Performing Through A Lens: An Artist’s Perspective with Billy B.

  • July 28, 2021

William Brennan, aka “Billy B.,”one of our veteran artists, has electrified children and teachers alike with his exciting, unique style of combining environmental education and entertainment. A trained educator turned performer, Billy B. writes and performs original songs to teach children of all ages about the wonders of natural science, ecology, and the environment. He has performed at The Kennedy Center, The Smithsonian Institution, and in schools, museums, and conferences across the country.

We asked Billy B. to tell us about his journey this past year through the world of virtual performance, from his home in Port Townsend, Washington…

“It was 2018 when I started seriously considering doing “virtual” performances. I had just finished writing my latest show, “Weather, Climate, Let’s Define It.” The conceptual heart of the show is about the CO2 molecule and how, sharing a vibrational frequency with infrared radiation (heat), it captures and reradiates the heat back to the earth’s surface. To me, the idea of traveling anywhere, blowing fossil fuel into the atmosphere, to sing and dance about climate change, seemed ridiculous, if not a bit hypocritical.

So when the pandemic forced all of our hands, I had a leg up of sorts. I had done a fair amount of tech research and yet the learning curve in front of me was steep: becoming versant in the software, understanding the limitations of the hardware, and learning what internet specs were needed. All knowledge that would be necessary to trouble shoot on the fly. I ordered the devices I needed to make the virtual shows possible (they sold out quickly!) and got started.

I learned (the hard way) each little “Zoom window” of an audience member demanded its own amount of CPU (memory) from my computer; causing a crash in the middle of a show.  I learned, from the teachers and kids, that Google Talk wouldn’t allow my pre-recorded music. That left me singing and dancing without a backing track, although I could hear it, so I was oblivious to what my audience was missing.  This, and many other things, we now know.

To state the obvious, virtual shows are completely different than live shows. You have to learn to love that blank lens in front of you, so much less inspiring than the eyes of a child. However, it provides opportunities live shows cannot. I had a cloth green screen modified to become an alcove I stand within. When talking about pollination I can project bees as big as my thighs right next to me. We start each show using Google maps to “fly in from outer space” and land in front of the school or library sponsoring the show. We put pertinent kids’ artwork from the sponsoring school on the green screen behind me. And I found a question and answer period at the end of the show is effective. Again, this and many other things.

I am hoping this “pivot” lives beyond the pandemic. My carbon footprint is 1/20th of what it was and still I am reaching children with my message, children all over the world. In a show for kids in Hamden, Connecticut, at 8:15 AM their time, 5:15 AM my time, some of their classmates who had traveled to China were in lock-down over there, yet they joined the virtual live show from China – at 8:15 PM.”

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