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For artists, the show must go on—and Zoom is their venue

Stuck at home amid the pandemic, creative people are finding new ways to use videoconferencing software that once was confined to the home office.

For artists, the show must go on—and Zoom is their venue
[Screenshot: courtesy of Theater Unleashed]

Theatre Unleashed, a Los Angeles-based theater company, was scheduled to hold a reading of a new play this month. But as with other artistic events around the country, hosting the reading in the theater group’s performance space soon proved to be out of the question, thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Still, the show went on, using a technological solution that’s perhaps more associated with remote business meetings and online coursework than the performing arts: the videoconferencing software Zoom. In fact, says artistic director Jenn Crafts, part of the inspiration for what became an online reading of playwright Brandie June’s play Psyche Today came from her own experience using Zoom for work.

“I used to work for a 100% remote tutoring company where I did sales,” Crafts recalls. “We did so many meetings on Zoom—that’s how our company communicated, basically.”

So, on March 13, a group of six actors performed the play on Zoom, while playwright June and a digital audience listened in. And despite a few issues mostly related to flaky internet connections, the event was a success, not only entertaining a live audience but gathering valuable feedback and information for June as she continues to develop her script.

“People all had the script on their computer,” Crafts says. “They followed along. They took notes. They sent notes to the playwright.”

[Screenshot: courtesy of Theater Unleashed]
Now, Crafts aims to make the series a regular event: She’s set up a private Facebook group of playwrights and actors from across the country looking to participate. Crafts has already hosted a second reading featuring the play Three Can Keep a Secret, an audience participation-based comedy-thriller by her husband, Gregory Crafts. She plans to host regular readings, focused on new plays by writers seeking constructive criticism rather than the established classics.

I want this group to help people, and Shakespeare doesn’t need our help—he’s good.”

Jenn Crafts, Theatre Unleashed

“I want this group to help people, and Shakespeare doesn’t need our help—he’s good,” Crafts says.

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Theatre Unleashed and Crafts are far from the only ones using videoconferencing software, particularly Zoom, for artistic performances, education, and experimentation. The once staid-seeming tool has in the time of quarantines and social distancing added sight and sound to many text-based group chats among friends and family, not just colleagues.

A new go-to social network

Zoom has seen its stock price jump nearly 30% in the past month, likely due to its widespread appeal to businesses suddenly shifting to remote work. Searches for the brand name have also soared, according to Google Trends data. Even amid its sudden popularity, the cross-platform tool has won praise from users for its reliability. Zoom’s free version also enables anyone to hold unlimited 40-minute meetings for up to 100 participants, more than some rivals like Apple FaceTime. Bigger and longer calls are available with a monthly subscription, and it doesn’t require a subscription or account to join a call.

As it’s suddenly become a go-to tool for millions of business users, it has also become a lifeline of sorts for professional and amateur artists and performers looking to be seen and heard outside the walls of their homes. And whether they’re writing plays, building puppets, or just singing karaoke between business calls, it’s helpful that they or someone they know is likely already familiar with the tool from an office-oriented day job.

It’s not the only video tool the arts community is using. While Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta has offered some programming via Zoom, it’s also using Facebook Live to stream some larger performances and in cases where two-way video communication isn’t necessary, explains interim managing director Beth Schiavo. Some artists and organizations are also hosting recorded Zoom sessions on other video platforms like YouTube, helpful for audiences who want to tune in later.

Today's block of #FREE #livestreaming #puppet programming starts in 15 mins with Captain Healthy & Safety Dog! Find the Center for Puppetry Arts @ Home schedule at tinyurl.com/CenterAtHome#socialdistancing #coronavirus #flattenthecurve #COVID19

Posted by Center for Puppetry Arts on Tuesday, March 17, 2020

“Arts play a very important role in society, and bring joy to people of all ages and cultures,” a Zoom spokesperson wrote in an email to Fast Company. “We’re thrilled that Zoom can play a role in helping artists share their craft and bring communities together—particularly at a time like this.”

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Comedy powered by office software

Comedian and video artist Marissa Goldman, who usually hosts live comedy shows in Brooklyn, recently hosted an online comedy show that used Zoom along with another collaborative tool typically associated more with work than entertainment: Google Docs. The comedians who participated didn’t just bring their usual sets online. Instead, each comedian or troupe used a shared Google Doc as a kind of digital prop, pasting images or writing text as part of their sets. “When you’re watching the live stream you can see both the Google Doc and the video of the person,” Goldman explains.

One performer performed in character as “an old man who didn’t know how to use Google Docs,” another filled out a find-your-soulmate quiz with audience participation, and others quipped about their favorite memes or shared photos from their youth, Goldman says. A sketch group called the Shrimp Boys even transformed the file into a faux computer command line, mocking pseudo-technical Hollywood hacking scenes for an audience stuck at home.

“It felt good to get everyone together,” she says. “We’ve all been obviously really stressed out and lonely and anxious, so some people reached out to me after like, this is really nice to have something else to focus on.”

The show drew a peak of about 90 viewers, Goldman says, and it’s since racked up hundreds more views on YouTube. She plans to regularly host the show for the duration of social distancing.

“It was maybe, technically, my most popular show ever,” she says. “When I do shows live, we have like 20 people come, and that’s like a good audience.”

Learning to Zoom

Of course, moving the arts from the real world to a video chat session isn’t always seamless. Goldman says she plans to shorten the show format a bit and add QR codes to digital poster images so it’s easier for audience members to find the stream. Echoing advice often given to people pivoting their businesses to videoconferencing, she’ll also make sure that performing comedians have already tested and familiarized themselves with Zoom before they step on the virtual stage.

