They Live For The Audience: Performing Artists Adjust To Working From Home

Apr 17, 2020

Last month, musician John Sidle set up a video camera in his home to perform live on YouTube at the Jackson Hole Hootenanny. The Hootenanny, or The Hoot, is an acoustic musical showcase performed every Monday night at Dornan's, a local bar and restaurant just outside the entrance to Grand Teton National Park. And except for extreme weather it's never been canceled. Then the pandemic happened.

"We had Hoots I think through the end of February and then you know we're starting to think…good grief, is Dornan's still going to be open?" Sidle said.

On March 19, Dornan's closed along with all other bars, theaters, nightclubs, and most other public spaces in Wyoming. For those in the performing arts who rely on a live audience, it was shocking. Anne Mason runs Relative Theatrics, a theater company in Laramie, and said the pandemic forced performers to get resourceful.

"Theater artists, we're good at adapting and creating new worlds under high pressure. I mean, that's, that's what we do on a daily basis. It's what we're trained for," she said.

So like the Hootenanny, Relative Theatrics went online. They began holding weekly virtual play readings every Friday night on YouTube. In Sheridan, the WYO Performing Arts and Education launched Virtual Vaudeville-an online performance series that anyone can participate in. Executive Director Erin Butler said it was important that they do something.

"When crisis happens, you react with art. You react with theater, youn react with a place to bring people together and experience something together, and have a conversation and maybe just be uplifted for a minute. But it's so strange that that's not even allowed."

And Butler added it's really not that unique.

"Even in like World War Two theater and art and these things still existed to just help get people through," she said. But it's hard to adjust to performing without an audience. The Hootenanny has upwards of 25 musicians all performing from home. So while many are grateful to still be able to perform, John Sidle said it's a big adjustment.

"You start playing a few songs and nothing happens. 'Is anybody out there? I don't know,'" he said. "The only feedback you get is looking at yourself on the screen saying, 'well, let's see am I too close? Am I too far away?'"

Anne Mason also finds the experience strange but sees it as an opportunity for performers to hone their craft.

"There's a lot of feedback that we get as performers from our audience members. When you hear them gasp or laugh, there's a reinforcement there that like, 'okay, I'm doing a good job.' You don't have that when it's virtual," she said. "So, as a performer, you really have to trust yourself and the work that you have done, because you're not going to be getting that real time feedback."

But while live feedback can't happen, both Mason and Sidle found that live streams more than doubled their audience with viewers from all over. They've had people tune in from across the country and, in Sidle's case, Asia.

"There's a fellow who's stuck in Thailand who's been watching us," he laughed.

While performing at home might be strange for the artists, Anne Mason said it helps her.

"I really believe in the arts. I believe so wholeheartedly in theater and the power of theater," she said "I'm really falling back on that faith that I have in these moments where I get scared."

More than anything she said she wants people to remember that in times like these, art has worth.

"The value of theatre and the value of the arts to make a space to be there for each other in a really difficult moment of time that is so anxiety-ridden. Hopefully, the theater can provide some relief there and reduce the stress and create a space where we can be safe," she said.

One thing is for sure, they all can't wait to get together in front of a live audience again sometime soon.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Megan Feighery, at mfeigher@uwyo.edu.