Rehearsing “Karen”: The Dramaturgy and Politics of Cross-cultural Digital Theatre

CHENG Nien Yuan*

Abstract

Who’s There? (2020) is a devised piece of live Zoom theatre created by a group of artists based in Singapore, Malaysia, and the United States and staged for New Ohio Theatre’s Ice Factory Festival. Both the two-month process and the two-hour long performance constituted a cross-cultural encounter about race and privilege, galvanised by George Floyd’s murder and the global chain of events in the aftermath. Homing in on one pivotal scene, this essay explores the potentialities of Zoom theatre to subvert distinctions between virtuality and actuality, process and product, as well as the self and the ‘other’.
Keywords: Zoom theatre, intermediality, dramaturgy, Karenism, digital culture

This is what collaborating across eight cities and five time zones feels like: it is 4:30 a.m. and I have already been awake for two hours. I am giving my feedback on the performers’ latest run-through of the scene that my fellow dramaturg J.Ed Araiza and I had compressed the day before on Google Docs. The only things keeping me up are a cup of coffee, long since emptied, and the energy of the ensemble laid out before me on the screen of my iMac in little rectangular frames, a mode of gathering that has become familiar to so many over the past year.

The team behind Who’s There? From top left to bottom right: Jay Ong (sound designer), Sim Yan Ying “YY” (co-director/performer-deviser), Manuela Romero (stage manager), Priyanka Kedia (intern), Neil Redfield (performer-deviser), Ryan Henry (intern), Ghafir Akbar (performer-deviser), Sean Devare (performer-deviser), CHENG Nien Yuan (dramaturg), Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai (performer-deviser), Camille Thomas (performer-deviser), Alvin Tan (co-director), Jevon Chandra (multimedia designer), J.Ed Araiza (dramaturg). Photo: screenshot of rehearsal recording by the author

The above was my normal for eight weeks from June to July 2020, whilst rehearsing for Who’s There?, a devised piece of digital theatre presented in real time to a telepresent audience as part of New Ohio Theatre’s 2020 Ice Factory festival lineup. Who’s There? is a cross-cultural encounter on Zoom about racial privilege, devised by artists based in Singapore, Malaysia, and the United States and co-directed by Sim Yan Ying “YY” and Alvin Tan. We call ourselves The Transit Ensemble, and it was our first time working together. What emerged from this process is an assemblage––or what others have called a “spiky collage”––that is in parts character-based (magical) realism, physical ensemble work, documentary theatre, and political manifesto (Said, Lyon and Kapadia). This essay is a critical reflection on the dramaturgical and cross-cultural process of making this work, examining how Zoom theatre can subvert distinctions between virtuality and actuality, process and product, as well as the self and the “other.” I flesh out the poetics and politics of Zoom theatre-making by focusing on one pivotal scene in Who’s There?––what we sometimes verbally shorthand as the “Karen” scene.

Who’s There? and/as Pandemic Digital Theatre
The beginning of Who’s There? (Prologue and Crash Course 1). In order of appearance: Performer 4 (Dorai), Performer 2 (Akbar), Performer 3 (Redfield), Performer 1 (Thomas), Performer 6 (Sim) and Performer 5 (Devare). Note that recordings of Zoom performances do not include elements such as participant names (in this case Performers 1-6) and the chat box. Video: excerpt of production recording extracted by author

Who’s There? was made at a particularly turbulent moment amidst a time when a state of emergency had already become part of everyday life during the global pandemic. Less than two weeks before the first rehearsal, George Floyd had been murdered by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds despite Floyd’s cries of distress as he was held down. This act of police brutality, the latest in a long history of such murders, catalysed a torrent of events across the globe spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement protesting racial injustice. While Sim and Tan had pitched Who’s There? to New Ohio Theatre much earlier in the year, they could not have anticipated the events of May 25. It was just as well, then, that The Transit Ensemble began our work without a pre-existing playscript (or playwright), narrative or characters; the urgency of the situation called for a method that could address issues and events as they bubbled over in real time during the rehearsal process.

