Last night I shook up a margarita and sat down to watch Virtually Spectacular: Sensory Perception, a virtual gala for On the Boards (OtB) featuring a bunch of top-tier artists in the OtB pantheon: Justin Vivian Bond, CHRISTEENE, SassyBlack, and Jordan MacIntosh-Hougham's Bad Bad Dance company.
It was a gala in the sense that Seattle's premier contemporary arts org was trying to raise $80,000 "in part to cover costs for artists fees" for this summer's canceled shows, but it wasn't a gala in the sense that the evening's performances were streaming for free on multiple platforms.
Whatever it was, it was successful and fun as hell. OtB smashed their $80,000 goal, and, a few technical issues aside, the performances, the production design, and Betty Wetter's clutch hostess powers really did work together to create a spectacular, multi-sensory experience that other arts orgs might use as a model in the future. That said, as a viewer, I couldn't help but fixate on all the cats I saw crossing the virtual stages.
As any Bon Appetite YouTube stan or veteran Twitch streamer will tell you, little production choices end up making big differences. Providing good lighting for the performers, splashing cool-ass fonts across the screen, and using visually wild virtual backdrops made OtB's homespun affair feel professional and aesthetically cohesive. It made me feel like I was watching an MTV commercial from the '90s.
Bad Bad Dance's music videos played between the live performances and helped maintain a good party mood. My favorite of these videos featured performers wrapped in silver and gold foil trashing around to Haddaway's "What Is Love" on a screen split four ways. Though the dancing was lively and infectious, the major "sensory" experience derived from the ASMR crinkling sounds of the foil—the feeling of being touched by an image is always so pleasantly strange.
Justin Vivian Bond donned a cloudy white wig and performed as Auntie Glam. From the confines of her dark New York apartment kitchen, she showed us how to make a 1930s cocktail called a Seventh Heaven. After squeezing half a grapefruit into a shaker, she held the fruit up to the camera and said, "Well now it really looks prolapsed," before completing the drink and singing a loungey song of resilience while balancing a pretty blue coupe glass in her hand. Pretty classic. But what I loved the most about the performance was the mug she left in the sink. And the yellow mug off kilter in the cheap little wooden dish rack everyone has. And the mess of booze on top of the half fridge.
I was drawn to similar emblems of "real life" while watching grime queen CHRISTEENE's performance. They sang "The Way You Look Tonight" in their Old Gregg warpaint from the living room of some "a rich family who had fled upstate," they said, which was hilarious, but the thing I loved the most was the juxtaposition of CHRISTEENE's character framed by bare wall adorned only with a standard white switch plate and an unframed mirror. The banal setting undermined the grime in a way I found kind of touching.
I couldn't help but see each screen as its own stage, and then, as I would in a theater, reflexively search for all the reasons not to suspend my disbelief. Our hunger for the real is so intense that, if there is no fourth wall, we will find a fourth wall and break the fuck out of it. I don't see this natural draw toward "the real" in performances as a problem so much as I see it as an element of Zoom performances that theater artists could exploit in productive ways in the near future, so long as we continue to be cooped up in our own little kitchens.