Nora Armani

The Year of Living Remotely and Un-Certainly

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By Nora Armani

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — Two thousand and twenty has not been a good year — not so far. We can easily speak about this year in the past tense, as things are highly unlikely to change before we step into 2021.

This year will be remembered for washing hands incessantly and obsessively, wearing masks, or refusing to wear them, staying home, or disobeying the rules, keeping our social distance even from loved ones as they die, or catching the virus and praying we recover. It will be remembered as the year where a pandemic took many lives, wreaked havoc globally, rocked the economy to its foundations, made the rich even richer and the poor abjectly destitute. It is also the year natural and man-made disasters multiplied and converged in a vengeful way. Mother Earth and the Universe have been grounding us, telling us to go back to our caves and remain under house-arrest for the evil deeds we have committed.

Ideally, this year should be remembered for starting a major shift in social behaviour, in human thought, in our relationship to the present and the future, and in the ways in which we prioritize and communicate with each other. And yet, one need only browse through the news to see that none of the signs are being heeded by mankind, and the immediate instinct of all is to quickly get back to normal, not realizing that change is the only way out of this situation.

We need to backtrack and retrace our steps to see how much humanity has harmed Mother Earth, how human avarice has produced irreversible environmental damage and climate change. The lives of the poor have become disposable and injustice has stepped on vulnerable people, suffocating them with the strength of its grip. Major social issues have become overshadowed by the very greed that caused them in the first place, with a few privileged people generating so much of the misery in the world. It is clear that the time has come for a major change.

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Change would be possible if we actually learned something from this Pandemic; something fundamental and much bigger than the new skills acquired during the lockdown, be they the use of new technologies, online training and courses, baking bread, dabbling in a new language, strumming a new instrument, or taking up crocheting. These are skills that we could have learnt even without a pandemic. Fundamental and deeper learning would involve learning about the world around us, and ourselves beyond more thorough ways of washing one’s hands, or the best ways of covering one’s face, or even the art of spending more time with family. My hope is that this period will make us come to realize that our lives on this planet, and the life of the planet itself, are closely interrelated.

When one reads the news and the way solutions are proposed to social, political, global, and humanitarian problems, one sees immediately that the band-aid approach is still what humanity is operating by. Very few people have learnt something and are really putting their newly acquired knowledge into use. We need to delve deeper into ourselves and reevaluate our spiritual needs. Helping others more, and being less self-centered may be a good starting point, as we have come to realize that we are part of a whole and cannot exist as isolated units.

As an actor and a performing artist I feel my profession is one of the hardest hit. Certainly members of the medical profession, our dedicated leaders and the essential workers who sacrifice their own safety and that of their families to secure the well being of us all, are suffering a lot. Theirs is the result of a heavy burnout. Our frustration, as artists, rests in the cancelled plans, and the idleness produced especially in the first weeks of the pandemic, until we each shifted gears and found our own ways of keeping occupied.

I was performing in a play, “Terrorism,” at Columbia University’s newly built multi-million dollar Lenfest Center for the Arts complex, when the pandemic imposed its rules and obliged the producers to cancel the last two performances of an already limited run, following an earlier attempt at reducing audience numbers per show.

The second blow came when the seventh edition of SR Socially Relevant Film Festival New York, scheduled to open this year at the Lincoln Center, was stopped five days short of our opening, as the entire Lincoln Center with its Film, Opera, Ballet, Theatre and Music complexes were shut down.

The third adjustment was taking online the last two courses of my MA in theatre and film) at Hunter College and the Graduate Center CUNY. Overnight, our only contact with the outside world was our computer screens. We all adapted and learnt to navigate masterfully on the Zoom platform thanks to the imposed daily practice.

For me, the collateral benefits were learning to bake bread, cooking home made — but not necessarily healthy — dishes on a daily basis while accumulating the pounds, and recording cooking and poetry video clips between burning my food due to inattention. I also participated in Zoom readings and events, learnt to go LIVE on Facebook.

After the first few weeks of the lockdown spent sitting on the couch binging on Netflix, Acorn, HBO and PBS, my schedule started to fill up again, and I started reliving the same busy pre-COVID-19 days only this time virtually.

Unlike many, or maybe much like most, the lockdown was good to me, because during that time I was able to complete my MA degree, graduating with highest honors. With a diploma awarded virtually, I went into full production to move the SR film festival online. New skills were discovered, new boundaries crossed, and a broader international audience base was reached. I started to see the silver lining in all of this. First, without going online the festival would not have reached so many people outside of New York City. Second, almost all the filmmakers were able to participate and meet their audiences, albeit virtually, something which would not have been possible in the case of a physical week-long festival in New York. And finally, instead of a week, the festival lasted 10 days in June, offering all participating filmmakers the opportunity to discuss their films not just during a mere ten-minutes post-screening Q&A, but during a whole hour dedicated to two or three filmmakers with international moderators adding so much to the experience.

One other project I was working on was a play about immigrant women, “iMigrant Woman,” originally written in Italian by Valentina Acava Mmaka in the form of three monologues by immigrant women to be staged in New York.

