The Pandemic Is Remaking What Performance Can Be

Across Italy, balconies seemed less like places to smoke and grow tomatoes and more like proscenium stages, as they had been for centuries.Photograph by Nicolò Campo / Sipa / AP
As social-distancing measures begin to take hold in the United States, we study images from around the world, where iconic public streets and squares have sat mostly vacant for weeks. Some of these sites were fodder for artists and writers for centuries, but their total emptiness and silence had almost never been contemplated. In the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, even the pigeons and seagulls had mostly moved on. The ancient space seemed incomplete, its scale uncertain, without the bustle of cavorting dogs, venders, pilgrims, couples, card players, and priests, as depicted by Bellini and Francesco Guardi or described by Edith Wharton and Henry James. Where were the herds of tourists? The Instagram influencers? Similar views of the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps began to circulate. At the Prang Sam Yod Temple, in Bangkok, troops of monkeys who scavenge their food from tourists brawled with one another over scraps. One such fracas, apparently over yogurt, made the news, and the frightening image of a city square overrun by hungry, testy monkeys made its way across the Internet.

As quarantine becomes the rule, though, tentative new forms of performance appear to have sprung up. The Berlin Philharmonic played to an empty hall and a worldwide audience of isolated music lovers. The Met Opera announced that it would stream live performances for free, and many other companies followed. (This is almost surely a temporary and doomed form, since the performers will soon need to distance themselves from one another.) When Pete Buttigieg, the former Presidential candidate, filled in as the host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” he looked right at home in front of a deserted studio, where he monologued for an audience of one: his husband, Chasten. For now, the White House press conferences are full of supporting players, in a bid by President Trump to present a strong team of “new stars.” But even these performances will soon, no doubt, become smaller affairs. In Boston, a priest read the morning prayer from the magnificent altar of Trinity Church, to loud echoes of his own voice.

Meanwhile, there are now entirely new terms for previously unthinkable kinds of ceremonies. On college campuses, impromptu faux-mencements (or “fomencements”) were thrown together by seniors who might not be able to return for graduation. At Wellesley, where I teach, students wearing bright red—the class color—and black gowns approached a makeshift podium, set against a hedge of evergreens, one by one and said their names, and majors, and whatever else needed saying. What did it mean for students to confer degrees upon themselves, with only the robins and one another for witness? “I loved all my friends and enemies,” one student said, in a clip from the ceremony posted on Twitter. “I will remember you all as you were, which is very hot and interesting.”

As performers adjusted to empty halls and crowdless ceremonies, the newly silenced world provided opportunities for—­and, amazingly, instruments for—performance, abetted by the Internet and social media. In Wuhan, where the new coronavirus started, citizens chanted and sang in unison, out of their high-rises. In Siena, the citizens of a deserted street leaned out their windows and sang a local song, “Canto della Verbena,” using the echoing façades to amplify their voices. All across Italy, the old associations of balconies and courtyards with performance and spectacle were refreshed when citizens, coördinating on social media, sang and performed patriotic songs. Balconies seemed less like places to smoke and grow tomatoes and more like proscenium stages, as they had been for centuries, before life turned its face away from the public square. The resounding courtyards, like the empty streets and concert halls before them, became integral to performance: a condition of its power.

On Friday, in perhaps the most dramatic gesture yet, the Italian Air Force staged a fighter-jet ballet in which a single aircraft, representing the new coronavirus, was metaphorically subdued by a fleet of planes ascending the sky and trailing colored smoke. The sky was the stage; it was also a blank canvas against which the colors of the Italian flag, painted in jet trails, became visible. Speakers on the beach blasted a recording of Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma.” Again, the audience for this performance was worldwide, but what we were watching was an enormous medium, the empty sky, created from local conditions of weather, light, and quiet, and a work of art made expressly for it, which asserted not some abstract message about humanity but a distinct region and culture’s imagination of itself. It seemed to feed, among the rapt audience, a new hunger for metaphor, as weapons of war were turned into paintbrushes.

This was the weekend when local places began to seem more local, and real things more real, despite the fact that everything was happening online. In fact, as these and other gestures piled up, you could feel the Internet and social media beginning to change. Stars of Broadway took to their feeds, inviting high-school kids to perform songs from their cancelled shows. Where wombat videos had been, suddenly distinct acoustics took shape, as kids sang to an audience of their heroes—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jennifer Garner, Laura Benanti—from American bedrooms, basements, and living rooms. To perform in that way, under those conditions, is different from cooking up a viral TikTok in front of your bathroom mirror. The performances, while online, represented in powerful symbolic form the irreplaceable value of real experiences that were available just a week ago. And the songs, like the Italian songs broadcast from balconies and apartments, were well known, part of the American cultural memory bank. We could, if we chose to, sing along together—whatever “together” now meant, as we sat inside and waited.

Dan Chiasson