Thursday, July 30, 2020

Virtual Fringe 2020 - Adjust Your Expectations

I'm not saying lower your expectations for the Minnesota Virtual Fringe Festival.

Just... adjust them.

Those among us with access to Disney Plus (I only do because my brother currently has it, largely for Marvel and Star Wars movies, which I am also enjoying, don't get me wrong) have no doubt enjoyed a little dosing of theater by watching Hamilton (which is also the first time I saw that play - cast album yes, script book yes, enormously expensive theater tickets and travel plans, no).

None of this is going to be Hamilton.

This whole festival is a fairly last minute, jury-rigged experiment.

Everyone, artists and audience alike, is doing the best they can.

But just like with any normal, in-person Fringe experience, there's going to be a lot of suspension of disbelief involved.

Acting for a camera with zero immediate audience feedback in the room with you is a different kind of performing.  People study for years to learn how to do it.  The learning curve right now is fairly steep.

The fact that people are willing to attempt this live at all is a tall assignment and we should give them credit for the attempt.

Heck, some hapless actor last night during previews forgot to turn on their microphone so half the scene started out being a silent film - until the director hopped back on Zoom to tell the actor, "Hey, your mic is off!"

And did that fluster this actor to the point they couldn't continue?  Nope, they just flipped on the mic and jumped right back in the scene, because they'd been hearing the other side of the scene with their acting partner the whole time.

Normally, an actor doesn't need to worry that their voice is turned on in a theater.  They just walk out on stage and open their mouth and as long as they don't have a sore throat, sound comes out.

[Note to self for later: Zoom silent film idea, modern story with old timey piano music and dialogue cards]

Some people have productions that are designed for this video conference call format, but they're in the minority.  Most people are just using the internet to broadcast archival pre-recorded footage, or are pretending they can use multiple cameras and locations to approximate what it would be like to gather all the actors on the same stage together.  It's not ideal.  And it's an awkward fit in a lot of cases.

Will an actor's stage presence and charisma still make it across the internet?  Will a genuinely good story still be able to transport you, even through a screen?

Have you watched TV or film before?  Yeah, sure it'll still work.  The medium won't completely hijack or flatten the story or the performance.

And the live element of danger and potential screw-ups in real time is also still there.

Will there still be bad scripts?  Will there still be bad performances?  Will we still be able to tell?

The answer to all those questions is still yes.  It's the Fringe, they can't all be winners.  But every story has its audience.  That audience just isn't always going to be me.

As for the pre-recorded offerings, again, this isn't going to be Hamilton.

Most videos that theater companies do for archival purposes aren't meant to be viewed by anyone other than the company members involved,  or their immediate family.  They're meant to be a keepsake, a way to relive an experience that everyone's already shared ("Aaawww!  Remember when we all did that show together?  That was the best time.")

Nobody meant for you to experience their theater production on video.  They meant for you to be there in the audience breathing the same air as the performers seeing the thing in real time.

Right now, that's a health hazard.

But the fourth wall here is solid.  It's a screen, large or small, and it is unforgiving.  It is constantly reminding you that you are watching something you can't touch (well, I guess most theater you probably shouldn't touch without permission and encouragement, but you get what I'm driving at here).

The new fourth wall can make it harder for you to lose yourself in the story.

Theater lights are meant to illuminate actors for a live audience.  They tend to wash them out for the eye of a camera.  And if all you can afford to do is stick a camera at the back of the house with no one beside it and just let it run until the show is over, forget close-ups.

Not many theater companies have the resources to find a good camera person and editor to record and assemble a decent video document of a performance.  They exist, but they're rare.  Not all of us can be Tamara Ober recording the dance performance of Gabriel Mata - for instance.  (Tamara as filmmaker, and Gabriel as a man finding people to document his performances, are actually two really good examples, come to think of it.  Study their work.)

Notable exception in the previews last night for pre-recorded content? 

The dance show Proximity, from the group Pones. 

Great camera work and editing, intriguing performance (we only got a snippet, after all).  I did want to scream at everyone without a mask on outside, but they appeared to be distant from other people most of the time, and indoors without a mask is worse, so... (Given my family's luck with the health care system this past year, my brother and I are constantly reminding one another not to get sick and die, so you'll have to forgive my over-zealousness.)

But, Proximity, definitely worth the $5 Fringe button to help the Fringe and get access to the Digital Hub, and then a $10 suggested donation for the artists.

(Seriously, people, pay the artists.  Or if they ask you to donate to the Fringe instead, donate to the Fringe.  Or give them the money to pay the Fringe on the back end.  Whatever the set up is, pay for the art you want like you pay for any other streaming service.)

And I know money's tight, so if all you can afford is just to log on for the freebies in the Nightly Fringe schedule, that's completely understandable.  (Me, I haven't been spending my entertainment budget on any live theater for a while now, so I have a little wiggle room.  Not much, but some.  And I'd like artists and the Fringe to have it more than a lot of other things I can think of.)

The situation's not ideal.

But now, quick, last minute, we're making do with what we've got.

So go easy.  On the performers, and yourself.

This Virtual Fringe is meant to tide us over, raise money to ensure the real Fringe continues, and will probably help us appreciate the in-person Fringe a lot more when we can all finally begin to gather again.

Right now, no one's asking you to risk your life to watch their art so, be grateful not to have to weigh that choice.

Oh, and it's live right now.  They went ahead and opened the Digital Hub early, right after the previews last night.  So all the pre-recorded content is up and available.  The live scheduled performances on the Nightly Fringe and Digital Hub, those you still have to wait for, but check the calendar and give 'em a look.

Happy Fringing, everybody.

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