By Pat Launer
Adaptation. Accommodation. Improvisation. Flexibility is the catchword in these crazy coronavirus times. And theater makers are endlessly malleable.
With theaters shuttered around San Diego county (and the world), local theater folk are determined to stay connected with their audiences and allow actors to keep their dramatic muscles limber.
While many companies are providing YouTube and Facebook performances (comical, musical and dramatic), others are trying out the novel experience of Zoom.
Although Zoom has a brief history with theater, it has been around as a cloud-based peer-to-peer software platform since it was developed in 2011 (it formally launched in 2013), and has been widely used for meetings, online chats and teleconferencing since then. In April, the Wall Street Journal called it “the hottest video-chat app right now.”
Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse Try New Work on Zoom
Since the quarantine set in, Zoom as gotten a toehold in theater. This week, the big local theaters are launching new work designed for the moment.
The Old Globe premieres “In-Zoom,” a brief new work by acclaimed clown/comic/actor/director and two-time Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, May 14-16 as a free stream.
And the La Jolla Playhouse kicks off its virtual WOW (Without Walls) Festival this month (some of which may use Zoom), with several commissioned works by local artists, including a video installation premiering May 14 from actor Mike Sears and his wife, director Lisa Berger, the playhouse’s 2020-2021 artist-in-residence; David Israel Reynoso, and his company, Optika Moderna; and Blindspot Collective, the Playhouse’s 2020/2021 Resident Theater Company.
But some of the smaller San Diego theater companies have been providing Zoom content for a while, and they’ve been dealing head-on with its challenges and rewards.
The first to jump on the Zoom bandwagon was Moxie Theatre, under the leadership of executive artistic director Jennifer Eve Thorn.
Six weeks ago, she started a weekly ZoomFest, a series of short plays set in Zoom meetings, often written by locals, presented several times over two weekends. Thorn has served in various roles: on-camera host, producer, director, actor and writer.
“As a producer,” she says, “we figured out how to adapt technology designed for meetings and turn it into a theater experience. We had to adapt the acting, directing and audience experience and accessibility, the last being the most rewarding.
“We used the Zoom ‘Waiting Room’ as a lobby,” Thorn explains, “so we could perform sound checks and not let anyone in until we were ready. We’re trying to make it as much like the way audiences experience theater as we can. We also added a post-show Q&A, using the chat feature, which allows us to open the audience audio and let the audience applaud the actors, which is rewarding for everyone. And they get to ask questions of the actors and the writer about the process.”
The writing, says Thorn, who has created some of ZoomFest’s most compelling pieces, is “sort of similar to regular playwriting, but all our playwrights know they’re writing a piece that IS a Zoom conference call. And all the characters know they’re on Zoom. The writers are not adapting a regular play to a Zoom conference call.”
So, there have been business meetings from home — including unplanned interruptions from kids and pets. There have been intimate dialogues, first dates and family interactions.
“I find it freeing,” Thorn asserts, “not constraining.”
She admits that, for the festival, “we’re not overwhelmed by submissions,” which is part of the reason she and her colleagues — associate artistic director Callie Prendeville and Vanessa Duron, director of box office and sales — have had to jump in and write their own plays to supplement several times. Thorn has written three of the nine plays produced so far. She doesn’t plan the offerings in advance; she operates in the moment each week.
“The hardest thing to figure out from week to week,” she says, “is what the audience is in the mood to watch, since the news is changing so fast. If the news is really heavy, a light-hearted comedy might make them mad. That was when I wrote the piece based on my conversation with a front-line nurse I know.”
A Four-Character Limit on Smartphones
One of the producing/writing constraints is having only four characters, since that’s the maximum that will show on a smartphone screen.
“It’s fun to write for,” says Thorn. “It’s super-personal, more so in some ways than traditional theater. Everyone is looking at you, and that gives the emotional moments and exchanges a heightened level of intimacy. In a theater, there’s usually more distance from the person having an emotional experience.”
One question in directing and acting for Zoom: Do the actors look directly into the camera, or at their scene partner(s)?
