Theater in the Time of Covid

Our world is no longer “normal” thanks to COVID 19. We work from home (mostly in our PJ’s) and limit our time outside. While technology has made this transition possible in many industries, it isn’t as simple for others.

Performance artists rely on live interaction with people for their jobs. Stand-up comedians, stage actors, and even late night talk show hosts all normally perform in front of live audiences. But what happens when live audiences disappear? Artists get creative. Well, more creative. 

Many people might be familiar with the fact that late night hosts have taken to hosting via webcams, or that SNL stars are creating sketches from their living rooms. However, people might not know how this trickles down to smaller performances. While it might seem like the pandemic would’ve killed all smaller theater and comedy shows, the opposite appears to be true. From San Francisco to New York and all across the world, live performers and theater companies are using technology to their benefit. 

Cassandra Hunter is an MFA student at the American Conservatory of Theater in San Francisco. As a first year student, she was excited to get cast as the lead in the Spring Repertory of “In Love and Warcraft,” by Madhuri Shekar. Unfortunately, that quickly derailed when California enacted it’s Shelter-In-Place order, forcing everyone to stay home except for essentials. In the wake of disappointment and fear, ACT decided to turn to Zoom, a videoconferencing service used mainly in the corporate world.

Hunter took the disappointment in strides though. “It took me probably about a month to accept that this wasn’t going to happen as planned. I was really resistant at first to the idea, believing it would be subpar acting, but eventually I realized it’s simply a new medium.” 

There were two performances of “In Love and Warcraft” that took place on two separate days. After getting access to the web address and password, the audience could watch as non-active participants. With the use of camera angles, matching props and backgrounds, and good lighting, the actors were able to pull you into that intimate space that so often exists in theaters. One particularly well-done scene in “In Love and Warcraft” involved a character going to a gyno for the first time. By using a blanket in both screens and body angles, the actors were able to make it seem like they were in the room together, despite being miles apart. 

Another example of how they made the space feel smaller was by utilizing similar props and backgrounds. If there was a coffee menu hanging in one room, it needed to be in both. If it was dark in one room, it needed to be dark in both. While it wasn’t perfect, it made the space feel more intimate.

This was the same tactic used by Juilliard’s third year production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” Kat Meister, who just finished their year-long Stage Management Apprenticeship at Julliard told us, “if one character holds a pen and ‘hands’ it to another – it doesn’t matter if it’s the same pen – it helps fill the space between the actors.” This simple action “set the stage” (as it were) for the performance and drew the audience in, even if it wasn’t exactly the same.

Meister said that the decision to use Zoom wasn’t an easy one, and many adjustments had to be made. “We reduced our rehearsals first thing. Acting is emotionally draining and doing it alone to a camera is hard,” they said. On top of that, they struggled with technological issues and communicating with the director. 

Educational institutions don’t level the playing field as much as it seems, Meister noted. “Some of the actors had bad connections and had to perform without video.” People go to school all for the same passion, but their home lives might differ wildly from each other. Some of us might take for granted reliable internet, but not everyone has that privilege. 

When talking about struggles, Meister points out that complaining about the constraints of Zoom does little to help people. Instead, figuring out how to work around them will produce better results. Restricting options has always been what has made theater interesting and innovative, and this new challenge is no different.

For instance, “the director was so focused I couldn’t just catch his eye ‘backstage’ in rehearsals like I could in a real backstage.” Instead of dwelling on this struggle, they created tiny cards to flash on their screen, giving information, without being intrusive to the cast. 

Cassandra Hunter also notes that there were definite drawbacks from the actor’s side as well. For one, there were no audience reactions. “About a week before the play I thought, what if it’s terrible and I’m sucking and I won’t even know?” Actors often rely on feedback from live audiences – laughs, claps, gasps – to fuel their acting. But with no live feedback and even the director and cast on mute, it’s hard to gauge how well you’re performing. 

Jordan Leung, creator and host of “No Pants Comedy,” a Zoom-based comedy show, had to come up with his own innovative solutions to that very problem. His shows feature 4-5 comedians doing short sets in a 40 minute Zoom call. Because comedy is so audience-driven, not having the laughter feedback was not only challenging, but just plain awkward. Leung got around this by encouraging participants to leave their cameras and mics on, so the comedians wouldn’t feel as weird. 

But for all the struggles that the performers had to overcome, there was definitely one big benefit – accessibility. 

Normally, an ACT Spring rep would be held in a theater that could hold 40 people at most. This time though “probably around 450 people watched the show in total – including from at least three continents,” Hunter proudly boasts. Family and friends far away could tune in. Homebound or socially anxious people could attend without difficulties. Sick or isolating patients could be comfortable without risking others. Theater over Zoom increases accessibility for everyone. Meister echoed this sentiment. “People that might not normally be able to see theater could be exposed to new art. [Zoom] erases geographic restraints.” 

As for “No Pants,” Leung is currently based in Hong Kong, but his three shows a week feature a variety of comedians from all over the world. “It allows for a huge pool of talent because you’re not restrained to your city, plus it’s easy to coordinate because there is no travel time or traffic.” Around 30-50 currently attend each of his shows, which he notes is more than might attend a small venue show. “It really helps increase visibility, especially for lesser known talent.” 

He doesn’t think it will ever replace live comedy shows, but it definitely is a new branch, one that might appeal to certain people. “People often live far from clubs, or don’t want to go to a show alone and this could be a solution.” While Leung is eager to get back on stage, he is content to keep hosting online as long as people are willing to join. 

At the end of the day, Hunter feels that her first year of grad acting prepared her well for the show. “All the things we learned in school prepared us for the unexpected.” She said learning to trust the director and scene partners and go with the flow has helped shape the way the production was put on. “The play we put on is totally different from the stage play, and that’s okay.”

Because it’s such a new medium, participating in it from the get-go has a real advantage. Meister has already lined up two more jobs. “Being with this from the moment it took off has given me opportunities to understand the learning curve more.” 

When looking at the future, Meister said that they believe this will stick around for a while. Broadway has already announced it will not return until 2021 and many smaller theaters will probably follow suit. As productions that fully took place over Zoom emerge, theater-makers still have a ways to go to make it concrete, but there is no doubt they will step up to the challenge. 

Meister also pointed out that this is an opportunity for businesses to step up to the plate and create a more theater-friendly video conferencing software. When using Zoom, they are co-opting a corporate entity. Instead, theater-makers should create their own. 

If one thing is clear from this pandemic, it’s that artists are resilient and creative. We don’t know for certain when this pandemic will really end, but theater-makers and performers are clearly in it for the long haul. From big name stars and prestigious acting institutes to friends getting together for a laugh, it’s clear that Zoom can bring people together in so many ways. One thing that is sure to prevail in this pandemic is artist expression and entertainment. 

Despite the many challenges they face, artists can focus on all the benefits when creating new content. From hosting readings and shows with people in different time zones, to sharing art with people on a different landmass, there are many aspects to enjoy. Performers have always and will always find a way to make their art known. As Meister puts it, “Adapt, or find a new profession.”

Love and Warcraft is live streaming September 4 – 12. Get your tickets here!

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