From the very beginning of the “work-at-home” phenomenon imposed because of social distancing, anyone in any kind of collective or administrative work situation began to experience a dissolving divide between public and private life.
With everyone having to meet remotely, quite suddenly we landed inside each other’s living rooms (or kitchens, or bedrooms, or whatever space was available) to carry out our “business.” Corporate people in work sessions with children crawling all over them during Zoom chats, students and teachers having class while getting glimpses into each other’s more intimate quarters.
This of course readily, and quickly, extended to network television, with the whole array of late night show hosts now broadcasting from home via video conferencing technology. But why stop at showing us your bathroom, attic, or study, we want to meet your family too! Suddenly spouses and kids have been directly incorporated into scripts as well.
Two months into confinement, what I was really curious to observe was how these shifts incrementally unfolded. The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert for example went from filming himself alone to having his son operate the camera and daughter doing make-up – facts we know because he eventually shared this with his audience. Interrupting himself mid-sentence to turn his gaze away from the camera and talk to his wife while doing a bit (“are you going to lurk there in the corner or come over and say hi to everyone?”) and again in another episode to ask his younger son how school is going, what started as off-screen interactions and oblique references, turned into direct, on-screen presence. Within a few weeks, Colbert was referring to all family members by name and on Mother’s Day his partner Evelyn finally joined him in front of the camera. (I should mention: his dog now makes regular appearances too). Not only did this ultimately break the fourth (TV) wall, we could also see a perceptible shift in his behaviour. He was immediately nervous and shy and she had no problem pointing this out, to him, in front of us. Not only unscripted but also un-masked; all artifice now briefly dissolving too. This “widening” of the frame has now been fully adopted as his new “shtick” whereby the show is being edited such that we are essentially interrupting this family time on a nightly basis. We now “suddenly arrive” at his house, as if walking through the unlocked front door a few moments too early to find Colbert already in mid-conversation, talking to a member of his family. We’re like the guest he was expecting, but hadn’t confirmed at what time.
This self-conscious editing creates a simultaneous illusion of familiarity – which is to say, we too are now “of his family.” With its gradual evolution over the last eight weeks this YouTubed version of a CBS show has acted like a kind of mirror to the evolution of our gradual accepting of, and adapting to, our social-distancing situation.
Late night TV hosts are also chatting rather informally with each other on their respective shows (via Zoom) sharing with audiences their strategies for navigating this peculiar situation as show hosts. I.e.: they are spending time contemplating their craft and its changing facets because of the change in landscape.
“Isn’t it strange to be staring into a camera with no audience?”
“It’s the audience that focuses me. How do you stay focused without an audience?” Etc. It’s like being back in the acting classes I took when I was thirteen.
On another scale, the same thing is happening in the news. A few weeks back when reporters started having more access inside of hospitals one journalist told a rather bleak story of the extreme isolation that patients with severe cases of COVID-19 experience once hospitalized. Without going into those tragic details (as I imagine readers of this blog are already aware) what really struck me was the amount of time she spent explaining what she had to do, to get ready to go in and conduct her interviews. This detailed description accounted for a large part of her segment, as it also included considering her own mental state and the emotional reality of being in such close physical contact with a potentially lethal disease. So while the piece was about the incredible challenge and sadness of isolated patients it was as much about the journalist’s capacity to both physically and mentally gear up for her job as a reporter.
This “backstaging” of our professional lives feels de rigueur within the current context and again acts as another element that palpably contributes to the swirling and uncanny interval. It’s not just a “fourth wall” – the invisible barrier between the performer and the audience – that’s being pierced, it’s the space behind the stage, where used coffee cups, laundry, and half-eaten lunch are normally left and not meant to be exposed or discussed.
With the sudden dismantling of previously held boundaries, these bits and pieces of private life, the stuff that usually stays hidden, now seems to need to take on a visible and more prominent role. We need to see and know how others are faring emotionally, just coping in the day-to-day, in this swirling, uncertain, unstable time.
The backstage gives us more room to navigate, and opportunity to share, perhaps making confinement a little less isolating.