I Want You in My Zoom
Virtual theater doesn’t have to suck. Playwright and performer Eliza Bent reflects on embracing a radical new world and creating art in a place that is the seeming antithesis of a theater.
I want to be clear. I hope to never make Zoom theater again.
Not that I needed to make Karen, I Said—a Zoom theatrical that had nine showings, four in September and five in October, directed by Tara Ahmadinejad with support from New Georges, All For One Theater, and the Venturuos Theater Fund.
I am very proud of Karen, I Said; it’s some of my strongest work.
Still, I would trade the comfort of a COVID green room (my couch) for a Before Times theater: mice-infested dressing room, shabby lobby, the lingering scent of BO and all.
I would take it back. All of it. To quote a favorite Italian expression: “It was better when it was worse!”
Anyhow here’s how to make Zoom theater that doesn’t suck. Or rather, the story behind how I made mine:
In May I was doing an accountability writing Zoom session. A friend would gather a few people I have never met in real life and we would all “work” together. Sometimes there would be a few cute encouraging messages in the chat bar. Like passing notes. Otherwise we worked silently and companionably.
My friend made a reference to Karen in a private message to me. I wrote: “Who/what is Karen?” (My friend is culturally savvy in ways I am deeply not.) I Googled “Karen” while I waited for my friend to reply. The first thing that came up—this was back in May—was “The Karen People,” an enthno-linguisitc group of Sino-Tibetan language-speaking peoples. I sensed this wasn’t what my friend was referring to. She thought this very funny and explained the newer meaning of Karen, which is now the first thing you get when you Google “Karen.”
I had moved to Evanston, IL in February of 2020. Not out of a volition to live in the Midwest, but because my New York life had fallen apart and I needed a job, stability, and a mental reset. It’s painful, ironic, and cosmically funny to say all this now. In any case, six weeks after I moved … well you know the rest.
I found myself living alone in a new city, a suburb really, where I know very few people. An early-pandemic coping mechanism was taking a lot of walks. On one of these walks, in late May around the week that George Floyd was murdered, I overheard a woman say in a flat Midwestern accent, “I ordered the vegetarian goddess lasagna, but it came covered in meat sauce.” She became even more serious: “This pandemic? Is affecting everyone.”
These phrases haunted me. On a number of levels. Did she know what was happening in our country? Was I losing my mind or just acclimating to new syntaxes and speech patterns? (I am no stranger to regional accents; I grew up in Boston.) Something began to turn in my brain.
Soon protests and uprisings began to unfold and I found myself—embarrassingly—experiencing peak FOMO. I longed to be in New York. I longed to shout on streets I knew with people I loved. I longed for a sense of the collective. The problem was that I didn’t have any friends here to protest with. Or a car. Or any remote knowledge of where to go. It seemed profoundly fucked up—in a solipsistic white lady way—to feel “sad” about not having friends to protest historic racial injustices with, but this was nevertheless my case. My “truth.”
Another early-pandemic coping mechanism was signing up for a lot of Zooms. I participated in an anti-racism training in an attempt to find community. I didn’t find community per se, but I found the way we struggle to talk about race and anti-racism fascinating. In one session a microaggression occurred. In a follow up session, the leader of the group spoke about what had happened, but in such a way that was so gentle and coded it left some participants confused. When we were split into break out rooms someone asked, “Did I miss the microaggression? Would someone please explain? Sorry, I am a straight white man!” We kicked into high gear, informing and educating the white man. I was among the explainers. I found myself relishing the chance to explain the microaggression from the previous session. I was subsequently horrified by my relishing …
Other Zooms I participated in, namely Agnes Borinsky’s Working Group and Ariana Reines’s Invisible College, informed Karen, I Said. In May these groups hadn’t yet been codified. Zoom etiquette was still wild and wooly. It felt like anything was possible, permissible. Ariana Reins was a Zoom prophet, while she would guide a conversation about a Gnostic text, the chat bar proved a veritable treasure trove of conversation, jokes, dream memories, and links through which I discovered authors, music, films. (My old life had been heavily curated. I was now rudderless.) Meanwhile Agnes’s convenings were as intimate as a campfire. There were gleeful moments of collective unmuting, of chat bar confessionals, of wishing. The private messages I experienced through these sessions and others were exciting, snarky, hilarious. The possibilities of Zoom as a medium felt new-genre thrilling.
A few deadlines were approaching for playwright groups, grant proposals, and the like. These usually fill me with dread but I decided to propose a piece about Karens. As a playwright who has long been interested in whiteness, Karen felt like a direct way in.
