During the first two days of self-isolation, I felt terrified that I would not be able to cope. I have had experiences of being and feeling “trapped,” and hold long-standing fears about isolation because of that. I am 22 and live alone, and I rely very heavily on my time outside of my house amongst community. When I realized I’d have to self isolate for an extended time, I spent two days in a constant panic, thinking I’d be thrown backward into the world of loneliness that caused me to struggle as a teenager.
But events of this month have allowed my view to shift. Today, I see that there is hope. At times, I have even been able to feel that I am less alone than I have been in my entire life. During those first panicked days of self-isolation, I was thinking inwardly. I was thinking of my personal fears and the space in which I would be confined. But these last few weeks have been about what’s happening outside our globally closed doors. All over the world, we are united in an experience. Every human on earth is experiencing it. And together we are protecting each other by staying apart. As I think of the great number of people who are experiencing fear alongside isolation, I felt compelled to reach out over the walls of confinement and share the process that my heart took in the last few years when discovering how to connect from a distance.
After struggling for a period to speak at all, especially about emotion, I turned to typing in a time of desperation. This was after a long few years when my personal experiences and flooding emotions left my head too overwhelmed to trust or sort through words. I had felt trapped in life itself and couldn’t describe it to anyone who tried to help. I was hospitalized three times before the age of 18; each time I was almost entirely silent and couldn’t find a way to freely answer any questions that were linked to my emotions. It was after this that I had to rebuild my life in a new way. It took learning to grow confidence when I had none.
From a place where I felt trapped, I rebuilt the confidence to let myself connect, and I slowly began learning how to express myself in a way that worked for me. This was able to happen when I texted a friend with new honesty. Through typing, I realized I could focus on just the words and not my insecurities of self. This week, when facing my old fears once again, I realized that when it comes to speaking genuinely, my first language is digital.
While separated with a distance between us, I was still able to begin healing the distance that I felt from the rest of the world.
In this time, the world is healing because of distance. To protect each other, we stay away. I am thinking of it as a new way to care about each other, and I am seeing it as an opportunity to heighten our focus on what allows us to feel genuine.
As a millennial, I grew up surrounded by chastising, negative views about technology and social media. The scarily haunting warnings seemed to be all around us, with phrases like “technology is ruining our society,” and “social media means that our generation will never learn how to connect.” However, in a time when we most need the comfort of compassion, we find we are cut off in every way except for the links enabled through our devices. This situation presents us with a timely opportunity to explore how we can use technology in a way that makes us present, aware, and connected, instead of letting technology box us into the negative alternative of disconnection.
From my very first encounter with social media, I felt it was something frightening. I was scared of the hidden rules that seemed to govern the ways in which we’re supposed to share. As someone with anxiety, I felt that in order to speak over social media, you needed to use a language that others seemed to know instinctually, but it was never spoken about or taught.
A barrier that I used to perceive as a block to digital communication was the fear of the uncontrollable plane of judgement and potential misunderstandings. When we allow words and ideas out, we lose a degree of control. When they’re available to other people’s interpretation, they become altered as they mesh with others’ individual understandings. When we share through technology, we are unable to gauge the judgement of others. Since the perceiver is not beside you, there is a barrier of distance.
However, my fearful perspective began to alter when I remembered a fact that I’d been overlooking. When I was about 5, my mother said to me, “No matter how close I get to your head, I can never see or understand things in the way you see and understand them from inside your mind.” For a 5-year-old, these were words that stuck with me; years later, they make me think about the fact that, no matter our physical proximity, the distance of perception is a natural aspect of what makes us human. I realize now that the distance is beautiful, because we get to share it, and share across it. It is the essence of what brings us together, and it begins in the cocoon of our individual mindsets.
This deeply natural and human truth is relevant when we consider our interactions through the digital world. If it is inevitable that we will always have an internal distance between the ways we’re able to understand each other as humans, then we can see the distance that technology produces between us as a natural part of being human.
As a society, we’re familiar with technology’s solutions to accessibility through closing physical distances. What has become important to me is what technology makes accessible in an emotional sense.
This new world that we’ve been thrown into has cancelled human contact. As a theatre artist, I saw my community’s spirit crumble as human contact—theatre’s fueling force—appeared to become obsolete. But I’ve seen the theatre community respond with resilience. Live Streams, Zoom play readings, calls for collaborative creations, and more, have all been bustling through the online world, linking us in a time when we are working through processing all that we have lost.
