22 July 2020
Zooming In, Zooming Out
by Max Dorey
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic came like a bolt from the blue for theatre and live arts. The decision, when it came, to shut down theatre, to postpone or cancel productions, and for hundreds of freelancers to find themselves unemployed, came hard and fast, and new ways of working, creating and thinking sprung up, almost overnight. One of the most present forms of the ‘new normal’ is the video conference call, or ‘The Zoom’. To its credit, the program is well built; It allows meetings for up to 100 participants, or 1000 if you pay for the full service – it is easy to use, and for the most part, allows an easy flow of conversation in video and audio. It is also free for up to 40 minutes, a time slot that for some is a source of frustration, and others a blessed relief.
This is not to say the zoom itself is not without its issues; There have been concerns about their use of data, and many of the 2.22 million additional users since February 2020 have had to get used to a whole raft of new etiquettes and issues related to meeting, and teaching online. It is of course a commercial product, and relies on the limitations of the free user experience to entice us to pay for the full service. However, whichever medium we choose, the fact remains that we are suddenly in the novel position of being simultaneously more physically distant yet more intimately connected, virtually, at the same time. One west end producer to whom I spoke remarked that they were having production meetings with larger attendances than they ever have before, with the entire production team able to join from wherever they were in the country or the world.
This sudden acceptance of the medium is a contrast to how the industry may have regarded teleconferencing just a few months before: One week before the lockdown began, and as we were prepping to open a pair of shows I was designing, we were required to bring in a director by skype from abroad. I myself have attended meetings via skype when unable to attend in person, and it was always regarded warily, as a medium ripe for technical issues, and far from a preferred way of talking. It would be rare for it to be more than one person coming in via video at a time, and would frequently require some planning ahead. I also recall a meeting in 2015 that had to be cancelled last minute due to the Lighting Designer being unable to find appropriate childcare for their toddler at last minute. These days, we may question why someone dealing with a young child with specific needs should have been expected to come over an hour each way for what was to amount to a half hour conversation with two other people. Now, I wonder if we would offer the video call far more readily.
This new situation has removed the shame of e-meetings, moving it from one fuzzy digitized face on a laptop in the corner, to a whole team of slightly less fuzzy faces in their homes and offices, chatting in one virtual space – and I think we can learn from the new possibilities of this digital acceptance. As a designer based outside of London, though I would always attempt to make my schedule work to keep all my meetings confined to a structured day, there would inevitably be days in which my presence at a production meeting or other creatives chat would be my sole reason for coming in for that day. When it’s a two hour trip each way, with all the money and environmental impact that that entails, it can seem galling to make the whole round trip for what might amount to an hour of conversation. Add to this a frequent lack of, or minimal nod to expenses for travel and accommodation, and the temptation of coming in from the comfort of your home looks a lot more enticing.
This is where the online meeting space offers a third way for increased communication, far more flexible options for workers when based further away from the production hubs, those with young families, or those with disabilities and other access issues. It allows us to bring people together more easily and more quickly than before: One tantalising prospect that this offers is the possibility of theatres and companies introducing the long sought for ‘parameters’ meeting, at the very start of the production process, before scalpel has been put to card, or pencil to paper, in which the entire production team can meet and discuss, with the theatre present, what their expectations and desires are for the production, and getting far more meetings and conversations going to cover issues before they come up.
There are obvious downsides to this of course: No one is about to suggest that a virtual meeting is an improvement on model box showings in the flesh, or workshop visits and the myriad other things that require a designers attention during the production process. Also, as many of us are discovering, there is a new etiquette required for a zoom meeting – not just finding the best angle for your face onscreen and the right books to put in your background, but the screen exhaustion that can come after a good two hour zoom call with a large group of people – we also must not expect that the newer found availability assumes we can therefore rely on peoples time more freely than before – proper scheduling, agendas for conversations, and the freedom to privacy at home must become part of its usage.
We will of course, be working in the flesh again, one day, but for the time being, we are stuck to our virtual spaces. Some enterprising companies, are using the medium for new storytelling ventures, and the medium of the internet is proving itself to be much more of a two way street than merely a medium for streaming shows. We can talk to hundreds of people across the world in one space, and they can talk back, live.
There will be new ways for distanced activities – there are those who have done costume fittings and model box showings online – and perhaps this will open the door to increased opportunities for where and how we choose to work. When the industry is back up and running again, it will be slowly. We will remain distanced for a while – we will need to keep volumes of people in rooms to a minimum – and at the same time, there will be an urgency to have discussions with the widest possible group of people across the country. As we are in the process of rebuilding, we have the opportunity to examine what processes we would like to change, which to keep – and as a community, a desire to pull together and offer new ways of working to everyone. I hope that we can increase communication, from the very start of the creative process, broaden our boundaries and horizons, and find a way to work with the new mediums that is equitable, and more accessible for all.