I work with a youth theatre, and this weekend we attempted to put on a private online performance. Trying to perform over Zoom or Google Meet is far from ideal, but we wanted
the cast to be able to put on some sort of performance as we can't have live performances yet. Even though the state of emergency is slowly being lifted across Japan the theatres are still closed and the largest gathering allowed is for 50 people. The cast and crew alone easily comes to 50 people which doesn't give room for an audience which is an integral aspect of a performance.
As a vocal director I find it very hard to deal with the sound issues that we have working online. It is not possible for ensembles to sing together because they all hear the backing track at different times, due to lag. The sound that you end up getting, if 25 people unmute and attempt to sing, is horrible and incoherent. If you can't hear the words of a song in musical theatre, you are no longer telling the story. And even if you manage to get the words heard, if everything sounds ugly and uncomfortable, it spoils the story you are trying to tell. It's even difficult to hear a soloist as they would need to be playing the music themselves. Stopping and starting backing tracks played on a different device than device you are using to be in the Meetup is not exactly something a performer expects to be doing in the middle of a scene. And when that performer is 9 years old, it becomes a ridiculous ask.
These sound issues meant that we made the decision to record as much of the singing in advance as possible. Given our time frames and how long it takes to make new tracks I wasn't able to do this for the entire ensemble for every song, but we did as much as we could. We also couldn't have great quality as we were asking young children to record their voices on phones and tablets and to send these to us. They managed to play the track in headphones and to send us recordings of just their voices, but there were lots of issues with pitch and timing. Some students didn't manage to make any recordings and some struggled with sending what turned out to be very large files. There are ways, of course, to make these files smaller, but again trying to explain to children how to change video recording settings on their devices is complicated and different for every device.
We have expectations of recorded sound that we don't have for live performances. Artists, who are recording songs, often do this in sound studios and have a whole team of people working with them to produce what we think of as a professional sound. When people record on their phones, with no experience of sound recording, there are many problems. The tracks are noisy with air conditioners humming the background or street noise. The voice's volume shifts up and down mid-sentence because someone moves their phone. Or they are so worried about making noise in a small apartment that they sing quietly with their phone right at their mouth completely changing the feel of the song. There are also many mistakes, but our students can't be expected to listen to their own recordings and correctly identify any issues and try again. Most sent the first thing they recorded and we had no time to ask them to try again.
I reminded myself that live performance is different. That the small mistakes and the real sound of someone's voice is what makes it special. It's not about a perfect recording it's about hearing the performer's voice. In a live performance some of these students would sing too loudly, or too quietly, or they would be out of tune, or they would be wonderful. And having these things reflected in our recordings makes it much more like a live performance than the coldness that you can experience listening to a set of guide vocals.
All of the scene work was done live. There were issues with lag, and the occasional microphone not being unmuted, but for the most part it worked well. We had to remind the people joining to watch to turn off their microphones and videos, and yes some of them still managed to appear in our performance. But then I have attended live performances were young children have run on to a stage or someone in the audience has interrupted in some way -- it's all part of the experience.
After this attempt I can see that there are many ways it could be improved. We had no time to change all our blocking and choreography to work on this new stage. If you knew from the start that a Zoom grid is what you would have you wouldn't have dance routines that involve pair work or leap frogging over someone else. We could also make improved recordings by having time to at least do more than one attempt, and to have time to help the students who struggled with the technology.
I still don't know what to do about the audience. We had one, but they did not interact. With all of their microphones off there is no sounds of laughter, shock, or clapping. We knew they were watching, but we couldn't feel anything about their experience of the performance.