As opportunities for in-person performances were rendered impossible by the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions and artists lamented the loss of those things that “make theatre theatre”—its liveness, its anything-can-happen quality, its ability to assemble audiences to experience something together in real time. Artists made digital work and often demonstrated a desire to replicate these sensations of liveness for audiences as a way of showing off the virtuosity of the artists involved and, perhaps more importantly, as a means of inspiring a sense of connection in audiences across the internet. As evidence for this phenomenon, this essay explores the work of video designer Eamonn Farrell and his company Anonymous Ensemble, a group that presented live performance to remote audiences long before the pandemic forced artists across the world online.
Keywords: digital performance, online performance, video design, Anonymous Ensemble, Eamonn Farrell
Under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, theatre companies across the world adapted their work for digital platforms. Audience members gathered, not in physical theatres, but in Zoom rooms and on streaming platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook Live to watch work made miles and miles away. This shift from the physical to the digital realm raises questions unasked of in-person theatre; when audiences are not in the same room as the artists, they are prompted to wonder if the work they are watching is really live.
Viewed through a screen from the comfort of an audience member’s own home, a live-streamed performance becomes compellingly indistinguishable from a pre-recorded one. An archived performance that retains its “Live” label when streaming on YouTube might convince an audience member that what they are seeing is happening in real time. Audiences awed at a production’s cinematic effects might assume what they are watching has been pre-recorded and edited. If the perception of liveness matters to the production team, they must find a means by which to signal their production’s liveness to their audience.
And the liveness often does matter to the production team, to the actors and to the audience. As opportunities for in-person performances were rendered impossible by the pandemic, institutions and artists lamented the loss of those things that “make theatre theatre”—its liveness, its anything-can-happen quality, its ability to assemble audiences to experience something together in real time. Artists made digital work and often demonstrated a desire to replicate these sensations of liveness for audiences as a way of showing off the virtuosity of the artists involved and, perhaps more importantly, as a means of inspiring a sense of connection in audiences across the internet.
As evidence for this phenomenon, this essay explores the work of video designer Eamonn Farrell and his company Anonymous Ensemble, a group that presented live performance to remote audiences long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced artists across the world online. A collaboration between Farrell and performance scholar Jessica Del Vecchio, this essay functions as an interview, an archive, and an analysis; a hybrid piece of writing that we hope illuminates the complexities of digital performance as an artform as it makes an argument about internet performance’s unique ability to bring disparate audiences together in real time.
The Brooklyn-based experimental company Anonymous Ensemble (AnEn) has been making theatre together for twenty years. Their goal as artists is to “creat[e] community wherever we are and . . . ask how the audience can be co-creators of each performance event” (anonymousensemble.org). Since the early 2000s—before the existence of Zoom, YouTube, or even Facebook—Eamonn Farrell, Jessica Weinstein, Liz Davito and Lucrecia Briceño have experimented with digital performance as both an aesthetic and a medium. In works such as The Best (2003–08), The Return (2010–11), LIEBE LOVE AMOUR! (2012–18) and, more recently, Flight (2019–22) and Llontop (2020–22), AnEn has used media in increasingly sophisticated ways. In their in-person performances, they call attention to the intricacy of its live manipulation. In their online digital performances, however, the audience’s perception is completely controlled by the camera view and limited to what the artists choose to show to them on screen. AnEn, therefore, needs to make the conscious choice to reveal their “backstage labor” to their audience, and this reveal can sometimes ruin the magic of the performance. Rather than expose the mechanism, then, AnEn often finds other ways to ensure the audience knows that the performance is live.
In the proto-social media era, AnEn created a five-year-long transmedial internet project called The Best, reaching audiences far and wide through forms such as the video podcast and using platforms such as Myspace. The episodes of The Best, which combined ancient Greek narratives and American Idol-esque aesthetics, followed a group of anti-war revolutionaries as they sang, danced and offered political opinions, competing for “hype” from fictional online audiences. The project imagined a world in which a group of narcissistic online content creators became obsessed with accruing huge followings all over the world by posting videos online and live streaming musical performances—all in the service of their somewhat vague political agendas. Shows featured a live rock band onstage and wildly deconstructed costumes.
