Making Theatre, or Something Else Entirely, in a Pandemic

On Protests and Virtual Performance

Last fall, Japanese playwright and Georgetown University professor Natsu Onoda Power traveled to Okinawa, Japan for the first time to conduct research for a new play, Crank Session Okinawa, which would feature 1970s go-go, Okinawan, and Japanese music.

In preparation for her visit, Natsu began to study the history of Okinawa and learned about the 1970 Koza Riot, which responded to the United States military occupation of the island and the violence associated therein. Crank Session Okinawa began to take shape as a story of cross-cultural exchange, conflict, and violence. She traveled to Okinawa again in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic broke out across the globe. Flight cancellations extended her trip and, during her unplanned prolonged spring break, she participated in several nonviolent protests against the expansion of a United States military base.

This experience changed the play’s focus from one on music to one on militarized occupation and the Okinawans’ responses to it. With theatres closed throughout the United States, Natsu decided to devise a developmental practice via Zoom and set out to test ideas that would serve as scenes in her play—which she calls “tracks” that together create a “demo reel,” or a draft. Crank Session Okinawa became Okinawa Demo Reel, at least for now.

As the dramaturg for this project, I sat down with Natsu for a converation about making theatre, form, and development in the midst of crises.

okinawa protestors on the left and police on the right

Soyica Colbert: Based on the unpredictable set of events this spring, you—with the rest of the theatre world—had to shift your developmental process and the way you work. The result, Okinawa Demo Reel, is both a new developmental process and a product in its own right, which you produced in response to theatres being shut down. So, what are you creating?

Natsu Onoda Power: Okinawa Demo Reel consists of several tracks that independently explore some of the themes of the play. The Demo Reel is not a final product—it’s a charcoal sketch as opposed to an oil painting.

Soyica: “Demo reel” draws film to mind. Does your work engage mediated performance—performance that uses digital platforms or incorporates, film, music, or digital technologies?

Natsu: During my first trip, I fell into Okinawan activism protesting against the United States military presence. I spent a lot of time with the protestors, and the project started to take a documentary approach about US-Japan-Okinawa relations rather than a fictional one about musicians. The protests happen every day, all day, from nine to four. During my second trip, I attended the protests in Henoko Bay for one week straight. Then, when I got delayed and the classes I taught became virtual, I went back to Henoko to livestream the protests to my friends and students in the United States who were sitting at home quarantining.

The livestreaming produced a parallel between the peaceful sit-in in Okinawa and viewers sitting at home in the United States. The two groups—the viewers sitting separately in individual homes and the Okinawan activists sitting together in person—somehow connected briefly for an hour. The livestreaming informed my thinking about mediated performance. It also turned the viewers sitting separately at their respective homes into a community, like an audience sitting in a theatre.

Soyica: Do you normally consider a theatre audience a community?

Natsu: I think of a theatre audience as a temporary community. By default live audiences in theatres share and experience the same physical space. A live theatre audience is not an identity- or culture-based community, it’s a space- and time-based one. People sitting at home separately are not a community in the same way, but they are made into one, in this case by sharing this experience with the protesters or sharing this experience through this mediated performance.

Since theatre artists in the United States have started producing live readings and performances on Zoom, I have noticed the audiences take on very unique characteristics. The chat function on Zoom helps people engage during the performance, which American audience members don’t normally do. We don’t call out or verbally respond to things, we usually just sit quietly and consume the performance. Sometimes we laugh and clap. However, the Zoom audience functions differently.

A live theatre audience is not an identity- or culture-based community, it’s a space- and time-based one. People sitting at home separately are not a community in the same way, but they are made into one.

Soyica: There are contemporary theatrical traditions in the United States—I’m thinking specifically of Black theatre, where audience members do engage with the audience.

And we also know that earlier traditions of white Western theatre encouraged audience engagement.

In what ways do you understand Zoom performance as a form of theatre that might be linked to historic theatrical norms or our contemporary ones that predominate in communities of color?

Natsu: I think of sitting quietly as a uniquely white American theatre experience. But Zoom performances break down some audience norms. I’m really curious to see how audience members will react to in-person performance when we come back, because we’ve become so used to responding instantly. Theatricality is sometimes defined by simultaneous absorption and distancing: audiences absorb the narrative, but the framework of theatre allows them to distance from it. Zoom performances make the distancing part of theatricality so much more prominent. They also draw awareness to the fact that the performance is being performed.

