The challenges of performing, online or off, in the covid age

1st October, 2020

The FT Weekend Festival, for the past few years a tented spectacular held at Kenwood House in London, is now a three-day online affair. Such are the times in which we live. It’s not all bad, of course: this week’s event boasts even more A-listers than usual and one can enjoy them from the comfort of an armchair. But the altered circumstances got me thinking about the challenges of performing, online or offline, in a post-Covid-19 world.

Things were simple — if dramatic — for a while. Theatres, music venues, corporate conferences and book festivals all shut down abruptly. Everything then turned into a Zoom video call, which was fine — for a while. When I spoke at the Hay Festival in May, there was a certain excitement about the sheer number of people who could watch. Even if my webcam wasn’t great, people would make allowances and enjoy a peek at my bookshelves.

But the problems quickly became apparent. For venues, performances over Zoom do not pay the rent, or the salaries of production teams and front-of-house staff. Even for performers themselves, it is hard to collect much income for live online work.

I have a series of talks coming up, but the fees have shrunk, or disappeared. That is manageable for me — after all, I am promoting my new book — but for many artists it is the CD, business book or comedy DVD that serves as advertising for more lucrative live performances, and not the other way around. And no one wants to pay much for a performance over Zoom.

One can improve the look and sound of an online performance by pre-recording it. But that way lies a danger: if the spontaneity of live work is removed, why wouldn’t audiences turn to archive recordings, produced without the constraints of lockdown?

During lockdown I was stunned by the brilliance of the National Theatre’s Frankenstein — recorded in 2011. I was moved to tears watching the Oslo Philharmonic orchestra perform Beethoven’s ninth Symphony on YouTube. It’s partly the music that gets me blubbing, but mostly the sight of a choir all signing together — as they were able to do, back in January 2019. None of this helps performers much today; indeed competition from the archives may actively harm them.

Another problem is that there is an art to online performance, and most of us are woefully short of practice. YouTubers, the experts, were the first to call attention to this. Matt Parker — mathematician, author, and a geek celebrity on YouTube — pointed out in March that when big-name talk-show hosts such as Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert switched to presenting from their spare rooms, they used such poor equipment that they looked and sounded abysmal.

A serious YouTuber wouldn’t be caught dead using an inbuilt laptop webcam and microphone; a clip-on microphone and a proper camera deliver a vastly better performance. TV hosts quickly raised their game, but most of us are still staring down a nose-cam and sounding as if we’re in a bathroom.

As a matter of pride I have started using a professional camera, microphone and lighting. But such kit seems highly unlikely to be a profitable investment. No matter how fine a camera I get, I’m never going to look as good as anyone on RuPaul’s Drag Race or have special effects like The Mandalorian.

Now lockdown has eased, performers can get on stage again — this week the musical Sleepless opened in a London theatre. The problem is the audience: in a theatre, social distancing of two metres means about one seat in 10 can be filled — even a one-metre distance cuts capacity. And one has to wonder about the risk of infection over a two- or three-hour performance.

This is a problem both financially and artistically. I have found that even giving a talk about economics goes a lot better if everyone is packed in close, rather than lounging back around cabaret-style tables. But a thinned-out audience is better than none, and some performers are investigating “hybrid” events with a small physical audience who feel like VIPs and provide some atmosphere supplementing an online stream delivering more viewers and, perhaps, income.

Research is under way to figure out whether live events can restart safely. A couple of weeks ago, researchers in Germany held three successive concerts with several hundred volunteers, testing different conditions of crowding and hygiene, in the hope of assessing the risks. But results have not yet been published — and are hardly likely to be definitive.

None of this is ideal, leaving live entertainment in a desperate situation. The hard truth is that of all the things we do, crowding together for live events seems to pose one of the highest risks of infection, while being the easiest to substitute: just switch on the TV or stream some music.

We love live events and, once Covid-19 is defeated, I am confident that people will flock back. But for performers and production teams, full venues next year will put no food on the table today. It is going to be a hard road back.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 4 September 2020.

My NEW book How To Make The World Add Up is now out. Details, and to order on Hive, Blackwells, Amazon or Watersones. Stephen Fry comments, “Fabulously readable, lucid, witty and authoritative.”

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