A response to the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, The Best was set in “The Homeland,” a fictionalized country engaged in never-ending warfare. In the post-9/11 New York City culturescape, these performances employed a dark, post-punk aesthetic to channel the anger and frustration at the notion that the city’s own tragedy was being used as a pretext for engaging in unrelated wars.
Most important to the show’s aesthetic and theme was its use of media. Scattered throughout the set were television monitors and projection screens on which Farrell broadcast live-mixed images from numerous cameras, which the performers operated themselves. Some characters, like OEDI (their version of Oedipus), existed only on video (sometimes live and sometimes pre-recorded) but “interacted” with the live performers using the video manipulation software Isadora. As the in-person audiences witnessed live action projected and intercut with pre-recorded video footage and altered with digital effects, they became surrogates for the imagined remote audience surreptitiously tuning into The Best from computers across the globe. The media-infused shows critiqued burgeoning internet/reality TV celebrity culture and prognosticated an era in which the accrual of clicks, followers and likes would become the dominant motivator in commerce, entertainment, news media and politics. Anonymous Ensemble presented The Best in NYC theatrical venues such as the Ohio Theatre, as well as in industrial warehouse spaces, clubs and rock venues such as OfficeOps, Galapagos and Sin-é. They also toured the work to the International Brisbane Festival and created an interactive video installation of The Best for the Neuropolis Festival in Berlin in 2006.
Although AnEn experimented with streaming technologies as early as 2006, the technological complexities and insufficient internet speeds for remote audiences proved to be insurmountable. They did, however, explore other possibilities for live internet performance. In 2008, they were working on OEDI@:us, a loose adaptation of Oedipus at Colonus, in the Ice Factory Festival at the Ohio Theatre in New York City.
FARRELL: Through earlier incarnations of the project, we had met a teenager named Max in Arizona who became interested in our project via Myspace, and we asked him if he wanted to perform in one of our presentations of The Best. Skype had recently begun offering video as an option on its peer to peer calling platform, and we were eager to experiment with it in live performance. We scripted a scene to be performed live between an ensemble member in Manhattan and Max in Arizona and figured out how to get his Skype window into our live video feed. It was during one of the final tech rehearsals that Max’s scene partner, Anonymous Ensemble company member, Jessica Weinstein, turned to the tech table and asked “This scene is just like all the other scripted scenes with pre-recorded video characters, why does it matter that Max is live? How will the audience know?” We looked up from our banks of mixers and monitors and pondered the question. Since the show was premised as a sort of dystopian internet talk show, we did some rewrites and incorporated a Q and A with the live audience where they were able to ask Max questions for him to respond to live. We also made sure a window to the outside was visible in Max’s camera frame so the audience could see it was light outside where he was and since it was dark in NYC, the audience would know he was performing at some distance.
AnEn gestures to Max’s liveness in order to develop the premise that The Best is a live internet phenomenon, while also demonstrating their ability to use the internet to create connections between its in-person audience and a remote actor. The more virtuosic a company’s use of digital technology, the more imperative the reminders of liveness become. The scene was also a peek into the power of technology to create new kinds of community across distances. Max connected with AnEn’s work online, and the technology turned him into the company’s collaborator.
In 2009, AnEn began working with Athens-based composer William Antoniou, and their cross-cultural collaborations pushed the company to try out new internet technologies to facilitate both rehearsal and performance. Devising a Rebetiko rock musical adaptation of Euripides’s The Bacchae called The Return in 2011, the artists—who were based in both New York City and Athens—rehearsed together extensively over Skype. The Skype rehearsals facilitated international collaboration but also presented challenges; for instance, the internet lag made it impossible for remote musicians to keep in time with each other.
