Zooming on Performance Nights: A Conversation with Orla Kelly

by Enxhi Mandija

I’ve grown up speaking to my grandparents and uncles and cousins over online video calls, more than I saw them in the flesh. So I guess all of this Zooming and Skyping is not too new or alien, for me, it’s the way I’ve kept in touch with my close relations for years. Yet video calls are odd tools. They bring you much closer – I hold my little cousin playing me the 3-chord song she has just learnt on the piano in the palm of my hand, it’s early morning there and night here – but they also make you more aware of the distance between you and your little cousin, of how loudly not-here the people on the screen are, trapped in a virtual, faraway there.

When I speak to Orla, I ask we do it over Zoom, because I desperately need to speak to someone that’s not myself (we’ve all been doing it and you know it). Orla is in Ireland, right now, has settled into a quiet rhythm of working from home. She seems quite content with her arrangements, she’s happy with the reduced distractions. Her mother’s been baking bread, Orla has made croissants (from scratch! I know!). She’s been reading more; we exchange recommendations. She admits her writing, which she was doing as part of her stand-up, has waned; she feels released of the pressure and obligation to write for an upcoming performance. Instead, she’s been thinking about what drives her to perform, what’s the necessity behind performing, how it shapes writing.

Speakin’ Weird, the performance night Orla has been organizing for the past few years, has last happened over Zoom. A few regulars lent a hand organizing, over 50 joined the audience, more than 20 people performed. While she was quite nervous at first, worried about the unfamiliar platform – the temperamental Zoom gods can be intimidating – she actually enjoyed the experience a lot.

She’d feared the performed pieces might have taken darker tones, given the circumstances, but instead she found a common feeling of hope and solidarity. Some of the features of the online performance, such as the chatroom function, made it feel more interactive, encouraging participation even from the shy ones that usually hide behind their pints. As the event with the meeting details was public on social media, they were also joined by a few newcomers who’d never been to Speakin’ Weird before and who, Orla suspects, had no idea what it was all about.

Overall, the online performance night strengthened the sense of Speakin’ Weird as an event fostering an Aberdeen-based community of the arts. And because everyone is isolating, the online performance night emphasised the value and strength of the connection we’re willing to make, reaching out and writing, performing – listening, being present.

Something the lockdown has brought to her attention, she says, is the need to slow down, prioritise, make choices. The latest Speakin’ Weird starkly marked out the social function of the performance night, as a place of connections: the same people, coming together time and again, reaching out to newcomers joining. Community, creativity. Even in lockdown, even from a screen – here and not-here. What matters is connecting.