Scene 1: March
The performance hall echoes with thousands of voices, chattering about Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and the impending threat of coronavirus. COURTNEY and her MOTHER are surrounded by a variety of ages they will not find again in months. By Scene 2, white hair will be a reason to stare, to murmur a quick prayer and think of the thousands in nursing homes.
But for now COURTNEY watches the first flautist, who plays scale after scale. When the lights dim, her eyes flit over to the conductor, just for a moment. But as the string players lift their bows, her gaze returns to the first flautist. With a single hollow, haunting C sharp, “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” begins.
Like most people around the world, I have not attended a live performance in months. In past years, this was a wallet-based decision; this year, it is a health-based decision. COVID-19 and its impact have ravaged live concerts, performances, and events, leaving the industries struggling to recover.
But you know all this, don’t you?
Scene 2: April
COURTNEY stands with her flute raised, the notes of “Part of Your World” rippling through the instrument. Her MOTHER sits at the piano, her book open to the same piece. Now and then they stop the music, as she and her mother tighten the timing of that set of triplets, that exchange of crescendos and decrescendos. Finally, the elements are just right.
In the absence of professional performances, I’ve begun to rediscover the instrument I loved for so many years. Since I didn’t participate in band or orchestra in college, I’ve only played the flute occasionally since high school. Sometimes, when I spend an afternoon with the family, my mother and I will spend an hour or so making music, picking our favorite classical selections, old hymns, and Disney songs. These times have become more frequent over the last few months, a steady joy when so many joys have shifted.
Some pieces are easy and simple; some are difficult and complicated. But with a little bit of effort, we can create something beautiful. My father and sister will sometimes poke their heads into the room. But more times than not, we play for ourselves. Every tone, dynamic, and rhythm change is for our own enjoyment. We are our own audience.
Scene 3: June
Curled up on the couch, COURTNEY balances her laptop, a pair of headphones, and a can of Green Zebra beer. The Zoom app shows two images: the Stratford Festival’s production of The Tempest and the face of a friend. BEN and COURTNEY mostly stay silent, following Prospero and Miranda and Ferdinand and Caliban across the acts. But sometimes they laugh. Sometimes they pause the show and discuss a costume choice. And sometimes they enjoy the pleasant normalcy of watching creative people at work.
As the new normal loses the shine of “new,” I’ve found new ways to appreciate the art that I love. I’ve clicked through virtual art museum tours; I’ve watched livestreams from my favorite bands; I’ve enjoyed prerecorded theater from companies across the world.
But something is always lost when the physical becomes virtual. You know all this, don’t you? Any communications class will tell you that “the medium is the message.” When the art, when the person, becomes just a face on the screen, our eyes and souls react differently. I continue to grieve the loss of so much embodied art—art that demands we share space with another’s fingers, another’s face, another’s breath.
Live performance both distances and invites us into others’ physical experiences. A person onstage captivates our senses holistically, overwhelming us with presence. But a person onstage also forces us into humility: my fingers don’t grace the keys like that. My voice doesn’t glide through notes like that. My tongue doesn’t maneuver Shakespeare or Sondheim like that. I haven’t lived this story or felt this emotion or understood this truth this way before.
Sharing a room with other bodies has rarely been more difficult, but recognizing embodied experience has rarely been more vital.
Scene 4: July
The first notes of Hamilton throb from the television screen. Leslie Odom, Jr. steps onto a Broadway stage in 2016, in a time and place so distant from the present.
COURTNEY stands by the light dimmer, slowly turning the room towards an artificial dusk. Then she sits down on the couch and reaches for her bowl of popcorn. But something is wrong. With a laugh, COURTNEY returns to the dimmer, guides it all the way down, and rejoins her friends.
HOUSE LIGHTS OUT.
I find myself performing the old actions, trying to slot the rhythms into this still-new format. I want to appreciate a show the way I would in a theatre; I want to listen to the music in the way I would in an auditorium. But I can’t, and I won’t for many months, maybe a year.
Artists are typically rich or cash-strapped, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened that divide. Broadway will revive, and the Kennedy Center will revive, but local and midsize venues have struggled to survive. Even Dog Story Theater in Grand Rapids, where I hiccup-giggled at She Stoops to Conquer in February, is gone now.
I cannot pretend that my longing for live art will keep the form safe and secure. And I will not push to endanger others to create that stability. Still, we can support and strive and hope. We find small ways to embody the songs and stories we love. Someday we’ll gather in a crowd again and delight in the pleasant company of strangers.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.