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Acting Reflections: To Zoom or Not to Zoom?

It's been said so many times lately, but it bears repeating: What a year. Especially if you're in the arts. One minute you're looking for auditions, or you're in dress rehearsals for the next big show for opening weekend, or even looking forward to the cast party during closing weekend. And the next minute? Everything's shut down. No more in-person auditions. No more live shows in the theaters. No more concerts. No more costume fittings. No more backstage antics among the cast and crew. No more trips to the stage door. No more pictures with friends outside and inside the theatre. No more applause after every number and the grand finale. No more quick changes in between numbers. No more orchestra tune ups. No more vocal warmups. No more fight calls. No more notes after each show. No more congregating with family, friends, and audience members after the show. No more after show dinners late at night at a restaurant that will serve y. No more anything. The very fabric of our lives was abruptly put on halt due to a global pandemic raging out of control. What's especially sad about this is that many of us never knew what it felt like to be forced to take a break for an extended period time. We were always constantly on the go. An extended break at the most would be at least for about six to nine months, but not for over a year. But that's exactly what happened. Most people would remember where they were when it was announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) that the COVID-19 crisis officially became a global pandemic, or even when the first case of COVID-19 appeared in your home state, or even when a state of emergency was declared in your respective home state. To be honest with you, I vaguely remember that day. There was a lot fear, a bit of panic, and even a sense of resignation. The question of "could it really come here?" became "it already arrived." (My mom somehow knew this before I did. Moms have a sixth sense that I'm envious and a little bit freaked out by.) But there was one day I remember even more than the day the WHO declared the COVID-19 crisis a global pandemic. It was 12 March 2020. That was the day Broadway shut down. I remember that day even more than when it was announced by the WHO the COVID-19 virus had become a global pandemic or even when the governor of my state declared a state of emergency. I was planning on seeing Frozen on Broadway for the third time on 18 March 2020, which was about six days away. I kept my eyes and ears open for any changes with Broadway shows and midtown Manhattan in general, with the only news several days before announcing that there would be no more stage door appearances from the cast. As sad as that was, it was for the best out of caution and safety of the cast and crew. I remember 12 March very vividly. I went out for my usual afternoon constitutional around the neighborhood, and was enjoying the sunshine and warm weather. Whenever I go out walking, I put my earbuds in, put on a good podcast or some wonderful songs on shuffle, and then get lost in enjoying life going on around me. I hardly check my phone when I go out because I want to disconnect and just enjoy my walk and breathe the fresh air. After strolling around for about an hour or so, I get back home, and I pull out my phone to check out if there are any updates. When I got to Instagram, one of the first stories that appeared on my feed was in bold: All Broadway performances have been canceled until 12 April, effective at 5 p.m. My jaw hit the floor. Broadway shut down? Seriously? There must be a mistake. Broadway has NEVER shut down, at least from my understanding. Sure, there was a pause after the 9/11 attacks, or even during an occasional strike, but that only lasted for several days to a few weeks. But to shut down completely? It's just not possible. But there it was in black and white, or at least in pictures with a description underneath, as far as Instagram was concerned. That was the day when it really hit me that things were being turned on its head. Because as soon as Broadway shut down, many other theaters followed. Big or small, regional or community, union or non union, they were all shut down in the coming days and weeks. Auditions, rehearsals, and even performances were either canceled or postponed for the foreseeable future. And the shutdown didn't last for a month. It got extended to five months. And then another few months were added. And then more. Before long, it was over a year since Broadway did their last performances. In other words, the performing arts became silenced because of a global pandemic. Or were they?

The arts as a whole is a valuable asset to our culture, but it's also the most overlooked. Let's face it: many people out there think of seeing film, TV, concerts, theatre, paintings and sculptures, and more as sort of a reward for doing something that is considered more significant than the arts. If you got an A+ on a test or final, you get to watch your favorite movie or go see a Broadway show. As a song lyric puts it, the arts were considered the "ice cream to the fruits and vegetables of the more important subjects." (Not true!) They even put sports above the arts, which has become a divisive topic of discussion between individuals in both worlds, especially where the funding is concerned. Universities and schools would put their money towards the sports programs as opposed to the academic and arts programs that need the funds just as much in order to reach out to potential students and donors. That just shows how warped things are in terms of how the arts is valued. If you're in the arts, this must've been said to you repeatedly during your life: "Get a real job!" It's frustrating, I know. Try telling those people how the arts ARE a real job and they refuse to listen. On a regular basis. It's sad trying to match wits with the witless, and it NEVER ends well. It's not pleasant, and I ultimately give up trying to explain myself to others who simply won't listen. In fact, during the pandemic, a Tweet came out saying this: "anyone else find it super annoying how sports are pretty much carrying on as usual but the arts have to make a bunch of sacrifices to stuff" Yeah, there's a problem here. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy watching sports. But why does it have to take precedent over the arts when things like concerts, art galleries, performances, and more often bring in more money than sports in major cities? (FACT: New York City brings in more revenue from the arts than sports.) Why is sports valued more than the arts? Especially if the arts reminds us of our humanity through living different lives from our own, and how much alike we can actually be? Especially if the arts allows us to get in touch with our feelings and it's okay to express them in creative ways? Especially if the arts has to make sacrifices in order to function and keep others safe, when sports is doing the exact opposite? Sadly, the answer is quite simple: MONEY. There are those in the sports universe who simply don't care or appreciate the arts and how much artists being forced to suffer while baseball, basketball, football, tennis, and more continue on as if nothing has changed. The least sports can do is to actually see how much the arts had to struggle this past year and maybe, I don't know, don't continue on as planned for the sake of money and ensure the safety of its players and fans. Money isn't everything, you know. Seriously, it isn't. Sorry for going off on that tangent. But here's something else the sports fans should realize: Even though many physical spaces where the magic of theatre takes place were closed, the spirit of the arts didn't die this past year. Not by a long shot. "The show must go on" took on a whole new meaning. When you can't be there physically, why not do it virtually?