One such event that happened during the rehearsal process was the 2020 General Elections in Singapore, when Malay Opposition candidate Raeesah Khan became embroiled in controversy for past comments about Chinese privilege. In this scene, Devare plays Jordan Grey, a Joe Rogan-like YouTuber who interviews fictional Singaporean minister “K. Shivendra,” played by Dorai on his channel “Grey Matters.” Video: excerpt of production recording extracted by author

Co-director Sim has described the structure of the work as akin to the Southeast Asian dessert kueh lapis; a dense cake made up of multiple thin layers. We were cognisant of the short attention span that shows staged on Zoom were vulnerable to, where audience members could easily tap out (or “tab out”). As such, most of Who’s There? is made up of short segments ranging from fifteen seconds to five minutes layered on top of each other, with a pacing that reflected the “informatively hyper-stimulated, emotionally overindulged, and inevitably hypochondriac time” of pandemic digital culture (Iwaki 3). Such scenes include: dialogical one-to-one encounters/conflicts between the six performers in character; one-minute multimedia videos or “crash courses” which summarise highly complex racial issues in a deliberately frantic and cursory manner; scenes that incorporate a social media interface, such as Instagram Live or YouTube; choreographed physical ensemble interludes; and scenes which appropriate and performatively re-present, in altered form, extracts of interviews or conversations that were either found online or conducted specifically for Who’s There? In between these segments are fifteen-second “fact or opinion” polls for the telepresent audience that resonate with the preceding scenes.

The cross-cultural nature of both the work and its creative process revealed certain blind spots about racial politics and social justice in all three countries that the play was set in (Singapore, Malaysia, the United States). The devising process of Who’s There? quickly made clear that while the artists making up The Transit Ensemble seemed to embody the same ideals and values (towards racial justice, for instance), the way each of us imagined the manifestation of these ideals differed from one another, sometimes in profound ways. The negotiation of these tensions became part of the show itself, such as when the character Iyla, an American, confronts her Singaporean friend Sharmila about the seeming passivity of activists in Singapore, where protests are illegal; or when YT, a privileged Chinese Singaporean living in the United States, shares a bitter rant on Instagram that seems motivated by a narcissistic sense of wounded pride about being labelled a “social justice warrior” by her friends back home.

YT (played by Sim) has a rant on Instagram Live, followed by poll #6 of Who’s There? Video: excerpt of production recording extracted by author

At the same time, the digital nature of the work, using a platform whose newfound virality seemed in direct proportion to that of COVID-19, lent Who’s There? a means of utilising a kind of “viral dramaturgy” that “draws new technologies into service, and pushes to the fore assumptions about how and why we pass ideas, affects, and gestures to one another”; it provokes “questions about the politics of dissemination itself, asking whether media-fuelled transmission can ever be democratic, or whether it always ultimately shores up systems of control” (Felton-Dansky 4).

As the sections below show, the “Karen” scene interrogates the veracity and political efficacy of the ideas, affects and gestures we pass on through social media. This essay investigates how Zoom, “simultaneously a playtext, a performance, and a digital form that collapses old dichotomies between the live and the mediatised,” is able to ask these larger questions by virtue of the intermedial affordances on the platform (Pike et al. 292). That said, beyond the broad critique of media and mediatisation, this platform is also able to turn these questions reflexively and specifically unto itself as a mode of performance in our mediascape today.

In the unstable pandemic contact zone of Who’s There? and The Transit Ensemble, lines along race, class and gender bleed into one another, questioning the assumptions we hold of ourselves and the world around us. What sorts of tensions, anxieties and possibilities emerge, and how can we work to reimagine a New Normal? The three-part structure of the work serves to explore this question:

Part I involves dismantling current understandings about racial privilege and social justice which—especially in American racial discourses saturating the global mediascape—can be rather black-and-white.

Part II is the processing segment of the show, where we consider how we might rebuild new practices of thinking, doing and saying, leading us towards Part III, in which we end the show by reimagining this shaky new ground. Just as viruses disrupt the fabric of everyday life (or, as we have experienced in the past year, pervade the everyday itself), the following sections show how the virality of the “Karen” meme organically evolved into a disruption within Who’s There? that encompassed the pivotal interstitial segment of Part II.

“Karen” Breaks Down

On the morning of the day George Floyd was killed, Amy Cooper was walking her unleashed dog in Central Park when Christian Cooper (no relation), a birdwatcher at the park, requested for her dog to be leashed. During the resulting confrontation, which Christian began filming, Amy called 9-1-1, claiming that there was “an African American man” physically threatening her and her dog. Christian’s sister later uploaded the video on Twitter, which went viral. Amy Cooper became known as the “Central Park Karen,” in reference to the “Karen” Internet meme depicting white, American and often middle-aged women engaging in entitled, privileged and/or racist behaviour such as making unwarranted police reports against people of colour (Greenspan).

