It’s a strange sight to see rows of people in their own homes clapping and laughing silently as you perform on Zoom or Facebook. ‘Mute Seals’ is one of the less attractive descriptions of the phenomena I recently heard.

Like a version of Celebrity Squares without the laughs. Or the celebrities. So, very much like Celebrity Squares as I remember it.

There is, of course, a certain intimacy in performing directly to each individual in their own home and yet, it does feel strangely distant. As a performer I find it disturbs my sense of timing. Rather than feeling and reacting in the moment, I’m having to remember how the rhythm of a joke works and how the reaction affects my pace and delivery. It’s more of a thought process than a feeling.

I recently read that the word ‘communication’ originally comes from ‘to share’. In a real life setting, there is very much a sense of ‘sharing’ the moment. The atmosphere, the sounds and the smells are all part of that sensory experience. Now you could, of course, try to recreate this. Queue outside your own house before the event, position your dining room chairs to form a mock theatre and overcharge yourself for drinks and popcorn. But it’s not the same.

Henry Normal via ZoomThe feel of a real audience cannot be faked as many an obviously added laughter track has demonstrated over the years. Even when real laughter tracks are enhanced, it’s easy to spot. The rhythm and flow just doesn’t sound convincing.

Of all the sci-fi films I’ve watched over the years showing dystopian views of the future, not one prepared me for watching football with fake crowd noises. Whether it’s sport or theatre or poetry it’s often the authentic nature of the experience that makes it worthwhile. It’s not enough just to share, it’s important what and how we share.

People used to write letters, making an effort and thinking carefully about what they wrote. These were often more heartfelt and of greater personal value than, for example, emails and certainly texts. We all know chatting on the phone to a friend and loved one is great, but not as good as spending time together in person. A ‘sorry about your bereavement’ text is never going to cut it.

Sometimes technology can get in the way. I wrote to a fellow poet once trying to compliment them on their poem saying “your poem is efficient”. Auto-correct changed the sentence to say “your poem is effluent”. It’s very difficult winding back from that. 

Henry Normal via ZoomThere’s more to communication than what is being said. Body language, tone, pace, rhythm and emphasis all play a part. I’ve found that in the best communications there’s always a sense of empathy between the speaker and the audience. It’s perhaps something that, by and large, needs the proximity of real humans to achieve fully.

Also, when watching a live performance at a venue, there’s often the excitement of knowing this is particular and temporary and often exclusive to those living the moment. That it is unique. Downloaded performances can easily be recorded and often are. So the precious, intangible nature of the passing moment is inevitably lost.

On the plus side, you can play with the form. I’ve recently used props on Zoom that I’d never take on stage. It’s easier sitting at a computer to bring an object or costume into view as a reveal and then to lose it again quickly. Henry Normal via ZoomI’ve experimented with backdrops, preloading photos that can be clicked on and off proving an immediate visual aid. I’ve taken my computer on a journey around my house and garden to add different context and share personal images that people wouldn’t usually see.

Several of the Zoom collaborations I’ve watched have been inventive whether in interviews or performance, despite technical difficulties. Orchestras and choirs coordinating from their own homes I do find impressive. Physical objects seemingly passed from one person to another despite being in separate locations is a neat visual trick the first time you see it. Invention and novelty are fun, but no substitute for an immersive experience. It all comes down to what exactly we are communicating. What we are really sharing.

The array of means for communication on the internet nowadays is extremely helpful whether Zoom, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or whatever platform, but it’s not the same as human contact in the real world. Recently reading Wikipedia, I noted one theory for the development of language in humans where, as our numbers increased, it was no longer possible to groom each other like, say, an ape would. So, that tactile personal relationship of trust needed to be replaced with a verbal system. It does seem to me that as we evolve we become more distant and our communications become more remote.

I find some communications nowadays are like fast food and few are more substantial. Increasingly though, we seem to live in a takeaway sugar-rush culture and sometimes I long for something more traditional. But Henry NormalI know things evolve and maybe newer generations will find a way to make communicating on the internet more fulfilling.

I’m certainly not advocating we all go back to picking the fleas off each other and eating them, although if you do see some on me when we next meet please go ahead and treat yourself.

Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, it is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Zoom is, at present, very useful in adapting to the pandemic. I am hoping, though, that we can safely get back to performing live soon. Back to shaking people’s hands and looking them in the eye, back to embracing and laughing together. I believe that would be evolution in the best direction.

By Henry Normal

Main image credit: Scarlet Page 


Henry Normal will be hosting a live event for his new poetry collection, The Beauty Within Shadow, on September 23, 2020 at 8pm as part of Chorlton Book Festival. Click here for more details.