The Return was an example of AnEn’s development of their signature “live film” aesthetic. The piece is framed as the making of a bilingual “rock-doc” about a 90s-era Greek American rock singer named Acolyte (played by Greek pop star Isaias Matiaba) who had mysteriously disappeared years earlier. The stage was set with cameras and a large screen on which were projected videos of Acolyte’s concerts, interviews with the characters and “found” footage of the singer backstage, all of which were created live in front of the audience. For instance, in one scene, the audience watches Acolyte and his band perform as the onstage camera operators film the performance, a flashback to ten years earlier. Stage right, Acolyte’s groupie Becca (Liz Davito) self-tapes a VHS travel diary describing her experience following Acolyte’s Greek tour. At the same time, stage left, Acolyte’s tour manager, Minna (Jessica Weinstein) is interviewed by an ethno-musicologist (Stevi Fortoma) in the present-day, a decade after Acolyte’s disappearance. Farrell live-mixed the concert video with the interview shots and “found footage” and projected the mix on a screen above the stage. As its audience experiences the documentary being pieced together in front of them, The Return raises questions about the limitations of the documentary form. As it exposes how media shapes narratives, the production also critiques U.S. American popular culture as a mechanism of globalization.
AnEn engaged emergent streaming technology to enable remote audiences to watch The Return live. They shared the performance at Theatro Choros in Athens with U.S. audiences in real time, using the then brand-new Livestream platform (later bought by Vimeo) to stream the show. Bandwidth issues on both the sending and receiving ends, however, made tuning into the broadcast a frustrating experience for artists and audiences alike. Planning for the livestream raised questions for the company about what exactly to show remote audiences.
FARRELL: We had the option to either stream the show mix of live camera feeds (i.e. the live film) or the full stage shot, which included the actors, musicians, and camera operators, in addition to the main projection screen. Even though the show mix was a more engaging, well-crafted feed with overlays and close ups, we chose to stream the full stage shot because it was important to us that our remote audiences see the theatricality of the makings of the fake documentary.
The decision to use the full stage feed rather than the live film emphasizes the importance of ensuring that the remote audience knew that the documentary was being created live.
Another collaboration with Antoniou, LIEBE LOVE AMOUR! (created in 2012 and performed through 2018) was also a “live film,” which the audience watched the ensemble create before their eyes. Billed as a “love affair” between Tall Hilda—a stilt-walking German woman played by Weinstein–and the audience, the performance uses green screen technology to insert live actors and audience members into footage from Erich Von Stroheim’s silent films. Accompanied by Antoniou’s original score, which was live looped by Liz Davito, the piece parodies Golden Age Hollywood romantic adventures. Throughout the performance, Davito and Farrell sit at a tech table running sound and video cues, voice acting numerous supporting roles and, occasionally, tap dancing in full view of the audience. The audience negotiated watching the creation of the film taking place at the tech table and in front of the green screen and watching the film itself, which was being projected in black and white on a screen.
As with The Return, the success of LIEBE LOVE AMOUR! as a live film depends on the audience seeing both the labor of its creation and experiencing the fruits of that labor. With these in-person digital performances, there is never a question about whether the audience understands the virtuosity of the company’s use of the technology.
FARRELL: With LIEBE, part of the fun for the audience was for them to not only watch the seamless “Movie” on the silver screen but also to be privy to the “makings of” with us frantically executing lighting and camera adjustments, set swaps, costume changes, etc.
LIEBE LOVE AMOUR! was a further development in AnEn’s live film practice and an experiment in theatre’s ability to create moments of in-person community. A “Green Man” (played by Joseph Lark-Riley) clad head-to-toe in a chroma green bodysuit, serves as an “invisible” stagehand and audience liaison. Each night, he invites audience members to take on roles in the film by sharing personal anecdotes, improvising, and acting in scripted scenes. Throughout the show, Hilda weaves together the narrative threads provided by audience members, making each performance a unique experience of communal storytelling. The performance ends with the entire audience joining Hilda onstage for a ceremony in which she marries herself to them and invites them to celebrate their nuptials with a champagne toast.