“Acting toward a little black dot is weird,” Thorn confesses. “I think it’s easier for people who’ve done film. Most actors say they enjoy the challenge of the medium, but it’s very different not being able to use your body or look at your scene partner.”
One other thing she finds weird: seeing yourself on your screen while you’re acting.
“When I’m the host, in my silk pajamas” she says of the “character” who sets up each ZoomFest episode and makes sure everyone knows how to use the technology and turn off their own audio and video, “my character is self-aware and snarky. I can watch myself in that role.
“But when I had to step in as that nurse at the last minute, that character gets so emotional. I couldn’t watch myself break down and cry. Plus, I had to look at the script. That was actually some really live theater. The stage manager opened all the audience mics and everyone cheered. It was an adventure!
“But as an actor,” she continues, “you’re sort of prepared for that sort of thing at any time. That’s why it’s fun that it’s live. At some point, the constraints of it, being live, are what make it exciting to watch, what makes it more like theater. Audiences always love watching how actors retrieve and recover when something goes wrong onstage. And something always goes wrong.
“In Zoom, we’re dealing with family members walking into the room, screens freezing, sounds going off in the house, the dog barking. I love that aspect of it. Neither actors nor audience know 100% what’s going to happen.”
As a director, it’s the rehearsal aspect that Thorn loves most, in her regular productions and in ZoomFest. Although the rehearsal period is very short and condensed, still, “amazing things happen. People make up crazy stuff, and we still get to have that creativity.
“Some of the plays are not great,” she admits. “Some are rough. But I feel lucky that I get to do this for our audience (typically around 60-70 viewers). And they continue to feel connected to us, whether or not they watch every show — and some of them do! They like watching, and they like that we’re doing this. It reminds them that theater is part of everyday life. And for us, it’s important that we remain part of their everyday life. If people get used to not going to theater, it will be harder to get them back.”
Asking Donations and Eyeing a Comeback
When theaters and audiences will come back, and how they’ll sustain themselves in the meantime, continue to be problems for every company.
“We get a trickle of money coming in,” says Thorn, whose website asks for donations at each show. “But that helps me keep my small staff of five on payroll. Moxie is looking at every potential way to get people to attend theater live in the not-too-distant future — even if it’s outdoors. The big question is: when will people feel safe to come back?
“But we’re like cockroaches,” she concludes, referring to “theatermakers and theater lovers. We’ll figure out how to make things work.”
And yet, there’s another concern about Zoom: the market is getting saturated. So, over the next two weeks, Moxie is shaking things up.
First, from May 15 to 17, there will be a “Choose Your Own Adventure” show, and the next week (May 22-24), there will be a “Murder Mystery Zoom,” with audience members participating as characters and suspects in a murder investigation.
“I’m really excited for these upcoming weeks,” Thorn says. “There are constrictions of being small, but there are also opportunities for being really creative really quickly.”
Other small theaters are experimenting with Zoom, too.
Sean Boyd, artistic director and co-founder of Trinity Theatre Company, “sort of” directed his company’s one-night-only production of “Poof!” by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage. It’s about a woman confiding in her best friend and neighbor that her abusive husband has just spontaneously combusted.
“Putting this together was really a collaborative effort,” Boyd says. “We all experimented together, organizing and strategizing.”
He’s speaking of his two leading ladies: Kandace Crystal and Jasmine January. The short 1993 work is a standard two-person play, not written specifically for Zoom.
Zoom’s Virtual Background Is the New Set Design
One thing the Trinity trio experimented with was a virtual background, so although the actors were performing from their own homes, they looked like they were in the same kitchen.
“Zoom has a video setting for Virtual Backdrop,” Boyd explains. “It’s really nice that they offer that feature, but we couldn’t find what we needed, so we had to find our own. We were concerned about the image looking pixelized, or infringing on copyright. So we used a screenshot of an actor’s house, using a higher-end camera to get a really good quality picture. But one of the big issues was, because neither of the actors had a green screen setup at home, Zoom doesn’t always read the contrast. One of the weird things is, if you get further from the camera, you can kind of disappear.”
And a few weird things did happen while I was watching.
