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“We’re Definitely Not ‘Social Distancing’ Distance”: Zia Anger on Performing My First Film Online

My First Film

After nearly two years of performing My First Film live in theaters, Zia Anger has reconfigured her piece for livestreaming. Currently being streamed to small groups in preview mode, each performance is announced on Anger’s Twitter the morning of; capacity is small and quickly filled on a first come, first served email RSVP basis. The middle core of the show—Anger’s story about her never-premiered first feature, told via a mix of video footage and select online browsing, narrated via TextEdit narration typed out in real time—has remained essentially the same. The beginning and ending have been necessarily rethought: where a key part of the live presentation was allowing audiences to mingle, settle in their seats and begin exchanging Anger’s old Instagram Stories via AirDrop, viewers now log in to see a new set of instructions, headed “READ ME FIRST!!!!!!” in bright red the night I tuned in. Now viewers (with iPhones) can send an iMessage, which appears on Anger’s laptop screen along with everyone else’s number—a participatory element that also finds a different way to take the onus off her to text Stories everyone. As this settling-in mode moves into the more narrative part of the presentation, the texting variable adds unexpected extra dimensions (like, the night I tuned in, the viewer who texted “Fuck premieres” after Anger wrote “JK. Premiers don’t matter anymore”). The move online is logical: a work about exclusion from festival and financing spaces has now expanded for a moment when a much larger set of options have been removed. I spoke to Anger after her first online performance this week.

Filmmaker: You thought your final performance, at least for a while, would be at Borscht. Afterwards, another round of performances were announced. And then those didn’t happen. At what point did you start actively thinking about putting this online?

Anger: I’d been thinking about doing a livestream for a really long time because I knew there was limited access—you had to be in big cities or going to one of the educational institutions that had me for the theater tour. I think we had announced [another] three [performances] in the UK, and there were a handful of other dates we were going to announce, and that was going to be it. When we knew it was coming to its end, I was like, “Maybe we should like try to find a partner to do a livestream of one of these last shows.” I didn’t really know how it would be done, but I thought there are so many online streaming services that one would surely know how to livestream a 70-minute performance, because people livestream all the time. There’s Twitch, but also Onlyfans or Chaturbate — all these different models that exist to livestream whatever you’re doing at home.

I happened to be at True/False with [production company] MEMORY, and it was becoming very clear my trip to the UK probably wasn’t going to happen, and I was like, “Why don’t we dig in?” They were on board, but it wasn’t really a plan. The first week the lockdown started, I thought, “Well, I’ll tweet and see if people would actually come to this livestream.” It was, for me, a very popular tweet, meaning people really responded to it. So I went to MEMORY, sent them the tweet and was like, “I think we have an answer, so let’s figure out how to do this.” The first couple I did from my home office; now I go to a place that has better internet. Besides that, I had everything I needed, which is crazy because months ago it seemed like that would be totally impossible to do. But necessity made it easy.

Filmmaker: I’m curious that you specifically mentioned Onlyfans and Chaturbate. Was the logic that porn sites just have better tech, or was it part of a broader mix of platforms that you thought about?

Anger: I think we were talking about, inevitably, how do you monetize something like this? And those are really well-proven models. We were talking about Chaturbate in particular, because, if I remember correctly, it’s a tip-based model. As the show progresses the more [the performer gets] tips. Or, you can see more depending on how much you tip. So we were talking about what would that be like, for people to pay and move past certain levels of the performance which obviously is not what we’re doing right now — just something I was curious about. I have always, from the inception of this piece, wanted to do it for free. When we booked the theatrical tour, it became clear that, unless you’re in an educational institution, you have to charge people for tickets because there are a lot of costs associated with space. Everything in our world costs a certain amount of money, so how do you supplement something being free? Right now, we’ve been doing it as a donation-based screening.

Filmmaker: And have people in fact donated?

Anger: Yeah, and they’re really covering for a lot of people who are, I’m guessing, unable to donate at the moment. There’s no suggested donation. Some people will be like, “I paid the price of what I would’ve paid for a ticket.” Other people are paying what they can afford, and other people are paying—I don’t know, if someone gives you a hundred bucks, I’m not really good at valuing myself, but that’s way more than a ticket. That’s cool. [There are] many people who never would’ve paid attention to, or even heard about this before, and never would have thought to seek it out — a different type of audience I had never anticipated

Filmmaker: Obviously, the middle core stayed pretty much the same. The most important parts you had to rethink are the opening and ending. Now there’s this slightly new desktop layout, with starter note instructions and then a supplemental note you type out a little later.

