EDITOR'S NOTE: This essay is the first in a series of contributions by people in the North Texas performing arts community during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you want to pitch an essay, story, artist-to-artist video or audio interview, or other contribution, contact TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Plano — I’m a theatre person. I thrive on live interaction.
Many theatre people teach in colleges, and at this moment may very well be, like myself, teaching online for the first time. We’re still trying to wrap our heads around how to take a 3D experience that is fully interactive, an experience that thrives on in-person communication, movement, and moment-to-moment spontaneity, and turn it into a 2D experience with a very different kind of interface. We’re already finding out how challenging this is, and how it will bring a lot more to our fields. But I’m already longing to get back into the realness of the live experience, and this has me contemplating what it means to be a theatre artist.
For years, even when I’ve not been performing or directing, I’ve been teaching. Live, face-to-face teaching. And I will admit I’ve actively (even vehemently) resisted teaching online, and even avoided using technology in my classes. In New York, I taught a communication class for years with no power point or electronic media. Just me leading lessons, discussions, activities. Helping students experience more face-to-face interaction in their tech-rich world. I’m not quite a Luddite, but I am indeed being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And I will admit, that’s a good thing.
This pandemic is not something any of us can control, and so I do indeed thank the gods for the internet. And, after seven days — one whole week of not going out except into my yard or to the mailbox (and once I drove up and down the block) — surprisingly, I don’t really feel like I’ve been alone. Social media actually does work to give me a sense of companionship and community. I especially like a video meeting, where you can chat with friends or colleagues close to the way you do in real life, seeing their faces and their non-verbal behaviors in real time.
In one of my educational training webinars this past week, the instructor talked about the importance of giving students a sense of “social presence” — of our natural need to feel a human connection, to feel that someone is there, that someone is paying attention. In my communication classes I taught Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, and it was consistently astounding to me — and many of my students — that the very first fundamental need that follows basic survival is belonging. Being part of a group. And internet communication does indeed meet this need for socialization in many ways.
But this is what I’ve learned in one week: I don’t want to get used to this. Because, even though we’re communicating, we’re not in the same space. I need my people around me. As a theatre artist, I feel the need to move — open up, look around, reach, share ideas — in a space.
It’s not just about physical contact. (And my people are a hugging people.) It’s more about being in the same room — “breathing the same air” — a major part of the magic of the theatre experience for those both onstage and off. In real life I know people by energy, presence, movement, vibe, voice, subtleties. I get to use all my senses; to use all my instincts. Online, that doesn’t quite work as well. What it comes down to is sharing space.
As a director, the first thing I want to understand (after understanding the play) is the space it will be presented in. I have to go there, breathe it in, walk around in it, get the “feel” of it. I’m terrible with dimensions. Tell me the numbers of a room and I’ll look at you blankly. But let me be in the space, and I can become intimate with its possibilities, its vibe, shape, size, energy, acoustics; and how my show can fit into this space, how I will direct it, how I hope the audience will experience it. As we know, a show will be different in different spaces, and moving to another space does mean reconfiguring, rethinking, re-feeling the show.
As actors, we relate to space, move in space, breathe the space, shape space, fill the space with sound and words, live in the space. And for designers and builders, it’s all about creating a space, giving a space life through imagination and craft.
Even before I teach any class or workshop I’ll want to get into the building and get the feel of the room I’ll be in, and what’s going on in the environment all around it. It helps me to understand how the class can best be taught. The importance of the combination of people and space can’t be underestimated. The desks in a room make a totally different experience for many classes. Tables may bring order — or constriction; moveable desks might bring chaos — or freedom. Circles, rows, squares, obstacles, proximity, size, sightlines, temperature, smell, colors, shapes, light, atmosphere…The interaction of people with space is a grounding of any experience in both education and in theatre.
And when I’m in a theatre audience it’s about sharing a space with people who, a few yards, a few feet, a few inches away from me, are creating all this wonderfulness in the moment, just for me. I miss that!
