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.