Kyla Kegler, It’s You I Like (Episode 2: Relationships), Zoom video screen capture. Photo courtesy Kyla Kegler.

We assemble in a now exhaustively familiar fashion. We are admitted to the Zoom meeting by our host. We press the “Join with Computer Audio” button. We see some waving hands in the boxes on the screen. A garbled or compressed “Hi!” comes through from one or two people. We click the microphone icon to unmute ourselves. Then, finally, we wave and say “Hello” or something like it, and mute ourselves once again. These meetings, while maintaining necessary connections to coworkers, friends, family, and colleagues, nevertheless seem to reinforce our sense of isolation more than they replace an essential social function. This may be due to what some writers have called “Zoom fatigue,” which can function variously as an excuse, explanation, or vacuous buzzword for those who would like to gesture toward the techno-social problems during these locked-down times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, the ennui of a Zoom meeting may function more as evidence of what this digital platform lacks than what it is. On Zoom, there is no handshake or hug, no low murmur of a coffee shop, no need to find a shady spot to sit, no shared analog space. So, when we gathered in this familiar fashion to see a performance of It’s You I Like on May 24, 2020, audience and performer alike were ready to struggle against our low expectations of Zoom and the compromise of digital performance in an era where in-person live experiences are not possible.

“On Zoom, there is no handshake or hug, no low murmur of a coffee shop, no need to find a shady spot to sit, no shared analog space.”

It’s You I Like is a series of three episodic performances created by Kyla Kegler and her collaborators: Micah Blaichman, Ixchel Mendoza Hernandez, Lydia Kegler, Thea Kegler, Hope Mora, Lulu Obermayer, and Jake Vogan. Together, they form a cast from Berlin, Buffalo, Munich, Los Angeles, New York, and Pecos. Kegler promoted the work as loosely based on the children’s television program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, while combining holistic healing practices to create a sense of connection and love. These goals seem to operate in contrast to the relatively pragmatic nature of Zoom. Indeed, like many other performing artists, Kegler did not intend to create a work that existed explicitly on the internet, but unlike many shows which migrated from the stage or gallery to online platforms, It’s You I Like was rewritten to accommodate the new circumstances. This quick adaptation resituated the medium of the work as Zoom, a medium Kegler and her collaborators explored in all of its affordances and drawbacks. I argue that the drawbacks of this medium — the lag time, the clumsy user interface, the inability to establish consistent eye contact, and the single-channel audio, to name only a few — bring the work closer to the structures of intimacy and empathy seen and felt in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Just how does Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood structure intimacy and empathy?

Kyla Kegler, It’s You I Like (Episode 1: Home), Zoom video screen capture. Photo courtesy Kyla Kegler.
Kyla Kegler, It’s You I Like (Episode 1: Home), Zoom video screen capture. Photo courtesy Kyla Kegler.

For the majority of its thirty-three year run on public television (1968–2001), Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood maintained a fairly stable structure in which shifts, changes, and breaks of form were notable since they were so rare. For many children growing up in this era, Fred Rogers was a calm and comforting television presence. His show pushed caring, empathy, and understanding. He taught young people how to interact with strangers, develop trust, and create community. He was unafraid to say, “I love you,” to his viewers, and he did not shy away from difficult topics like war, racism, divorce, and feelings of anger. Moreover, the show accomplished these goals by creating an intimate environment through several media and performative techniques, especially through its approach to acting. Many of the adult characters on the show shared the same names as the actors who played them, and Fred Rogers’s casual vocal delivery and movements lent an air of authenticity that seems unmediated by a character. This sense of authenticity is heightened when juxtaposed with the fictitious “Land of Make Believe,” and Rogers’s delicate transitions from the realm inhabited by his fictional, puppeted characters oto the “real world” of the neighborhood help to strengthen the division between the two. Additionally, the long shots and few cuts in this “real world” help create a sense of what performance theorist Philip Auslander calledliveness.”[1] Although the show was undoubtedly pre-recorded — and various bloopers and outtakes searchable on YouTube evince that it was not simply one take — these long shots and the way Rogers performed the opening song and tightly choreographed routine anew for every episode created a feeling that it was recorded live. To this point, Auslander argues that, “the definition of television as an ontologically live medium remains part of our fundamental conception of the medium — even though television ceased long ago to be live in an ontological sense, it remains so in an ideological sense.”[2] In his estimation, television has a culturally ingrained sense of liveness that is not present in film. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood strengthens this sense by trying to stage the impression that the show happened in one take (or at least very few takes). The show contrasts this liveness with heavily narrated videos of industry and commerce, a contrast visually reinforced by Rogers placing the VHS cassette of each of these interludes back into its sleeve at its conclusion. Finally, the show includes certain accidental and incidental actions that show the subtle imperfections and gaps where liveness can emerge.[3] This construction of a sense of the live, real, and authentic in the space between the pre-recorded and the make-believe lends a certain immediate credibility to Rogers’s affirmations that he loves us and that we are his neighbors. He becomes a person we trust to communicate the difficulties of the world with love and empathy.

“Surprisingly, it is the blurring of accident and incident into a murky middle ground between live and scripted that distinguishes this medium from television.”

