In the “before times,” Almanac Dance Circus Theatre and Die-Cast's The Fleecing would have been my jam: site-specific, immersive theater, the kind of multi-genre, multi-discipline performance art that defies definition and invites participation.
Performers have had to get creative over the past year, and frequently that means shows via Zoom. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. This year’s Fleecing (the fifth incarnation of an annual production from Almanac) should have worked. With audiences accustomed to controlling their cameras and microphones and visiting breakout rooms, the experience of moving throughout a performance space and interacting with the players could have felt almost normal. But in order for the experience to feel authentic, the execution has to be flawless—which it isn’t.
The instructions seem simple enough. On the night I attended, at 6:55pm (five minutes to showtime), audience members followed a link that took them to a website with more information about the performance. At 7pm exactly, they were supposed to be automatically redirected from that page to Zoom. Unfortunately, some snafu meant that many audience members, myself included, were asked for a passcode they didn’t have. As that issue was sorted, the show began.
The plot of The Fleecing, such as there is one, is somehow equally thin and convoluted. We, the audience, are acolytes who have arrived just in time for the “Bumblefish”—either a God or high priest of the religion (it’s not clear)—to choose a successor.
Acolytes are divided amongst four sects and dispatched to breakout rooms. My group, the Evangelicals, was led by a character named Raedeskiki the Maverick and “Senator Jon Ossoff,” who provided our smaller group with context that frankly I can’t remember post-show, as well as confusing instructions that left us unsure what to do once the two performers left. It turned out we had to leave the Zoom we were in and enter a different one—not a breakout room, but a wholly different Zoom—in order to continue taking in the performance. Precious time was lost while figuring that out, and it seemed that I and many others entered the Evangelical Zoom in medias res.
Acolytes were encouraged to visit not just the Zoom to which they were assigned, but also the Zooms of the other three sects of the organization—the Freaks, the Daemons, and the Mystics—but it wasn’t immediately clear how to do so until the Evangelical room moderator provided a link.
We were told we had 20 minutes to visit the four spaces, and a countdown on the website would tell us when our time was up. When the timer expired, the sect with the most visiting audience members moved to the second round. Unfortunately, because of the show’s delayed start, the timer did not accurately reflect how much time we had, so nobody knew when they needed to gather in their favorite space.
Entertainment in the Evangelical room, as far as I could tell, was a female dancer somewhat lip-synching but mostly interpretive dancing to voiceover from an off-screen male performer. There was some Blair Witch-style camera-work that sent me out of the room pretty quickly. The Freaks featured someone acrobatically dancing up and down a set of stairs; in a breakout room, another performer asked acolytes to recount uncomfortable moments in their lives. In the Daemon room, and aerialist dressed in all white suspended herself from the ceiling; there was apparently a breakout room here, too, but I did not visit. The Mystics featured two jugglers and a trampoline. (The Mystics had two breakout rooms that I did not visit.)
The sound and picture in most of these spaces was terrible. I abandoned the Mystics quickly because background noise made it difficult to concentrate and a grainy picture made it hard to see the performing. The aerialist in the Daemon room was almost impossible to see: the camera couldn’t focus on her all-white outfit and she was just a washed-out blur. Picture and audio in the Evangelical room were fine, if you can forgive the aforementioned camera-work. The staircase performer in the Freaks room was the only one whose light, sound, and picture all seemed to work in her favor.
A second “round” of the performance was mostly more of the same, and the value of doing the exercise twice was unclear.
What works in the room…
In Philly, we’ve been holding mostly virtual performances for almost a year. We all know how to use Zoom, and we’ve all survived awkward conversations with people we don’t know in breakout rooms. This performance was unnecessarily complicated, and not helped by bad audio and lighting. While I am sure that each of the performance spaces looked and sounded fantastic in person, what works in the room does not automatically translate onto screens. It seems as if Almanac did not thoroughly test all of its virtual spaces, which would have allowed it to tweak its offering or upgrade its tech before the performance.
I give Almanac props for its ambition. But in its current form, The Fleecing does not work.
Image description: A still from The Fleecing shows a person facing the camera from the shoulders up, rendered in red and orange on a field of black, as if it’s an infrared image.
Image description: An illustration on a black field has what looks like a yellow human ribcage, with a spiny fish poking out the top instead of a neck, and a cluster of flowers at the bottom.
What, When, Where
The Fleecing. Created, performed, and produced by Almanac Dance Theater in collaboration with Die-Cast and Cirque Du Nuit. Through February 13, 2021, streamed online via Zoom. thealmanac.us.