Other Voices, Other Zooms

Photo courtesy of author.

Adapting In-person Presentation for Friends Online

Before the pandemic shut down schools, theaters, and places of worship, Richmond (Va.) Meeting invited me to facilitate a climate change workshop and to perform my play Everything Is Connected—An Evening of Stories, Most Weird, Many True. The play takes on LGBTQ issues, identity, and the Bible, along with power and privilege, but ultimately this one-person performance is about climate change. With the disruption of the coronavirus lockdown, Richmond Friends reluctantly decided to hold the event online.

“Can’t you just perform the same play on Zoom?” the organizers asked as we began to restructure the weekend. I tried to envision doing the live show in the confines of the Zoom video conferencing system. From having adapted my stage show Transfigurations—Transgressing Gender in the Bible into a film, I know texture and immediacy gets lost in the transition from stage to screen. In the high-definition video version we added special lighting, lots of closeups, and a full music score to recover or replace what was lost. Considering the low-fidelity world of Zoom, I told the Richmond Friends that Everything Is Connected would not work for Zoom.

“But,” I casually thought out loud, “maybe I can design something new for the Zoom environment.”

I might have been inspired by a passage in the Gospel of Matthew I memorized years ago in Sunday school:

But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.

A new type of performance space requires a new type of performance.

I spent the next month researching, considering, tinkering, and experimenting with Zoom as a performance space. Here are some of the conclusions I’ve reached.

Zoom Is a Visual Medium

Zoom is a low-resolution streaming video service. The sound is mediocre, and the live images are gauzy. Even with a dynamic speaker, the grainy quality is tedious for the viewer, especially when viewing on a small screen. For a presentation to be compelling, the presenter needs to think visually and include striking, high-definition images and recorded video.

I pushed myself out of my traditional sparse one-person live performance aesthetic to include visual multimedia. First I began to play around with using virtual background images to create sight gags. I signaled shifts in tone and setting by changing the virtual background. With enough processing speed on a computer, one can upload a virtual video. I went through my personal photo and video collection and pulled the most arresting, interesting, and provocative images. I also turned to free image sharing websites like unsplash.com (whenever using someone else’s photos and visual art, remember to credit them).

I began to create other content that includes visuals. I find most PowerPoint-style slide presentations dry and lifeless, but creating a slide deck in Google Slides gave me the opportunity to insert arresting images and text at key moments in the performance. Paring a voiceover with powerful images can be more effective online than in a live theater performance.

I also created one- to five-minute original films that I inserted into the performance. I scripted and recorded a voiceover with music, then added still images, videos, and GIFs to enhance the message. To create these effects I turned to the website headliner.app. They give users access to a vast collection of images, videos, and GIF files along with the tools needed to put them together with a transcript into a single video.

Make It Interactive

Those of us from the one-person performance art theatre world know how important it is to engage our audience and give them a role. They become part of the work. This relationship raises the stakes of the performance, makes the performance more spontaneous, and allows intimacy with the performer. As a result, the audience develops a sense of investment and ownership in the production.

Zoom performances benefit from this as well. Utilizing the Zoom tools such as chat, polls, and breakout rooms will keep your audience on their toes and much more engrossed in what is happening on their screens.

Make It about Them

There are limitless amounts of content on Netflix and other streaming services, which have massive budgets to produce high-quality content. There is something they cannot do though; they cannot customize the content for the audience. In a live Zoom performance, I can. I found that anything I do to reference the audience, to call individuals by name, to create content specifically about the location or the interests of audience members, gives my performance hooks that keeps participants in the Zoom. Suddenly it is not just some show, but a performance piece that includes the audience members.

Keep Changing It Up

When on Zoom, people get bored and distracted easily, especially if they have their own video camera off. It’s very easy to check emails, social media, news, and cat videos while on a Zoom video. (During a recent boring Zoom meeting, I cleared out over 1,000 emails in my inbox!) Therefore, it is important to regularly change the modality of the performance.

I try to switch the format about every ten minutes or less. If I am talking for ten minutes, then I insert a poll for the audience to answer. Next I show a short video. Then I might go back to talking briefly while displaying an image. I need to keep participants on their toes.

Shorten It

People go to a performance at a theater to escape distractions in their lives and home. Now, stuck in the house, they likely have a combination of people, chores, and pets constantly tugging at them. Attention spans for people watching from home is much shorter. I keep Zoom performances between 15 and 45 minutes long. You can add introductions and get-to-know-you time before performing and questions-and-answers after, but the primary performance needs to be condensed.

Rehearsal and Tech Team

Finally, for a Zoom performance to work well, it requires a team of people. Think of this behind-the-scenes tech support team as your stage manager, crew, and ushers. They keep things running smoothly, operate the technical aspects of the show, and make sure the audience is comfortable and behaves appropriately. I rely on my Zoom team to run the tech I need while they interact with and monitor the audience.

For this all to work well, I need to rehearse my parts on my own and to also bring the Zoom team together for tech rehearsals. I even organize dress rehearsals with sample audience members, so we can practice the interactive portions of the show, work out the timings, and get necessary feedback from the audience.

For a Limited Time Only

Of course nothing can replace a live in-person theater experience. Once the pandemic ends, we will flock back into theater spaces and likely appreciate them more than ever. Until then we can do something new, something different, something special.

Want to see how it works? You can view recordings of some of my interactive, multimedia performances on Vimeo.

Correction: The original online edition of this article included a screenshot from one of Peterson Toscano’s videos of a performer draped with a shawl and lit with purple lights. The performer is Jesse Factor, videotaped at the 2019 Milton Fringe Festival and included in one of Toscano’s virtual screens. We regret not crediting Factor.

Peterson Toscano

Since 2003 Peterson Toscano has used comedy and storytelling to help audiences better understand LGBTQ issues, the Bible, and climate change. As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio and a climate communication leader, Peterson helps people see climate change from fresh angles while stirring up empathy toward those most affected.

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