In an article I recently came across in Knowable Magazine (Feb. 19, 2020), Why real-life places still matter in the age of texting and Twitter, Greg Miller, a science journalist based in Portland, Oregon, interviews Harvard sociologist Mario Small, who has done studies on how space affects our relationships. (Check it out, it’s a good article.) Small says that in spite of internet communication, “…the physical spaces we inhabit still make a big difference in our social lives…What has changed is the internet makes it possible for people to interact without interpersonal contact… Moreover, online I can be as wild and crazy as I want because nobody knows who I am. In person, I’m more likely to temper my comments and be more rational and thoughtful.” So, our interpersonal relationships, the way we relate to the world — and even the kind of person we are — are profoundly affected by the space we’re in (or not in).
Things are constantly changing at this moment, and that’s challenging — but constant change is a very theatrical thing in a way — and so that’s ok for now. We’re made to be adaptive.
But I do miss the planned structure of rehearsals, along with all their messiness and unpredictability. I want different chairs, chairs that are not mine, but which belong to the space — comfortable and uncomfortable — chairs I can hunker down in to concentrate, chairs to jump up out of constantly. I want to be carrying my heavy books and papers, turning the lights on and off, organizing spaces over and over again until they work. Space, air, turning my head, changing perspectives, seeing clearly in this universe now.
Before everything was shut down, the students in my classes did, fortunately, get to see a live production, so many of them were just beginning to relate to the value of human interaction in theatre and how truly unique and special this is. Live interaction. On-site. Being there “in person.” Being “present.” Theatre performers are said to have “presence.” A kind of “presence” is being maintained thanks to our amazing internet world, and while it will eventually have many positive impacts on theatre, right now I desperately miss being in that “room where it happens.” Nothing can compare to that. I would venture to say that it’s a big part of why we do this thing called theatre.
» Joanne Zipay is a director, dramaturg, teacher, actor, writer, speaker, and producer. She is best known as the founder and Artistic Director of NYC’s award-winning Judith Shakespeare Company (1995-2015). During her tenure, she expanded the boundaries for women in classical theatre, presenting over half of Shakespeare’s canon, including the entire 10-play history cycle, with groundbreaking gender-bending casting in every show. Joanne received her MFA from the Old Globe Theatre/University of San Diego professional classical training program, and has an undergrad degree from SUNY Oneonta in Education (English) and Theatre. She has also studied with Stella Adler, John Barton, Patsy Rodenburg, Cicely Berry, Larry Moss, and Gail Cronauer.
She has taught at Pace University, City College of New York, Stella Adler Conservatory/NYU, National Shakespeare Conservatory, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Theatre for a New Audience, Dallas Theatre Center, Princeton Repertory Shakespeare Festival, SUNY Orange, Mount Saint Mary College, the Old Globe, and Collin College. In 2008, she directed the Off-Broadway premiere of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex for Nicu’s Spoon Theatre, and in 2009 she was sponsored by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America to serve as Master of Verse for the Richmond, Virginia outdoor summer production of Henry IV Part 1.
Originally from New York, her long career in the theatre has included teaching multiple subjects to students of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels. Starting as an actor and teacher in Dallas in the 1980’s, she later returned to New York, but has continued to return to the Dallas area in the summers to teach her popular Shakespeare intensive at Collin College, and to direct several shows there, including Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew. She has just relocated to Dallas once again as of the summer of 2019 and will continue her association as a teacher with Collin College.
Joanne’s words and work are featured in two recent books: Directing Shakespeare in America: Current Practices by Charles Ney (Arden, 2016), and Shakespeare and Gender in Practice by Terri Power (Palgrave/Macmillan 2015). She is also a writer, co-authoring Come, You Spirits!: The Supernatural World of Shakespeare – A Guide for Critical Thinking and Creative Activities (Puck Press, 2016), and as a speaker, she presents lectures on Anne Hathaway and other Shakespeare-related subjects. In the summer of 2020, she will direct Into the Breeches! for Stage West.