As a result, mediated performance breaks down our definition of good acting. “I really believed it” is not a compliment that exists in this mode. Audiences revel in the visible “craft” of the artists, not in the invisibility of such craft to mimic life (which also takes a lot of craft, as we know). This is the kind of theatre that I enjoy most anyway… German post-dramatic theatre, contemporary kabuki, immersive theatre, experimental multimedia. Movement-based work. Puppetry.

I enjoy the kind of theatre that consciously exposes its own engine or its magic rather than trying to hide it. I like “seeing” craft, and having the audience complete the experience by celebrating the craft in the moment. This is why I was drawn to go-go music in the first place, because the audience interaction is such an integral part of the performance, and the communal energy of the shows feel exactly like the kind of theatre I want to make. Ironically, a lot of Zoom performances I have attended are dialogue-based, but the audience still responds and vocalizes through the chat, as if they are at the go-go! So I wonder if our tastes and audience mannerisms will shift post-COVID.

okinawa protestors

Soyica: Is the Demo Reel a form of performance art?

Natsu: Maybe? I wouldn’t call the Demo Reel theatre because I cannot make theatre currently.

Soyica: Would you consider a reading of a play “making theatre”?

Natsu: I call it sharing a process. There’s a spectrum. For the kind of theatre I make, a reading is never a finished product.

Soyica: You’ve done a lot of work that’s been influenced by music, like Wind Me Up, Maria! and a staged reading of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus, which included a score with percussive instrumentation. Do you think, for the Demo Reel, you’re borrowing from film in the way you’ve borrowed from music in the past?

Natsu: I’ve always been described as a visual director, you are the first one to focus on my use of music! To me it’s about the image and movement. Music serves as the metaphor for the visual and vice versa. I compose live moving images like musicians compose music. The Demo Reel is a piano piece I make in my living room, so I can imagine with the audience what it’s going to be with an orchestra.

When I have “workshopped” new plays in the past, I have done what everyone else does: get a group of actors in a room and test drive it with them. The actors are my first audience. If they laugh, then the audience is likely to laugh. If they’re not having a great time, it’s probably not a great time. Crank Session Okinawa was going to be developed in the same way.

One of my artistic homes is the Studio Theatre in DC, and they had offered last year to host such a workshop, scheduled for July 2020, but of course this could not happen in person. Instead of postponing the workshop, I wanted to develop it through a new process. So instead of having a room full of actors, I now have my friends on Zoom and objects around the house. Editing the video is like editing the script, because I often write in images rather than words.

I’m really curious to see how audience members will react to in-person performance when we come back, because we’ve become so used to responding instantly.

Soyica: I love the idea that you’re conceptualizing this as a set of sequenced curated images and in that way it is a reel of film. But I wonder if you’re holding on to the fact that this is not theatre because you want to be clear that this is a draft. In some ways, theatre is always in draft form— plays are performed and subsequently different versions of them are published.

Natsu: That’s true, but this is not the same. This is not analogous to the difference between a rough cut of a film and the finished film. This is more analogous to, like I said, a charcoal sketch to an oil painting. A solo guitar version to a full band. It is its own product but it serves the purpose of making another product that involves longer processes and more resources. Independent as it is, it’s still serving this other product. Even if the other product ends up not happening.

Soyica: What have you learned from the first few tracks of the Demo Reel that you have created?

Natsu: The first track is called “Taco Rice.” It’s framed as a cooking show, including casual conversation between me, the playwright, and you, the dramaturg. Steps of the cooking process stand in for different historical events. The composition of the dish serves as a visual metaphor for history.

In the process, I learned that spontaneous talking during a recording generates dialogue—it’s the equivalent of having actors be guided through improv in a workshop setting. Additionally, making the first track allowed me to hone in on how to produce the film images for the future live production, what camera angles to use on stage during the cooking process. As a director, I usually figure out details such as projection camera angles in rehearsal and tech. However, the Demo Reel provides the opportunity to test-drive different theatrical devices.

Soyica: You said that cooking serves as a metaphor for history. What specific events does the track reference?