The confluence of Black Lives Matter and the COVID-19 pandemic has surged the hashtag #Karen to prominence in social media, spreading clips of white women seen to be, for instance, flouting social distancing rules or yelling racial slurs (Lang). Two months after the Central Park incident, this meme was codified into the law: the “CAREN Act” (Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies) was introduced in San Francisco, making racially motivated 9-1-1 calls a crime (Negra and Leyda 352). No meme seems to better capture the fraught tensions of the moment: “Karens are everywhere in 2020” (Bhasin et al. 931).

For The Transit Ensemble, the phenomenon of “Karenism” was a fertile ground to explore the complexities and binaries of racial politics and digital culture in 2020. Memes, created with the intent to go “viral,” are inherently participatory and dependent on the process of replication, circulation and creative reproduction (MacDonald 143). They are never created in a vacuum but reflect and often directly influence the sociocultural context they are situated in (Aitwani). The “Karen” meme in particular has been argued to critically activate social change, producing counternarratives about White Supremacy in the digital public sphere (Williams 2). At the same time, however, by rendering all viral situations between a white woman and a person of colour as instances of Karenism, such memes can do the deleterious work of trivialising and decontextualising the real and dangerous consequences of some of these encounters (Dennis). Like any technological apparatus, memes have the ability to both subvert and reinforce dominant social hierarchies and norms regarding racial privilege.

The beginning of the “Karen” segment. Clockwise from top left: Performer 3 (Redfield), Performer 6 (Sim), Performer 1 (Thomas), Performer 2 (Akbar), Performer 4 (Dorai) and Performer 5 (Devare). Note that recordings of Zoom performances do not include elements such as participant names (in this case Performers 1-6) and the chat box. Video: excerpt of production recording extracted by author

During the show, the tensions and complexity of Karenism is introduced in an ensemble scene when “Performer 3” (played by Neil Redfield) dispassionately recites a piece of text that is a composite of three different instances of Karens gone viral. Performers 1, 4 and 6 (Camille Thomas, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai and Sim, respectively) appear in the scene one by one, holding up their phones as if filming. They then flip their phones to show the audience the screens behind them, which display black-and-white “surveillance” footage of Performer 3, silently performing the same text, but inflected with affects that closely mirror that of each of the three “original” Karens represented: polite passive-aggression (Lisa Alexander), entitled vehemence (Amy Cooper) and, finally, hysteria (“Geo Woman”). Shortly after, the three women performers change their virtual background to this surveillance footage, which is date- and time-stamped to mark the Central Park incident. They turn their gaze on this footage, their expressions impassive and unamused. Eventually, one by one the performers turn off their video, leaving Performer 6’s video but without the performer’s body. Performer 3 continues reciting the Karen text, his neutral voice accompanying the silent footage of his performance of hysteria.

Performer 3 then suddenly appears on screen again, flustered and stammering, “Can we stop—can we hold—can we stop?” He addresses the ensemble and the audience directly, expressing his “ethical concerns” about the show’s representation of the last “Geo Woman” Karen. He prompts the Multimedia Designer of Who’s There? Jevon Chandra, to screenshare the original viral TikTok video about this incident, who types in the chat box “give me a mintue” (typo included) before pulling up the video. As Performer 3 tries to explain his concerns, a long beep interrupts him. The stage manager writes in the chat box: “Ok performers, you have 7 minutes.” The rest of the performers come on screen, one by one. Like Performer 3, their Zoom name displayed is “Performer X,” with X being the numbers 1 to 6.

Over the course of the next seven minutes, audience members see the six Performers argue the ethical implications of using this video as an instance of Karenism. Some agree with Performer 3 about the fact that this instance did not fit with the other two as a clear-cut case of racism at work. Some are tired of making excuses for White privilege, and some just want to move on with the show. They begin interrupting each other as they argue, and are in turn periodically disrupted by an incessant electronic beep. The Stage Manager in the chat box continues to remind the performers to work through this disagreement and get on with it in the time remaining. An audience poll appears, this time without the timer accompanying the previous polls in the show, asking “Do racists deserve empathy?” The choices also deviate from the previous “fact or opinion” polls: “Yes/No/FUCK THEM.”