I was like many artists during the first few weeks of the pandemic after everything just about shut down. The question that lingered on everyone's mind: what now? How do those of us who make a living performing for audiences across the country and all over the world do what we love if we can't be there in person? Especially with a virus that is highly contagious and deadly? Well, for all of us, you get creative with what you have. Or as Jim Henson once said, "Take what you've got and fly with it!" Especially if it's Zoom. Like many of you, I wondered and even despaired about what would happen now that many theatre companies and organizations canceled their auditions and seasons. To make matters worse, the local theatre company I worked at as an assistant house manager was forced to cancel the remainder of their season and close due to the pandemic. I was thinking "what now?" I can only go for walks so many times a day, or even stay inside for so long. Hopping on the metro or local bus was out of the question for the time being. Then, one day in April, I was invited by a friend of mine to join a Facebook group which did readings of new works and the classic plays. What started out as just for fun turned into a form of art none of us expected to take off the way it did. Zoom theatre. Virtual theatre. Virtual play readings. Whatever you call it, we've found what was missing in our lives, and that was the chance to perform online for our friends and family who couldn't be with us in person. And even more people from across the country and even around the world. I did the classics, new works, original monologues, live virtual cabarets and shows, you name it. And it was fun! I got to meet so many wonderful and talented individuals from all over, and I owe them hugs and handshakes for making these opportunities so amazing and special. (Seriously, I LOVE hugs!) The nice thing about these readings and performances is that I got the opportunity to choose which role I wanted to play in some of them, and even for the ones I auditioned for, it allowed me to let my acting abilities go places I never imagined it would take me. As a matter of fact, I had the opportunity to play the lead roles in Pride & Prejudice, Lady Windermere's Fan, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. But my biggest lead role came with an original play that I auditioned for, Lotto & Raffles & Sweepstakes, Oh My!, and when I was told I got cast as the lead, I knew this was a chance I couldn't pass up on. I invited lots of people to come see me perform that night, and there were rave reviews all around! I was also tapped to do readings and performances for new plays, and I can say with confidence that creating a new character from the ground up was an absolute joy. To actually be chosen to perform the characters in their works is truly a humbling and satisfying experience, and for the playwrights to put their trust in me to do a terrific job says a lot about how much I've grown as an actress over the past five years. If you've asked me what I've done this past year, my answer would be doing much virtual theatre and readings with Zoom and StreamYard. This allowed me to hone my skills and do what I love at the same time with a simply marvelous group of individuals, whether they were actors, playwrights, or directors. I never expected to be busy with doing so much art from the comfort of my own home, especially with a steadfast circle of theatre makers and friends who enjoy the arts as much as I do. I wouldn't be at a point in my career where I'm actually trusting myself and my talents without all of these opportunities to do virtual theatre and readings. And for that, I'm grateful. Zoom literally exploded onto the scene during the pandemic, especially for connecting to people who don't live with you or in the same area as you. It's been a vital necessity lately for auditions, callbacks, rehearsals, and performances. I'm grateful for Zoom to be able to connect and do all of the things that I never imagine I would do during a pandemic, but I also know that sometimes it can be a nuisance to some people. Here's what I've discovered using Zoom that's both good and not so good: *You can connect with people from all over the world without leaving the comfort of your own home. *The internet connection may not always be trustworthy, especially when you need it the most, and this can cause disruptions or even a disconnection from the meeting. And when this happens during a performance, that creates plenty of problems none of us would've expected! *You can choose virtual backgrounds to hide your messy or even pristine looking home. *Not every technological device is equipped to do virtual backgrounds due to system requirements unable to handle it or the latest Zoom update not going through. *You get to hear conversations from everyone. *You may pick up noises that may hurt your ears or wonder what the heck that is, like dogs barking, sirens going past your house, children laughing or screaming, or whatever is going on around you. *You may sound garbled or too loud or something else along those lines that's not so easily fixed with headphones or adjusting the volume. *You have the option to turn off your camera, mute yourself, and hide non-participants. *You may get caught on a meeting at the worst possible time, and not necessarily dressed appropriately. *You may have to adjust your lighting and location in order to be seen properly, which may not always be accessible within your home. And so much more... I can see why Zoom theatre has been a boon this past year, but it's also a conundrum. Updates and technological advances aside, there's something about meeting virtually that can be both a blessing and a curse. As an actress, I've experienced both the good and bad sides of Zoom for my auditions, callbacks, and performances. Thankfully, when I first started using it, I upgraded my laptop so that I can be able to use all of the capabilities Zoom has to