Gob Squad first presented their 12 hour livestream performance “Show Me A Good Time” during the lockdown in June. For the second lockdown, they remade the piece into three parts, and HAU broadcast the first episode on 26 November 2020. I decided to use it as an opportunity to reflect on this latest closure of live performance venues.
As I sat down to watch “Show Me A Good Time” the livestream was not loading, and I spent thirty minutes refreshing the page, wondering ‘Is it just me? Is everyone else already watching the piece?’. Eventually I saw on the Gob Squad Facebook page that they were having technical issues, and the performance started a few minutes later, but it was a reminder of the disconnected reality of theatre during lockdown.
It would seem that I was not the only one struggling with remote performance – Sean Patten, the MC of the piece, often wondered out loud if anyone was watching, becoming frustrated with performing for a silent, unresponsive camera. Watching online work during the first lockdown, the simple fact that people were making some attempt to connect, when connection felt so needed, was often enough to move me. The shared nature of our experience created a feeling of solidarity, and the novelty of the situation shook us out of our routine. Yet as certain parts of society are allowed to continue under ‘Lockdown-Lite’, while live performance is once again on the blacklist, perhaps feelings of togetherness are beginning to fray at the edges. Novelty is no longer much help either – I empathised with Patten when he said at one point: ‘I’m sick of staring at a camera, I need somebody’.
Remote performance certainly provides opportunities for diversity – in particular, Angela Alves’ piece “No Limit” comes to mind, which explored the equalising effect of lockdown for people with disabilities. At the same time, the limitations of remote performance can also be acknowledged. In “Show Me A Good Time”, Simon Will walked through Berlin asking people to watch Patten performing alone on the HAU1 stage via videolink. Typical of Gob Squad’s dedication to bringing theatre into urban life and vice versa, it led to some very touching interactions between Patten and his public. Sarah Thom’s personal stories as she drove around the city with her mother’s ashes, and Tatiana Saphir’s exchanges with members of the audience who called in, were also often moving. Yet sitting behind my computer screen, I felt like a passive witness to the experience of others. Perhaps it is lockdown fatigue, perhaps it is just the nature of privilege, but I simply wanted to be physically present at a performance again. In the first lockdown, there was a certain sense of optimism, or at least general appreciation of how fortunate many of us were compared to others – this time round, can I admit that I really miss performance as it used to be?
Many people and industries are struggling during the pandemic. I do, however, think we should continue to push for a return to live performance as soon as possible. Performers, creators and venues are in constantly-evolving relationships with their audience and their practice, and these depend on some form of continuity, and building on what has come before. The first lockdown halted years of momentum, but theatres were slowly beginning to reopen, and there was once again space for work which did not specifically deal with the pandemic. The second lockdown has put the brakes back on just as it felt as though we were starting to move again. Establishing habits of congregation and opening up room for nuanced dialogue takes time, and each lockdown stunts the growth of those actions further down the line.
I enjoyed much of “Show Me A Good Time”, and appreciated the ways in which Gob Squad reached out to our city and its people, while confronting many of the issues around lockdown head-on. For now, I am looking forward to the next time that I can join them in person.
Note: In accordance with measures taken by the the federal and state governments to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, all public events in Berlin theaters have been cancelled from 2 November until at least 22 December 2020.