Photo: screenshot of production recording by author

At one point, Performer 4 turns off her video. Her voice, but not her image, returns only at the end of the scene, just as the show’s last poll appears (“We are all racists. Yes/No/I refuse to admit that”). Scoffing at the question, Performer 4 speaks her piece while everyone finally stops to listen: “How many times do people have to disappear before you notice that they are not in the conversation?” As Performers 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 reckon with her words in silence, there is a long beep signalling the end of the scene and a cue for the Performers to turn off their video. The Stage Manager types in the chat box: “The preceding scene was a fictionalisation of a conversation in rehearsal.

Breaking Down “Karen”

The above scene encompassed Part II of Who’s There?: this processing segment follows the dismantling in Part I and precedes the reimagining in Part III. Fittingly, the origins of this interstitial segment came about midway through the rehearsal process of Who’s There? when the performer-devisers presented their “interview assignments.” Part of the devising process involved, as mentioned, conducting or finding conversations or interviews pertinent to the subject at hand. Redfield was assigned by the directors to draft a two-minute scene composing the voices of various “Karens” that had become so prevalent in internet meme culture, and he presented this assignment during the fourth week of rehearsal.

To begin with, his performance of the three instances of Karenism he chose was highly faithful to the source material, with all the emotions that the Karens displayed. He was then asked by co-director Alvin Tan to recite the text once more, but in a neutral tone. This change sparked a discussion amongst the team about the performativity of Karens and how they weaponise their privilege—almost in a scripted manner—to surveil and regulate Black bodies in public spaces. As performer-deviser Thomas put it, “Oh, this is a thing that she does often, like she has rehearsed this.”

We continued refining and workshopping this scene with the accord and rapport that we had become used to over the past month, that is until Redfield started expressing his reservations about the last part of the scene, which depicted Karen #3 (Geo Woman). This portion appropriated dialogue from a June 2020 TikTok video of a Black man filming and confronting a White woman who had, according to him, cut him off in traffic and called him a racial slur. He followed this woman home and doxxed her by showing her license plate, after which Geo Woman began to scream hysterically, crying, “I have a Black husband!” and “You are attacking me right now!” Redfield told us that he found himself sympathising with that woman and did not think that she was in the same category of Karens like Lisa Alexander or Amy Cooper.

What followed in rehearsal was a charged hour-long discussion where we found ourselves seriously disagreeing with one another for the first time since the start of rehearsing for Who’s There? On one level, it was a debate about the digital culture of Black Lives Matter and 2020 in general. Did she deserve to be doxxed? Was this just an instance of road rage? Is recording someone without their consent a violent act or an act of self-defence? One of the performer-devisers, for instance, was perturbed that, earlier on, a fellow ensemble member had screen-recorded a portion of rehearsal to experiment with as a virtual background while workshopping “Karen,” without explicit permission. For a moment, they had felt wronged, and this feeling made them reflect on how posting decontextualised viral videos of someone behaving at their worst could be an act of violence. Some others in the ensemble, however, pointed out that people do not consent to being subject to ugly racist behaviour; recording could very well be an act of self-defence, turning the tables back on those who had policed and surveilled communities of colour for so long.

Workshopping Redfield’s performance assignment on “Karen.” Photo: screenshot of rehearsal recording by author

On another level, this was also a discussion inflected by the racial and cultural dynamics of The Transit Ensemble. In a chat group between Redfield and the two directors (one of twenty-seven chat group permutations for Who’s There?—such is the ecology of making digital theatre), Sim had expressed to Redfield how she was less willing to engage with him about his reservations regarding the TikTok video because he was the only White person in the team. Sim’s lived experience, both as a privileged majority in her home country Singapore and as a discriminated minority immigrant in the United States, made her reluctant to concur with Redfield to make sure she was not––consciously or otherwise—supporting privileged ignorance. She openly told us as much during this discussion in rehearsal, encouraging us to be reflexive about how we were interacting with each other in that rehearsal space: in many ways, this encounter encapsulated the tensions and complexities of talking about race, even among people who were ostensibly “on the same side.”

Apropos of this, at the end of that rehearsal we agreed that the discussion needed to be transcribed and condensed into a scene. We felt that this new scene could fit into Part II of Who’s There?: what better way to process the difficult ideas and issues thrown up in Part I than to re-present the actual process behind making the work?