AnEn had long dreamed of using their live film techniques to create live internet performances, but it was not until the development of OBS and Zoom that the company had the tools they needed to create the live international collaborations they had first imagined in the fictional world of The Best. They began developing their Flight project in 2018 with artists on several other continents.
FARRELL: The concept was to create an “evening length” episodic show that would feature a different set of international collaborators for each episode. We decided early on to live stream installments of the project so that the performances would be accessible to our collaborators’ audiences as well as our live audiences in NYC. We investigated how to integrate our Isadora-based live video systems with streaming software such as OBS. At the time, there was no ideal technology to get Zoom video and audio feeds into streaming software and so we had to implement convoluted work-arounds that weren’t always stable. In the fall of 2019, we began presenting test streams online using YouTube Live, Facebook Live and Twitch. For the first six months of development, we experimented wildly with the form and technological possibilities. We started out with a notion of creating an ongoing “International Spy Thriller” in which we “investigate” people all over the world in real time. Each of our international collaborators chose a flying creature “code name” for themselves, and we experimented with various combinations of scripted narratives and free-form conversation.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, creating an actual international crisis, their fictional framework for Flight fell away and AnEn began focusing on really connecting with people in their specific isolations all over the world.
FARRELL: As our similarly isolated audiences grew accustomed to online performance, we furiously developed new technologies and techniques to expand the form. For instance, in an early pandemic performance, we experimented with green-screening our performer, Weinstein “into” our collaborators’ apartments in Tokyo, London, Lima, and Rabat.
In the opening scene of AnEn’s Flight May 3, 2020, for example, “The Bat” makes coffee and breakfast in his Tokyo kitchen, as a live voiceover by Jessica Weinstein welcomes the audience aboard that day’s Flight. The stream then cuts to live shots of clocks in kitchens in London, Lima and Rabat. Each of the remote collaborators—all named for flying creatures—is similarly cooking a meal for themself. The Bat then takes his breakfast egg and coffee into his living room as dawn breaks over the Tokyo skyline. Weinstein, green-screened against a shot of his apartment, appears to be in The Bat’s home with him, though she is, in reality, in a rehearsal space in Brooklyn, NY. Weinstein, who serves as a host figure for the episodes of Flight, begins asking The Bat questions about his life in Tokyo at the onset of the pandemic. The spontaneous questions are frequently whimsical, allowing for the collaborator to respond either personally or through a veil of fiction. For instance, in this episode, she gently asks, “How are things going in your nest? I know these are unusual times within the nests of different creatures.”
The sophistication of Flight’s visual aesthetic prompted AnEn to imagine ways of engaging the audience so that they are aware they are experiencing a live event.
FARRELL: Since audiences watching Facebook Live or YouTubeLive weren’t accustomed to crafted live streams with multiple locations and live digital effects, we frequently found ourselves asking the question: “How can we make sure they know it’s live?” As theatre-makers, we believed it was important that the show felt live for audiences and performers alike. There is an energetic exchange between live audiences and performers that is an incomparable mix of community, adrenaline, and shared ephemerality.
In determining how to let their audience know that the entire performance and all its digital magic were created live, Farrell was inspired by Twitch, a live video streaming platform founded in 2011. According to Digital Trends, Twitch began “with gaming as the main priority” but then “became so popular, it led to an entire rebrand” changing its name to Twitch Interactive in 2014. It now “offer[s] nearly anything you’d want to watch, from cooking, music, Q&A sessions” though its main source of traffic remains video games (Yaden). Twitch performers play video games live on the platform, showing off their skills to thousands of followers. If it were to be revealed that these sessions were not live, the prowess of the players would be diminished. To signal their liveness then, the gamers often host pre-show conversations in which they respond to audiences in real time. AnEn decided to take a similar approach.
