When Covid-19 took over our world our lives changed almost instantly, putting a pause to our everyday routines and forcing us to rethink how to continue our work remotely. For many theatre makers and producers, this meant ceasing production work and waiting out the storm. For The Farm Theater and Shenandoah University these new constraints birthed fresh creativity ultimately leading to experimentation of a new digital stage.
Two productions at the University were affected, both with ties to Padraic Lillis’ The Farm Theater.
The first piece was Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, directed by Lillis. The interruption occurred mid-process forcing the production to switch gears from in-person rehearsals to online. The work continued and culminated in an online “invited dress rehearsal” for an audience of 150 students and faculty.
The second piece, The Hierarchy of Fish, by Judith Leora and a product of The Farm Theater’s College Collaboration Project, was slated to open this month but was forced to move to a total online rehearsal process. Naturally, they pulled inspiration from the discoveries made during the Blithe Spirit process. This piece will be performed publicly on Sunday, April 19th at 7:00 PM EST via the The Farm Theater’s Facebook page.
While we wait for signs to safely gather again and our brewing drive to create theatrical work heightens, we asked Lillis a few questions about how to harness this new platform of storytelling and the ways in which they were able to weave theatrical elements into the work rather than opting for just a concert reading.
To give our readers context, what led to the creation of The College Collaboration Project and how did Shenandoah University and The Farm Theater become partners?
The Farm’s mission is to cultivate early career artists. The name, Farm, is inspired by the ‘farm’ system of baseball. During a meeting with John Eisner, Founder of The Lark Theatre, he asked, “who’s your major league?” I realized I couldn’t guarantee that I get an early career playwright a professional production but maybe we could get them to productions through partnering with colleges. My idea was modeled after the National New Play Network’s rolling premiere, but instead of having three premieres we would have three development productions that would allow the playwright to rewrite during and after each production. My first step in creating the program was to call two friends who were teaching at different schools, Matthew Hallock, the Chair at Centre College, and Scott Hudson who was teaching at Ashland University. Both immediately embraced the idea of connecting their students with the development of new work as well as collaborating with professional working artists. Centre College and Ashland University, along with Clark University participated in our first year of the College Collaboration Project. Scott Hudson is now the Head of Acting for Shenandoah University, which is how the program was connected there. It is our third collaboration with Scott. He is directing the production of Judith Leora’s play The Hierarchy of Fish.
One might assume that having students involved from the beginning of the writing process until realized production – like with The Hierarchy of Fish – may have aided in transporting it to the digital stage. How did the process differ working with an established piece like Blithe Spirit versus a new work like The Hierarchy of Fish?
Blithe Spirit didn’t require any changes to the text – the play works and has for almost 80 years. What was fun about the play is that it has built in theatrical elements, like a seance, which allowed us to discover how we could make the presentation theatrical, like having all the actors turn their lights out at the same time; things like that. With the new play, the most valuable part about rehearsing via ZOOM, or remotely, is that the playwright can be at home in New York and stop in to rehearsal each night. Judith has been able to hear the questions the students have and the discoveries they are making and is able to make rewrites throughout the process. The new play requires different framing/staging methods to create the feel of the world and the characters are not as iconic…so, it requires creative ways to introduce each new person making it clear through the frame of ZOOM of who they are…as best as possible.
Do you think work takes on new meaning when it is performed on the digital stage rather than in a traditional venue?
I don’t know what the long-term new meaning is. I know the relationship to the audience is different. They are not directly impacting the rhythm of the play with laughter or applause. However, it was clear to everyone that you could feel the energy of the audience while performing and presenting the work. It was important and incredibly moving to share the experience with a live audience across multiple states during this period of isolation. The live experience allows us to gather as a community and to experience something together. And that shared experience is what makes live theater in our traditional venues vital. It lets us know that we are not alone…and it is comforting, and this shared remote experience creates the same feeling. That part of the experience is vitally important. I’m not sure it’s new meaning…but it is a new platform that allows us to serve a similar purpose.
Let’s dive into the logistics and mechanics of creating in “ZOOM land”. What were the first steps you took with Blithe Spirit cast and crew? How did you approach the experimentation?
For the first three rehearsals online, we didn’t know if the campus would open before the end of the semester and if the play would just be postponed, or if we would be remaining online for the rest of term. We used those first three rehearsals to go back to the table and get more specific with the text…a luxury you don’t often have mid-process. We got really specific with the language of the play. Working online, even though it was visual, text work was key…we began to treat it like a radio play. Listening was key because we weren’t going to have the full set, lighting, costumes, etc. to fill in the reality. Once it was announced that the remainder of the semester would be done online and the company decided that we wanted to share the play with the department through ZOOM, our process shifted. We discovered it could be theatrical the first time one character in his video screen mixed and poured a martini and extended his arm out of the screen to hand it to his wife, and she in her screen brought a martini glass into view – it was then that we realized that it could be much more than a reading. It could be theatrical. The cast became their own set, prop, costume, and lighting designers. The understudies became narrators when stage directions were deemed necessary. The stage managers were creating sound cues and they were there to turn on and off actors video screens when the ‘blocking’ wouldn’t let them do it themselves. Everyone worked as a team to create the full theatrical experience.
One of the creative ideas noticed in the The Hierarchy of Fish clips was the use of characters/actors logging in and out of the call to replicate entrances and exits. What other discoveries did you all make about digital blocking during either process?
