I love going to parties with theatre people. One of the best things about them is that, eventually, everyone starts to swap show stories. Some are tried and true but you love hearing them again because they make you laugh. Some are new and you can enjoy the ride. I have a pretty substantial library of stories, myself.
The time that the 10 foot wall came unhinged from the persenium on opening night. When the lightboard shit the bed two days before opening. A male cast mate complaining to me about how dress clothes “restricted his range of motion” while I sat there in a freaking corest. An audience member who loudly whispered, “It’s like a Woody Allen movie!” during a production of Don’t Drink the Water. An usher at STNJ asked another volunteer for the house manager and after introducing myself as such, he handed me a loose arm rest. Awkwardly flirting with a boy in front of house through an SNL reference. Jumping through a set window with not enough glow tape. Cleaning Studio Playhouse with my sister on March 14th, 2020.
When I left Studio Playhouse on March 15th, I didn’t think that any theatre-performing or attending-would be on my horizon for a very long time. I told a friend, “I feel the most like myself when I do theater…and I’m coming to terms that I won’t feel like myself for awhile.”
About a month later I was pacing in my living room, with blankets, dishes, snacks and the like flung about the room. My roommate sat on the couch with a script in hand, following along as I sped through lines, and giving me notes.
One part of my prediction had been correct. I hadn’t felt like myself. Why would I? March 9th-18th was a constantly changing landscape, only becoming worse and scarier with the progressing days. We all were trying to stay safe with limited yet evolving understanding of the virus, attempting to “make the best” of the time in isolation, and find ways to comfort one another from at least six feet away. Even the best moments were still underscored by sadness.
Chalkboard Theatre Project announcing their “Quarantine Experiment” in April was their first time I had been excited about anything for a month. There was no underscore of sadness, there was no bargaining (“Well, at least we can do this”), it was just exciting. Some of my favorite theatre memories were with the Chalkboard Theatre Project and the idea of another experiment, pandemic or not, was thrilling. Not only was The Quarantine Project the exact thing I needed in April, it was a crash course in what Zoom theatre could be.
We were introduced to Zoom breakout rooms, streaming to Twitch, how to stack a laptop to get a better Zoom angle, where to place your lamp, how the sound could enhance or limit a performance, and that connection with another actor was indeed possible. We created an abstract piece of theatre that, while drawing from Zoom and the Pandemic, could be transferred to a stage and was ultimately about connection and reality. As much as I had said, “This is going to be time for creation but not production”, I was still shocked and pleased by what was created….and (virtually) produced.
The Quarantine Experiment was Friday-Sunday, and then on Monday I was in a Zoom reading of amongst my friends. This was much less of a production than The Quarantine Experiment. Oh, I had a character angle, a couple of beats with a specific read, and thought out hair and makeup . But we all stayed on camera (including the stage directions reader), I professionally sipped on rose’ when not in a scene and I don’t believe the comment section was utilized. But it didn’t feel like a lesser experience than The Quarantine Experiment. The text was rich, we were able to connect with one another and I was able to bond with people I love.
Zoom readings/theatre has become a staple. I’ve done Zoom readings for Unidentified Stages, Theatre Project, private readings among friends, and TSquared Production Company. Each reading is slightly different in terms approach and motivations. One thing that they all share is that, as time has gone on Zoom theatre has become more inventive. People have experimented with camera angles, tech capabilities, played with backgrounds(virtual and makeshift professional backgrounds), audio (designing sound ques and DIY folley sound), lighting (purchasing ring lights, strategically positioning lamps), costuming (, props (crafting to purposing what they already own) and generally adapting to evolving Zoom etiquette. It’s been an unexpected creative challenge to adapt to this medium. Not only that, but it has been an unexpected encouragement to see a group of people take something like Zoom and say, “Ok, but how do we make this DISTINCTVELY theatre?”
I don’t know a single theatre maker who prefers Zoom over being in the physical space. We’re all making the best of the materials given to us, but it’s not the same and everyone knows it. At my best moments, I am awed by the determination and innovation of theatre makers to work with Zoom, Youtube and Twitch. At my lowest moments, I wonder if this is all just a bargaining tool and at some point, it will lose it’s appeal. I try not to dwell in that thought because, even if it is a bargaining tool, this is the theatre I have. It’s not what I want, but we’re making it work. I would rather have Zoom theatre than no theatre at all.
One thing is the same, though. We’re still collecting theatre stories, even through Zoom. The time when the director’s power went out a few hours before the show and we had to scramble to make due with what he could send me from his phone. An actor who threw water on himself for an effect. Hours of pronouncing Russian names only to mess them up. The actor who forgot they weren’t muted and answered the phone, “I can’t talk right now! I’m doing a play!”. Being able to connect with actors that I haven’t seen in at least a year. A particularly stunning performance that made every single person say, “OH. This is THEIR show.” The trial and error of seven costume changes in 10 minutes. When my parents saw my whole lighting and sheet as a background set-up they said, “Wow! Who would think to do this?” and I responded, “Uh. Theatre people.”