2021-2022,  blog

Is “Digital” a dreaded word?

Blog by multidisciplinary artist Leslie Ting
Leslie is an east asian woman with black hair. Here she has bangs and has it tied in a pony tail. She is laughing to someone on the left side of her, wearing a clear ceramic necklace and black blouse

Photo by Melissa Sung

With performances described as “fire without smoke” (Strad) and “breathtaking” (Onstage), violinist and interdisciplinary artist Leslie Ting (she/her) has been creating immersive, music-driven performances since 2013 with her definitive work, Speculation. Nominated for the 2021 Pauline McGibbon Award for Emerging Theatre Director, Leslie’s work combines her specialized background as a classical musician and former practicing optometrist. She is dedicated to pushing boundaries in classical music and bridging demographics with the belief that live art can foster the empathy to spark social change.

I recently asked the following question on social media: 

“Folks in the performing arts – going digital, yay or nay?”

I’m mostly curious about the nay people – beyond, “it’s just not the same”, what stopped you from going online? 

Digital programming image with green whirls that visualizes space. There are arrows floating throughout pointing towards the top left corner
A microphone is weighing down a paper script.

Prototype testing of the digital experience of What Brings You In – backstage shot and audience facing shot. 

No responses at first… then I posted:

“What keeps you from watching performing arts things online/digitally?”

The first response was about wanting to be “far away from my computer screen” by the end of the day. (4 likes)

Oh yeah, I get this. I go to the computer for obligatory work meetings, to lightly doom scroll, to relax with a mindless show, to see my therapist. My laptop has a lot of baggage associated with it at this point. So, it takes *a lot* to get me to go to my computer for a digital performance. I’ve bought tickets with good intentions to see and support what my colleagues are doing, and just could not bring myself to do it at the end of the day. 

The next response: “There are many things in terms of production that you can do with a produced, broadcast show that you couldn’t necessarily do with a live performance. That being said…there’s just so much of it”. (2 likes)

There is so much. And a lot of it doesn’t have the production quality of Netflix behind it, obviously, so it often doesn’t look or sound amazing (see next response). A lot of it was done because we had to, trying to keep people making and performing (even though I think many people just stopped), and there was a lot of learning on the spot about streaming technology.

Two more responses I’ll share: 

“Bad audio is a real joy killer for me…we are listening to music in such a compromised way often.” (1 like)

Yes! Sound quality. You don’t like watching a pixelated screen, do you? Let’s think about sound quality, people!

And finally —

“I think this question is kind of like asking a generational hog farmer what they think of the synthetic lab-grown meat industry? yes, they both sell protein rich foods, but the approach, vision, skillsets, technology, temperament, etc are all completely different. This is the biggest thing I think people underestimate about digital. It is far more revolutionary a technology than just a different distribution platform. It has disrupted the very definitions of creation, creator, audience, performance, liveness, synchronicity, time, space, the list goes on….the majority of the performing arts industrial complex is a traditionalist community of people committed to practices that are several hundred to several thousands of years old. That has its value of course. On the other side with the emerging digital worlds, you’ve got an entirely new domain of possibility that is best explored by those who aren’t trying to uphold any preconceived tradition of what their work is or how it should be done. Also, bad audio is indeed a killer.”

(1 like + 1 love + me replying with a cartwheel and hands up emojis)

This last response was from Owais Lightwala, who is currently Assistant Professor in the School of Performance at University X.

I really loved bringing on and learning from new collaborators from film and experience design, and asking a sound designer to please engineer a phone conference call for performance that we would test multiple times. 

Leslie Ting is covered by fog and haze and lights while performing speculation. Hye Won Cecilia Lee is on the piano in front of the blue ray of lights.

Moment from Speculation | Photo by Dahlia Katz

Getting back to my core intentions of Speculation and re-thinking everything about the audience experience with new artists that were not from the performing arts, was extremely refreshing, especially after having done it within the traditional ways.

Having only gone digital once so far with Speculation (and only because I was initially forced to by the pandemic), I’m new to it like most performing artists.

But, I ended up really enjoying working through all the challenges that people commented on above – being tied to the computer all day already, over saturation of similar, poorly produced content, and still holding on to the same ideas about what performing arts are and can be.

If you need to unwrap a cough drop in the middle of the show, by all means. If you want to lie down on the ground because you’ve been upright in front of a laptop for 8 hours, but still want to  feel part of an event, let’s see what we can do. If you can’t be confined to a venue seat for an hour or more, it would be my pleasure to be able to offer you a well-considered performance that you can experience from home. And that is the tip of the access iceberg. My personal interest is also in keeping the door open to people with blindness or low vision, we could take advantage of the Wild West that is the online space to make a new world that uses more of our senses (ie. less eyesight heavy)

Here’s another thing – a “live performance” does not have to mean live-video-stream-of-the-live-in-person-performance-that-you-were-going-to-do. This is a big one for me, and something I’m currently exploring with my new project, What Brings You In. What are ways of feeling another person’s presence when you’re not physically there or I can’t see you? I find these questions so exciting. 

What Brings You In Buzz workshop at Theatre Passe Muraille, Dec 2021
Empty Mainspace theatre with social distanced set up of seats, chairs, easels and computers
In studio, demo recording surround sound with an ambisonic microphone for spatial audio, Feb 2022. 
a warm small music studio with soundproof panels along the walls, a red carpet and a desk on top with macbook computer

We begin prototype testing next month of the What Brings You In digital experience, with 4 work-in-progress showings at RISER 2022 in May, from the comfort of your home. You can follow the progress of What Brings You In on instagram @leslieating or get very occasional newsletter updates through at leslieting.com

I wonder when attending a digital performance work from home will feel culturally comparable to going out to see, for example, a play in a theatre. As a friend said to me last year, “nothing can replace live [and in-person]” – so don’t. You don’t have to, and that is liberating.

Also check out

Sammy Chien, an East Asian artist with locks tied into a bun, works on a soundboard

FREE recorded workshops on creating immersive works using technology

Introduction to Immersive storytelling, Multi-dimensional and Multi-Sensorial Storytelling, and Accessibility in Digital Projects, recordings from the Digital Creators Lab workshops are available online!

Upcoming digital production at TPM

Toka tells the story of siblings who wrestle with a long-standing land dispute that has resulted in generational death after death. This startling work of physical theatre about modern-day blood feuds in post-Communist Albania, is delicate, evocative and heart-breaking.

Toka. Clicking on this image will take you to the show landing page