Climbing the Walls - Plague Diary - Mara Mills and Nellie O'Brien

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Plague Diary
Written and Co-Directed by Mara Mills
Performed and co-directed by Nellie O'Brien.

Video Editing: Jeremy Gratt

Mara Mills

Artist Statement: (Mara)
One of the best things about theater is the collaboration of between director and actor to bring character and plot alive.

And, essentially, that relationship is changed with Zoom. While we started looking at the piece theatrically, a play in five scenes, ultimately, Nellie, took on the acting, site directing, set, and costume choices. The hardest thing, as Nellie said, is doing this without lights and rehearsal time in real time, in a real space.  Zoom does not make it easy to dig into the words, find the  perfect pause, the genuine gesture that expresses the subtext. But, Nellie O’Brien is a wonderful collaborator, as well as actor and director, and she made it work

Besides content, one of the goals of Climbing the Walls was to interact with virtual mediums, like Zoom and evaluate strengths and weaknesses. We wanted to figure out how to translate theater's process and  collaboration and to find an alternative to the intimate relationship between a live audience and a technical medium. Nellie’s statement says it all, "frustrating, yet exhilarating."

Plague Diary is dedicated to Nell Gwyn, one of the first women to go on stage in Restoration England, known for her  quick wit and her “britches roles”. Nell lived through the Bubonic plague when theaters were closed and people, who could afford it, left London and went  to live in  the country. Sound familiar? April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.” Samuel Pepys.

N.B. Road Trip by Ed Friedman, up this week, also began as a Zoom experiment, specifically writing with Zoom in mind. (For more about writing for Zoom, see Bara Swain’s essay in Musings.)

Nellie O'Brien

Artist Statement: (Nellie)

This was an interesting endeavor for me on many fronts.  

When Mara first sent me the diary, I was characteristically impressed.  The words; the entries are so simple and straight forward but - like the sauce cooking on the stove - you can sense something powerful simmering underneath.

Mara and I had a Zoom meeting just to do a quick read through and we both were immediately affected by the possibilities.  I read all the entries straight through, looking at the script of course, and we recorded it.  Easy.  Immediate.  Almost profound.

Yes, let's do it!

But it was not easy after all.  Or immediate (sorry for all the delays, Mara!).  It was profoundly challenging. Without a director or cameraperson present at the recordings and with no decent lighting or equipment, I was floundering.

Although shut in and locked down, managing life in the new abnormal had me busier than ever - dealing with maddening bureaucracy, vendors, bill deferments; trying to reinvent myself and my business to be relevant in unprecedented times; feeling obligated to zoom and facetime weekly with beloved people I'd normally have seen only a handful of times a year; trying to make sense of the reams of constantly changing and ever more politicizing pandemic information was exhausting and days were flying by.  I felt as if I had a full time job - with overtime - that I hated, was terrible at and wasn't getting any compensation for.

There was scant opportunity to attend to what I love and cherish - the chance to explore this text, memorize lines, properly rehearse.  And, in our early excitement about putting the diary together, we decided to do each "day" separately, from different parts of the kitchen; outside a window; on the street in the dark which added unexpected logistical challenges.

Trying to set up a shot - via the Zoom platform - and then continually starting and stopping the computer was supremely frustrating.  With every "take" - even just a flubbed line - the zoom recording had to be halted, the entire meeting had to be ended and each video had to convert and be saved and deposited into documents before the next attempt.  It took hours and momentum was aborted with each and every try.  I'm sure there's an easier way but I was working with what I had and what I knew.  Once in a blue moon, I was actually able to send some videos to Mara for her much needed and much appreciated feedback but we were unable to do that in real time.  I can only imagine her frustration as director and writer. Yet, throughout the process, she was calm, thoughtful, encouraging and brimming with good advice and constructive critique.

I tried to strategically place my ipad so that I could refer to my lines with some epic fails and I was determined to get every one of the author's chosen words.

And, all this while what we were trying to portray was actually still going on all around us.  Is this too soon?, I often wondered.  Am I too close to this calamity?  Am I just too distracted to bring Plague Diary to anything close to the life it deserves?  Probably.

Still, I loved it.  I want more.

There is so much potential in this small simple piece.  So much substance to be chopped, shared with friends, eaten and dunked with bread and presented on neighbor's doorsteps.  I sincerely hope to have the opportunity to visit this again, with Mara present, directing rehearsals; in a theater, with proper lighting; and, God willing, with a real, live audience to sustain it.  At the very least, when we have distance from this beast that still lives and breathes as I write these thoughts.

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“Theatre takes place all the time wherever one is, and art simply facilitates persuading us this is the case”

- John Cage