Art, it seems, is spilling into the virtual sphere way faster than anyone could have foreseen. In this pandemic, basically everything has gone online: office meetings, parties, and even the shows and concerts we used to love seeing live. But in our sudden shift to the virtual, what is lost and what is gained? We had a chat with local live performers in quarantine to see how they've fared in this transition to the new normal.
Taking a hit
"Being full-time musicians, our line of work depended on gatherings; essentially the restrictions imposed to us is depriving us of our livelihood," Faye Yupano and Bergan Nunez of Project Yazz lamented. Aside from their session work, the Filipino musical duo used to frequent live music joints and events to play their own music, as well as their own jazz renditions of beloved OPM hits. But their regular stream of gigs around the metro came to a halt when the quarantine was imposed.
Similarly, musical theatre actor Jillian Ita-as found the pandemic to be a huge problem for her career. She used to enjoy working five days a week in theatre shows and live events but now she said, "It was really a big blow to me financially since all the projects and shows I had lined up for a year were cancelled."
In Malaysia, the performing arts community is taking a huge blow too. Contemporary dance artist SueKi Yee shared, "Financially, it has been tricky. Several of my projects have been cancelled or postponed." She was used to performing every month or two in the theatre or in alternative art events, but now that is all gone with the pandemic.
There's also Stephanie "Dogfoot" Chan, a familiar figure in the spoken word and stand-up comedy scene in Singapore, who's now also suffering from the lack of live events to showcase her work. Stephanie loved being able to perform and stage poetry and comedy open mics in bars and cafes around the city once or twice a week, "getting instant feedback from a live audience and seeing how it touches them and changes their mood."
All in all, it doesn't matter if they play music, act in musical theatre, dance, or even play with words on-stage — the prohibition of mass gatherings in this time led to the cancellation of live events, which various artists rely on, not only to feed their passions but to sustain their living as well.
Making ends meet
So what do they do to cope? Of course, there's really no other option for live performers in quarantine other than to go on the virtual stage. To continue showcasing their art, streaming their shows online and sharing their expertise through lessons were the go-to for most of these artists.
Aside from her performing in live stream shows, Jillian had some of her past performances released, including, the hit musical Ang Huling El Bimbo, which premiered online for a short while when Metro Manila was in Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). But it also helped that she sidelines by coaching workshops. "I'm just grateful that since I'm a drama and voice teacher, I was able to adapt early and offer online classes and workshops to my existing students," she said.
Likewise, SueKi turned to these efforts to make ends meet. She said, "I am still surviving through some of the online performances and workshops I’ve been doing [sic]." As a live performer in quarantine, SueKi had more time to experiment and create new projects. "Some were ideas I already had in mind but never had time to get into but most of my projects during this time have been collaborations with other artists, festivals, or magazines," she noted.
Faye and Bergan, too, widened their horizons and decided to do something they've never done before. With the help and support of their friends, Project Yazz started producing an online show, Listen Moderately. Through their pre-recorded episodes, Faye and Bergan accept song requests from listeners in exchange for monetary donations. "We have learned a lot from putting up the first episode, from recording our own music, mixing and editing the videos, to hosting our own show. It’s safe to say that aside from sticking to our art form, we have acquired new skills that are pandemic-proof."
Meanwhile, Stephanie continued to work on various poetry projects, appearing in virtual happenings like art exhibitions, game shows, and even online RPG (role-playing game) events. As a way to support other creatives and live performers in quarantine, she has also spearheaded other initiatives. Currently, she continues to welcome new and seasoned poets to perform their words online through Spoke & Bird, which is having their next open mic event this 25 July. Stephanie has also kick-started a live-streamed talk show called The Siao Char Bors Chat Show to catch up with other comedians and activists.
Unfortunately, sometimes, these activities are simply not enough. As a sideline, Stephanie teaches English online. Faye and Bergan, on the other hand, started selling their home-cooked food online, investing in a small food venture called Yazz Wings!
Technology, undoubtedly, has helped a lot of industries thrive in ways we possibly hadn't imagined. But moving towards this virtual future, there's a lot of compromise and sacrifices these artists had to deal with. "In live performances, there is the element of the unexpected," Stephanie expounded, "the performer and the audience are committed to being on an adventure together where anything could happen by being in the same room." Though there is the comments section where the audiences can spill their thoughts online, this shared experience is still more difficult to feel in online performances. Stephanie also confessed, "I miss the face-to-face interaction with people, live applause and cheering, knowing instantly how people feel when they hear my words."
For live artists, this audience-performer interaction is an important aspect of their art. Feeling the beat and moving to it allows SueKi to express herself. "When I’m performing I feel like I cannot lie, all I have is myself at that moment." Live shows are all very spontaneous and she feels very much in the present. And doing this in front of the crowd, SueKi is able to connect to her audience better.
Jillian agreed, saying, "It's really the ability to connect and communicate through music, words, and movement that makes it so special." Since most of her performances are for kids and families, she loved seeing their faces light up. "It also makes me feel so elated thinking I was once an audience member wishing I could do what people on a stage do!" Jillian reminisced. But now, performing without that collective reaction, she finds all the work extra draining.
As musicians who perform jazz, Project Yazz finds having an audience especially important when they perform. According to them, "[The genre] is all about communicating your ideas in real-time both to the musicians we are playing with and the audience." Their immediate response is a huge help, because, "you can immediately see the reaction on people’s faces when a performance is good or bad." More than that, Faye and Bergan feel that "playing without an audience is like talking to yourself in the mirror, not very satisfying or exciting. The magic of intimacy, sharing a memory, or experience that is uniquely in the moment is lost."
Opening new doors
Some art forms like the spoken word, as Stephanie has mentioned, have already been moving into the online world. "A lot of it is already experienced in the digital realm through videos, and this has made more poets experiment with combining different disciplines, like video art, installation art, film, and music," she expounded.
Despite losing some aspects that enrich their performances, all six of them found that this new situation gave them an opportunity to learn new skills and collaborate. SueKi, for one, learned that "virtual performances have the advantage of directing the audience’s gaze, or playing with more effects either during shooting or editing."
While sharing their art online has been a wonderful discovery in some ways, live performers in quarantine still definitely hope to go back on-stage for real. As it stands, however, this is all wishful thinking for now. We have no idea how the world would be like after it survives the pandemic, but it's a collective belief among them that their resilient communities will be there to support one another, no matter the mode they choose to express it. After all, in SueKi's words, as artists "we create art in response to life, and we will somehow figure out ways for art and artists to survive." They're live performers in quarantine, who live to create and inspire, and nothing — not even the four corners of their homes — will change that.