Staying Alive, or Live Art in Odd Places
What persists in times of ubiquitous death?
Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic The Last Man (1826) describes an inexplicable, unstoppable plague wiping out human civilization. The book rested unread on my shelf for years until I picked it up in a fit of quarantine madness. The COVID-19 pandemic and the never-ending 2020 election certainly provided sufficient reason to bury one’s head in a book, but I wasn’t brave enough to crack open Shelley’s for many months. Instead, while New York City was effectively locked down last spring, I sought respite in revisiting books from my youth. I attempted to tune out the terrifying roundelay of ambulance sirens outside my window by hunting for buried treasure with Long John Silver, and by accompanying Sam and Frodo on their way to the peaks of Mount Doom. I needed the comfort. Then, having bathed in nostalgia long enough, I finally dusted off The Last Man.
Shelley’s lesser-known novel is set in an imagined 2090 that feels much like the 1820s, and it reads like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, by which I mean it requires incredible perseverance on the part of the reader to get to the good stuff halfway through. Setting aside the problematic fiction of a world in which a pandemic ends the entire human race except for a white, middle-aged English man, I found it surprisingly moving. Actually, it’s more than that: I have been unable to get it out of my head, and there is one particular moment that grabbed me so violently that I set to writing this whole piece you are now reading. The plague is ravaging the planet; the structures of civilization are quickly crumbling. Shelley’s protagonist, Lionel Verney (the titular “last man”), sets himself the impossible task of helping the people in his community to cope with accelerating death. On one particular night, Verney stumbles upon a theater packed with people and a play underway. Although he doesn’t normally “derive consolation” from theatre, he lingers to watch what turns out to be a performance of Macbeth (222). Come Act iv, Scene 3, when Ross asks after the state of Scotland during the tyrant Macbeth’s reign and Macduff describes the loss of all those he loves, the entire audience plunged into cathartic grief. Shelley describes, “A pang of tameless grief wrenched every heart, a burst of despair was echoed from every lip” (225). Verney, overcome, discovers he has “entered int the universal feeling” (225). He then panics and flees the theater to continue moving the narrative forward. This is the particular moment that I cannot stop thinking about — the truth, in Shelley’s 200-year-old vision, of the utility of live art for a people during pandemic. Shelley’s imagining that even in a world collapsing there are still people making and attending plays is beautiful. There is a hope that live performance elevates communal experience. There is a power in it that can unmake and remake individuals.
I have always been fascinated by the potent appearance of theatre in literature. There is the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, which provides purpose and rebirth to the young immigrant Karl in Kafka’s Amerika (1927); there is the play in Kierkegaard’s Repetition (1843), which illuminates for Constantin Constantius the philosophical secret that nothing can ever truly be repeated. There is, especially, Herman Hesse’s Magic Theatre in Steppenwolf (1927), where the lived experiences and fantastical imaginings of Harry Haller combine for sensational revelation of humankind’s potential for existence. Like many others that come to mind, these examples illustrate that live theatre on the page, like live theatre on the stage, has the capacity for endless transformative possibilities.
It also reminds me of a co-worker who recently lamented that everything during the pandemic would just feel better if we could have “real theatre” again. It was a ridiculous suggestion and I couldn’t hide my eyeroll on Zoom. Even more absurd is the idea that theatre (or any live art, for that matter) has disappeared since the pandemic began. The “Great White Way” will remain dark until late 2021 or sometime in 2022, sure, but live art persists in unexpected places and there are performing artists currently accomplishing the very things Shelley describes. What is required is some rethinking as to what constitutes theatre, and who decides. Actors’ Equity Association, the union protecting stage actors, and SAG-AFTRA, the union protecting film and TV artists, recently settled a contentious dispute over when live-streamed content should be considered film and what otherwise can be considered an emergency extension of live theatre. The unions decided that for a piece to be live-streamed theatre, there must limitations on the scale of the audience and the way revenue is handled. More importantly, the content cannot be presented out of chronological order and may not make use of any technical effects that would not be replicable for an in-person presentation of the work. While I understand the reasons for these restrictions, I cannot say I agree with them. The academic Michael LeVan has produced some wonderful scholarship on how live-ness can be preserved in the virtual space; in fact, he argues, it might only be achievable by embracing the technological abilities of the platform. There are now theatre artists performing new work in the digital space, and in the street, that retains qualities of live-ness that make it undeniably theatre but do so in ways that offer a chance for the communal reckoning that Shelley envisions in her literary end-times.
Exemplar of this is Pioneers Go East Collective and their episodic performance series Lucky Star. The most recent installment was live-streamed as part of Out of an Abundance of Caution (OOAC), a weekly series of avant-garde live performances curated by Lauren Miller, Jessica Almasy, and the Brick Theater’s Theresa Buchheister. Lucky Star is deeply moving in its simplicity as it follows performers Bree Breeden and Daniel Diaz on a meta-meditation about making art and making self. Set within rich, plastic-draped magenta walls that are just transparent enough to reveal the rough brick behind, Breeden choreographs fabulous dances in futuristic sequined costumes using disco balls as mirrors. And when Breeden looks into the camera, the result is an arresting bit of fourth-wall-breaking worthy of the best of the old in-person plays. The performances are undeniably digital yet still emotionally full and risky, like a good piece of theatre should be.
Joshua William Gelb and Katie Rose McLaughlin’s Theater in Quarantine (TiQ) project is another example that exists in digital space while maintaining a rigorous live-ness that ensures that each performance is a work of theatre. Since March, when Gelb transformed his four-by-eight-by-two-foot closet into a performance space from which to live-stream new works, TiQ has worked remotely to present more than twenty pieces with a host of collaborators. I highly recommend Mute Swan, a “Future Myth” written by Madeline George and co-produced with CultureHub and LaMaMa, or The 7th Voyage of Egon Tichy, co-produced with Sinking Ship Productions, as wonderful examples of TiQ’s dynamic explorations of solitude and quarantine.
Absconded, by performance artist Robin Laverne Wilson, aka Dragonfly, was an example of live and in-person performance work still occurring during the pandemic. Performing as a statue-come-alive version of Ona Maria Judge Staines, an enslaved woman owned by Martha Washington who fled to freedom in 1796, Wilson staged Absconded as an outdoors walking performance. Making her way from Seneca Village to the Trump Hotel near Columbus Circle, audiences could follow her at a safe distance or watch from a live-streamed video as a camera crew kept close enough pace to keep her in view. Along the way, Wilson interacted with various statues, key historic sites, and passersby, as she highlighted hidden narratives in the city. A journey that conflated time and space, the performance, produced with Grace Exhibition Space and NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, was absolutely captivating as it demonstrated, technically and dramaturgically, yet another viable means to offer COVID-19-era live performance.
The point is that even though COVID-19 may prevent us from sitting in a dark theater, grumbling about cellphone etiquette and being gently sprinkled with actors’ spittle, live art is still here. I have written specifically about theatre because that is where my background/interest lies, but it is true of other live arts: you can find corollaries in dance, in music, in stand-up and spoken word. We may need to look more carefully for it and, more to the point, we may need to allow ourselves to be surprised as to what it looks like when we find it. The in-person essence of theatre, it turns out, may not have been the key component live-ness after all. And, of course, there is plenty of rubbish out there. I have yet to see a Zoom performance that I have enjoyed. But artists are working hard to provide the cathartic, communal experiences of emotional and existential nourishment that we need to survive. Live art is still here, and as Shelley understood two centuries ago, it will remain alive for as long as we do.
Mary Shelley. The Last Man (1826). Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions ltd, 2004.
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