“It’s a tricky thing to get it to work right,” says Boyd, who has had experience with cinematography. “But we were able to put the actors in the same location. For the next show, I want to crop the pictures a little differently, so it looks like they’re in different parts of the same room, rather than standing in the same place in one room.”
The Trinity audience for these one-time shows has averaged 35 people, but for Boyd, “that’s fantastic for us. That’s 35 more people who won’t worry about being away from theater for so long.”
The next Trinity show has fewer setting constraints, since it’s a one-person play: “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” starring Sharon Faith Horton, who has performed the piece for them twice before. The play, which runs May 16 only, delves into the harrowing backstory of the pioneering radio and TV sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
Boyd plans to continue these one-night Zoom productions. He’s hoping to enhance future shows with the addition of sound and post-show Q&As “for the human connection that makes theater unique.”
Trinity Theatre Company focuses mainly on its education program for kids age 8-17, which is run by its two full-time staff, Boyd and Kandace Crystal.
Crystal moved to San Diego two years ago from Atlanta, where she worked for Barbizon USA, a corporate acting and modeling school. For Trinity, she serves as class coordinator; she directed their production of “Clybourne Park,” and appeared in “Fuddy Meers” last year, as well as “Poof!” on Zoom. She’s also a teaching artist for Blindspot Collective, and just became artistic director of the American History Theatre, a small local group that presents veteran and historical plays.
“Zoom,” she says, “is a different beast. More like film acting than stage acting. But even in film, there’s a person or place-holder in the room. In Zoom, even the eye-lines are different. You’re in a frame. If you put your head down, to look at a script, it changes things. Also, what’s onscreen is not the same for everyone. One participant clicking off camera and then coming back changes the order and screen. We’re always told ‘Don’t be a selfish actor.’ In Zoom, you can’t not be!”
It should be noted that the audience screen view is not the same as that of the actors, which must also be taken into account when producing via Zoom
Crystal says she had few problems with “Poof!,” a script she brought to Boyd’s attention. She felt that her personal friendship with co-star Jasmine January “helped our relationship and human connection in the show.” And, she adds, “I’m a Zoom master now!”
During their three rehearsals, they experimented with looking in the direction where the other performer was.
But, says Crystal, “that felt inorganic. Looking in the camera was more organic because I could see her onscreen. The virtual background was weird, in that it changes with the time of day and outside lighting. The problems we had, with my hair reading as green screen, wouldn’t have been there if I’d sat perfectly still. But that’s not natural for me. Still, the virtual background enhances the experience for the audience, and makes it feel more like they’re watching a show.”
When The Eastern, another small local company, decided to present the intriguing historical drama, “Sofanisba,” it was helmed by the group’s “artistic advisor and resident Brit,” Vanessa Dinning, who’s a very busy voice teacher, dialect coach, cello instructor and actor.
Added to the constraints of Zoom, she had to deal with a number of restrictions from Actors Equity, since all but three of her eight players were union members.
As part of the introductory remarks in any Zoom presentation, says Dinning,“we gave a warning at the beginning, saying ‘Turn off your video and audio, or you might show up in a scene!’ It’s kind of limiting and complicated to take so much time before you begin, to explain the process to the audience. Even so, it’s not foolproof by any means.”
As for the play selection, Dinning says, “We wanted to do something a little different, and do it well. We didn’t want something about isolation per se, but something about what we’re feeling.”
She had known and traveled with the playwright, Portland-based Callie Kimball. She’d read all her plays, but especially loved this docudrama and its themes: “about the desire to create in general, and to make art in particular,” as she describes it.
Portraying an Italian Renaissance Painter on Zoom
Sofanisba Anguissola was an Italian Renaissance painter, who spent some time with Michelangelo, and later became widely known for her portraits. In 1559, at the age of 27, she was recruited by the Spanish queen, an amateur painter, to travel to Madrid and become lady-in-waiting and tutor to the young queen, and later, official court painter to the King, Philip II.
