Live versus Livestreamed Theater: An Analysis of Syzygy

By Kara Hankard

The Fireside Shakespeare Company teased their upcoming season with Syzygy, a Devised Piece, which was performed both live and livestreamed. Due to COVID precautions, the in-person seats were limited to only 11 audience members per show, which made it extremely exclusive. Luckily, they used technology to the benefit of all and opened up their show to a livestream audience on their closing night. There are pros and cons to both mediums, and I am grateful to have been able to see the production in each of its forms.

The show started when we walked in the building. Masked bartenders greeted masked guests with friendly voices and a choice of beverage. Electronic candlelight lit our path upstairs. Twisted fabric draped from the ceiling, which bore lights in the shape of stars, and the performance space walls were hugged by twinkle lights. These atmospheric elements immediately transported the audience to the feeling of an outdoor circus tent surrounded by starlight. The guests found their names on a chair chosen specifically for them. These extra touches took the necessary COVID precautions that might have felt sterile (six-foot spacing between seats and mandatory masks for audience and performers) and instead made it feel welcoming and magical. I felt comforted in my safety and excited for things to come. The pacing felt a bit slow through most of this performance, perhaps due to not seeing the full expressiveness of actors faces due to masks or perhaps to ensure that audience members with such different sightlines could see what was happening. I worried that all my months in quarantine with only YouTube and streaming platforms for entertainment had shortened my attention span. To my delight, there were plenty of scenes that snapped me fully into focus and felt like they flew by. The Disappearing Lady on a Box (Mili Koncelik) did not move at a faster pace than any of the other performers, but the intensity of her gaze and the specificity of her steady and precise movements entranced me. The ending of her scene moved me to tears, which was especially surprising considering I could only see half of her face and she barely spoke. I loved the group dance. It was impressive to see the result of their Suzuki training. Each performer gracefully maintained challenging choreography and used soft focus to seem to move as one creature with many moving parts. It made me miss the crowds of New York, where we (for the most part) can all move independently, quickly, without stumbling. The Mechanicals Piece (Madison) warmed and broke my heart. I noticed Madison in all the other pieces. I appreciated that she made the transitions as quick and smooth as possible. When she was on stage for more than a transition, she gave all of her focus to the solo performer, which re-directed the audience’s gaze. Like Chekov’s gun, I knew she would get her solo at some point and I was looking forward to it. I liked that she made it clear from the start of her piece that she wasn’t “supposed” to be in the spotlight like Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Madison made it clear that her character only took up the spotlight out of love for the story. Its narrator wasn’t here, but it needed to be told. It is impressive how much emotion she is able to stir in the audience, with just her physicality. The beautiful cover of “From Here to the Moon and Back” sung by Kara and accompanied by Jason on the upright bass, make the emotion Madison is sharing with us even clearer. She makes us mourn for a hat and a coat as if she spoke with the most eloquent words. The energy switch from Madison’s piece to the Tango with Natasha and Jeff was sudden but fluid. They were dynamic, bold, and full of a playful intensity. The pace helps boost the audience’s spirit and ready them for fun. I like the subversion in that we expect Natasha and Jeff’s characters to end the dance with getting together physically, but they are interrupted by Emily. This subversion is a theme in Shakespeare’s plays, and I was so pleased to see it in this piece. As a live-theater fan, I am biased towards preferring in-person performances, however, the COVID precautions did make certain parts of the live performance more challenging than usual. I had trouble seeing certain movements and certain lines were hard to hear due to the masks. The slower pacing may have been due to the limited audience attendance, pre-COVID matinees are notoriously hard to get through because there tend to be less of an audience to share their energy with the performers.

Watching the livestream allowed me to see the show for a second time and pick up on details that I missed previously. The camera was centered so I was able to see the performance from a different sightline than I had before. I appreciated that the livestream started while live audience members were settling in, which made it feel like I was there in person. It was exciting see people posting in the chat all of the different states they were viewing from. In that livestream alone, there were 550 attendants. Both of the directors introduced the show and warned the audience to be prepared for possible technical difficulties and adjustments. I was surprised that the blocking wasn’t adjusted due to the livestream factor, but they solved potential sightline issues by assigning someone to adjust the camera when needed. The already upped energy of a closing show, mixed with viewers from all over the country, pushed the actors to keep the pace up and their energy high. Now, knowing more about what to expect and who the actors were representing, I was able to more deeply enjoy the artistic choices made by the company. The scenes that stuck out to me most seeing them a second time were the Lady Wrestlers (Sara Dutlinger), the Contortionist (Abygail Merlino), the striped Clown (Kara), and the Knife Thrower (Summer). Overall, the livestream was a fantastic substitute for seeing the show live. There were some moments where it was hard to hear the audio (probably due to actors wearing masks), but an additional microphone could solve that issue. This was a very high-quality live stream production, especially considering it was their first time doing so. Accommodating COVID restrictions in the live show and including a livestream performance were challenges that Fireside certainly didn’t expect when planning their season last year, but they made these factors work to their advantage. They upped their ambiance, which made it all the more memorable to their live audience. Their livestream spread their audience pool farther than any MBU MFA company has before. They certainly accomplished their goal of making us excited for what they have up their sleeve later this season.

Directed by Doreen Bechtol and Molly Seremet

The Cast

  • Emma Rose – Lear’s Fool (Ringmaster)
  • Spencer – Pericles (Sad Clown)
  • Emily – Marina (Lion Tamer)
  • Sarah – Lady Capulet and the Nurse (Lady Wrestlers)
  • Jeff – Goneril (Snake Woman)
  • Kara – The Surgeon (Clown)
  • Jason – Bottom (Janitor/Clown)
  • Abygail – Romeo (Contortionist)
  • Mili – Hermia (Disappearing Lady on a Box)
  • Summer – Clarina (Knife Thrower)
  • Amanda – Benvolio (Clown)
  • Rosemary – Cordelia (Tightrope Walker)
  • Madison – Mechanical (Stage Manager)
  • Natasia – Mercutio (Apache Dancer)

Songs Performed

  • “From Here to the Moon and Back” by Dolly Parton
  • “Unstoppable” by Foxy Shazam

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