offer. But here's one thing I've realized after doing a dozen or so virtual performances that can be best expressed in two words: Zoom fatigue. We've been looking at screens - computers, smartphones, tablets, etc. - for so long during the pandemic we reach a point where we crave to meet people in person. Plus, our eyes become tired and we need special glasses to keep the blue light from our eyes when we do use technology on a more consistent basis. (Yours truly has two glasses that have blue light capabilities, and they are a HUGE help!) What does one do after looking at screens for so many hours in a day, or even after a week of rehearsals and performances? Well, this may be easier said than done, but it helps me. Take a break. Go look at something else other than a screen for a few minutes. Move around the room looking at your living space, or even go outside for a little bit. Or for several hours. Trust me, it works wonders for your eyes and your mental wellbeing. That's why I go out for long walks as often as I can. But even still, there's a longing to meet and work with people in person again, and I get that. If you really want to go the extra mile and reach a point of seeing the people you work with or are in your family that aren't in your immediate area, here's one thing you can do. And once again, that's easier said than done, but it's extremely important to do this. Get vaccinated. Seriously, you are doing this in order to have lives get back to a new normal where we can be safe and be in person again. Furthermore, you are showing compassion for others who want so much to see their loved ones and go back to being in an office or a theatre or a stadium. They want things to go back to what it was pre-pandemic, without any fear of catching the virus, and embracing a new normal where we can be more loving and kinder to each other. It shouldn't have to be up for debate. Stop being selfish, misinformed, or all of the above. I'm not saying this because of your stupidity. I'm saying this because I care about you, even those of you I may never meet. I got vaccinated because I care very much about each person, even those I don't know and those who are different from me in terms of beliefs and lifestyles. If you don't do this for yourself, do it for others. Do it for your kids who want so much to go back to school, see their friends in close proximity, hug their loved ones again, go to the playground, and even be kids again without wearing masks for long periods of time (because it's not easy for a kid to wear a mask for long periods of time, even with parental or adult supervision). Do it for your elderly relatives who want so much to see their children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren before they die, especially since their health is so fragile. Do it for your coworkers who want to be able to come into work in person at a physical building, even if you don't particularly care about them. Do it for your neighbors in your community who want to have get togethers with each other without putting their own health at risk. Do it for strangers who may or may not be connected with their families and loved ones, and they want to see them again without social distancing and lack of hugs. And if that doesn't convince you, here's one thing that might. Do it for those of us in the performing arts - actors, directors, choreographers, stage managers, artists, dancers, and more - who've had to sacrifice so much this past year and want to be able to do what they love to do again. Especially if it means reminding people like you that we are all just people, and we should be kind, compassionate, understanding, and loving to each other. Start showing consideration for others, especially within your family, and get vaccinated. Is that too much to ask for? (I realize I've gone off in tangents on this week's post, but it bears repeating that these are my observations and experiences. You are welcome to disagree with me on anything that I've said in this week's blog or the previous ones. However, I will not tolerate any hate speech, trolling, or just plain cruelty from anyone who feels that it's necessary to do so when in actuality it isn't. I will delete your comments and I will even go as far as blocking you if you don't respect my boundaries.) A lot has happened this past year, especially for the performing arts community. Much of it has been the physical shuttering of theaters and venues, and wondering what happens next. But like so many things, we're known to be a creative lot, and we make do with what we have. Being able to perform virtually has been such a blessing for those of us in the performing arts, It's allowed us to hone our skills, make connections with those in the industry, take online classes, and so much more. And it's become easier to meet industry professionals and fellow performers than ever before, thanks to this age of technology. However, there are also plenty of headaches doing virtual theatre and readings, particularly for those who aren't technology saavy, and that can lead to the unexpected things happening during rehearsals, or even the performance. And then there's Zoom fatigue, and after this year, it's running rampant. A big question that's often asked in these past few years, especially right now, is one that's a hot topic for everyone in the performing arts, and even those outside of this realm. Is there a place for virtual theatre performances? Especially if the show is currently performing on Broadway, or if it's a new work? I believe there is a place for virtual theatre, even beyond the pandemic. Don't get me wrong; nothing will take away the experience of live theatre and performances (especially after theaters and venues open back up again in the fall or early next year), but there's a problem with being able to physically go out and do this. Not everyone lives in a city or area where the arts are prominent, let alone get transportation to a theatre venue that's within a reasonable