Natsu: “Taco Rice” depicts several events in the United States’s interaction with Okinawa, most prominently the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the largest and bloodiest amphibious assault during the Pacific War. In the track, the spices stand in for bombs and other weapons that were used on Okinawans. The taco meat, as it’s being cooked, represents the Okinawans who lost their lives in the battle, creating a gruesome moment. The track ends with me eating the taco rice, which is really the ultimate metaphor of how I, as a mainland-born Japanese person now living in the United States, inadvertently benefit from the sacrifice of the Okinawan people, past and present. The consumption of the dish acknowledges my relationship to the material.

I like theatrical gestures that produce darkness and light coexisting in a single image.

Soyica: The second track is tentatively called “Protest Chess” and includes references to a game of chess. It draws from your experiences attending the sit-in in Okinawa. Why use a game to represent protest?

Natsu: For the past twenty years, people have protested the construction of a new marine base in Henoko, Okinawa. The protest, which includes specific staging, happens every day, three times a day. It’s routine. Protesters sit in and a Japanese security company guards the base. The police come and physically pick protestors up and remove them from blocking construction access to the base site. I’ve been removed more than a dozen times in the course of my participation.

The orchestration, peacefulness, and seeming futility of the protest struck me. We always get removed; there is no other outcome. The protest has not stopped the construction; but it does delay it. Participating in the protest made me feel simultaneously empowered, demoralized, and fascinated. All participants adhere to their roles very strictly, like in a game of chess. From the protestors who sit, sing, and chant, to the security guards who stand there in perfect stillness, to the police officers who politely remove the protesters, everybody is orderly and moves in a certain way.

The chess game represents an orderly battle. In the Okinawan protest chess, one side always wins, but we still keep playing, because the value is in continuing to play and occupying time and space on the chess board.

The presentation of the protest in the play, eventually for a live audience in the United States, shapes the protest and troubles the distinction between theatre and ritual, which is empowering.

Soyica: You have said to me before that witnessing the protest seemed like a form of performance art or ritual. How would you categorize track two in terms of form?

Natsu: Track two will include footage of a chess game intercut with prerecorded video from the protest. In the chess footage, I’m playing against myself. In the process of making the game, I reviewed all the footage that I had recorded of the protest and found moments that inspire the visual metaphors central to the track.

The protest is what is called “restored behavior.” According to theatre and performance studies scholar Richard Schechner, “Restored behavior is living behavior treated as a film director treats a strip of film. These strips of behavior can be rearranged or reconstructed; they are independent of the causal systems (social, psychological, technological) that brought them into existence. They have a life of their own.” The protest, similar to ritual, does not require an audience and blurs the line between audience and performer.

Soyica: In the late-twentieth century, Schechner made the category of theatre more capacious by exploring the similarities between ritual, other modes of performance, and theatre. COVID-19 too has changed American theatre—how we understand it, do it, and develop it. Do you think there are things you’ve taken away from this process that you would keep even if we got back to being able to gather together large groups of people in small semi-dark rooms?

a brightly colored chess board

Natsu: There are several things I would keep. Theatre is make-believe, it transports. Borrowing terminology from Schechner again, I am making belief. The idea that I am exploring in “Protest Chess”—of bringing the protest into theatre via a recording or a livestream—transforms the protest. Whereas theatre is generally thought of as lower stakes than ritual, the devices I am developing raise the stakes. The presentation of the protest in the play, eventually for a live audience in the United States, shapes the protest and troubles the distinction between theatre and ritual, which is empowering.

In theatre, “making a difference” often stops at educating the public. I want it to do more. What does it mean to make theatre that transforms reality, automatically, just by being performed? Part of the great accomplishment of the play Fairview is that it shifts theatrical protocols. By being in the audience, you have participated in an action. You didn’t just consume narrative and information. You have transformed spaces.

I had a similar intention in Wind Me Up, Maria! My play with go-go music invited actors, musicians, and audience members to occupy new spaces in relationship to one another. The audience consisted of members of the Georgetown University community and the DC go-go community, which usually do not overlap. The play provided the opportunity to rearrange, clear, and reallocate space.

I would also keep the processes I have learned to develop theatre. The Demo Reel has redefined the way I think about making theatre. I enjoy workshops with actors, but I now realize I can make theatre at my desk with chess pieces. My theatre making often involves a lot of object-making, but I make things after I figure out how the objects serve the play. In the Demo Reel, the process is reversed. I am making the objects first and figuring out how to handle them. And I wonder if this kind of theatre making process allows people who are even more introverted than myself to make theatre in a different way.

Soyica: I hope so. I hope that when we go back to whatever life has to offer, we return in a new way.

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