Zoom as an Intermedial Stage

Our first attempt at staging this scene followed a script, based on a transcription of the above discussion, that Redfield and Sim had helped draft. During the read, however, the performers had the impulse to deviate from said script and improvise so that the discussion sounded more in-the-moment. The scene was reworked and scored under the guidance of multimedia designer Jevon Chandra, an artist who had a working knowledge of conflict management. Instead of it being a scene that was wholly scripted or wholly improvised, Part II would be a structured improvisation that took a path—by no means a direct one, but thorny and tangled—from active disagreement towards an attempt at engagement (but not consensus or resolution).

Improvising this scene gave it a sense of genuine unfolding that we desired, but, at the same time, we did not wish to “trick” spectators into buying the gimmick of: “is this really happening?” It was especially crucial for this interstitial segment to go beyond the binaries of what seemed real/fake, actual/virtual, live/mediatised. We were also not interested in modelling some form of ideal or one-size-fits-all communicative framework that neatly resolved conflicts in all contexts, but we did want to explore what constructive disagreement could look like in this instance, even if there were no easy answers. Most importantly, we wanted to bring the self-referential and re-presentational aspects of the scene to the fore, drawing attention to the framed and fictive process of Who’s There? In this way, the audience can start to apprehend the reconstructive possibilities of racial justice, a project that is itself a performative work-in-progress. For this self-referentiality to be made clear, we needed to utilise the devices that Zoom afforded us: the same devices that had become so crucial to the process of Who’s There?

We conceptualised the scene as something that looks at first like a normal discussion on Zoom among the six performers, until the introduction of elements which made this conversation evidently “off.” Media motifs that had been woven into the fabric of Part I in Who’s There?—beeps in the soundtrack, social media interfaces, poll questions—are suddenly picked apart and re-introduced out of their original contexts in a disruptive manner. Evoking the non-hierarchical and interdisciplinary process of making Who’s There?, this scene is best understood as a form of intermediality at work: a radically performative and self-reflexive communicative strategy in which different media interact with one another in a way that “exposes the particularities of the various semiotic systems that each medium embodies” (Ljungberg 90). This form of intermediality creates an effect that is both defamiliarising and alienating for the audience, a Brechtian separation of elements that goes against a naturalistic integration of artistic elements to create a unified, cohesive whole, where signifier and signified seamlessly corresponded with one another. This lack of semiotic unity causes the spectator to be “aware of the constant production of meaning in which he or she is implicated” (MacCabe 75).

Rather than merely supporting or illustrating the text and movement embodied by the performers, the multiple elements in this scene are brought forward and arranged along with text and movement, at points transgressing the terrain of other media elements. The “flatness” of the Zoom interface, a characteristic often lamented by those who long for the immediate, three-dimensional, “live” performer’s body, lends itself especially to this strategy. Theatre in this virtual space is a “para-performative,” “tele-theatrical” phenomenon “wherein the immediacy of performance and the digital alterability of time, space and subjectivity overlap,” a hybrid form that intensifies both the live and the mediatised at once (Causey 51).

The intermedial stage is a malleable interface, an unstable and open ground upon which “real, imagined and virtual spaces can performatively reconfigure one another and create enlightening tensions” (Wiens 94). Such tensions in “Karen” include the moment, for instance, when Performer 3 implores the Multimedia Designer to screenshare the Geo Woman TikTok video, only to have “Jevon” tell him there’s no sound by dragging the cursor up and down the volume bar. This forces Performer 3 to verbally share his interpretation of what happens in the video before the sound suddenly comes on. At the same time, audiences clearly see the title of this video as “Karen – edit,” also calling into question the objectivity of the footage on multiple levels. Tension is also produced as beeps directly interrupt the performers’ words, exasperating them and stretching the sense of urgency ever-present in Who’s There? to the extreme. Prior to Part II, the show had set time and space aside for audience members to answer poll questions, but the polls now appear mid-scene, literally covering the screen so that audience members are forced to either move them away or answer them if they want to see the action on stage. The poll choices also no longer maintain their impersonal façade, allowing audiences a third option for the first time in the show.

Performer 3 gives an account of the Geo Woman incident. Photo: screenshot of production recording by author

In Part II, the space of the actual encounter between Geo Woman and the doxxer is reconfigured by the social media filter of TikTok, which is again reconstituted through the Zoom functions within the telematic context of a live improvised re-enactment of a performance rehearsal. If the intermedial stage is a “discursive instrument that resonates with current social transformation processes brought about by digital media and interconnectivity,” the Karen scene dials this instrument into overdrive. It is a reflection of how the pandemic has exponentially intensified the ways in which communities are formed (and splintered) through the internet, or more precisely, through performance on the internet.

