Well, like a lot of people, my work dried up. Boom. Stopped. No income. This, I believe is the same for any performing artist, and entertainer. It even effects the music, theatre, tv and film industries as studios and the like shut up shop during the COVID-19 lock-down.
Compared to the average actor, as a storyteller I don't need a script or director to do work, I can make stuff up on the fly. I don't need a stage, editor, sound crew. I have experience of doing a lot of this myself as I travel about the country, when the world is less pandemic!
I have been fortunate. I have set up my own very make-shift and somewhat chilly studio in my garage. There's no fancy or expensive gear, just a bunch of jimmied together lights, my old laptop, and some sheets and the backdrops I use when I travel around schools, colleges and libraries.
It doesn't look too bad when I broadcast. It sounds pretty good too. The garage has served as a 'play space' for the kids since we moved into the house, so it's had carpet pieces on the floor since we moved in, old chairs, a dilapidated karaoke machine, and as you can see, my record collection, and very old turntable.
I have already done a number of school presentations, and this weekend - starting tonight - I have a couple of events I am broadcasting live. One of this weekend's performances is an event for a now-cancelled festival I was supposed to travel to in Woodruff, South Carolina earlier this month. To keep the festival alive and in people's minds, the storytellers and producers got together to present a one hourish show, each of us performing for ten minutes, each of us broadcasting from our homes. Tonight, Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, I am doing three more performances (from my garage in isolation) for the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, under their HopStop program.
So what's it like performing for an audience who is not there with you? Odd. Decidedly odd. I am feeling more nervous before an event than normal, but it is a different sort of nervousness. Before getting out in front of a live audience, one who is there to reach out and touch, if one was so inclined, there is an electric nervousness, one full of energy and vitality. The 'anxiety' before going live without a 'studio audience' feels, for me anyway, how I felt before sitting for an exam at high school! Not the same feeling at all.
If you make a rare mistake with a live, physical audience, you can play with it, because, as a storyteller, there is no real fourth wall. Or if there is you can easily break it. If you make a mistake when broadcasting live you don't see if the audience noticed or not, you can't see their reaction if they do notice it. You cannot respond, alter and correct. I mean, you can, but... You can't be as playful as you might have been.
Performing live as a storyteller, there is a flexibility to the performance, there is spontaneity, you feed from that audience. For me, there is a buzz, or natural high coming off the stage, or stepping away from 200 kids sitting on a gym floor. There's often an unscheduled Q & A afterwards, hand shaking, high-fives, the noise and excitement of people leaving, chatting to one another. You see people walking away smiling, laughing.
In my garage it is very different. It's a kind of sterile feeling. There's no one to engage with before the performance starts. When I look into the lens on my old laptop and say, "Hello! How is everyone today?" There's no 'visible/auditory' hello back. If you're doing a Facebook Live event you wonder if there is anyone watching. You know there is when there's a ping, or smiley face that wobbles up the screen, or someone posts a comment. On Google Meetings and Zoom you see a few faces on the side, but you wonder if they are able to engage and commit to the story you're telling, or if there are too many distractions in the house - is there a screaming baby, a FedEx delivery, someone that needs help with the at-home schooling. There's the concern for me that the internet might crash. And yet, I feel that I put more energy into a digital performance than a live one. I feel I have to overcome the portal I travel through into people's homes. Sometimes there's a pause between the stories where the audience on Zoom or Google Meetings can show their appreciation when the moderator or host opens the mics on the audience! For a moment there's a buzz, and then back to me in the garage and the sound of my own voice.
The performances I have thus far done, when it's over, have allowed for an on-line meet and greet, a Q & A and a quick chat with the host or moderator, then, click -. It's a good feeling that I come away with. There are smiles, positive comments, even - "we should do this again, it works really well." But then quickly and quietly I am in the garage turning off the equipment, rejoining the family upstairs. The high isn't there, but there is a sense of well-being and satisfaction. Not a self-congratulatory feeling, just a feeling, a feeling.
Sometimes you get a glimpse into people's homes, and you might get a sense that some are struggling more than others during this time. I feel, I hope, in that brief moment of time I told the stories, those characters, those scenes, transported the listeners. The listeners who, like me, had to work a little harder to hear and see in their minds-eye those same scenes and characters, were taken out of their new normal and went somewhere with me to a place that offered hope, transformation and a bit of a giggle even for a brief moment, and they found some joy.