FARRELL: We see the chat features accompanying the streaming platforms as the best means of creating interplay between our audiences and our Flight performers. We established a pre-show in which we engaged with the audience actively via chat by asking questions and encouraging the audience to participate. Since many of these early broadcasts were pre-pandemic, and much of our audience had never attended online performances, we also used the pre-show portion of each broadcast to instruct the audience on how best to view and listen to the performance and to help them troubleshoot technical issues. During the performance, we experimented with several different means of engaging with our live online audiences, including live polling, asking them to research and share findings, and soliciting questions for our performers. Ultimately, having the audiences engage with the performers by asking them questions throughout the performance proved to be the most exciting way to create an experience of liveness in Flight. When a performer somewhere in the world responds live to an audience member somewhere else in the world, a connection is made across divides of geography and culture, and we achieve a tangible moment of global community.
AnEn asks audiences to interact with remote performers from across the globe via the chat feature in order to emphasize that their sophisticated video design is implemented in real time, but also to create the kind of community that was enabled by the in-person participation in shows such as LIEBE LOVE AMOUR!, as well as I Land (2014) and The Future (2019). Flight is about our connectedness. The show’s structure allows audiences into private spaces, sometimes a world away, to observe participants in their own environment, doing everyday tasks. Seeing performers from different parts of the world making breakfast, dinner or a midnight snack, audience members witness the similarities in our lives. Especially in the episodes aired in the pandemic, this sense of connectedness, the realization that we are all experiencing the enormity of this global event simultaneously, is comforting.
Flight also marks differences in privilege between audience members and collaborators. One example of this was in Flight October 16, 2020, when “The Bearded Vulture” was filming with a mobile device on the streets of Bogotá, which had recently experienced the violent and undemocratic suppression of student protests. In a pre-recorded voiceover, The Bearded Vulture describes the bloody death of protestor Dylan Cruz, exhorting the audience—most of whom had never heard of him—to remember his name. In a moment of grim serendipity, the gaze of the camera, which The Bearded Vulture was operating live, came to a rest on a piece of storefront graffiti that said simply “Dylan Cruz.” In this poignant scene, audiences were reminded just how divergent our circumstances can be, depending on where we happen to reside.
Because AnEn had already been experimenting with techniques and technologies for virtual performance, when the pandemic shut down all live performance in the United States for the foreseeable future, Farrell was hired as video designer on several non-AnEn online projects. One of the earliest was a production of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest at Bard College in New York—a production originally intended to take place in person. Drawing on his experiences developing Flight, he and director Ashley Tata brainstormed how to transform the piece into an online show using Zoom. With lockdowns taking effect all over the United States, it was clear students would have to perform from their homes. Tata’s vision was to create a seamless, cinematic screen performance with hundreds of quick camera cuts from performer to performer, but both Tata and Farrell agreed that the show’s liveness was critical to its success.
FARRELL: Along with a former student of mine who had been coding software for our company’s work, I set about refining the technologies that Anonymous Ensemble had developed for Flight in order to realize Ashley’s vision. By the end of the rehearsal process, we had smoothed out the digital camera switching systems and created a unifying lo-fi analog TV aesthetic that felt right for Churchill’s story. We started inviting friends and Bard staff to the run-throughs, and it became clear from their responses that the general audience would assume the show had been pre-recorded and conventionally edited. Ashley and I had many long conversations about what liveness meant in this new medium that we were forging together. We decided we needed to “let the audience in on” the mechanics of the production via a carefully crafted preshow. Each performance, when the “house opened”—that is, the webstream was made public—the audience would see the performers in front of their green screens in a Zoom gallery. Just prior to “curtain,” Ashley would make a speech to the audience, letting them know that we were using Zoom and that the performers were in their homes, scattered across the country.
Tata also used reminders of liveness to affect the actors’ performances.