At an age where entire social dramas unfold online, where we stay home but exist in a universe of screen environments, where we perform through webinars, memes and a plethora of social media platforms, the intermedial stage has a task to do. It needs to make the performativity of these “real, imagined, and virtual spaces” clear. Theatre and media scholar Chiel Kattenbelt describes this need as such: “If the expression ‘all the world is a stage’ is (or seems to be) no longer just a metaphor, but on the contrary a characteristic feature of our mediatised culture, then we really do need a stage on which the staging of life is staged in such a way that it can be deconstructed and made visible again” (38).

The Karen scene stages and makes visible the digital culture of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. It engages with the politics of viral spectatorship, dissemination and consumption. The intermedial dramaturgy of Who’s There? aims to “renegotiate the very framework of negotiation itself at the same time as we are negotiating some specific point of negotiation of contestation” (Ljungberg 94). The “Karen” segment’s point of contestation is indeed about the politics of Karenism, but it is also interrogating the current terms of negotiation within which Who’s There?—and performance in 2020 at large—is inscribed. The aim here is in part pedagogical in nature: to encourage spectators to direct a critical eye on the performances that they have been a part of, to “work through these unstable sensual experiences to become aware of precisely this instability of the reality we live in” (Nibbelink and Merx 220).

The Self and/as Other on Zoom

This instability is not merely characteristic of our environment but operates on the level of the self: our subjectivities are themselves unstable grounds performatively produced by acts of interpellation and rehearsal. Judith Butler adapts Louis Althusser’s famous scene of interpellative address––the policeman calling out the individual on the street––to speak generally of the ways in which we are performatively “hailed” and identified as subjects in the world: “The policeman who hails the person on the street is enabled to make that call through the force of reiterated convention” (Butler 33–34). As interpellated beings, we are “dependent on the address of the Other in order to be” (26). The advent of “selfie culture” and its associated technologies––the front-facing camera, mobile phone, social media––has muddied the distinctions between self and the other: the subject becomes one’s own object within a social world (Peraica 50). The TikTok video of Geo Woman begins with selfie footage of Karlos Dillard, the recorder of the incident, identifying himself as a black man before he turns the camera on Geo Woman, verbally hailing her as “Karen.”

In the context of new media performance works, Matthew Causey describes “the simple moment when a live actor confronts her mediated other through the technologies of reproduction” as an uncanny experience of apprehending her subjectivity (17). But that statement was written in 2006, and since then the uncanny has become an everyday familiarity. This has become especially true since the pandemic, when meeting on Zoom has become almost unavoidable. On Zoom, “there is no time delay between the performances of seeing and being seen” (Peraica 55). Confronting our mediated other has become rote, that is, until the network stalls.

In Who’s There? this new norm is defamiliarised again to reveal the circumstances behind the re-production of the self vis-à-vis the other in different cultural contexts. When performer-deviser Thomas points out in rehearsal, for instance, that the phenomenon of Karenism is performatively produced (“she has rehearsed this”), it made dramaturgical sense to let the audience see multiples of Performer 3 on the screen as he reads his script of White entitlement. These doubles are also multiplied on the phone screen, suggesting another level of reproduction facilitated by the technological apparatus of social media.

In the moments directly after the Karen confrontation—the beginning of Part III—the three women ensemble members re-appear as their characters in Part I even as the residues of their “Performer” personas in Part II remain inscribed on their bodies. Sim’s character, YT, plays with the Snapchat filters on her Zoom camera, alternating between a “baby” filter and a “TRIGGERED” filter to depict how she is hailed by American and Singaporean society respectively. The “gap between how we imagine ourselves to be––how we wish to appear––and the actual ways in which we appear to others” is made clear in this scene, even if there are no straight answers about how this gap can be resolved (Kenaan 118). Yet, in Part III’s magic realism, these women—and the spectators watching them—are “transposed into a digital space in which culturally based identities . . . are volatile, not fixed categories” (Causey 59).

