If all the world’s a stage, the recent suspension of life as we know it — be it a lockdown, state of emergency, social distancing or similar — turned many of us into unemployed actors. We no longer fill our well-rehearsed roles (a grumpy commuter, or a cheerful latte lover), we no longer use our props (the handbag that signals you’re style-conscious but relaxed at the same time, or massive headphones that show you’re a real music buff), and we start forgetting our lines (what did I use to say to acquaintances when bumping into them in the lift…?). The stage is empty, the audience is home, and the theatre is closed. Or… is it?
When Ervin Goffman proposed his distinction between the front and back stages of how we present our lives in the world, the boundaries were pretty clear. The front stage was what was visible to the audience, to the people, to the world. The front stage was where we got out there and performed, where we were cast as ourselves and hoped for positive reviews from critics. We had our roles, scenes, props, other actors, all this to convey a message about who our character was. From the minutiae of your phone’s background image, to grand acts of buying a property, this was clearly a show, and you were the main star. The back stage was where you retreated behind the red curtain, safe from the watchful eyes of an inquisitive audience, where you could sit down, rest, and finally be yourself. Where you didn’t need your props, your costume, your fake accent and socially-signalling mannerisms. Where you could put on your loungewear and keep your hair messy while finally eating your favourite but decidedly unhealthy snack. These boundaries were pretty much drawn on the doorsteps of your home. Outside — front stage, inside — back stage. And then everything went inside out.
Bringing front stage to the back stage: performing from home
When our lives were suddenly and abruptly moved online, for a day or two it did feel like the whole show was cancelled. Well, maybe we thought we’d just spend a few days catching up with everything we never had time to do (like sleep and tax returns), and then we’ll be back on stage. I, for one, quietly welcomed the opportunity of not having to get my work clothes out of the wardrobe, not having to do my hair and put my make-up on. But as days turned into weeks, we all realised that the show must go on. It was now advertised as ‘work from home’, ‘online course’, and ‘wine’o clock webinars’. We were forced to start performing from home.
Most of us adapted our acting skills quickly. There might have been a few initial mishaps, when you might have replied to your partner still being your work character. Or when you forgot the webcam was on and you sat way too comfortably in your chair. But we developed new practices and rituals, like putting some foundation and powder on, and a nicer shirt before a teleconference. We started preparing for our much shorter performances with much longer intermissions. We had to learn how to snap in and out of the ‘front stage’ mode, and how to quickly switch between performing a work scene and being a caring partner to a close one going through a tougher period. We learned how to perform from the back stage, even if the set isn’t right, our usual props are missing, and the lighting is way off.
Bringing back stage to the forefront: when home becomes the stage
At the same time as we learned how to act without all the familiar paraphernalia, we improvised sets within our homes. Mine currently has three, depending on the performance: my office desk with a world map, my office desks with a bookshelf behind, and a more relaxed sofa in the living room. The poster with a map of the world hanging right above a chest of drawers made it there in the first place because I like it and I like travel, but now waiting for participants on every other call I’m thinking very carefully what the poster says about me, my life, my values, and my hidden, private self. I started doing my hair up and put a selection of meaningful items on the chest of drawers to give the right impression in various calls. One of the carefully selected mugs became ‘the office mug’ from which I drink coffee in the 10 am calls. My home, my precious back stage where I could rest and put all the masks down, became a stage. And in the living room right next to my office, there’s my husband’s own show going on.
Blending the front and the back
Bringing the front stage to the back stage and turning the back stage into the front stage resulted in a confusing mix, both for the performers and the audience. I sat in a number of calls where I was distracted by something awkward in the speaker’s background, or a pet climbing over the screen. Why am I seeing their real selves when I’m supposed to witness their well-rehearsed, critically-acclaimed work performance? Why wouldn’t they use the blur or put up a nondescript office-like virtual background when there are plenty available? Why am I being let inside their backstage when I paid a full price for a ticket to see a show?
As a performer, I struggle too. All of a sudden, my back stage, my safe place where I could recover and prepare for the next act, starts shrinking. There is much less space and much less time for just being — not acting — myself. The private parts of my life become exposed in some kind of an autobiographical play that I hadn’t authorised. And I become obsessed about the reviews my back stage will get in the press. But, perhaps crucially, this time I’ll get reviewed not only as an actor, but also a director, screenwriter, set designer and all the other theatre jobs I never had to do. Quite the opposite of a performer between gigs.