In the first episode of It’s You I Like, “Home,” Kegler addresses the audience with what is increasingly becoming the boilerplate speech for Zoom meetings. We are told to mute ourselves and watch the show primarily in speaker view (although she suggests we switch to gallery view when there are dances). The performance begins by introducing what we discover in later episodes is the recurring theme song, a placid and ethereal piece composed by New York musician Micah Blaichman. The performers make their beds and tidy their various rooms throughout this music, and at its completion, Kegler returns to her computer to address the audience once again, stating, “So, as we were doing the intro homemaking dance, I actually had an idea that I didn’t think of before. If any of you would like to have a more experiential experience of the performance, you can also find something to do in your home that would make you feel more at home.” At that moment, the intro music accidentally returns (or is it accidental?); Kegler apologizes and turns it off. She is immediately interrupted by Jake Vogan who cautions that her comments here might be distracting. Then, Lulu Obermayer chimes in “I don’t think it is a distraction. Actually, I think it makes me feel more present and grounded.” The ensuing conversation starts to become more obviously scripted as it develops into a discussion about embodiment and the aforementioned “Zoom fatigue.”

Surprisingly, it is the blurring of accident and incident into a murky middle ground between live and scripted that distinguishes this medium from television. Contrary to Rogers’s tactics of dividing make-believe from the real world, which helped to augment the sense that the audience was engaging with an unmediated reality, Kegler fuses the scripted and the improvised: in this case, the seemingly real accident of the music looping and the scripted disagreement among members of the cast. While Rogers’s tactic played on public imaginings of television as a live medium, Kegler plays on public dissatisfaction with Zoom and the ways it falls short of the live. In this sense, the gaps, breaks, and hiccups in Kegler’s action point to the liveness of the platform, while the scripted interruptions temporarily create the sense that the preconceived narrative is as incidental as the accidents and mistakes. The way the show slips in and out of this fiction allows the audience to feel these boundaries on Zoom in much the way that Rogers had to spell them out for the audience on television. In my experience following this narrative, I was surprised not only by how this strategy reinforced the sense of the live for me but also by how it reinforced the fiction of the narrative. This oscillation between the real and the make-believe is further amplified by pre-recorded videos, which Kegler displays through the screen-sharing function. This function is often clumsy and nearly impossible to mask well in a performance. Kegler engages with this function slowly and deliberately. There is some dead time when she stares at the screen as she enables the function and the video starts. This seems to mirror the act of Fred Rogers putting his VHS cassettes back into their sleeves, now adapted for the context of Zoom.

In the second episode, “Relationships,” this oscillation between the real and the make-believe is amplified when Kegler’s father interrupts the performance to raise an issue about the authorship of a painting she made as a child. Kegler explained in a post-show discussion that this was a real conversation that she subsequently scripted, casting her father as himself. Additionally, when Jake Vogan talks about going through a difficult breakup, he is interrupted by his ex-boyfriend, played by Rodrigo Alves, who takes issue with his characterization of the split. This incident plays with the idea that anyone can emerge from the audience of a Zoom performance and gain an equal voice. As if reinforcing that fictitious action could become real, an audience member in the third episode, “Work,” accidentally interrupted the action by forgetting to mute their microphone. By scripting interruptive and discontinuous action in the performances, the actual interruptions become elevated (even if only for an instant) to a possible place of fiction. In a way, the audience and the medium itself become the content of the work, almost evoking media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s argument that “the medium is the message.”

“Kegler and her collaborators took on the difficult task of understanding the current techno-social moment as one in which love, connection, and empathy may still be found.”
Kyla Kegler, It’s You I Like (Episode 2: Relationships), Zoom video capture. Photo courtesy Kyla Kegler.
Kyla Kegler, It’s You I Like (Episode 2: Relationships), Zoom video capture. Photo courtesy Kyla Kegler.

Kegler and her collaborators took on the difficult task of understanding the current techno-social moment as one in which love, connection, and empathy may still be found. They are brought together and brought closer to us through the problems as much as the promise of platforms like Zoom. In the ways that Fred Rogers was able to become the neighbor of millions of children through the not-quite-live medium of television, Kegler, Micah Blaichman, Ixchel Mendoza Hernandez, Lydia Kegler, Thea Kegler, Hope Mora, Lulu Obermayer, and Jake Vogan become our friends and neighbors. It’s You I Like pays homage to and refracts its themes through a different media lens than Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. There are clues to this in the title and duration of the work. The work takes its title from that of a song Rogers often performed on the show. This acknowledgment of inspiration helps point to the structural similarities and deference paid to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Furthermore, the choice to air only three episodes from the outset (as opposed to the 895 episodes by Fred Rogers) seems to reflect not only the difficulty of attaining the older show’s idolized status but also the hope that this digital day in the neighborhood will be short-lived.

Kyla Kegler, It’s You I Like (Episode 2: Relationships), Zoom video capture. Photo courtesy Kyla Kegler.

Evan Moritz is a Masters student in Theatre and Performance at University at Buffalo. He researches science-fiction performance and the ways new media may influence the future of live arts.

[1] See Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999).

[2] Auslander, Liveness, 12.

[3] The now popular anecdote of Mr. Rogers struggling and failing to set up a tent then deciding to keep it in the final cut was somewhat fictionalized for the 2019 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. However, numerous incidents and accidents abound, including the sound of a velcro rip when he pulls off his cardigan at the end of some episodes, conversational pauses, and repetition of some lines of dialogue.