FARRELL: During the performance, Ashley monitored the streaming platform chat and copied and pasted selected posts into the performers’ Zoom chat so they would get some energetic feedback from the audience in real time. Ashley and I agree that there is a quality to actors’ work in live performance that is difficult to define but unachievable in any other context. It was vital that the performers were able to “feel” the presence of the audience.
During the performances, viewers took to the Vimeo Live chat to inquire about the video technology. In one exchange, a viewer asked if the “ghost scene” was live. In this scene, a ghost appears to caress his former lover in the hallway of a hospital. In reality, the two actors were hundreds of miles away from each other, but by superimposing green screen on top of green screen, Farrell made it appear that the performers were in the same place. Gideon Lester, the artistic director of Bard’s Fisher Center responded in the chat that: “Everything you’re seeing is live.” Another viewer wrote simply, “Wow.”
The exchange highlights the tension that exists for artists making online digital performance: that between the desire to mask the mechanics of the technology and to reveal them to audiences. In the case of Mad Forest, the flaws in the tech and the moments where the seams showed helped to support the themes of Churchill’s play. As Ben Brantley wrote in his review of the show in the New York Times, “The technical glitches that befell this ‘Mad Forest’ when I watched it on Friday night—frozen screens and unintentional loops—felt of a part with a work that is all about struggle, amid obstacles historic and artistic.” In other instances, to reveal how the digital effects are achieved is to ruin the performance’s magic. Farrell explains:
FARRELL: As we moved forward with the medium, and our digital tools and techniques became more refined, we realized that our considerable effort to create seamlessly smooth live shows for our audiences is at odds with our imperative that the audience experience the work as live. It’s like the ballerina who can only create the illusion of effortlessness by expending a great deal of effort and concentration. The audience only becomes aware of the labor involved when she stumbles.
Mad Forest went on to have a brief off-Broadway run when it was remounted as a co-production between The Fisher Center at Bard College and Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. Brantley notes, “What registers here so poignantly is the feeling of a fragmented world, of stranded people striving for connection and understanding.” The use of the chat feature that brought together audiences from across the globe, also supports this message.
Tata and Farrell used similar techniques in a bilingual pandemic era collaboration with composer Paola Prestini and singer Magos Herrera called Con Alma. The event was part album release celebration, part live concert and part conversation between Prestini and Herrera about the evolution of the project. The production was streamed live on the internet on several different platforms, aired on conventional radio and broadcast live on Mexican television simultaneously. It featured the integration of pre-recorded music videos shot in various locations that were mixed with the live drawing of artist Kevork Mourad.
FARRELL: In early meetings for the project, Ashley and I discussed how we might create a sense of community amongst the various disparate audiences. We decided to create an inclusive experience of liveness by encouraging our audiences to participate via Twitter. To enable this, we developed a technological system that allowed for the text of the audience’s tweets to become artistically integrated into the broadcast visuals in real time. We had moderators on hand filtering the live Twitter feeds in both Spanish and English. In essence, we devised a way to extend the interactivity of the webstream platform’s chat to broadcast television and radio audiences as well.
Live tweeting during digital productions has become a way for audiences to actively participate in live streamed theatre. For example, Sarah Bay-Cheng discussed watching the livestream of Fake Friends’ Circle Jerk (2019) while following the enthusiastic response to it on Twitter, concluding that “It felt like the audience” (“On TAP” 00:52:08). Farrell and Tata incorporated that community-building feature into the aesthetics of Con Alma, which had an international audience.
In much digital performance, it is exposure of the video designer’s labor that signals that a performance is live, as we have shown in the AnEn examples above. But an emphasis on liveness can also be about recognizing the actors’ labor, as Lindsay Brandon Hunter notes in her examination of live broadcasts of theatre productions presented by the RSC and National Theatre Live. Hunter argues that these broadcasts highlight the actor’s labor in front of the in-house audience, capturing their sweat and their spit and the sounds of their trained voice and breath echoing in the space of the theatre. She points out that the RSC’s production of Hamlet (2016) presents the lead actor’s soliloquy in a single shot in order to emphasize the difficulty of sustaining such a live performance.
