Performers in Links Hall's 96 Hours Festival Credit: Courtesy the artists

Along with every other performance venue in town, Links Hall went dark in March of this year, cancelling the 40 remaining shows of the season and leaving its wood floor minus its customary dust and polish left there by the many bodies rolling across its lustrous surface. To launch its new season in a time when audiences and live performance are reinventing themselves, Links Hall is hosting a 96-hour pop-up performance festival—a four-day blitz of remote collaboration between teams of artists and technicians who have never worked together before and never worked together like this—during a pandemic. The resulting performances, ranging from 20 to 45 minutes in length, will be presented over livestream with at least one artist from each team on-site for some time at Links. The event will set the stage for the next year of production at the experimental performance incubator. 

“The joke is that it’s like a 24-hour performance festival, except everything takes four times as long in a pandemic,” says executive director Stephanie Pacheco. “How much time do we need if we have to bring cameras and microphones to artists spread across the city? How much time do people need to reimagine what the collaboration process looks like? There are a lot of questions about how to prioritize the work we’re doing as an arts organization that seeks to support independent artists. Links has done a lot of presenting and copresenting, but we’re fundamentally an incubator. Our mission talks about research and development of work as much as we talk about presentation. Presentation is not going to look the same for awhile. Our mission now is supporting artists in creating new work so that two years down the line there’s still work to present.”

In preparation for new modes of presentation, Links has adapted and upgraded its equipment with LEDs and robocams. “LEDs have a spectrum of color choices that you can program, and robocams are controlled from the booth. That way you can keep distance between artists and technicians. It’s all remote in the space,” says production manager Giau Truong. In partnership with music venue Constellation, Links has been developing their theatrical spaces into film and video production studios. “We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries. Artists are looking for spaces to do recording right now. With the equipment we’re installing, we can do things at higher quality than they can do on their own.” But, he emphasizes, “We don’t want to lose the live performance aspect.” 

And the 96 Hours Festival is geared to provide some answers—or at least pose some questions—about what live performance looks like now. Curated by Truong and Links partnership coordinator Aaliyah Christina, the festival combines an eclectic roster of multidisciplinary artists in dance, puppetry, storytelling, music, film, and fire-spinning into teams of three, each partnered with a Links Hall technician. With a grab bag of tasks and prompts that include the themes of transformation and exchange, as well as requirements for a live element, a pre-recorded element, some form of audience interaction, some presence at Links, and the use of an object selected by another team, the festival guidelines look like a wishlist crossed with a treasure hunt.

“We want to see what people will come up with,” says Christina. “We don’t want to restrict them too much, but we want them to have an intentional way of devising the work. Especially with our sociopolitical and socioeconomic climate, with COVID, with Black Lives Matter uprisings, and personal and communal things that are happening that can inform everybody’s work, we wanted to see how they manifest with all the artistic backgrounds. We’ll be there to help guide. We want to be transparent and supportive throughout the process.”

Adds Truong, “The 96 Hours Festival gives us an opportunity to experiment and learn from the process as artists, administrators, and technicians. We are learning how to maneuver around this world we’re living and creating in. Links is not in the business of selling content; we’re in the business of being able to provide opportunity, space, and resources for artists to do what they need to do—so I have a day planned for technicians to come in and explore the equipment and learn how to use it so people understand what their options are technically, how to use it, and innovate with it.”

Further in the future, Links anticipates a hybrid audience—a limited live audience at performances and a limitless livestream that would enable accessibility for people in more far-flung areas of the city and beyond. “You reach a lot more people doing livestream than you do with live performance, so why not have both worlds at the same time?” says Truong. “The answer is somewhere mixed in the TV, film, and theater worlds. [In film, TV, and livestream], you’re framing a lot [that] people are seeing. Is there a way to break out of that frame itself?” 

Yet both Truong and Christina cite connection as the crucial element that keeps live performances living. “We’re able to experience and witness this thing with other people,” says Christina. “You’re able to witness and experience people witnessing and experiencing you. At Links Hall, you feel connected to the performer even if you don’t know who they are, and there’s a sense of levelness with the performer and the witness, and the viewer. ‘I feel you seeing me seeing you.’ That’s the essence of Links Hall’s live performance.”

“I look at environment and behavioral changes,” says Truong, recalling a past project raising quail. “Their behavior changes with every member you add in—their group behavior changes constantly. With people as well, when you’re in a space, they change how you feel. How do you create that sense by yourself in a space? I’ve been in meditation spaces such as Plum Village by Thich Nhat Hanh in France—you’re there by yourself but feel connected to everyone who’s come into that space to meditate. I’ve been pondering that question of how we create connection, even at a distance.”

“96 Hours will tell us where we’re going,” says Christina. “We have hypotheses but we don’t have any idea what the conclusion may be. We’re not expecting rentals for the new season. We are moving forward with the Co-MISSION residencies for fall and spring. The festival will inform us how to move forward and how we can support artists through this. The first half of the season will not look as it usually does—we won’t have a live show in the space every other week. This will be our blueprint.”

With an industry in radical reconfiguration, Links Hall has remained centered on the needs of artists making new work. “One of the things we heard while talking to artists this summer is that some folks were in critical self-care mode and needed to deal with Maslow’s hierarchy of ‘I need food, I need shelter, I need to make sure I’m healthy and my family is healthy,’ and some artists were furiously creating at home, because that’s what they need to do to survive, and there was a subset of artists that were like, ‘I’d like to be making things, but I just don’t know how, and I don’t know where to begin,’” says Pacheco. “We heard this in the virtual retreat we did in April with the other dance service organizations—people were feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. One of the things I love about Links is that we can give you platforms and tools and resources. It used to be a subsidized rate, and marketing, box office, and technical support. Folks who have never produced a show before get producing support. So now, how do we build a container that then allows people to be creative? We need to set some structured boundaries and walls for people to push out against.”  v