I had recently learned the poetry phrase “anaphora” (i.e. repetition) in the AR Zooms and put it to use. I wrote a kind of repetitive poem, every phrase began with “KAREN, I SAID.” It was good fun to write and that’s what the proposal became. An incantation. A prayer. Announcing what the piece would be and do. I knew there would be Karyn, Karen, and Karin. The poem was the application. Reader: I shall never write a well-behaved grant proposal or application again! Pandemic has made me fuck-all bold. How about you?
Meanwhile I did everything to avoid Zoom theater. The tidbits I’d seen felt like sad approximations. A director I know quipped, “I’ve enjoyed more dentist appointments than I have most Zoom theatre.” Other analogies like “vegan ice cream” popped up. For me the best spiritual comparison is an Italian expression: “What a hand job!” A disappointment.
I was determined to make my Zoom theatrical not suck and emboldened with the thought that no one would “come.” In this way I could mess around and make something just for “me.” (I am the kind of artist who, alas, likes to “win,” and this year has been full of profound losing. But Pandemic scoffs at all of this.)
I had time, 90-degree heat waves, a Midwest-sized closet, a beating heart, and no one to talk with or distract me.
I started to splash around with the writing as I did in my early morning swims, and I knew the first part would be an Instagram story: in the contemporary style of desperate freneticism. (Over the summer I was teaching a sitcom class at Northwestern and we had revisited the Broad City episode “Stories,” a work of brilliance.) The second part would be silent, we would see a Karen stomping around her kitchen, pulling her computer out of an oven, and the third part would harken back to Before Times, when the house lights would come up on an audience. I am a structure reversal sucker. We would go full-Zoom in Part 3, cameras on, and everyone would be in an EDI meeting about anti-racism led by an apologetic white woman named Karin.
I had worked with Tara Ahmadinejad twice before as an actor and this felt like a fun project for her to direct. And she had a friend Lee, who knew things about Instagram stories and gifs and editing. Tara and I “shot” the first two-thirds of the 20-minute video via Zoom. Me in my closet. I learned enough to take a swing at the rest.
Part 2, when Karen is revealed, was trickier. Could it be a dance? I know I didn’t want to “hear” Karen. We boiled down Karen’s salient “points” and choreographed kitchen blocking. I had an old wig from my play Toilet Fire (2016), the perfect Karen do. I kept re-writing Part 3—the scariest of all because it’s the closest to “me.” It tows a delicate line between satire and genuine reflection, but I found delicious fun in creating side text that would happen in the chat bar. This way the audience would have to guess at who was a plant and who was not—in many ways the spoken text was secondary—and there were built in moments of audience participation.
It was impossible to know how Karen, I Said would land with people and I am still unsure of what even happened, which is how I feel at the end of most Zoom calls. It’s hard to talk about a process when you’re so inside it. Was it too aggressive and violent to cast the audience as “woke white people” in Part 3? I don’t know. I know that some people in the audience had varying levels of fluency around equity, diversity, and inclusion, which felt spikey and exciting but also a bit dangerous. I keep wondering about the ethics of this piece when we are all so alone.
On the election eve performance when I asked how people “hold space” in Part 3, an older white audience member unmuted herself and told the group she holds space by “approaching Black people on the street and apologizing to them” and expressing her “sorrow.” As I listened to her struggle to find words, I was dually dismayed by the content of what she was saying—I wanted to help her examine the technique she described—but I also sensed she had spoken from her heart. I questioned my skill as a moderator to deal with this moment. I chickened out and just said, “Beautiful,” which fit with the Karin character but perhaps didn’t shift the greater racial justice needle. After the show several friends texted to ask if she was an audience plant. She wasn’t, and yet how she described holding space felt just as authentic as the other time someone unmuted themself in that section. A dance friend in California described holding space as “a somatic exercise rooted in the body.” People had asked if she was a plant too. Go figure.
Zoom’s weird. So is satire. So is being in a pandemic.
Here are some suggestions if you decide to create a Zoom performance:
- Make sure the content is good and interesting.
- No acting, please. It’s painful to watch theater people act on screen in their homes. (I realize I did exactly this, but I am an extremely confident actor.)
- Have some jokes.
- Don’t worry about who comes. It’s Zoom, is it even real? Who cares. That said, you should still invite everyone. But just once. Pandemic is too intense for polite follow ups.
- Be aware of Time Zones.
- Consider the project as a grand experiment. Ask yourself: is this something that would keep me engaged when I could just be watching Netflix?
- Remember: You’re not making theatre. And you’re definitely not making a movie. You’re making Zoom theatre. How can it be live? Embrace the weirdness of Zoom the way you would the inconvenient columns in a black box theatre.
- Ticketing is vexing. Have a plan and patience in place.
- If it’s just in the chat bar … does it “count” as audience participation?
- Have fun! We are in a pandemic after all. Just do you.
- Don’t cry when your mom tells you she is “afraid” to touch the chat bar. Breathe and offer to do a tutorial with her.