Hunter’s analysis offers insight into another pandemic production, director Joanne Akalaitis’s collaboration with actor Bill Camp on the text of a Samuel Beckett short story called First Love which was produced online by Theatre for a New Audience in February of 2021. Farrell was brought onto the project as video designer.
FARRELL: Upon first reading the text, I came up with several grand design concepts, but after attending my first Zoom rehearsal for the project, it was clear to me that preserving the unadorned aesthetic of Bill alone in his house speaking into a camera would be my paramount job. We did add more Zoom-enabled laptops into the mix and Jennifer Tipton meticulously crafted the lighting, but the core of the work remained Bill telling the story to a computer. Set designer Kaye Voyce, Joanne and Bill worked out every detail of every transition and rehearsed for a smooth flow from one portion of the performance to the next. Bill’s precise laptop cinematography and careful manipulation of props and practical lighting instruments was nothing short of virtuosic.
In the last week before the show’s premiere, the decision was made to stream a recording of the flawlessly performed “dress rehearsal” for the scheduled shows rather than have Camp perform them live. For Camp, who frequently works in film and television as well as in theatre, the liveness was not vital to his performance. No edits were made to the recording, which—like the performances Hunter analyzes—emphasizes Camp’s virtuosity and stamina. The tight space and proximity of the cameras, to which Camp speaks directly, create the illusion of intimacy with the viewer. Perhaps a result of these aesthetics, critic Alisa Solomon, who was moderating a post-show talkback via Zoom on opening night, made the assumption that the performance was live. Farrell had to clarify that, though it was recorded in a single take, what audiences witnessed that night was not actually live.
Remote audiences want to believe they are watching a live online performance because, as in the example above, the liveness seems to indicate a level of artist prowess that a recorded performance might lack. This desire reinforces the importance of digital artists signaling the work’s liveness (if indeed the work is live). This anecdote also suggests that audiences can gain a kind of cachet from being in attendance at a live online performance, even though they are not physically present at the event. In Liveness, Philip Auslander insists that “being able to say that you were physically present at a particular event constitutes valuable symbolic capital” (57). Though he is discussing in-person performance, his assertion holds true for live online performance as well. For instance, several people contacted Farrell for access to the recording of Mad Forest, lamenting that they had missed the live stream. Due to the arrangement made with the Churchill estate to present the online performance, however, there is no readily available recording. The only people who have seen the work, then, are those lucky enough to have caught it live.
Digital formats expand the scope of live performance. They have the potential to push audiences to think globally and to imagine a community beyond the boundaries of their own physical location. For example, AnEn’s September 19, 2020 presentation of Flight in the China-based B.O.N.D. Festival, which the company worked on with students at James Madison University in Virginia, had 8,000 Chinese audience members tune in live – an enormous audience by most standards for a theatrical event. The first in-person show AnEn presented after the shutdown throws the global reach of online performance into sharp relief. Songs From a Tall Room, a solo piece written and performed by Jessica Weinstein, was staged in a small gallery space that opened out to a street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The project was scheduled to premiere in May of 2020, but had been postponed for over a year. Farrell video designed the piece, which featured footage of Weinstein performing on stilts in locations throughout the world, shown on screens embedded in window frames hung in the gallery space.
FARRELL: As we began rehearsals, people passing by would stop and watch for a while, and we were thrilled to once again be able to connect with our local community in real space. However, after we sent out our show announcement to our company’s email list, we were alarmed when we got responses from people all over the world asking how they could tune into the performance. We had made no plans to stream the performances live. It suddenly felt like we were excluding this new audience base that we had spent the past two years cultivating. Going forward, we plan to include a live streaming component in all of our performances.
AnEn is currently working on a new multi-media project called Llontop. The piece is centered on Andean culture and features the live performance of Quechua poetry by activist/poet Irma Alvarez-Ccoscco. The first work-in-progress showing of the piece was presented by the Princeton Quechua Workshop in October of 2021 for a small live audience in Brooklyn and a larger Zoom audience.
