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To Be a Performing Artist Without an Audience

When performing for an audience, there’s a sense of magic.

Alex Lam

There’s a kind of magic in pre-performance rituals. The ones you’ve developed over time, after years and years spent finding and refining the things that help you brace yourself for the nerves and adrenaline that precedes your moment on stage. It’s lugging your instruments on a cramped bus to the venue. The good luck charm you carry in your pocket. Listening to a song on repeat or saying a prayer before you walk onstage.

When you finally have that moment, that’s another type of magic entirely. A tidal wave of emotion flowing through a dam burst open kind of magic. The feelings you pent up, saved for a later date, flood out and you can’t hold back the tide. The curtains draw open, and that blinding light shines through.

And then, there’s that penultimate moment. It’s a small thing, at first. A breath in preparation. That final quell, when the tide becomes but a small lull on the shore.

I have distinct memories of the months and months spent preparing for performances. The routines, the discipline. Trying on costumes, dress rehearsals. I have fond lightbulbs of high school musical performances, dance competitions, violin recitals. The time I saw Pina Bausch’s performance at the National Arts Centre and realized this is what it means to feel alive.

In retrospect, I wish I’d appreciated those moments and that magic to their fullest extent while I’d still had them, as seems to be the case for a whole lot of things over the last year. In the time that we’ve been stuck at home, with nobody but our pets and stuffed animals to perform to, I wish for that same abundant, overflowing sense of life. But now, those moments feel a lifetime away.

For those working in the performing arts industry, the loss of in-person performances takes on an entirely new meaning. It’s the loss of livelihood; the loss of that one thing that sets your soul ablaze. In artists who pursue the performing arts not only to feed their passion but to support themselves financially through income from live performances, gigs, and tours, the pandemic has had devastating consequences on both finances and the psyche. Over time, we’ve seen the insurgence of online concerts and performances, which by no means replicates the live, in-person experience, but do their best nonetheless.

At the end of the day, we can’t replicate the in-person performance experience, although we do try. To better explain the vast and varied truths of what it means to be a performing artist with no audience to perform to, I sat down with four performing artists who illustrate the opportunities and difficulties that come with being an artist in a global pandemic.

Mingjia Chen

Mingjia Chen

Mingjia Chen is a vocalist, composer, improviser and visual artist located in the Toronto area. She has released several EPs, one of which is entitled feel seen in collaboration with the Tortoise Orchestra: a 13-piece chamber ensemble led by Mingjia herself. Her music can be streamed wherever music can be found online (but she prefers you use Bandcamp).

Mingjia joined me from her home in Toronto, drinking tea and finishing up the remains of her breakfast at the end of a lazy morning.

As a musician and visual artist, where does she draw her inspiration from? Everywhere.

“Everywhere. I feel like that's the most important part of being an artist, or just being a happy healthy human.

Ideas are everywhere, and I think my job, which is a very, very lucky job, is just to be open to amazing things that are everywhere . . . when I'm just hanging out with my friends, or going out for walks, having fun and doing things that humans like to do: that's when I feel most connected to creativity.”

That same morning, Mingjia was busy drawing inspiration from her most recent binge, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. A self-proclaimed ‘hobby mom’, Mingjia has jumped around from creative writing classes to flamenco dancing, to learning new instruments over the course of the pandemic. She described her process of being enamoured and enthralled by art, immersing herself, and living and breathing in it. Interacting with as many mediums, art forms, and people as she possibly can, she cited her heroes being people that she’s collaborated with or artists whose shows she’s seen in the past.

In some ways, she explained, the pandemic was a way for her to broaden her horizons. “I've gotten to meet so many new artists this year that I probably never would have been able to otherwise. In the early stages of the pandemic, I was collaborating with Andrew Yee, a brilliant cello player in New York. I'm a really big fan of their music, so I asked, ‘do you want to make a thing together?’ Getting to make music with people without physical barriers has been a welcome change.”

In other ways, the pandemic was a difficult and harrowing experience. She described her work as being informed by relationships; by human connection and experience. How, I asked, do you write and make art about connection, when we’ve become so isolated?

“Getting all the space, to just be and think and process has been a blessing and a curse. I thrive on adventure and I love doing things—or, I loved doing things—and now I kind of love-hate doing things, because all I have energy to do sometimes is sit in bed and sit with stuff. And that's actually been quite hard.”