With the lockdown I immediately saw its potential as a play on the Zoom platform. With an international cast of five women from London, Chicago, Louisville KY, Los Angeles, and Princeton NJ, an author from Kenya, and myself in New York, we were able to peform the play spanning five continents. This would not have been possible, or even imaginable, in a staged version here in New York. The success of these ticketed performances prompted a redux at the end of September.

But is this form really theatre? It certainly is written as a play, and it was presented live with actors for an audience, not as a pre-recorded presentation which would categorize it as a film. The acting was more theatrical than it would have been for film or television. The small adjustments made in the ways the actors addressed the audience, spoke their thoughts as “asides,” and projected may resemble film acting, but not having the luxury of doing many takes emphasizes the live component, certainly tilting the balance towards a theatrical experience. The actors memorize their lines instead of reading them off the screen, as done with Zoom play readings. By memorizing and speaking as the characters with minimal movements within the frame, the final delivery creates a much more fulfilling theatrical experience. This medium is still evolving and every day is bringing in new discoveries for us theatre folk.

Needless to say, nothing comes even close to the feeling of standing on stage in front of an auditorium packed with an eager audience breathing the same air, feeling the collective heartbeat of the audience, listening to their laughter, their sniffles, their occasional coughs, their chatter, and sometimes even that one annoying cell phone ring. But all this is forgotten when the resounding applause rewards us in the end. That is the magic of live theatre. On Zoom, there is no interference as audience mics are muted, but by the same token, the audience applause has to be communicated through silent emoji’s or written comments.

The performing arts, like bars, high-end restaurants and sports events where the live group gathering is an essential component of the experience, are the hardest hit, I think. A painter can still paint, a sculptor can sculpt, a composer can compose music, and a writer can continue to write. Yes, it will be a while until museums reopen, and galleries exhibit again.

Film production in France, in the UK, and in some states in the US such as New York, are slowly resuming activities with new COVID-19 guidelines, involving strict social distancing, frequent testing and the presence of COVID-19 compliance officers on set.

Nothing is planned yet for the performing arts, except virtual online and digital presentations.

Both SOLT (Society of London Theatres) and the The Broadway League along with all their member producers, have decided that opening theatres at 50-percent capacity would make no sense, because the high cost of operating Broadway theatres and shows cannot be sustained with reduced audience numbers.

“The alchemy of 1,000 strangers bonding into a single audience fueling each performer on stage and behind the scenes will be possible again when Broadway theatres can safely host full houses,” said Thomas Schumacher, chairman of the board of The Broadway League, which represents producers.

“The Show Must Go Online” is the title under which the UK-based international publication The Stage covered some of the major productions going online during this closure, echoing the famous show business cry of “The Show Must Go On.” For now, this seems to be the only alternative for the live performing artist. Theatre seems to be the luckiest artform transitioning to this medium, since barring rapid argument scenes when two or more performers must speak at the same time or overlap, all else may successfully be presented on Zoom or other such platforms. In other performance genres such as musicals, operas and concerts where coordination and synchronized music and singing are required between performers, the shortcomings of the medium produce a cacophony.

Sadly, 85-year-old Dame Judy Dench is right when she says she may not see theatre again in her lifetime — at least not indoor theatre on the big West End and Broadway stages as we know it.

One obvious solution would be to stage in open air spaces. But summer is almost running out, and there is frustration at many venues such as the idyllic Minack Theatre in Cornwall and Brighton Open Air Theatres and many others this side of the Atlantic and elsewhere where these locations are not able to come to the rescue. Governments are still reluctant to green light large scale performances in open air spaces.

The great plague of Athens during the late 5th century BCE had social effects that were as important as their biological impact. There have certainly been many plagues throughout recorded human history. In Athens the plague arrived at a pivotal moment in the affairs of this centre of western civilization. Sophocles’ specific vocabulary for plague in “Oedipus the King” shows the deep and dangerously volatile relations between the epidemic and tragic drama.

Likewise, during Shakespeare’s time in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, a plague ravaged the city of London and its countryside. Out of that was born the healing poetics of Shakespeare that survived the centuries and came to us, with the universal power of portraying all aspects of human nature. The urgency of the situation made people realize the ephemeral nature of life, and re-evaluate their priorities, just like we are doing, or supposed to be doing today, in the age of COVID-19. Poet playwrights could potentially heal, but only so much as their patient may be willing to listen.

Who knows what the legacy of the age of COVID-19 will be?

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s words in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Fountain Theatre’s artistic director Stephan Sachs spell out this harsh reality: “If we do not learn something valuable out of this, it will be one good pandemic gone to waste.”

What we learn is yet to be seen. One thing is for sure, Theatre, Poetics and live performances are a crucial component of human civilization, and their absence will leave behind a burnt out crater hit by Coronavirus that right now seems to be larger than a big meteor hitting Earth. It will take time to flatten the curve as it will take time to fill out the crater before we can resume a normal existence.

(Nora Armani is an actress, director and producer who has performed in plays, films and television productions in several countries. She is the co-founder of the SR Socially Relevant Film Festival (https://www.ratedsrfilms.org/) in New York.)

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