As I think back on the process of learning to use technology so that I could feel the freedom to express myself, I also think about the expressive freedom that theatre has given to me. Both of these communication forms have helped me in their own ways, and when I consider them alongside each other, I find it fascinating to think through how these two languages of expression intersect. Theatre traditionally relies on live proximity, and it’s fascinating to notice how distanced forms of sharing affect our art.
The theatre company Spiderwebshow is devoted to researching the new range of experiences that are possible through live digital art. In 2018, I worked with their event FoldA (Festival of live digital Art) in connection with their accessibility coordinator, Clayton Baraniuk. The technology showcased was used to connect artists and their ideas, and also to connect humans—all humans. With the aid of devices, we are able to break barriers of ability, distance, and time—a meaningful insight, because I believe this is precisely what our culture of modern theatre hopes to do.
The lenses of communication used by both technology and theatre are closely linked. When tech is used as the medium to reach out or ask for help, what is conveyed is “I need a person.” By using the aid of technology to communicate, we are leaving a place where there is no one, surmounting the problem and connecting across a distance. This fulfills a deeply essential human need to be seen and heard. Art presents us with a similar navigational tool to drive our feelings to an external realm, where they can be seen and understood.
I think of it as two lines of transport, whose starting point and destination are the same, though the journey is a little different.
There is a beginning place of being alone and unheard, and we seek to travel to a place of connection and understanding. We can call out through technology. We can call out through theatre.
Both forms of communication allow us to share with the perceiver at a distance; both involve sharing with the expectation of instant perception and response removed. We are already familiar with the theatrical fourth wall; I’d say our methods of sharing digitally have a similar separation.
And of course, there is the emerging option of combining them.
In a real time, “in the moment,” real life way, we can create art that uses technology to break down barriers. With live digital art, we can respond in the moment, and both the ‘fourth walls’ of distance and response are overcome. Tech is very much two-sided, and encourages the audience, the perceiver, to add their perceptions to the overall effect of the art.
Two-way theatre is often thought of as the future of contemporary liveness. It allows us to highlight why we share stories in a living, present way; it is the response to presentational screen acting. Currently, tech is offering us two-way theatre in which art, artist, and audience are all a part of a whole. To zoom out even further, we know this whole experience is global. We are in the midst of a unique time, when every human on the planet is sharing an experience. It is an experience rife with fear and tragedy, and it calls for closeness. This shared feeling can make us feel together and create together and listen with greater focus to what is shared. In response to global isolation, I’ve noticed a shift as we lean towards genuine digital connection.
The digital world will never be a replacement for real interaction, but when I see it as an option for a communal language, that helps me to see important hope amidst the uncertainty. I feel that everyone has an individual way of speaking genuinely in the digital language of social media. This distinction echoes into our individual preferences of how we both take in and share art at this time. As our theatre community has responded with speed, I have noted that the effect has felt overwhelming for many of us. The search for what feels genuine to each individual seems definitive of this time, and the best well-wishes I can think to offer any person feeling fear in isolation is to encourage them to seek what works for them when feeling and thinking “I need a person.” We all seem to be honouring the opportunities for liveness, active listening, and responsive sharing; our artistic community excels at all these things. As the world searches for ways to feel fulfilling connection, we remember the heart of why we share. It isn’t a performative act, but a collective experience.
An added note after watching Nightwood Theatre’s livestream of “All The Little Animals I Have Eaten” on Friday, April 3rd:
While watching the Nightwood Theatre’s livestream of All the Little Animals I Have Eaten I was struck at first by the sadness of loss. I knew we were all missing out on the art of the incredible designers, choreographers, and more. Though, with the loss there was also new energizing power to see what has been gained through extraordinary effort. As I heard these designs described by this team—in little boxes on a screen, separated but fused together with resilient drive—it made me realize again what these onscreen live gatherings can do. We all tuned in as parts of an active choice to overcome barriers that block connection. It is a devastating barrier, but to see it tackled visually reminds us all that this is deeply important. It reminds us that ensuring connection requires action, and we strive to work towards communicating in the best way we can because the feeling of togetherness deserves work. This play was extraordinarily powerful for me to see—sitting alone, but knowing I was “seated” next to Toronto’s caring theatre community. Thank you to Nightwood’s team and to all these actors for diving in with unshakeable strength. It was your unmistakeable passion and energy that reminded me that we fight for connection. A story that is told against the odds is a beacon of hope. This story explores how to be at home with yourself, and how to send out the ideas of our inner thoughts. I know that message matters deeply to us all, and it is one that resounds in a gift of energy through each wifi network that clicked in to join the link.
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