Anger: These preview streams are specifically to test all these things. Each time I learn something, I take note of it and write it down. Like, “Oh, what are people talking to me about this time?” This is the first time that the conversation with the audience is going both ways. In the theater we would [use] AirDrop to send video files to each other. I mean, you could send something that says something, but you’re not using text messaging, this readily available thing. Now the audience can write as much as I write in the same real time.

Filmmaker: You give instructions, asking people to do things that you could control in a theater space: turn off the lights, create—as much as possible—a sort of theatrical viewing space for themselves, which they’re not guaranteed to do. When people text you in the middle of it, does that piss you off a little bit? At a certain point I would think you’d want to limit the participation.

Anger: For the first couple [livestreamed performances] I did, when the show gets going into the more narrative elements and the invitation to interact with me disappears a little bit, I was turning on the “do not disturb” on my computer. People could still text me, but you couldn’t see the texts rolling in. This week I have decided to leave them, just to see what happens. I think it’s been very interesting because it absolutely has the potential to interrupt, or interject, or potentially highlight something that I’m saying. It’s this step into people performing with me—which might not make the show better, but I also have always felt like people watching while I’m writing it are, in a sense, like my co-authors. From the very beginning when I was doing this in theaters, I essentially treated it like a workshop every single time. I would try to listen to when people were laughing, or crying, or getting bored, or taking out their phones and not paying attention. I wanted to find new responses I didn’t know were possible. Now I can tell when I’m losing people or really hitting something meaningful.

Filmmaker: Obviously with the lack of other people around you, there’s a lack of audio cues. But there’s internal timing you’ve baked into your presentation at this point. Do you feel like the default presentation of the piece has to get longer because the ways you check in involve waiting for people to respond?

Anger: I was really trying to keep it to the 75 minutes or so — [the length that] all the theater shows started to be. I did a friends-and-family screening first and sent out a feedback form. At this exact moment in time, it feels very necessary to perform it as much as I can, which is not a lot—it’s very difficult for me to perform it. The audience interaction in the beginning and end is a necessary part, this moment we all can share and connect with each other. So, it feels like it just has to be longer. I don’t know. I mean, maybe people are getting bored at home. Actually, I know [some are, because] I read almost everything everybody writes about me on the internet.

Filmmaker: I would be so averse to tweeting out anything during the performance, because it would be telling on myself that I was not paying attention. But that’s me.

Anger: Well, there’s loads of ways to figure out how people feel about you on the internet. It hasn’t come to hurt me all that much yet, it’s just something I’m really curious about. I’m starting to understand what people like and don’t like about it. But, for the most part, I think that the longer audience interaction through texting in the beginning and the end—a lot of the people that might have problems with it also would have had problems with it in a theater. But the people that get it really get it, and that’s who I’m doing it for.

Filmmaker: I was curious what you think about the desktop-versus-TV scenario. There’s an argument to be made that the exact right way to watch it is on your laptop, because it’s mirroring your device. But my laptop screen is not that big, so I AirPlayed it to a TV. Do you think there’s a preferable way to do it?

Anger: I used to send out step-by-step directions—when I say “used to,” this has only been happening for two weeks, but it feels like two years. Two weeks ago I would send out directions about how to get the performance on your TV screen, but I got some feedback from a really good friend who convinced me to no longer send those. If you know how to put it on your TV, by all means you can put it on your TV. But there is something to be said about watching it on your computer. I perform it on my laptop, and [the performance] has the ability to be directly onto your laptop, and it creates this one-to-one intimacy. The same warm thing I have on my lap is the same warm thing you have on your lap. We’re really just two feet away from each other. When you add a 50-inch TV screen to it, you probably have to be sitting eight feet away from that thing to really get a good point of view. All of a sudden you and I are really far away from each other, right? We’re definitely the distance that you’re supposed to be to practice safe social distancing. But when you’re sitting there watching your laptop, you have to be really close to it, and I have to be really close to it. We’re definitely not “social distancing” distance.

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