Connecting Communities Virtually and IRL during COVID-19

As the COVID-19 crisis has stymied the community-based collaborative projects that would have shaped my second semester of graduate school, my Community-Based Theatre Projects class has turned to social media as a platform to push out a variety of participatory engagements for people stuck at home during the quarantine. However, while my classmates and I have planned and refined our ideas before designing, creating, and publishing, many of us are struggling to engage our audiences and get constructive feedback for our assignments. While this is frustrating, I chuckle to myself, because I have struggled all semester through my performance as research work to forcibly engage the audience through social media interaction. These struggles have prompted me to question how I deploy my work when social media interaction is one of the desired outcomes for success.

With that thought ruminating in my brain, I have been enjoying getting outside and walking every few days. These brain breaks are filled with beautiful views that have fueled inspiration for some new projects. One such project has germinated from two project strands – the concept of low-pressure, open-invitation to collaboration and a previous PAR project called Something to Chalk About.

Around The Castro Neighborhood

Initially, I followed this hunch after a couple of days of being cooped up inside doing work on the computer. I had to get out and walk and after encountering some sidewalk chalk art in front of a neighbor’s house, I quickly circled back to my sister’s home (where I’m currently staying) and grabbed some of my nephew’s sidewalk chalk. Stuffing this in my pocket, I thought I would try out the concept of communicating with neighbors through a dialogue of sorts.

After encountering a rainbow, a bit of block text, or a child’s name I left a written message for the original artist. Because these chalk drawings were found in neighborhoods, my guess is that those who drew them live close by and would perhaps encounter my message. However, since the majority of people who participate in chalk art are young children, I wanted to rethink my initial impulse to write messages which assumes both literacy and knowledge of English, my primary language.

In Golden Gate Park

The following day, I took my nephews to Golden Gate Park to ride their bikes. This is a daily activity for them. On our previous trips, I had noticed that some kids had brought sidewalk chalk with them, leaving little drawings and messages around the park. Seeing as we visit this area every day and every day we encounter lots of young people who continually are chalking, this park provides a great site for exploring dialogue and duet through drawing.

The Duet with Me Drawings project seeks to engage in passing connectivity with strangers through chalk art. Unlike Something to Chalk About, I am not originating the invitation to participate, rather I perceive any chalk etching left on a wall or sidewalk as an open invitation to collaborate and dialogue through drawing. Whether a discernable figure or chicken scratch, I take a few minutes to see the drawings as they exist before my duet begins.

Sometimes an idea for the duet comes to me very quickly, other times I must look at the drawing from multiple angles before an impulse emerges. Once the idea comes, however, I quickly set about sketching.

I began tagging these sketches with #duetwithmedrawings and posting before/after images on my Instagram (@kmfriedgen). While I hoped that some telepathic would come around and continue adding onto the duets I created, I knew I would have to make a more explicit invitation if I wanted people to join me in these duets. However, given the public health protocols and recommendations in the midst of the pandemic, I initially struggled to conceive of a way to provide chalk (to eliminate this barrier to participation) while maintaining social distancing and ensure audience trust. Solutions came to this challenge came from friends and family. My sister, who happens to have a Masters in Public Health, recommended that I purchase enough chalk to give the participants a piece – and not take it back. This way I could ensure that the chalk was sanitary on my end through my handling of it and I would eliminate any chance for further vectors of infection since no one would be sharing chalk. I went to Cliff’s Variety, a local store, and bought all of the chalk they had left.

Crafting Layers of Engagment

One evening after posting some of my personal #duetwithmedrawings creations, I had a friend send me an Instagram story in which she had screenshot my chalk drawing and had added to it through Instagram stories. This launched the idea to host a #duetwithmedrawings event live in real life (IRL) and to embed a virtual engagement through Instagram.

In short order I set in motion the live and virtual event by advertising around the site (Golden Gate Park) through a simple chalk message which I shared on my Instagram Story and in a post.

The IG post invitation/advertisement.

On the day of the event, I set up at the central fountain with three sets of posters explaining the premise of the participatory event. I suited up in gloves and face bandana to set everything up. I laid six pieces of chalkboard chalk around the posters and taped the posters securely to the fountain. Circulating around the fountain, I engaged those who stopped to look at the posters from at least six feet away to invite them to participate in the event.

Everyone who participated agreed to letting me take their picture for this post and share how much fun they found the activity. Some of the younger participants asked why I was taking a picture of their chalk drawings and I explained that there was a second level to the event where people could duet with their drawings online. Some participants took down my Instagram information (on the posters) to follow the engagement online.

I really enjoyed connecting, albeit briefly, with some of the participants. One little boy was so taken with the activity that he drew several images and wanted to make sure that I took pictures of every one. A family took a piece of chalk and then moved to a segment between two of the fountains and created a beautiful and very long train, which provided so many opportunities for duets! I met an art teacher from Spain who told me about his drawing, which comes from a cave painting that is well-known in his hometown and supposedly represents a warrior. While a small, mostly DIY event the few hours of #duetwithmedrawings provided some interpersonal connection with local strangers that brought joy to people’s days and made an impression. In fact, two days later I ran into one participant family on a hike in a different part of San Francisco and said hello!

After the event ended, I uploaded several of the photos I had taken of participants’ work and invited people to duet with them on Instagram. Below are some of the messages and tags that I received online.

Lessons Learned

As someone who is keen to learn methods for engaging audiences on multiple levels, #duetwithmedrawings provided some important insights into accessibility, layering participation and asynchronous engagement.

It is vital for experience designers to consider how to make their work accessible in multiple formats – both online and in-person – even outside of the context of a global pandemic. I have run up against accessibility concerns in the Something to Chalk About? iteration of this project. While social distancing protocols brought accessibility to the forefront of the project’s design, the same attention to detail should be considered in non-pandemic times in order to reach a more diverse audience.

Layering participation, such as I did by including both an IRL and virtual invitation to participate, allows the audience to engage at their own leisure across time and space. Even those who just walked by and saw the chalk drawings engaged in the event despite not actively participating by drawing. As I continue my research into participatory devised work for communities, I plan to take this idea forward and consider the opportunity for a more dense and rich experience with the performance event, even outside of the time and space of the performance itself. Layering participation can be uniquely achieved in the digital age through asynchronous engagement.

I think COVID-19 has presented a unique opportunity to develop multiple methods of audience engagement outside of the parameters of live performance through asynchronous connections that allow the audience to engage on their own terms and in their own time. This format intrigues me as a potentially effective way to connect with an audience before or after a performance event as a way to extend the experience and allow the audience space to play and explore thematic or conceptual aspects of a show.

I look forward to furthering these lines of inquiry in my next two years of graduate school (and beyond)!