Having been a private piano teacher before the pandemic started, Mingjia was extremely thankful that the transition from in-person to online piano lessons went fairly smoothly, and she’s been able to maintain a fairly stable stream of income.

“So much has changed, but also, life is changing all the time. I think I'll be trying to figure out this period of my life for the rest of my life because it's so hard to separate the pandemic from just life. It's easy to dream about the version of yourself that you want to be, or that you idealize when things are easy, and nothing about this year has been easy, so I've really intentionally cultivated the things that I really admired about myself before the pandemic in a way that felt like hard work. Now, I'm going to carry that for the rest of my life. I’ve built a muscle for cultivating things that I care about.”

Jade Whitney

Felice Trinidad

Jade Whitney has worked as a dancer and choreographer for the last eight years, located in the Toronto area. She is a freelance TV, film, and stage performer.

“We're not always present—we're in our head thinking a lot, and I noticed that if I'm dancing I can find that magical moment where it’s just here and now, you feel more alive. It feels like you are just limitless, like you're connected to the universe as a whole. I think it's so magical. It's a magical experience.”

Behind her, her small space gave me the same energy as the airy, free-spirited spaces which before that moment only existed in the deep recesses of my many Pinterest boards. My eyes latched onto her floating bookshelves. Her favourites: The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, and Inner Engineering, by Sadhguru.

Jade described how she got her start in dance, through this sense of togetherness that she felt when seeing dance performed live. “I started dancing because when I was a kid, I was singing, and I went to a competition where there I saw dancers and I was like, ‘they look like they're having so much fun together.’ I thought it was really cool that it was a communal thing, whereas singing was more solo, and I've been dancing ever since.”

In an art form that is almost by definition meant to be performed, with others, the pandemic has had artists turning to video production as the new way to share their craft. Dance has always played an integral role in commercial productions, TV and film, and so the bedrock foundations were already in place for a transition to telling movement-based narratives through the screen.

“Fortunately, because of TV and film, dancers are able to continue working, even though we're not able to perform on stage. I'm working on a Disney movie right now, and so it's great because we get to be in the studio with our friends again, though it's obviously different. We wear masks and visors in-between dancing, but we're getting tested regularly so it's relatively safe in the way it’s being done. I'm grateful that I've been in that TV/film world. Otherwise, I wouldn't have the chance to dance with people . . . I’m a type of person where I like to be in the studio with someone at least to create and to feed off of, energy-wise.”

Through film, there presents itself this unique opportunity to experiment with how the audience interprets dance and movement. The screen becomes this window, where the choreographer has direct control over how their audience sees and interacts with their work—long gone are the days of making your facial expressions big enough to reach the back row in the theatre. Instead, clever cinematography gives each and every audience member front row access and so much more.

Jade herself explained that her style differs between her performance and industry choreography, where she reserves her contemporary style for her teaching and choreography for stage, whereas her commercial and industry-based work tends to lean towards jazz and hip-hop. There is a distinct barrier between dance created to be performed live, and dancing whose life takes shapes in the lens of the camera. Although we try to replicate one with the other, no imitation quite does a live performance justice.

For dancers, artists, and humans working their ways through this time, Jade imparts: “remind yourself that everything is temporary. The good stuff, the bad stuff, the painful stuff, the joyful stuff: it's all temporary. And I think that helps me to not take the joy for granted and also not feel like the pain is going to be forever.”

Zoey Roy

Red Works Photography

Zoey Roy is a Cree-Dene-Metis member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation. She is a spoken word artist and performer, rapper, and community-based educator. Zoey recently released a rap EP entitled Made Up, with plans to release her first spoken word album in January ‘22, as well as a 45-minute live show entitled Zoetry Live in the works.

“Every facet of my career requires people. It requires me to be in exchange with people. I need to know who I'm connecting to, and all of this has become more apparent.”

Speaking to me from the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee people, Zoey joined me a mere half an hour before her Neurotherapy appointment—as made possible by the instantaneous commute between engagements, a drive across town at the click of a button. Now, there’s something that I won’t miss when I’m back to actually having to leave my bed for meetings.

Zoey’s life was turned on its head at the beginning of the pandemic. Between January 1st and March 14th, 2020, she was on 34 aeroplanes. Had done what she loved, speaking to more than 6000 people in that same timeframe. Then, all of a sudden, every last one of her gigs was cancelled, one by one.