distance. Not everyone can afford to see a live show, even with discounts and sales. Not everyone has ever experienced live theatre on a consistent basis other than the Tony Awards. If the arts are for everyone, should it be more accessible to everyone, and not just the elite or for those of us saving our pennies just to take that trip to Broadway or a major arts metropolitan center? That's why I believe virtual theatre will last even beyond the pandemic because this has been a way to have the arts be reached out to everyone, especially for those where it's been hard to find those opportunities in the their local communities. And even more importantly, I believe it's high time for many, if not all, shows to film their productions in a pro-shot format for audiences to view on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, or even Broadway HD. Yes, there are the concerns about payment for the actors, crew members, and camerapersons involved. But think about how many people would be reached if these shows did a staged film production of their show, and not using an iPhone for a bootleg version to be put on YouTube. Think of how these people who've longed to see theatre can now view it from the comfort of their own homes. And especially think of the opportunities for family members and friends who have a loved one performing in the show to see them perform when they can't get to the theatre physically due to their location, finances, or even their health. Yes, there are fears about whether or not people will still come to the theatre if a show is professionally filmed. But think about those who still plan to come see the show, even after seeing the filmed stage production, to see those details that a camera cannot catch. In other words, think of the possibilities. There's so much that can be done with Zoom theatre and staged film productions, if we are open to the opportunities. There's also such an abundance of talent from all over the world that are just waiting to break into this business, and I'm witness to so many wonderful individuals I've performed with who I know will go far if given the chance. It's time to open the doors, as well as our minds, eyes, and hearts to the future. And not be afraid to pursue it. Sure, there will be glitches, but it's all part of the growing experience. Theatre shouldn't be exclusive. It should be both INCLUSIVE and ACCESSIBLE. It's high time for both things to happen, and what better time than now to do just that?

I was one of the lucky people to be busy during the pandemic doing what I loved to do the most, which was acting. And that was through Zoom theatre and virtual readings of new plays and projects. By doing so, I ended forging connections and friendships with fellow actors and industry professionals just by simply doing these performances. I know many of you wished that you could've done what I did this past year, but it's not too late to get started. There's still time. I don't think virtual theatre is going away for while, if ever. It's still too risky to do in-person auditions right now, and submitting self-tapes and even doing auditions and callbacks through Zoom is the best way to go. But more importantly, doing Zoom theatre and virtual readings is a fantastic way to hone your skills, make connections with industry professionals, and do what you love. Yes, Zoom has its ups and downs, with the headaches being more prevalent at the worst times, especially if it's during a show. But the benefits outweigh the problems, at least in my eyes. A big difference in doing this art form? More inclusivity and diversity from the different virtual theatre organizations that were created during this pandemic. And an even bigger blessing to Zoom theatre? More accessibility for people who normally can't get to see live theatre due to not living in an arts center, finances, lack of transportation, or even their health risks. I know we all miss live theatre very much, and I can't wait to see a show again. The tears will be flowing, the applause will be raucous, and it will be magical again. But Zoom theatre and virtual readings aren't going to replace the magic of live theatre. Not by a long shot. Perhaps it's simply adding to the magic, which was what so many of us artists did this past year. We used what we had around the house (or apartment, in my case), used our imaginations, and had fun performing virtually. And even more so, it's allowing people to connect and form friendships that will hopefully last for a long period of time. Maybe when all is said and done, the arts will be valued equally, if not more than, sports. At the end of the day, it wasn't just a basketball, football, or baseball game that got us through the pandemic. It was TV shows, movies, staged film productions, virtual art gallery tours and exhibits, songs, and more. That's how truly valued the arts are in our society, and it's high time it should be appreciated at a higher level than just an ice cream for successfully completing the fruits and vegetables of your more important subjects. Maybe after seeing how much the arts had to sacrifice this past year and how much us artists want to go back doing what we love, in stronger and more inclusive ways, you can be inspired to go get vaccinated so that the arts can come back in a new normal that is safe, creative, diverse, unified, and accessible to everyone. If you don't get vaccinated for yourself, think about all of those people you care about, even the ones you may never meet. Theatre will be back. It is coming back, even now. We will be there for you, like we've always been. Not just through live performances and shows, but also virtually. We will become more accessible, understanding, respectful, kinder, and loving through theatre, film, television, paintings, sculptures, songs, and more. Are you ready for a new age of the performing arts? Are you ready to break legs? I know I am. What about you?

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