Well, as I mentioned about the martini glass hand off, we discovered all of those moments were fun; exchanging a tea cup or glass of brandy from one screen to the next. We synchronized lights going on and off at the same time in each actor’s frame. In Blithe Spirit, a ghost is stroking the head of one character – he leaned his head up against the corner of his screen and the actor playing the ghost reached out and gently caressed the upper corner of her frame…and the illusion was fully realized. In the seance scene the table is meant to rock – each actor made their laptops shake back and forth…making it look as if the effect were happening to all of them. And when one ghost is supposed to be incredibly agitated and pacing around, the actor picked up her laptop and paced around her house from room to room while the other characters continued the scene – it really effectively illustrated the moment.
We also discovered it was important to have everyone frame themselves in a similar way. Blithe Spirit is a drawing room comedy, so mostly the characters were sitting and you saw them from mid-chest up. Except for the maid…it felt right that she be standing and we get to see her walk in and out of frame. It worked really well for that play. The Hierarchy of Fish takes place on a college campus…they are using the cameras a little more hand held, to give a slightly more documentary/rock-n-roll feel.
In the same vein, were there discoveries about the use of other elements like props or costumes?
Well, costumes are key. Everyone is limited by what they have at home…but the elements really helped to tell the story. And I was very impressed with what each person was able to come up with. Regarding props, what we learned is that you don’t need all of them, just the ones that are key for character and storytelling. Also, it would be nice if everyone had a similar tea cup or what not – but when you couldn’t have the exact same prop move from screen to screen – we found fun workarounds. There is a moment when a ghost is supposed to hand Madame Arcati her bag. The actor playing Madame Arcati had a lovely bag with a long black strap on it…the other actor didn’t have the same bag so she used a black tie to be the strap – the audience only saw ‘the strap’ as it moved toward the camera – and then when Madame Arcati pulled it toward her they saw the whole bag. Things like that became fun for us to discover and helped to create the reality for the audience.
I do have to mention that the actors did costume changes between scenes – and that is fun to see them come up on screen…and immediately establish time passing as well as mood.
A popular customization of ZOOM are digital backgrounds. Was there any experimentation to utilize these to establish place and setting?
There was. Not everyone’s computer had the same capabilities so we opted not to do that. It was fun to try in rehearsal, but it also was distracting. Even for those who could do it, it caused some breakup of the image when there was movement. We framed the actors in a shot with solid/non-distracting backgrounds. For The Hierarchy of Fish, when they create a scene change in the second act, they are having each actor hang a drop behind them to create a unified look and feel of a conference room.
A constraint of this process during quarantine is that actors need to be their own properties master and wardrobe supervisors. Could you reflect on what that meant to the process and performers? Was it inhibiting or empowering?
It became incredibly empowering. Because each actor was responsible for not only finding their own props, costumes, lighting, etc., they were also responsible for running those elements of production. They took a great sense of ownership of each aspect of the show – and great care in setting up where things needed to be pre-show so they were available without going off screen. Each improvement an actor made inspired everyone else to take their own work to the next level.
Did the responsibilities of the stage manager change?
Yes. Blithe Spirit is a heavy tech play regarding props and the ‘magic’ of the set moving. When we were in the rehearsal room for the first half of the process, stage management was very busy running and organizing all of those elements, as well as being on book and notating blocking. Once we went offline, they had less practical things to do. However, they were still the center point of production. They were communicating the information needed to everyone, they were still on book and, though the cast did most of their own tech work, when necessary, they cued video cameras and microphones. It is less physical work than when in the rehearsal room but still very necessary.
There was a talk-back held after the performance of Blithe Spirit. What were some audience responses that stuck with you?
I will never forget the moment at the end when we asked the audience to turn their video cameras on and we could see the faces of over 100 people watching. Also, we had all been separated from each other at this point for over two weeks so it was lovely just to see everyone. About the play, everyone was appreciative. They liked the theatricality, but what they all commented on was the fact that the actors were clearly listening and working impulsively off one other and that they could so clearly see the arc of each character’s journey. That stood out, and I believe it was because you have to listen really carefully in this form in order to stay connected to your partner. It’s not visual. The actors used the camera as an eye line – keeping a consistent point of focus for the audience. You can’t look at the screen because the actors appear in different places from screen to screen.
Do you think there is a lasting power to this type of creative digital work or just a means to an end for the period we are in?
I know that this will be an incredibly valuable tool for script development and table work. It allows for people in different locations to be in the same ‘room’ – and because it is a form that demands listening – it really puts the focus on the text. And people will continue to find imaginative ways to utilize the platform and shape work specifically for it. It not only allows artists in different locations to create together – it reaches an audience that may not be able to travel to a theater, for whatever reasons, to be part of a live shared experience. I want the shared experience to happen in the same physical space…but I do believe there will be continued value in what we’re discovering through this platform.
What advice do you have for others who adopt this new digital storytelling method?
Focus on what is needed to tell the story as best as possible. Do not let the form limit your imagination. Limitations in the theater are what inspire creativity – this is not different. Find a way to create the magic that allows us to suspend our disbelief and be in another place together for a little while.
A New Play Developed in Collaboration with The Farm Theater & Shenandoah University.
Sunday, April 19th 7:00PM EST
Live-stream: The Farm Theater’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thefarmtheater6/
Padraic Lillis is the Founding Artistic Director of The Farm Theater. He is a writer, director, and educator. Padraic hosts The Farm Theater’s Bullpen Sessions podcast. He is a member of the LAByrinth Theater Company, Dramatists Guild, SDC, and a lifelong Yankee fan.