“Sofanisba is stuck,” says Dinning. “She can’t travel anywhere or do anything on her own. Plus, there’s all that self-doubt as an artist, that we all experience: ‘Can I do this? What if I can’t ever do it again?’ Jacque Wilke, my first choice to play Sofanisba, said, ‘Those could be my words!’”
Dinning conceived of a dream cast, and when she contacted them, every one of them said “Yes” to the project. Then she got the requirements from Equity.
“It was a ’29-hour staged reading contract,” she explains. “That means that no actor can rehearse more than 29 hours — including performance. We had to do it all within 14 days. Only one performance. We weren’t allowed to record it, or have reviews or promotion from critics. We couldn’t have costumes or props. We couldn’t put it on social media or advertise it in any way. So we just had to contact people directly via email and text.
“It was all very clandestine,” she continues. “A kind of speakeasy feel. That created a little buzz. Our ultimate audience was around 100, from all over the U.S. And even London, where people got up at 3am to watch. Mad, but lovely.”
As with all Zoom productions, the rehearsal period was crucial.
“I’m not really a director,” Dinning confesses. “I just said, ‘Let’s experiment with this as we read.’ We worked together, played with what looked good and made sense, in terms of standing or sitting, and proximity to the camera.
“About ten days out, people started making choices about when to turn off their video. We made mutual decisions, rehearsing people looking at each other in two-person scenes. We found it worked very well in most scenes, especially the intimate or profound ones. For the scenes where Sofanisba goes to confession, we made a conscious decision to change the angle of how the performers looked at the camera. Jason Heil, playing the Bishop, turned away at about a 50-degree angle, leaning his ear toward the camera. That gave a slightly different feel to the scene.
“In scenes with three people, we imagined where they’d be onstage, we played around with position. Where Sofanisba was painting, and the Queen (Katie Sapper) was being painted, we had Jacque looking at the Queen, or away from her when she was painting. Don Francisco (Andrew Oswald) was in the background in this scene, so we moved him away from the camera. It worked well, and pretty easily.
“In the end, we never had more than three characters in any scene. But everyone’s face was up at the beginning, when they were introduced, and at the end, for the Q&A. As the work went on, everyone was enjoying the process of creativity, unpacking this play, which is so beautiful, rich and meaty. Of course, people also spent time at home working. It was, like the play itself, quite a journey.”
An Actor Is ’50 Times More Vulnerable’ on Zoom
The Zoom experience was exactly that for beloved local actor Jacque Wilke, who had done commercial work, standup and short films when she lived in L.A. from 2004-2007.
“For me,” she says, “the main difference [between film, commercials and Zoom] was, you usually still have another actor to work off. But in Zoom, there’s no tennis match, no reciprocity. You kind of have to make it up, almost like audio acting. But it’s a medium all on its own. You have to make it work, and remember that the eyes emote more than the voice or body. It’s all about the eyes.
“From an actor’s perspective,” she continues, “you’re fifty times more vulnerable. You’re just alone, looking into the camera. There’s nothing and nowhere to hide. You’re very naked and exposed. I’m saying the lines directly to you. There’s an onus and vulnerability to get people to come with you. They’re used to so much more. Even with a reading, you still have different people onstage. The audience’s eye can travel. This is a little more intense.”
You might say that Zoom requires a different kind of suspension of disbelief from other performance formats.
Not wanting to watch herself acting (“there’s nothing worse!”), Wilke came up with the idea of putting her script on a Kindle and using that to cover her face.
“That helped keep my eyes up. This whole experience really called on my improv skills.”
Would she do it again? “Absolutely. We’re all hungry to work. But this is such a good play, I’d love to do it in a full production.
“In these difficult times,” she adds, “It’s great that everyone is still trying to make some form of theater happen.”
Zoom Is Here to Stay
Zoom seems to be here to stay, unless and until something else comes along.
The other day, I saw a Facebook post from in-demand L.A. actor Peter Van Norden, who’s done quite a bit of theater in San Diego as well.
“It’s a Zoom world out there,” he wrote. “Zoom readings. Zoom meetings. Zoom chats. I’m becoming a Zoom Zombie!”
New word? “Zoombie!”
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
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