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Similarly, Shannon Downey, the artist and activist behind Badass Cross Stitch who recently hosted a virtual “stitch up” for crafters around the world, said that while that session was successful, she’s learned a few lessons she plans to apply to the next iterations. One—something that many business Zoom users have also learned the hard way—is to make sure participants join the group with their microphones muted, so conversations aren’t drowned out by background noise and cross talk. Another is to limit group sizes to make conversation and collaboration more effective.

“The next two are going to be 20 people so that people can really talk to each other and we can really get to know each other,” she says.

Still, Downey says, the first stitch-up was a success, drawing participants from Chicago to California to Norway, each working on their own particular projects.

[It’s] keeping our regular rhythm and consistency of lessons for the students . . . and, of course, keeping my business alive at the same time.”

Steve Treseler, saxophonist

“We were able to see what projects folks were on and then there were a lot of conversations around different techniques and best practices and preferences and materials,” says Downey, adding that she might well continue to have online stitch-ups after the pandemic is resolved. “It was neat, because normally in my stitch-ups I’m teaching, and we’re all doing the same thing in the same medium.”

Other artists have taken to Zoom for educational purposes: Seattle saxophonist Steve Treseler, who lives in an area hit early on by the coronavirus outbreak, has begun hosting music lessons on the platform. He even published a Medium essay with advice to other instructors thinking of doing the same thing. Since Zoom—and the computers and smartphones many people use to connect to it—is really designed for voice, not music, it took some time to get himself and students optimized to use the system. But now it’s working well, he says.

“[It’s] keeping our regular rhythm and consistency of lessons for the students who now seem quite isolated,” he says. “And, of course, keeping my business alive at the same time.”

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Working with Zoom’s limitations

Naturally, not every performance or lesson can be moved to Zoom, just as live theater or concerts can’t be fully captured on television. Treseler reports that Zoom isn’t ideal for beginners, where it’s helpful for teachers to have close-up views of how students wield their instruments. But it’s working well with Treseler’s established students, and he says he does know some teachers who are even using multiple cameras to see and share different aspects of performance.

Another challenge is the latency, or time delay, inherent to people playing together across the internet, which makes playing duets or larger group sessions a challenge. On the other hand, it’s made for some interesting experiments in his improvisation classes, where trying to put together a collaborative recording that still sounds good despite the latency can make for a new, interesting exercise.

In my improvisation classes, we’re always working with various limitations.”

Steve Treseler, saxophonist

“In my improvisation classes, we’re always working with various limitations,” he says.

Not all music instruction can easily be moved online: Ge Wang, an associate professor of music at Stanford University, says he decided to cancel his “laptop orchestra” class, where students put together a musical ensemble using equipment including the class’s namesake computers, Ikea salad bowls, and other nontraditional tools. It’s so heavily geared toward in-person collaboration and acoustics that it’s not really practical to move it online, he says. But Wang is setting up a free, public Zoom-based class based on his book Artful Design that he says is also meant to be “a place for people to congregate once a week” in a time of physical isolation.

“It’s a different medium, so I think part of this is thinking about what we could do that is interesting and intellectually and aesthetically nourishing that works well over this medium,” Wang says.

From the visual arts to karaoke

Visual artists are also finding ways to work digitally: Inspyr Arts, a Long Beach, California, arts studio that offers visual art instruction to young people has also embraced Zoom. The organization already offered online “Netflix-style” streaming of recorded lessons to schools, and it’s started offering group classes via Zoom to now-homebound students, says owner Vicky Kosuda.

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“They were even more so engaged looking at us through a computer screen—like a TV show—than sometimes when we’re talking to them face to face,” she says.

Some parents unfamiliar with the software wrestled at first with setting it up for younger students, but children and teenagers often quickly come to grasp the mechanics of using Zoom. (And their parents ultimately can pick it up, too.) Kosuda is also thinking about ways to bring together adults to make art together via Zoom as well, she says.

I had someone tweet and say it’s nice to see weird stuff on the internet nowadays.”

Dustin Senos, karaoke.camp

Of course, not every artistic outlet on Zoom needs to be educational: Dustin Senos, who lives in Vancouver and works in the tech industry, recently set up karaoke.camp, which lets would-be singers from around the world connect to a computer live-streaming a licensed catalog of tens of thousands of karaoke tunes. One catch: Since the karaoke machine is just a playlist streamed on Senos’s computer using the screen-share feature more traditionally used for corporate PowerPoints, singers don’t get to choose their songs.

“It’s just running through, I think, 2,000 hours of karaoke,” says Senos, who said he paid for the karaoke and Zoom subscriptions and will keep them up “for the foreseeable future” as people are stuck at home. “I had someone tweet and say it’s nice to see weird stuff on the internet nowadays.”

Beyond the pandemic

Senos says he might not keep the service running after the outbreak is resolved, but other artists who’ve experimented with Zoom say they may well continue to use the service in a less-isolated future, just as some businesses and employees who’ve discovered the benefits of remote work may be hesitant to return to traditional office life. Downey envisions using the platform to keep up stitch sessions with audiences around the world, and Kosuda is looking forward to experimenting with live classroom sessions that could teach art in real time to students in multiple schools at once. Treseler, the saxophonist, says he sees a role for the platform in offering online master classes and, perhaps, improvisation courses for experienced musicians looking to learn to play more than notes written on a page.

And, for now, as the pandemic continues to isolate people, it’s likely that artists will continue to find ways to create, collaborate, and share their work across the internet, predicts Theatre Unleashed’s Crafts.

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“I think we’re going to see technology used in all different ways because no matter what, the art goes on, even in the toughest times,” she says.

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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