End Meeting For All

Zoom Theatre, Launched

Forced Entertainment’s three-part End Meeting For All makes clear how rapidly digital theatre is developing in the age of COVID-19. With the prospect of theatres reopening in the near future looking uncertain at best, the development of a new form, with an experimental energy all its own, is a rare bright spot on the theatrical landscape.

If Richard Nelson’s What Do We Need to Talk About, instantly canonized during this pandemic as the birth of Zoom-native drama, inaugurated the form in a relentless realist mode, End Meeting For All provides the absurdist, Beckettian alternative. Recorded in single live takes, the three twenty-five-minute segments bring together six performers improvising at a distance—from Sheffield, London, and Berlin. From its witty title on, End Meeting, first broadcast in April and May 2020, depends on the audience’s previous rapid assimilation, over long weeks of lockdown, of the unwritten Rules of Zoom, which the piece then blithely proceeds to dismantle. As director Tim Etchells notes on the Forced Entertainment website, “I realised we were slowly starting to understand the Zoom grid as a kind of stage – a space we shared but in which we were nonetheless both connected and disconnected.”

Beyond its intrinsic interest, End Meeting reflects on our newest habits of viewership and communication, confronting us with how passively we have adapted. Why do we face the camera—and remain at a manageable distance from it—in suitable lighting? Why not cover it up with our hands, or use it to put on make-up? Why do we only present ourselves in our naked individuality (though decently clad, at least from the waist up) and not in funny wigs or masks? However sad we are, how much privilege is there in simply being able to remain inside?

Beyond its intrinsic interest, End Meeting reflects on our newest habits of viewership and communication, confronting us with how passively we have adapted.

In fits and starts, End Meeting For All stages the tentative creation of a theatrical work, occasionally set aside for other desultory projects that its characters haphazardly attempt. As a play-within-a-play, it chronicles the challenges of its own new form, mobilizing them to consider the larger difficulties of existing in a time of pandemic. The six performers, each in their own Zoom window, are more or less engaged in the process. In the first installment, the erstwhile protagonist, Claire (Claire Marshall), in an outsize grey wig, announces: “The reason that I am wearing this wig is because I am pretending that I have been in quarantine for a really, really long time.” As director, Tim occasionally feeds Claire her lines. Their back-and-forth about the piece they are trying to make constitutes most of the action, such as it is; its impossibility makes the achieved Zoom drama a little like the Godot who never arrives.

Meanwhile, the others process their sadness and alienation in various ways, from intense exchanges with their fellow actors to complete isolation. One tries to communicate via handwritten signs (“Can anyone see me?”) and eventually retreats into a pantomime skeleton costume, complete with mask. Others block the camera with various props and body parts, simultaneously avoiding our gaze and deliberately framing it. As they experiment with colors and patterns across the windows, End Meeting suddenly becomes as much video art as theatre. With Zoom increasingly penetrating our pandemic existence, the disappearance of the actors’ faces from their respective windows suggests both a plea for privacy and a sobering reminder of death.

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End Meeting for All

End Meeting’s metatheatricality is arguably its most inventive and witty register: the piece is as concerned with what does not work as with what does, paradoxically making art on Zoom while charting the mode’s limitations. Beyond its Beckettian hopelessness, Forced Entertainment foregrounds the “aesthetic of failure” that critic Sara Jane Bailes attributed to the company long before the current moment. Bailes notes how, from its very name, the Sheffield-based company set out “to challenge the status of theatrical business … by foregrounding … the contrived nature of contractual exchange between performer and spectator.” Bailes reminds us that theatre has always been haunted by “a condition of compromise, a requisite yielding that lets go of the external world and its conditions.” Yet the contrived rules and the discomfort they induce move front and center during a time of pandemic.

The metatheatricality is in fact enhanced by Zoom, as the fourth wall is multiplied several times over. In their windows, each performer becomes a separate audience for the others, with varying degrees of engagement. In addition to thematizing the technological failures of communication, the grid reminds us that some participants are just not interested or simply unable to engage with the shared project. The others are not simply Claire’s audience; they instead engage in their own lonely routines. I use that word deliberately, as Forced Entertainment insists on the performativity of emotion. Cathy (Cathy Naden) announces she feels sad, then sprinkles water below her eyes “to show you how sad I am.” After deadpanning that “acting needs to come from inside,” Claire suggests an onion instead, which Cathy promptly rubs over her eyes in the (vain) hope of a more convincing representation. Misheard words show how easy the move is from melancholic to alcoholic, as malapropisms adapt to the age of Zoom.

The disappearance of the actors’ faces from their respective windows suggests both a plea for privacy and a sobering reminder of death.

Both minimalist and poetic, End Meeting reflects constantly on our isolation and how readily we have adapted in order to keep making things. While Claire doggedly pursues her meditation on illness, quarantine, and aging, the others process their sadness in various ways. In the second installment, Cathy appears in her Zoom window under a duvet, because she has heard that this makes for a good voice recording. This leads to an exploration of what confidences might look like over Zoom: Tim asks Cathy to answer as though “nobody else is listening,” while the others strain to hear, their ears to the camera. Meanwhile, Richard (Richard Lowdon) quixotically attempts to fix a lawnmower from his basement and to learn Spanish online, as Terry (Terry O’Connor) hides behind a mask and insists she is not there.

Given the strangeness of the circumstances, the lines between reality and performance break down. “Are you acting?” Cathy asks Claire, “or are you just having a really weird day?” The constant emphasis on everything going wrong foregrounds the “predicaments” of unpredictability and uncertainty that, as critic Nicholas Ridout has argued, lie at the very heart of theatrical experience. “Is it live?” the actors ask, zeroing in on a paradoxical dimension of their production. By the end of part three, when Tim reflects, “I thought it’d be more uplifting…. I thought it’d be longer, or shorter. I thought it’d say more. It’s just not quite what I thought it was going to be,” End Meeting has managed a rich reflection on both the pandemic itself and the dramatic response to it.

As the United States erupted into protests over police brutality, the claustrophobia of End Meeting’s Zoom world became ever more apparent. Much as in Beckett’s Endgame, the characters’ remove from the world around them, the stripping of context, becomes their defining characteristic. Yet the piece’s sustained metatheatricality, as each character toggles between audience and performer, isolation and connection, encourages us to interrogate the unwritten rules that define self-expression, artistic production, and access to culture alike.

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