Faculty Blog Post by Todd McNerney:
In this COVID-19 world where our traditional understanding and experiencing of Theatre is impossible, the faculty in the Department of Theatre and Dance are committed to trying to explore methods and means for creating “COVID-19 theatre”. Most people have seen some of the many YouTube videos of isolated artists (musicians, singers, dancers, etc.) creating and filming their portion of a larger work, which then by using video conferencing software was edited into a Brady Bunch-like set of individual frames.
Clearly, that is one way for performing artists to continue to present their work. But is it “theatre”? What makes theatre a distinct form, not film or virtual? That is the question I have found myself most intrigued by as the months since March have ticked past. I have no prior experience with trying to perform or trying to direct a production through a platform like Zoom. So, as we approach the Fall semester and the likelihood that our department will have to use methods other than our traditional ones to make theatre – I felt I needed to explore by not only watching some of the recorded productions – but in more direct ways.
In early July, I was fortunate to be invited to be an actor in Mill Mountain Theatre (Roanoke, VA) and Hollins University’s annual 24-hour play event “Overnight Sensations”. This production begins the Friday night before the performance when 6 playwrights are randomly paired with six directors, who are then randomly paired with six sets of actors creating a production team. Then the playwrights and directors randomly draw prompts for the creation of a 10-minute play. The prompts include things like genre (horror or memory play, for example), setting (two examples from this year were a baseball stadium or a candy store) a quote from another work – which must be worked into the dialogue (examples included quotes from individuals as diverse as Confucius to Steve Jobs and playwrights such as Eugene Ionesco).
After all of the elements have been determined, the playwrights depart and have approximately 12 hours to write an original 10-minute play. By 8 am Saturday the scripts must be shared with the directors. The directors and the playwrights then collaborate for an hour and a half making-revisions to the scripts. Then beginning at 10:30 am the actors begin rehearsing the work. At 5 pm technical rehearsals occur and then finally at 8 pm the plays are presented. This format has been used by Mill Mountain and Hollins for many years – the difference this year of course was that everything had to be done remotely. They chose to use the platform, Zoom. There is no need to discuss the various elements of rehearsal, etc. in a Zoom world, but certainly one of the advantages of this format was that the collaborators came from all over the country. My fellow actors included people that were in Virginia, New York City, South Carolina and Iowa.
I found the best part of this to be the fact that while the performance was free – it was still ticketed and it was not recorded – even when the producer’s own mother missed it due to a weather event which caused her to lose power – like a traditional theatrical event it was ephemeral. If you missed it, you missed it. The second thing that was interesting – was that the typical interaction between actor and audience of course was absent – the audience which also came from around the country – could only react/respond in the “chat” window – but even with that limitation – you could “feel” their responses.
I look forward to exploring these challenges and elements in the upcoming Department of Theatre and Dance season.
Click HERE for a review of the performance.