THE DEATH OF STORYTELLING
My last show before a flesh and blood audience was at Grendel’s Den, a famous watering hole in Cambridge, MA, on March 8th . Even then, that Sunday night, waiting backstage in the sold-out club, I felt a squirt of paranoia. Word was there was a deadly new virus loose on the streets of America. Meanwhile, here I was telling Norse myths with huge voices and guitar music to a bustling crowd in a single big room in Boston.
Squirting hand sanitizer on me, I remember telling myself, “Well, if it’s here, there’s nothing you can do about it. Do your show and get home.”
Turns out it wasn’t there.
Since my business is to travel places to meet live audiences, I’d always used hand sanitizer during the flu season, but that night, no one at Grendel’s wore a mask. It was unthinkable and not yet necessary. Mask-wearing in public was what they did in the crowded lands of SARS. Places like Hong Kong and China, not the U.S.
How things have changed.
The next week, mid-March, as I’m sure you remember, the country shut down. Schools closed. Restaurants. Sports events. Gatherings of any kind. We all went into isolation, if we were lucky, just after we stripped store shelves of sanitizer, TP, water and food.
The hard waves of the pandemic then struck, particularly in New York, where I’d spent my twenties. Meanwhile, so many people tumbled out of work, Congress passed the CARE Act, an unheardof moment of generosity in America, but also, an act of economic self-preservation for a government wary of food riots.
Now here it is, months later, just after a Fourth of July like no other, midway through a summer of discontentment riots, which are much the same thing. Most of the rioters wear masks. In New Hampshire where I live, everybody wears one in public now. Elsewhere, though, freedom-loving mask-deniers laugh at kow-towed mask-wearers, while mask-wearers despise mask-deniers for what they deem selfish ignorance and the idiotic spreading of predictable death. Certain industries—sports, cruise lines, hotels, eateries—have taken a tragic downturn and a new, distanced normal has set in, except wherever in beach country they’re not hurriedly shutting the beaches again as cases surge.
2020. A year for the history books.
Meanwhile, in my little world, live storytelling for crowds of happy kids has become illegal. So has live storytelling for crowds of happy adults, as I was doing back on March 8th. It’s the same for everybody else in the people business. Late night hosts working alone in their basements aren’t funny any more. Newscasters with their makeup and hair looking funky endure interruptions by their bored kids while on live TV.
The glitz is gone.
And this Fourth of July weekend, millions of families aren’t driving anywhere. Instead, they’re getting together with grandma and grandpa over Zoom.
THE REBIRTH OF STORYTELLING
Looking to adapt, even I’ve done a few shows on Zoom, from my attic studio. Two schools, both in Massachusetts, and a public library in New York State, have bought and paid for Zoom shows. Not that many, but enough for me to have tested the system, and with my producer, Gavin, perfected HD sound and video. Unlike most other entertainers, I’m already stripped down and have been for decades. My hair is already bad. I don’t wear makeup. I have no backup dancers. And my kids are grown up, so they won’t interrupt me. In fact, they’re helping me.
Back to Grendel’s Den, because Kari, who owns the place and runs it, and I, who have performed there for years, have ongoing intersecting business interests. She’s just recently been able to go from take-out only to socially distanced outdoor seating, so at least she’s getting to sell food and drink again. But inside, there’s no way shows can be mounted. Not yet. Many are saying not until a vaccine is ready. Meanwhile, Kari wants to maintain the zeitgeist of her operation, and part of that is me.
Back to Zoom. A month ago Kari and her team decided to sponsor and promote a show of mine, one of Kari’s favorites, Fall of the Titans. So I said sure, let’s try it. Instead of tickets for seats in your club, we’ll sell tickets for a Zoom meeting URL and a password. I’ve got a pretty solid base of fans down in Boston and elsewhere, so maybe they’ll go for this, we reasoned. The storytelling won’t be live in space but it will be live in time, so that’s something. In her club, people sat way in the back, sixty feet away, for a $20 ticket. For most, I’d think, I was too far away for them to watch the characters’ facial expressions I create as I work, but with Zoom, well, the camera’s just a couple of feet away. So every seat in a Zoom show is better than the best of the VIP front row table seats folks were paying for before in a live show. Plus, Kari suggested, we could do a Q&A afterwards, taking questions from the audience, something unworkable in a club setting. She wants to be the MC for those questions. Sure, I said, let’s give it a try. Fall of the Titans is at 7 pm on the East Coast, so Californians could watch it live at 4 pm. Folks in Europe would need to stay up until 1 in the morning to start watching, but who knows, this is live on the web and you never know what people will do.
So it’s on for July 19th at 7 pm EST.
Fall of the Titans is too intense a tale for young children. It’s cosmic and elemental Greek mythology with some very disturbing scenes. It is, however, the story of how the Greek gods came to be born, and why the Titans, their parents, fell. Hot stuff if you like myths.
On my blog here I’m writing semi-scholarly articles about it leading up to the performance. They’re good for background because even people familiar with Greek mythology aren’t necessarily familiar with this earliest of origin tales.
So, we’ll try to re-birth my storytelling in pandemic times and see what happens. If it works, we’ll do more of these adult shows on Zoom. I hope you attend.