Friday 9 October 2020

Brontë talk: Zoom versus in-real-life – a perspective

There is an old joke about someone answering the phone only to hear a grumpy voice saying, “Oh, it’s you! I just wanted to leave a message on the answering machine.” Well, without going so far as to say that I prefer Zoom to a physical meeting, it does have its upside, as was amply demonstrated in the talk given this week to the Brussels Brontë Group by Karen Hewitt on "Charlotte Bronte’s Quarrel with the English Gentleman in Villette".

Yes, we missed the sociability of being physically present at the Woluwe venue, chatting with friends we maybe hadn’t seen for a while, enjoying a delicious cup of coffee (?), allowing our own personalities to enjoy the space needed to express themselves as they interact with others, and maybe even forming an orderly queue for some post-talk face-to-face conversation with our speaker.

But look at what we did get: we could hear and see everyone (unless, for whatever reason, they didn’t appear on video); we could choose to sit at the front (speaker view) or the back (gallery view); we could have a Q&A session; and we could at least ‘chat’ in a manner of speaking, both in public and in private if so desired. Some participants, not least our speaker, were able to play a full part without having to travel to Brussels, an otherwise expensive and time-consuming undertaking, not to say fraught with risk in these times … but then that’s the whole point! It was particularly delightful to see Karen Hewitt, and, at one point, her cute little cat, in such a cosy-looking domestic environment, which I have to say I found more engaging than a lectern facing rows of hard chairs!

Zoom can provide a channel for other types of social events, too, which would not otherwise be possible in these times. I have taken part in about half a dozen online play readings in the last seven months. There, as in real theatre, the enjoyment rather depends on how much you like the play, and the level of engagement of the participants. It has been very much a second-best experience for me, as it cannot compete with the sociability of sitting in someone’s living room and enjoying a glass of wine and some nibbles. Yes, I know I could provide my own wine and food, but still … !

The same applies to our book-group sessions – spaghetti bolognaise and a Leffe Blonde alongside my computer was just too weird. But they work better on Zoom than the play readings, I think, because of the greater informality. You're not performing a role; you're really just chatting about a book under the beneficent moderation of our good friend Jones.

And speaking of Jones, we had our first online book-group quiz the other evening. Again, I think the secret lies with the informality. I have taken part in two other trivia quizzes over the last few months. You not only needed a Zoom connection, but also a link to an app called Kazoo, which the question master activated for each question. It then counted down the seconds until you answered (or not!), using what appeared to be a tamper-proof score-recording system (U.S. electoral officials take note!). The quizzes were well enough organized; what was missing was that level of informality that transforms a kind of self-imposed task into a genuinely sociable experience. Maybe it’s sour grapes on my part, as I didn't do very well in the trivia quizzes. Jones, on the other hand, almost went too far the other way in his munificent awarding of bonus points to anyone who complained; no, just to anyone!

So for me, Zoom works better in some situations than in others, but can undoubtedly serve to facilitate some very entertaining evenings. What a pity it’s necessary at all, though!

Brian Holland

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