In the aftermath of the Karen scene, Performers 1, 4 and 6 jump back into character (Iyla, Sharmila and YT respectively) to decompress. Video: excerpt of production recording extracted by author

It was the process of rehearsing the Karen confrontation between the six ensemble members which made us more aware of our fragmented subjectivities as performance-makers and as people. The first run-through of the scene involved the performer-devisers “renaming” themselves on Zoom from their character names to their actual names, both on the Zoom interface and in the scene’s dialogue. Debriefing after the first improv session of this scene, Thomas voices her confusion: “I’m Camille, and I’m Camille the actor acting as Camille?” This sparks a discussion in which performer-deviser Ghafir Akbar points out the challenge of seeing his name and image reflected back to him as he is improvising the scene, watching himself say things that he would not necessarily say outside Who’s There? After this discussion, we introduced the framework of referring the performers as Performers 1 to 6 with Zoom’s “renaming” function as well as in the dialogue, which added to the scene’s fictive nature even as it looked on the surface like a normal online conversation. Making the performers’ alternate subjectivities explicit also protected them from the fact that audience members may make essentialist assumptions that the Performers on stage equate to the performers’ “true” selves.

Rehearsing “Karen,” Again

The intermedial stage has the potential to enact new and more just ways of thinking, feeling, doing and being, in a world that is both more interconnected and paradoxically (or as a result?) more divided than ever before. In this essay, I rehearse “Karen” again in a bid to show how digital theatre can be one manifestation of such a stage. Digital theatre presents us with unprecedented opportunities to work across borders and cultures. Of course, like any medium or stage, it is also not without its limits. One literal limit or “hard boundary” of Zoom is its aesthetic of boxing participants into silos, “lock[ing] each participant into a tightly held square that cannot be negotiated with” (Pike et al. 293). Another is the fact that the quality of one’s performance is impacted by the quality of one’s hardware: does your machine have video virtual background capabilities? Do you have a good microphone? How stable is your internet connection? Working around these challenges made it clear that digital theatre is less accessible than one thinks from the performance-makers’ point of view. Compounding this issue is the fact that there is yet to be a sustainable funding model for such international collaborations (that we know of).

The Transit Ensemble worked far below “market” rate, and even though ticket sales were successful (through word of mouth, we broke festival records), what people are willing to pay for digital theatre––in competition with other forms of digital media freely available––is much lower than that of “live” performance in a physical theatre space.

Performers and designers choreographing a scene in Who’s There? Photo: The Transit Ensemble

That said, contrary to Avra Sidiropoulou’s fear, expressed in the previous issue of this journal, that Zoom theatre might re-establish a conservative, hierarchical model of performance-making and spectatorship, my experience working on Who’s There? made it clear that it presented opportunities to dismantle such a model. The new performance vocabulary afforded by Zoom made our roles in the collaborative process more open and fluid as we learned the particularities of this vocabulary together. Propelled by the urgency of the topic, all hands were on deck. Since everything on the Zoom screen was multimedia, we all had to undertake multimedia design at one point. The performers were also in charge of stage managing and designing their “set” in their virtual/actual performance spaces, and conversely the stage manager herself had a hand in directing one important scene. In other words, everyone in the team was engaging with dramaturgical concerns, which is first and foremost the work of translating ideas into embodied enactment, but in Who’s There? it also meant navigating the “complexity of in-betweenness” so integral to a cross-cultural and intermedial work (Blažević331).

Likewise, we experienced a new kind of spectatorship in Who’s There? Unhampered by venue restrictions, babysitting needs, train timetables, or indeed geographical distance, performance talkbacks would last almost as long as the show itself: audience members from around the world would come on board as fellow Zoom “panelists” to share their own stories and experiences surrounding racial (in)justice. The intimacy of such moments is not a substitute for “live” theatre; you cannot feel the audience’s physical presence and share the same air they do.

That said, the distinctions between the “live” and “mediatised” in theatre has long been problematised. More importantly, as both performers and the audience put their bodies and stories on(the)line, can we really say they are not with us, (a)live?

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Who’s There? Devised by The Transit Ensemble, 4–8 Aug. 2020, Ice Factory 2020, Zoom, New York. 


*CHENG Nien Yuan is a Singaporean performance scholar and dramaturg. She is a researcher at the Intercultural Theatre Institute and an Honorary Associate at the School of Literature, Art and Media in the University of Sydney. She recently obtained her PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies at USyd (2020). Her Zoom theatre credits as dramaturg and/or performer include Who’s There? (2020, Ice Factory Festival), PASSAGE (2021, Random Disturbances) and (un)becoming (2021, T:Works Festival). She has published in the journals Performance Paradigm, About Performance ​and Studies in Theatre and Performance​.

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