little entertaining business matter against a global pandemic? But there’s privilege in this statement too, as we weather a crisis from which none of us may hide. People were dying down the street five weeks ago: unjustly incarcerated, denied asylum, lacking access to care, left in dangerous circumstances with no protection. Are artists less shallow if they create in joy while society’s pain is physically, economically, or socially removed from them? Is it only “meaningless” when the pain comes to your doorstep, or when a majority of people are feeling it? If we accept that injustice and devastation are everywhere, does that mean it’s never okay to create? 

I don’t think the world’s pain and awfulness is a reason to stop creating, although it well might be profound enough to knock creators to the ground. No one is required to stand up before they are ready. But for some, creation or its attempt is a way to navigate that pain. (YMMV)

Lastly, the writer divides the world of live performance from what we do on screens. I agree with them that what we do in theater (and live music, a very special form of theater) is dependent on the assembly and its magic, the throb of many souls together in a place. I can also empathize with their feeling that to try and transfer this to the internet is to debase it. “The internet will not save us – we will,” they write. And part of me thinks, YES. 

But…do we just wait until then? What if the only way for us to experience “we” is through our online connections?

I can’t really speak about the world of theater, which is the writer’s world. But certainly, in the world of music, we classical types are late to the internet party. Billie Eilish, Snarky Puppy, Jacob Collier – all that music was, not too long ago, kids putting their stuff up on line. And they put their stuff up after years of music that preceded them, ranging from crap to meh to not bad. 

I agree that what we do is live and acoustic at its heart. It’s also always been underwritten by others (and whether we try creating internet things or not, those same large institutions and their backers are live-streaming our work as fast as they can). Right now, we face months of people unable to gather for live, acoustic shows, along with an economic period that will severely affect our donor base. So, again…do we just wait? 

(We’re also having to look with a great deal of pain at how much of our industry’s economics depends on us selling ourselves to each other, but that’s another post.)

It’s not necessary for everyone to start putting videos on the Internet – and it’s never necessary for people who are afraid and grieving to do anything, to prove anything, for any reason. But it might be a good time to start experimenting with ways to engage with each other, in isolation, through our classical repertoire. Who knows what we might inspire in each other, what we might invent – whom we might attract. 

And if some or a lot of it sucks? Is mediocre? Forgettable? Salieri, Spohr, and all their proud compatriots welcome you to the land of the also-rans. Good try. 

And if you’re just singing or reading some poetry because you’re bored, or afraid, or like the sound of your own voice in your room? Have at it. You are beautiful. It’s a free country. 

And if you hate all of the above? Also understandable – again, it’s a free country. This is not a time when many of us have huge emotional reserves. One is not required to be patient with the new online version of, say, WOZZECK (which, PS, I am totally up for if anyone wants in). 

I guess what I’m saying, is here we are. And we are here for a while. 

Those students I mentioned? God, I miss them! I miss being in the same room, us feeding off of each other’s energy. I miss hearing them in a live space. When we first tried coaching over an internet connection, the sound was so unsatisfying that I despaired. We decided to do text work over FaceTime, and for them to send me sound recordings to comment on (I provided piano tracks for them to sing with). 

It’s not as cool or fun as live coaching. But funny thing – everyone’s languages are moving by leaps and bounds this month. And students are commenting on how recording everything has affected their practice, made them get to work on small things that they’ve known about but not really focused on. 

I watch them taking ownership of their product even faster, absent the comfort and familiarity of our physical proximity. I still want us back in the same room. But do we need it in order to work – more than that, in order to work well? I already see the proof that we don’t. 

The screen’s not a substitute, it’s a different thing. It’s something we can learn, even as the world changes irrevocably around us. Let’s prepare for the day we can meet again, but let’s not wait to make our human stories sound, whenever they demand our voice. And when we’re together, we can put together whatever it is we’re finding out with what we already know, and we’ll find out what THAT is. 

We will save us, for sure. And until I can take a breath and join my voice to yours in the same room, I’ll see you on the Internet. 

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