Moving from Live to ‘Live’: How do Performing Arts CCAs navigate the virtual terrain?



Image Credit: Ines Pang


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I used to be an audience member — a performer even. I would regularly go for Band, dance and Orchestra performances, and as for myself, perform, do emcee-ing, and dance. Yet as I now speak, I find myself clad in pajamas, reposed in an unhealthy sitting position, while laying my grubby paws on some unhealthy snacks as I watch a friend’s performances through a flat LED screen. Admittedly, it is a sad sight to see — but even sadder to confess that gone are the times where we can see performances live.

So far, COVID-19 has been a disillusionary period fragged with smoke and mist. Be it the imposition of work-from-home defaults, or social distancing being foisted upon us, real-life interactions are becoming an increasingly nebulous concept. Amidst the wish-wash of this pandemic, however, new ideas emerge — and as is the case, we now exist in an era of new performance mediums. Wherein restrictions have made it laborious for staging performances, NUS’ Performing Arts CCAs saw the reinvention of performance approaches, and rather than bring the audience to the stage, they brought the stage to the audience.

Comprising a variety of approaches, the pandemic saw the adaptation of performances to concept videos or broadcasted performances through live-streaming platforms, often changing the game entirely and throwing away traditional notions of performance. Of course, given the nature of the performing arts, such creativity shouldn’t be surprising. Still, governed by the iron rules of the pandemic dictatorship, recent adaptations have proved to be surprisingly engaging and thrilling! That being said, let’s take a look at some of these performances that have moved from live to ‘live.’

Dance Dance Revolution

According to an actively involved NUS dancer, Lim Xiao Shuo (FASS, Year 3), all their dance performances had been “cancelled, postponed, or shifted online.”

A few of these performances included inter-hall performances such as the 2020 Dance Uncensored concert, which intended to feature dance clubs from different halls in a combined live performance at the University Cultural Centre. Instead, it was downscaled to a concept video, before an announcement quashed all hopes and culminated in its eventual demise. Another one was the 2020 CAC+US concert, one of the biggest annual concerts which showcases the different subclubs under the CAC banner. Unfortunately, the ramped up COVID-19 restrictions led to the performance being cancelled until further notice.

Above all, the biggest upset was not the fact that it was cancelled, but about the invalidation of one’s blood, sweat, and tears throughout the months of practice.

Having been part of the dance community, I share some of the sentiments that these dancers have. Personally, some concerts I was scheduled to perform for could not be followed through, even in spite of the intense planning and modifications made around the constantly-changing COVID-19 restrictions. This brought great frustration and fatigue on my part, oscillating between cautious hope and jaded disappointment. Above all, the biggest upset was not the fact that it was cancelled, but about the invalidation of one’s blood, sweat, and tears throughout the many months of practice.

But every cloud has a silver lining, and performances are not always a gone case.

Through sheer force and motivation, these CCAs also converted physical showcases into concept videos and online showcases.

Freshmen programmes such as Rag & Flag — which is one of the biggest events of the year — switched up its interface entirely. Before the time of COVID, how Rag & Flag used to go was that freshmen would be sorted into several dance teams, learn the choreography, and perform it around Singapore’s National Day, the week prior to the start of school. The performances were geared towards Flag Day — the second component of it — and was done in an effort to raise money for causes. Yet, the new COVID-19 restrictions voided the privileges of meeting face-to-face, particularly for practice sessions and the final live performance piece. Instead of moaning and groaning, the committee members from the FASS Team pulled themselves together to recreate the experience from start to finish. Be it in learning how to dance, to bond with one another or even chat, great efforts were made to ease the freshmen into orientation. For the final performance piece, each freshman recorded themselves dancing and this was stitched together into a video for everyone to watch.

As for the various dance clubs like NUS Blast, D’Hoppers and Jazzttitude, a period of heightened measures saw that they had to box — in literal taped-up boxes on the floor — their members into 5 dancers per group. Through sheer force and motivation, these CCAs also converted physical showcases into concept videos and online showcases.

Thankfully, recent prospects are looking up. For one, NUS Jazzttitude actually got a chance to hold its first-ever concert in April 2021. The EXCO consistently adapted, fought through the restrictions, and eventually established a consensus with NUS for an online concert. Of course, this meant adherence to COVID-19 restrictions, such as no intermingling between groups, and a maximum 8 pax per frame. Hearing this fills me with some hope that there is a possibility of shifting back to normal, live performances!

ExxonMobil Campus Concerts (EMCC) Crew

The EMCC Crew is NUS’ go-to for anything behind-the-scenes. As a forerunner in events management and production, they manage backstage lighting, sound, production planning, etc., and provide the resources and infrastructure that make dreams possible.

Recently, I attended The Staff Room and had a very pleasant experience. Advertised as a “madcap comedy,” the play is a Zoom comedy performance staged by a Mathematics, PE, and English teacher who are contesting to be nominated for “a prestigious teaching award.”

By compounding elements of interactive play with customary forms of audience viewing, the main room functioned as a pseudo-CCTV for audiences to watch the staff banter amongst one another.

Traditionally, such plays tend to be live theatrical stages — but in this case, The Staff Room migrated itself onto Zoom. Aside from making it more feasible and accessible to audiences, this threw up my preconceived notions that theatre and plays would be hard-pressed in terms of their alternative and available platforms.

In fact, The Staff Room also aimed to make the most of the Zoom interface. By compounding elements of interactive play with customary forms of audience viewing, the main room functioned as a pseudo-CCTV for audiences to watch the staff banter amongst one another. Meanwhile, the teachers would occasionally go into breakout rooms as part of the ‘lesson curriculum’ where they would hold Kahoot! quizzes and interact with the audience-turned-students. Whereas Zoom can become flat and stale at times, such experiential elements got my attention and kept me engaged with the play. If anything, it even made me fond of the teachers and their quirks and idiosyncrasies! With how differently they act in front of the ‘students’ and teachers, it got me thinking about my own experiences with my teachers as well.

Considering The Staff Room’s success, it was a pleasant and refreshing experience to shift things online. I guess, viewed in another sense, actors are also no longer confined to blocking and stage positions, and can now work and think out of the box. It further evinces a point that performers don’t have to conform to a certain mode of performance for it to count as ‘authentic’ or ‘genuine.’ After all, what matters in the performing arts seems to boil down to thought, creativity, and passion to perform. Hats off to the EMCC Crew for pulling this off, and to Impromptu Meetings for having pitched and followed-up with the idea too! I look forward to some of their up-and-coming performances.

Coming to a Close

Such manoeuvres barely skim the surface of NUS’ eclectic Performing Arts scene. There’s still Concert Band, Orchestra, Wind Symphony, Guitar Ensemble, and so many more CCAs who face their own gruelling and unique challenges.

Judging by the slow shifts to in-person events, we hope that this signals a gradual resumption of live performances. (Could it be? Finally?) At the same time, it does good to err on the side of caution and not take these ease-offs for granted. Under the tyranny of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are susceptible to changes at any time, any place. I guess at the end of the day, all that matters is that we heed vigilance, not be presumptuous, and have fun.