“I realized that not only does my career depend on the exchange of performance, but my emotional and mental health depends on the exchange as well. Prior to the pandemic, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted from overachieving from putting myself on so many planes, in so many restaurants, in front of so many people without giving back to myself. I never realized how much of a toll that was taking on me until it all stopped . . . now, I am isolated from the world, but I feel more human and more purposeful than ever before. I feel as purposeful as the trees, as the water outside. Having that unconditional love and desire to understand is such a gift for me. I don't want to be anywhere else, other than within myself.”

She took me through the entire journey of how the pandemic has come to redefine how she shares her work, how that point of transference is still present—if not slightly weakened by the confines of a screen. As the first indigenous person and spoken word poet to partake in #CanadaPerforms, an initiative launched by the National Arts Centre with the goal of helping Canadian artists through the pandemic, Zoey recounted the feeling of pure excitement. She beamed at the prospect of connection to music and to art in an online space. Then, came the open mics. All across the world, everywhere from Brisbane to your own at-home Zoom setup, poets came together, and Zoey felt this renewed call to create new her art.

“My mind is so much more playful now. It's a friendlier place to be, so, my performance is more empathetic, and my creation is more playful. I'm not trying to prove anything to anybody. I am simply creating something that I want to listen to . . . I'm also considering, politically, what is my message? I've been inspired by the pandemic, I can see the lack of sovereignty amongst nation-states. I think that as a human spirit and as an Indigenous woman, I am more powerful than I thought I was before, and that's a really beautiful thing.”

But, no matter the progress and changes that she’s seen over the course of the last year, Zoey still lamented the loss of interaction and true, human connection. “Performance— performance needs me and you. I want to see body language. I feed off people so much, and I miss people.

As a performing artist, you depend on everything within an audience. Hand gestures, people looking at each other, people jumping together. Everything matters: people matter, connection matters, and I really hope that we celebrate that. I don't want to spend all my time online. Mind you, our tools for getting work done have grown immensely. Artists have more online tools to manage themselves than ever before, and that's going to be good for us, but the audience connection is something that I hope we find again.”


Jenna B

Mandy Woo is a musician, composer, film scorer and music teacher from Scarborough, ON. She studied classical composition at the University of Toronto and now produces music as Postmoderndisco.

With her piano-teaching set up in full view—a desk littered with sheet music, and all 88 black and white keys of her keyboard—Mandy joined me from her home office in Scarborough.

“I try to make my music cinematic, ethereal and atmospheric, but mostly it's a mix between electronic elements and classical instruments. There’s some brass and strings in there, but also some cool electronic sounds as well. I like music that has lots of reverb, so very dreamy and very spacey, like far-out lights. Not all of my music is instrumental because I do collaborate with my friend Jenna, who's a vocalist. My friend, Esther, plays the French horn with us a lot when we're performing live.”

As she described the experience of practising and creating music with her friends, this perfect balance of her cinematic compositions with their words and instrumental flair, it was impossible not to hear the twinge of loss and mourning in her voice. For Mandy, long gone were the days of performing live at a crowded bar with friends, at the airport, Aga Khan, Queen West, Toronto Art Crawl, Trinity Bellwoods—and with them, her primary source of income. She’s had to refocus her attention on teaching music lessons in the interim until we’re finally able to return to those long-awaited jam sessions.

“Playing remotely, separately and recording things has been around for a while, ever since we were able to send files to each other. People could have their own basement set-up, making music in their own bedroom. That's been fine for when I needed music from far away. With my band members, I hope we can meet in person again soon. That's still to be explored because I've been kind of having a cynical look at all of . . . this.”

I, ever the optimist, kept on trying to find the bright spot in everything, the source of hope and faith in what comes next. The problem was, for Mandy, there really wasn’t one. And I’m here to tell her truth, not the truth I project upon her with rose-tinted glasses. For her, this year has been hard. Absolutely, undeniably hard.

As we began speaking, she asked me why I asked her to (virtually, as we do nowadays) chat with me about her experience. To which, I responded, well, you’re an interesting person who continues to do cool things in a tough situation. According to her, my reading is far from the reality: “it's kind of funny, you said that when you found me online it looks like I'm doing cool things. It’s kind of nice that I project that image right now, but with the pandemic, I haven't really been able to do much.”

“I’ve been doing different things, but not like what I would have envisioned or had planned for. Not going and performing, but it's a lot of solo work, and making do with this.”

Making do. I’ve come to realize that’s the best way to summarize what it means to be a performing artist right now. We make do, and that’s all we can really hope for.


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