It feels like I haven’t left my closet in several days. It’s not a big closet — four feet wide by eight feet tall, and only two feet deep. It looks a lot larger on video, which is maybe a trick of the camera, or perspective. But there’s no denying that it is a closet.
When the stay-at-home orders began trickling in I occupied myself like most people, with binged television, elaborate recipes, household odd-jobs, yet another attempt to finish reading Ulysses. I was alone, though not unoccupied. My evenings were spent commiserating on Zoom over the loss of paid work and productions months, sometimes years in the making, summarily shut down. Rightly so, of course, flatten the curve, wash your hands, quarantine the virus. But for theater artists, whose entire industry relies on communal gathering, professional grief is compounded by an existential uncertainty. How long will this last, we wonder. When can we return to normal?
About a week and half into my solitude (alone and immunocompromised due to asthma) my priorities began to shift. Whether propelled out of boredom or curiosity, I decided to trade one confinement for an even smaller one. I emptied out and refinished one of the closets in my East Village apartment, applied a fresh coat of paint, threw an iphone onto a tripod, and lo and behold, I had converted the formerly coveted storage space into a white-box digital theater. More accurately, it’s a theatrical laboratory with the goal of understanding how theater might adapt to the digital without sacrificing the act of collaboration or any of our shared theatrical values, be they feats of liveness, collective experience, ephemeralness, or the protean empty space. How can we artfully push against the boundaries of this new social distance to theatrically embrace the limitations of remoteness?
At first, brief improvisational studies of movement and perspective emerged, all posted on-line in an effort to document the process. The perimeter of the closet makes for a fitting proscenium, while the camera’s fixed frame dispenses with the familiar Zoom close-up for unedited wide-shots accentuating the full-body. Within weeks these pre-recorded etudes yielded longer, rehearsed performances crafted over video-conference with remote collaborators, as well as expansive plans for future live-streams, all aiming to explore the ways live performance and video capture might make a hybrid form all its own.
After all, it’s sometimes helpful to reduce our palette in order to return to the fundamentals of our craft. In the past few weeks, I feel myself returning to curriculums of old, once again distilling my practice to the essential elements of drama, composition, rhythm, gesture and storytelling, all the while pushing myself to experiment each day with newer technologies, searching every available instrument for some method to more dynamically elevate a space once reserved for storing alternately my winter comforter and air conditioning unit. My living room has become a production studio, and every piece of furniture, every light bulb, every extension cord at my disposal has been co-opted and recruited for the cause.
There’s no better excuse than a stay-at-home ordinance to find yourself with imposed limitations, and in my 8 square feet, I’ve found myself uncharacteristically inspired. Yes, I acknowledge that the work made in the middle of this uncanny, morbid moment can only be reactionary. But there’s no shame in acknowledging that fact, or in giving in to your naturally addictive tendencies to make art when so many other coping mechanisms have been taken from us. Nor do I begrudge anyone who prefers to use this time for rest and reevaluation. But I have spent so long wishing for the gift of time. Time to continue growing as an artist. Time free of competition. Free of FOMO. Free of institutional expectation. Free of marketability. And, however unfortunate the circumstance, here it is. The time for experimentation. The time for play.
I hope I’m not piling on yet more pressure to be productive or generate (hated words) still more content. I have no interest in merely filling the void of the internet. But I am interested in living in it. I often think about Peter Brook’s invocation of the empty space when standing in front of my closet. How can this utilitarian container, so uncomfortably small, so disproportionate in its aspect ratio, become a stage for the imagination? And it’s here I find the central metaphor, and perhaps appeal, of the entire project — it’s about as obvious as you might expect — that my attempts not only to make art in this confinement, but to exist whatsoever is not so dissimilar from what any of us are experiencing. There is frustration, and boredom, and lots of loneliness. But there is also great potential and for once an expanse of time that we have the chance to fill not with mere anxiety but with thoughtful, rigorous creative impulse.