Musings on Theater in the Time of Covid 19 - Bara Swain

Zooming Along
by Bara Swain
Creative Consultant, Urban Stages

My anxiety level peaked last week when I couldn’t recall the words “kiwi” and “chili.”  I also summoned my Chihuahua, “Let’s take a walk, Melulah,” and asked my granddaughter, “Please pass me the red crayon, Tallinka.”  Neither my granddaughter, Tallulah, nor my beloved canine, Melinka, were nonplused.  That was reassuring.

Indeed, the strain of this uncertain and unprecedented time has been stressful and challenging, with coronavirus statistics and news headlines and media taking center stage in our fragile world.  No one has been spared the repercussions of today’s pandemic, no one! … including theatre artists and our communities.

Enter Zoom.

The first time that I participated in a Zoom chat was with my immediate family.  I swore and cried while I fiddled on my iPhone for entry, my only source for access due to a malfunctioning sound system on an antiquated laptop. (Why, oh, why didn’t I get it repaired last summer?)  By the time I navigated the cloud platform, I was in a full-blown tantrum, assuaged by my two-year old niece’s acknowledgement, “I like your shirt, Aunt Bara.”  (It was an animal print.  Possibly a jaguar, a lion or a tiger.)

Since my first Zoom experience, a loaner MacBook Air has enabled me to fully participate as a guest and participant on this modern video communication platform.  And I embraced every opportunity that I could!  With nothing to bookend my days in solitary, I pounded the keys of my computer with purpose, searched festival listings, submission opportunities and one challenge after the other.  (I also made three new best friends: an indoor bicycle, an electric coffee pot, and low dose Ativan.)

What have I learned?  What are the pros and cons for a playwright on this cloud platform?

While I continued to acknowledge my accomplishments with a double-order of turkey bacon or a pint of ice-cream, I learned that plays submitted prior to the shutdown that were intended for the stage were not as successful as pieces written specifically for the modern medium.  I watched with a critical eye while several of my one-acts were presented via Zoom:  My Heart Will Go On (Crafton Hills New Works Festival) and Folded (Geneva Theatre Guild Playwrights Play Reading Series), as well as inhouse Zoom readings of The Wonder of You (Shawnee Playhouse) and a monologue, Joanna Hogg (FAB @ Barrow Group). As a playwright who usually prefers a seat in a middle row of the house during the rehearsal process and performance, I was intimidated by the immediacy of simply “checking in.”  In preparation for my first event, I washed and moussed my unruly hair, embraced a new moustache depilatory and smiled with loose dentures, hoping that I looked a decade younger than the image on my half-fare metro card.  

These initial experiences illustrated the most difficult adjustment for both playwrights and actors during performance:  There is no audience response on the Zoom platform.  While talkbacks play a critical role in play development, audible reactions are missing.  “Did that particular section work?”  “Was that line offensive or amusing or gasp-worthy?”  “Where did I lose the audience’s attention?”  “Did the ending land?  And was it satisfactory?”  I exited Zoom rooms utilizing my basic math skills.  “If there were 70 participants at the top of the show, and there were 48 at the end of the performance, then 22 audience members left.”  What?  Hmm.  Aghh!  I’m a failure.

Setting aside my own insecurities, my first opportunities to write for the Zoom platform were validating and, yes, exciting!  When I was selected for Primary Stages’ “Coronalogues,” I was assigned two theatre artists:  actress Lizzy Jarret and director Emily Hartford.  To set the groundwork, I spent several hours speaking to – let me rephrase – interrogating my actress. In the shadow of the Smokey Mountains, I discovered that the displaced New Yorker liked roles that were “edgy” and, specifically, “tough, headstrong women.”  Lizzy was particularly curious about the theme of “being surrounded by death.”  Since most of my writing is informed by illness and loss, we were a great match.  Next, I asked her questions:  Can you do a southern accent or a cartwheel?  Will you show me your bedroom, your bathroom, your wallet?  Do you wear eyeglasses, PPE, a favorite scarf?  Do you have a hobby, sex toys, a pet?  What’s your family dynamic, your sister’s name, your place of birth?  Finally, I found my hook! – and Seventy-Seven was born, honing in on both of our strengths and accommodating Lizzy’s non-urban location – her uncle’s rural cabin in North Carolina with rustic furniture, picturesque landscaping and an unreliable internet connection.  I drafted the script, cut it to three minutes, and handed it over to our director. Once again, I felt like I’d won the lottery.  Emily was a generous, enthusiastic and conscientious director, whose goal was to serve the writer’s voice. Kudos to this theatre artist for surpassing my expectations with her creative choices – yes, the location was the bathroom! – and for supporting the story through her imaginative lens.

What I learned:  Zoom can be a platform where intimacy and trust can be nurtured.  It’s also an excellent way to expand your network of theatre professionals and identify individuals with whom you’d like to work with again.

Fast forward.  My second monologue selected for “Climbing the Walls” has a comical history.  In response to a call for submissions for another Zoom opportunity, Theatre is the Cure (TITC), I followed their specific guidelines – and that’s an understatement.  The writing prompts were: (1) Theme: With/in / With/out (interpret as you like); (2) Prop: Something you’ll die without; (3): Location: somewhere dark, (4) Line: Nowhere but here, (5) Actor: wiry female, 20 something, funny, intense, androgynous but not boyish, adorable.