FARRELL: After the performance, we reconfigured our digital set-up for a talkback with the audience, and the moderators solicited questions and responses from them. The first audience member to respond was a venerated elder in the Quechua language arts community who had tuned in from Ayacucho, Peru. She spoke to Irma directly in Quechua about the importance of Irma’s work in destigmatizing the use of their shared indigenous language. Irma began to cry as she translated the elder’s Quechua emotional commentary into Spanish which was live subtitled by our moderators into English.
This poignant experience of transcultural community could only have been made possible in a post-pandemic context where artists and audiences alike now have the technological tools to engage with each other meaningfully despite barriers of geography, culture and language.
In 2016, Mathew Causey argued that the “binary distinctions among media delivery systems . . . are challenged” by what he described as our “postdigital condition” (428). This condition is even more obvious today; all performance is always already influenced by the inescapable effects of mediatization, the dominance of the digital, and the ubiquity of the internet. It would seem then that the decade-old debates about the ontology of performance are no longer relevant; that we all can agree upon “the mutual dependence of the live and the mediatized” (Auslander 11). And yet, as we have shown here through our analysis of AnEn’s work, even (or perhaps especially) in the postdigital world, online, digital performances demonstrate a preoccupation with liveness because liveness offers audiences a kind of cultural cachet, signals artists’ virtuosity and creates a sense of community in its audiences, sometimes across great distances.
For Farrell, the most significant paradigm shift has occurred, not in the technologies available to create digital performance—since many of them were available pre-pandemic—but in audiences’ willingness to engage with them.
FARRELL: Prior to the pandemic, we would never have been able to get such a widespread audience to tune in and share in the performance with us and we know this because we tried for decades; before 2020, very few people had ever heard of Zoom or YouTube Live and understood these to be live mediums. But in a post-pandemic context, we are able to assume that most of our intended audiences are comfortable getting on Zoom or tuning into a webcast—even in remote parts of the world. This opens up a literal world of artistic opportunities for us and other performing artists going forward.
 For more information on this technology and its development, see Eamonn Farrell, “Streamplays” in the Summer 2020 issue of Theatre Design and Technology.
Anonymous Ensemble. “Story.”
Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2008.
Brantley, Ben. “College Students Colonize the Divided Romania of ‘Mad Forest.’” The New York Times, 20 May 2020.
Causey, Matthew. “Postdigital Performance,” Theatre Journal, vol. 68, no. 3, 2016, pp. 427–41, doi: 10.1353/tj.2016.0074.
Hunter, Lindsay Brandon. “’We Are Not Making a Movie’: Constituting Theatre in Live Broadcast.” Theatre Topics, vol. 29, no. 1, 2019, pp. 15–27, doi: 10.1353/tt.2019.0002.
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*Jessica Del Vecchio (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at James Madison University in Virginia. She holds a BA in psychology from Princeton University, a MA from the University of Texas, Austin, and a PhD in theatre from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Her writing has appeared in Contemporary Theatre Review, Theatre Journal, TDR and Modern Drama. She is the Book Review Editor for Theatre Topics and is currently working on her book manuscript, “Straddling Feminisms: Post-wave Pop Politics and Contemporary Performance.”
**Eamonn Farrell is a Virginia-based theatre maker and video designer. With his Brooklyn-based theatre company, Anonymous Ensemble, he has created dozens of original, media-infused shows, installations, and live webcasts in New York City and around the world. Eamonn also works frequently with Mabou Mines, Sarah Michelson and Paul Lazar. Other design credits include: TFANA, B3 Dance (Bessie Nomination), LA Dance, The LA Phil, American Vicarious, Parsons Dance, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Portland Center Stage. Eamonn has taught projections design at Princeton, City College of New York, JMU and UVA. www.eamonnsgarden.com
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Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411
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