I am sitting on the toilet, thinking about grief. A voice in my head intones a eulogy for losses on all scales. No, I am not having an existential crisis. I am participating in Stacy Makishi’s one-on-one telephone performance, The Promise, part of The Yard’s day-long digital festival Yard Online. Makishi creates an extraordinary sense of intimacy, at once one soothing and alarming. Her lilting American accent caresses my name, the verbal equivalent of taking me by the hand. She summons thoughts through sinuous wordplay, thoughts that are deceptively simple but lodge deep in the body. We are confined to our homes, but we are home sick. ‘To go home,’ she instructs, ‘you do not have to feel better, you only have to feel’. Makishi leads her audience member on a journey through a process of grief and healing, by inviting interactions with locations in their home: fridge, toilet, bedroom. ‘Are you willing?’, she asks at each stage, reminding me that opening up to the performance and to her is a choice.
And I do go with it. I am willing. I follow her instructions. Talking to the fridge while my mum looks on, I feel self-conscious. At times Makishi’s words sound less like performance art and more like the mantras of a new-age life coach. However, my spiritual scepticism is appeased by Makishi’s keen sense of the absurd. We are in the toilet, she explains, because we have to go through the shit to get out the other side. Flushing the toilet is transformed into a release. As I move through the house tour, there are times that the performance nudges the profound. Sitting in my bedroom, as Tracy Chapman’s song ‘The Promise’ plays, I begin to feel the stirring of something like hope.
Christopher Green’s No Show was one of the last live performances at the Yard in the beforetimes, but it translates surprisingly well to Zoom. It reminds me of all the things I miss about theatre beyond the show itself, how people-watching in the bar, overhearing takes on the show in the queue for the toilets, are an integral part of the experience. It’s nice being able to see the reactions of other people watching the same show and to recognise familiar faces. As we contemplate the absence of Christopher Green and what that means for the performance, audience members become characters. Suzanne, initially put out to learn that she is expected to participate in this show when she was attempting to cook dinner, becomes a firm favourite, showing off her pets and her ET impression. A confident teenager corrals us into reading the instructions and summoning ‘The Reluctant Performer’.
When Christopher Green does arrive on the Zoom call, he is indeed reluctant. He didn’t want to do the show and he doesn’t see the point of theatre, particularly in the midst of all this. Beamed into his kitchen, it feels like we are intruding into his personal space. He lets himself be persuaded by the audience to fight three battles, each more difficult than the last and leading to emotional breakthroughs that might help him find his way back to theatre. While the emphasis on audience contributions results in a slightly baggy structure despite the hero’s journey framing device, Green’s responsive improvisations are highly entertaining. Normally I would hate this level of audience interaction, but I find now that I have been craving it. A Zoom-room of people singing along to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ is good for the soul.
No Show asks big questions about theatre. As Green is crowdsourcing components of his show, including demands for stripping, soul-bearing revelations, fabulous costumes and a song, I make myself uncomfortable wondering whether there is always an element of voyeurism or even exploitation in performance. There’s an imbalance of power suggested by paying someone to entertain you (though the Yard Online’s economic model disrupted this by being free to watch, with pay what you can donations encouraged). At another moment in the performance, Green is encouraged to check his privilege as a white male performer and consider how radical he is really being in trying to forge a genuinely collaborative show. However, a layer of irony in his performance style insulates this critique of theatre from being truly soul-searching. At a time when many theatres are facing financial collapse, is it fair to stage a crisis of faith in theatre as a dramatic device?
Marikiscrycry’s I am Lucina is the most elusive performance of Yard Online. In its difficulty and blending of forms – live art meets exercise video meets video game – it reminds me of the performed experiments of The Yard’s NOW Festival. On the left hand of the screen a torso undulates. Muscles ripple as they breathe in and out, in and out, expanding and contracting. A narrative unspools alongside the torso’s hypnotic movements, scored by sound design by Joana Pope and nineishuman that captures both mournfulness and existential threat. ‘I saw a murder last night’, our interlocutor types. They describe a dystopia horribly close to home, in which a nameless ‘Threat’ is killing people who look like them, stealing their breath. The person in the video starts to speak, calling a workout. Purposeful squats, lunges, push-ups, sit-ups. Are we in training? Are we moving to stave off the anxiety, translate the nervous energy because we just have to do something? The video and text do not connect seamlessly but this gap heightens the unsettling atmosphere, as does the abrupt ending. It feels like a tantalising glimpse of an idea that could be explored further.
Towards the end of No Show, Christopher Green wonders what would happen if we called this theatre; ‘the times we were together, coming up with something together’. The performances in Yard Online create and hold a space for togetherness – a temporary, fragile web thrumming with connection. Each of the performances are hybrid forms, bringing in elements of ritual, conference call, and workouts into live performance to combine into new forms. Maybe those new forms are not theatre (or not theatre as we have known it up till now), maybe they are something else. Yard Online lays down an invitation to consider how to make live performance in this moment, without forgetting to mourn for what has been lost.