Yikes!  With less than 12 hours to write, I dripped a pot of coffee, obsessed, googled, cranked out a monologue, submitted and waited for my acceptance or rejection notice. Several hours later, I received a gentle reprimand.  “Your monologue is too long.”  Browsing the instructions again, I noticed that I overlooked one important element of the challenge:  a strict time limit of two minutes.  My unspectacled eyes misread the number and I crafted my piece for a time-frame of seven minutes.   Over the next few hours, I redirected my energy and dashed out a two-minute monologue and hit the “send” button.  Whoop whoop!  The Golden Girls was selected for performance.

What I learned:  Read the instructions.  Then read them again. Acknowledge your errors and be grateful for a flexible Artistic Director.  Communication is key.  In fact, the “twenty something, wiry, adorable actress” was unavailable.  I reached out to a twenty something, wiry, adorable actress whose work I observed at the recent FAB Zoom.  Jessica Washington, whom I never met before, was cast in the role and, subsequently, invited to return for another program.  This type of networking serves the company, the actress and the playwright.

Yikes!  But what should I do with my original submission?  I wrote a second draft of You Might as Well and reached out to Mara Mills to see if she’d consider a second monologue.  Upon acceptance, I incorporated several of her notes and brought actress Danielle Bourgeois on board under the direction of Christian Haines, a California resident.  In fact, I’d only met Christian weeks earlier when he was assigned to direct my Zoom play, Carolina in the Morning, as a first-time playwright applicant with Shotz-Amios.  I was eager to work with him again. This experience differed from the live Zoom events that I’d participated in previously and, truthfully, it was another wonderful collaboration.  With a stage and film background, Christian experimented with the Zoom format.  You can see his results and judge for yourself.

What I learned:  Mutual respect is the foundation for artistic relationships.  And it’s a win-win. Evaluate the abilities of your colleagues and their enthusiasm.  And give back!  This duo will be invited to our next program at Urban Stages.  Oh, I also learned that a rehearsal can be ruined by a thunderstorm.  Check the weather, playwrights, when you’re scheduling a final rehearsal!

Meanwhile, I’ve had the opportunity to write several more monologues intended for Zoom with different outcomes.  During a 24-hour challenge with Vintage Soul Productions, I wrote three five-minute monologues for three specific actors who self-directed their performances – off-book! – over an eight-hour span.  Another monologue, You Can’t Argue with Fact, written for a recent TITC challenge was accepted and performed live last Friday under the direction of the Artistic Director, Hannah Logan, just as I was entering tech weekend for another project with Planet Connections Play Fest.

What I learned:  When actors are self-directing their work, make sure that their audio-visuals are working.  One monologue in Vintage Soul Productions could only be heard in a whisper.  That was disappointing.  Another monologue wasn’t fully realized due to misinterpretation of the time and place.  The most successful piece was where the actress reached out to me with questions about the text, context and transitions.  Playwrights, be open to communicating with your actors.  Exchange contact information!

Moving on: On Monday evening, The Southern Comfort Plays (a trilogy of short plays), opened and closed.  Yes, it was a one-night event. For this opportunity, I chose director Kim T. Sharp, a colleague of mine at my former stomping ground and my current home at Urban Stages.  These pieces were not written for the Zoom platform and, under Kim’s guidance, I made revisions to the story and tweaked the physical action.  The Planet Connection Associate Artistic Director cast the three plays and a rehearsal schedule was finally confirmed.  The rehearsal process for this presentation was intense but very satisfying.  The technical elements working on Zoom were challenging, from entrances and exits, to overlapping dialogue (it doesn’t work on Zoom), to the use of stage directions.   I was particularly impressed by the skills Kim displayed, from his supportive tone and his listening skills, to his discussions on character development. The cast of The Southern Comfort Plays were committed, professional, and hard-working.  Where I fell short as a playwright, their enthusiasm and gratitude sustained me.  

What I learned:  Know your venue and ask, in writing, what the expectations are for the guest artists.  After the fact, we learned that a technical director was assigned to the performance. In retrospect, our learning curve on Zoom has grown in leaps and bounds due to this oversight.  In all fairness, a designated stage manager was also offered to assist early on in the process.  We dropped the ball there.  Again, know the roles of each member of the “team” involved, from playwright to director to the producing organization … and the actors.  Are they union?  Non-union?  Respect everyone’s role.

In conclusion:  Zoom is a platform that enables theatre artists to continue to create during this unprecedented time.  With all of its flaws and impracticalities, until our remaining theatres open and it’s safe for audiences to fill the houses, it’s a great and sustainable way to stay motivated, set goals, take risks, and be productive.  The Zoom cloud may be challenging and, yes, you may be elated, disappointed or frustrated with the process and the product!  But it’s a wonderful opportunity to build community, nurture relationships and begin new ones, as well.  (Thank you, Mara!)   Yes, it’s a learning curve but here’s the bottom line:  If you’re not in the game, you can’t play.  So let’s keep playing, playwrights!

In the meanwhile, stay safe, everyone.  Oh, and if anyone can suggest a mnemonic for differentiating wild cats, send it my way!

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Studio Theater In Exile
Our mission is to work with playwrights from inception to production to bring their voices to the fore. We also work with visual artists, storytellers, musicians, poets and writers to integrate theater/performance with other genres. Our goal is to create dialogue - with audiences, between creators, and bring forth the lesser known artists in our community.