So who went and made Zoom the default communication tool for 2020? We conduct Zoom meetings for work, for weddings, for webinars, and alas, for performances, like in Pangdemonium’s first ever digital play Waiting For The Host. It is intriguing and alarming, how this platform has dominated our digital discourse in less than a year.
In fact, for my interviews with several cast members of Waiting For The Host — Neo Swee Lin, Petrina Kow, Keagan Kang and Adrian Pang, Pangdemonium’s artistic director — I suggest having a chat on Zoom or via phone. Most of them choose Zoom.
It’s funny how the pandemic has accelerated our reliance on Zoom, especially with how each cast member possesses a varying degree of affinity with technology: Adrian describes himself as a “technophobe”, Keagan admits he is not tech savvy, while Petrina says she is fairly comfortable with tech, using Zoom for her voice coach lessons during the circuit breaker period. Swee Lin, a gamer and an Instagram Live connoisseur, jokes, “Out of all of them [the cast], I am the most tech savvy…and that’s the truth!”
And yet, to stage and star in New York playwright Marc Palmieri’s Waiting For The Host, a production specifically made to be performed and enjoyed online, seems like no easy feat. Waiting For The Host follows a church community that gets together online, eager to put up a play together online. It is certainly meta, and steeped in a wry timeliness that reflects the cast’s own experiences in putting up a play together online.
Adrian says, “Zoom meetings give me a headache and a neck-ache.” I chuckle, and think about my own 7am Zoom work calls, and er, this Zoom interview too? He then continues, “Let alone the idea of sitting in front of a screen day after day and filming something for hours and hours on end!”
Directed remotely by Tracie Pang, filming for Waiting For The Host lasted a week right after two weeks of rehearsals. Petrina and Keagan both share how bizarre, fun, scary and stressful filming was. Petrina lists off the two-minute manic setup before each take, “Wait for hand signals, cue, unmute, record on Quicktime and on our phone”. Keagan adds, “The headache for me was the tech…start this, do this, get everything set in the frame ready.” Then, he laughs, “I had the same performance anxiety that I do when I’m backstage before going on…but no one’s here! Everything is virtual!”
Petrina aptly points out that Waiting For The Host addresses what the theatre industry is currently going through. Keagan teases that the play “is very essential, in more ways than one, hint hint. But it’s also very reflective about what’s going on.” Similarly, Swee Lin says, “You won’t find anything more current…you will relate to something in it.”
Certainly, in addition to the play’s content itself, the digital format does feel very of-the-moment. Waiting For The Host is a two-part play and is streamed altogether at a specific time once a day, rather than an on-demand viewing at any time. Adrian tells me that this is deliberate, wanting to recreate a communal experience for the audience. Upon entering the SISTIC Live page, there will be a live chatroom available for viewers to chat and “mingle” before the play commences at 9:00pm.
“This whole digital beast is something we had to make friends with, not just come to terms with, but learn to live with, and hopefully, make it work for us,” says Adrian. In fact, this digital recreation does feel like an earnest attempt to experience something together, like Instagram Live DJ sessions or Netflix watch parties. And as Keagan highlights, “In terms of actual ‘real’ theatre, this is the closest you can get.”
In Waiting For The Host, Adrian plays The Reverend, a man undergoing a crisis of confidence. Adrian begins to tell me about his own personal struggles over the past several months. He grimaces and holds his fingers to his temple momentarily, “It was a really difficult time. Personally, I went through a whole crisis of ‘what the hell is going on with my life?'” He pauses, then, half-grinning and half-wincing, continues, “You know, they say everything happens for a reason, but seriously this… What the hell? What the hell?! I just could not make any sense of it.”
Reassuringly, the cast, like the characters in the play, and like all of us, are trying to make sense of whatever we are going through right now. Petrina plays positive and jolly churchgoer Grace. She shares with me how we have to fight on, while still having to deal with the shock and aftermath of the pandemic itself. Swee Lin, who plays Effie, an “older lady” (which Adrian chides as “all acting only”), brings up Mina Kaye’s character Sara, who is a professional actress returning from studying in New York. Swee Lin says she relates to Sara’s own challenges in what it means to be an artist in a pandemic. She groans and laughs, “As an actor, I can tell you a lot of us were really depressed. I mean, I use that word lightly, but there is a real sense of ugggh.”
Perhaps she might be enlightened with Keagan’s approach: he tells me “you either become a monk, a chunk, a hunk or a drunk”. Keagan plays Dodd, an artistic director, who has some ideas of his own in Waiting For The Host. Keagan, too, certainly has some ideas. During circuit breaker, he was a “monk” and did a water fast. He says, “I drank nothing but water for three days to kick start the body, restart the cells…purge out zombie cells, rejuvenate. There was time to reflect and do a lot of inner workings.”
I am really starting to enjoy the cast’s candid nature with me, and reflect about my own time during circuit breaker (a hunky monk). I make a note to Google “zombie cells”.
So where do we go from here? How do we overcome a pandemic that has destroyed incomes, identities and lives? This collective grief that we all experience fosters a strong sense of community, as seen with the characters’ virtual gathering on Waiting For The Host. Solidarity comes in abundance, like with the theatre community IRL or with the very premise of this play.
Alongside our community, we hope. And Waiting For The Host aspires to emit this sense of renewed hope. Having hope is to give yourself a commitment to the future. It is a force that creates a new reality. The low road is to succumb, and thus, hope is the only viable option left.
And now, armed with hope, we wait.