This weekend, Belvoir will stream Belvoir in Concert! The online event (one of the highlights in this week’s Limelight In Your Living Room: Theatre and Musical Theatre column) will feature songs from some of the musicals and plays presented at Belvoir in recent years, in a series of specially recorded performances by the original cast. Virginia Gay will not only host the event but has fished out her ukulele to perform a number from the Hayes Theatre Co production of Calamity Jane, which had a Belvoir season in 2018. Currently based in Los Angeles, Gay talked to Limelight about the concert, the challenge of performing in online events like these, why they’re so important while theatres and closed, and how she’s coping with isolation during COVID-19.

Virginia Gay. Photograph supplied

Who suggested the concert and who has put it together? (There’s no director or organiser listed in the credits).

Eamon Flack and Dom Mercer devised and curated the concert. As Eamon said to me “turns out we’ve produced quite of lot of new Australian music over the last couple of decades”. So awesome.

Will everyone perform their songs from their own homes?

They will! We’re all in iso in various parts of the world. I personally am very excited to see people’s kitchens.

Will you interview the participants or just introduce each number?

There will be no interviewing, just introductions and linking chat.

I take it we will see you being Calamitous?!

You’re darn tootin’ right you will! My uke skills are RUSTY, but no time like an apocalypse to polish up an old habit…

I know you have performed in other online concerts like this recently. What are they like to perform in and what particular challenges do they offer?

What a good question. They’re a strange beast. And obviously, over the next several months, we’ll all have to get better at their particular brand of strangeness. It’s heartbreaking to not have a crowd to run off. That feeling of the adrenalin before you walk on, of knowing you’re going to make a thing, a one-off thing, like magic, out of nothing, right before their eyes. That a bunch of strangers come together and have an experience in a space that lets them leave feeling changed. The feeling of being led by the crowd, feeling where they want to go.

And trying to form that bond over pixels is … difficult. You’ve got to find the right level of enthusiasm and buoyancy that feels like you’re carrying people with you, and holding everything together, but doesn’t feel like you’re shouting at an audience down the lens. They might be watching this in bed, or on their phone, so they’re could be right up close to you, and you could be too big for that little screen. And you can’t canvas how they’re feeling and adjust to suit in the moment, the vibe. But you also can’t be so chill that you let the air out, and let people walk away because they’re not engaged.

With live TV (or any kind of straight to camera TV) there’s a sort of already-established-style, that we’re used to seeing, used to consuming, and I’m (a bit) used to doing. But that’s for a TV in the corner of the room. Almost nobody’s consuming internet concerts like that. So, in the past concerts I’ve tried an editing technique that is sort of quintessentially internet: short sharp bursts, not necessarily concerned with continuity, and it’s a style that I love. (And spending some of the last couple of months learning how to edit your own videos is a good use of this *checks notes* apocalypse.)

It’s still got to do that thing that all talking to camera does (and even looking down the lens when you’re getting your picture taken) – you can’t think that the lens is where your gaze ends. You’ve got to know that your gaze goes ‘through’ the lens, and it goes through it to (I always imagine) your favourite people in the world, who are sitting there waiting for it. Usually I have to make that up, but in the case of Belvoir audiences, I know that’s actually true. I love our Belvoir audiences! They are some of my favourite people in the world! They’re the BEST!

Virginia Gay with Tony Taylor and Sheridan Harbridge in Calamity Jane. Photograph © John Mcrae

How important is it do you think to keep doing things like this while theatres are closed and live performance isn’t possible?

SO important. Belvoir is finding so many ways to keep employing artists, even while its own revenue has completely disappeared. Their commitment to keeping artists in work, in whatever format that is and can be, has been wonderful to behold. They’re even working out ways to hold socially distanced workshops of new work! Magic! And have you heard that there’s an anonymous donor matching everybody’s donations during the concert dollar for dollar? What an amazing thing for a – person? company? I have no idea – to be doing! That money will then be used by Belvoir to keep on paying artists to make things and work. Every single live performing artist’s work has been cancelled, pretty much for this entire year. Whole seasons cancelled. Belvoir is helping keep us working, as much as they can.

But when we step away from the practicalities, and look at the larger picture, cosmically, how important do I think these concerts are? SO, SO important. Our one job on this planet as performers is to make you not feel so alone, to offer you solace and distraction, and ways to make sense of the world. That is the literal job of art. (Soz to get big here, but still…) And right now, more than ever, people need exactly these qualities. They need community, they need beauty and optimism, and wonderful memories and silliness and transcendent, breathtaking reminders that we are alive, and we’re all in this together.

How are you coping with the COVID-19 restrictions? Has it been difficult emotionally? And how have you kept your spirits up?

Listen. I think everybody’s experience of iso is their own very particular kind of hell. I stand up and APPLAUD parents, particularly parents of young kids, and particularly parents of young kids who are still working. But my experience of iso has been the exact opposite. I haven’t touched another human being in seven weeks. I mean, that’s a lot for a people person. I’ve had lonely dips, I reckon we all have, and I try not to engage with spiralling thinking, or catastrophising.

I started meditation literally the day before the shit really started hitting the fan, and I LOVE it and I could not be more grateful for it. I’ve gotten inventive with how I show up for people without literally showing up for them, and my beautiful friends have done some magic – people have dropped over home-made food and we’ve stood in the front yard shouting at each other through masks and giving each other virtual hugs, which is like looking at two people in first year contemporary dance embody ‘hugs’. I’ve had some spectacular four-hour-long Zoom calls over drinks with my nearest and dearest that really feel like they’re here with me.

I live for a podcast (99% Invisible and Strong Songs are perennial faves), I recommend warm, kind, funny TV shows, with a good simple morality, where the good guys win and everything turns out alright (Brooklyn Nine-Nine is damn good for this, and Feel Good is breathtakingly wonderful), and don’t recommend anything with too much darkness or longing in it (because that will just make you call your ex, and that doesn’t help anybody’s apocalypse experience). I recommend getting an apoca-puppy (my friends had to leave the country super quick and couldn’t take their dog with them, so now I’m her guardian till the end of the year and she’s heaven). And I highly recommend Marco Polo as an App to stay in contact with peeps, especially peeps in a different time zone. Even my parents can use it now, and I cannot get enough of seeing their smiling faces and occasionally up their nostrils for minutes as they forget that it’s on….

But of course, each iso experience, as well as having its own unique difficulties, has its own unique upsides. My friends who are parents also talk about how amazing it is to see their kids’ growth in micro focus, and be covered in hugs all day (while also discovering new reserves of patience and fortitude in themselves!). And while I only see the apoca-puppy, my days are my own, and that’s an extraordinary privilege.

I’ve been using the space and time to complete projects, and start new projects and write and write and write all day. I’m writing a new show for Belvoir in 2021, very much in the spirit of Calamity Jane – joyful, hopeful, ridiculous, with a huge heart, full of love for community and an ode to the magic live theatre. Waking up every morning and getting to go into that world has been pretty damn great.

Belvoir in Concert! will stream for one weekend only from 7.30pm on May 22 to 11.59pm on May 24