The Challenges and Surprises of Making Theatre on Zoom

In early March, Emma Durbin was midway through writing her capstone project for her playwriting BFA at DePaul University. The workshop of Durbin’s landscape was to be the first time she had worked with a team of professionals on a script of her own. The self-titled “playwright, dramaturg, and amateur sports climber” had been developing landscape for over six-months: drafting proposals, consulting with mentors, researching rock climbing in early-1900’s Scotland — and, of course, writing, rereading, and revising. She was halfway through a full draft when DePaul announced that the university would be switching to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the announcement, Durbin’s workshop was promptly canceled. Canceled and moved to Zoom.

Durbin’s landscape was one of many rehearsals, workshops, and performances that met their untimely end on account of the pandemic. Artists around the country, from community theatre hobbyists to BFA students to Tony-award-winning veterans, have been forced to find new ways to create live theater. More often than not, this has meant producing work over online platforms such as Zoom.

Although the new medium effectively skirts the ethical quicksand of live performances during a pandemic, adapting to the virtual playing space has presented artists with a new set of challenges. Directors have been forced to teach actors who could be time-zones apart to simulate the intimacy of a face-to-face conversation. Actors have become their own personal cinematographers, sound designers, and tech crews. Institutions have reassessed and overhauled their 2020-21 season plans, realizing that Zoom theatre, for all its promise, is hardly theatre.

Still, the medium has provided new opportunities for experimentation. It has proven itself as a fertile and affordable avenue for work in development, and widened the potential audience of theatergoers and artists. With scientists predicting that a vaccine will come mid-2021 at earliest, it is safe to say that—love it or hate it—Zoom theatre will be with us for the foreseeable future. How the performing arts community handles a year of Zoom theatre could dictate the survival and fate of the live-arts industry post-pandemic.

Luckily for Durbin, her scheduled workshop was compatible with the talking-head format of Zoom—not to mention that, as Durbin wryly observed, “playwrights have kind of always written isolation.” Although she found the Zoom workshopping process inefficient because “conversations had to happen in a very linear manner,” her workshop did just what she had intended it to do: give her much-needed new perspectives on the text. Despite the anticlimactic end to her three-year program, Durbin was happy with her final product. “At this point, I have a play that I feel really proud of. I’m really excited to share the play and keep working, but I also don’t want to minimize just how disappointing it was.”

Adjusting to a New Medium

Veteran directors and actors have been struggling with a different set of questions than playwrights. Namely, how can an online medium capture live theatre’s intoxicating feeling of connection? Zoom does not lend itself to the visceral physicality of theatre, and offers a limited selection of rigid stage pictures. Actors must emote from the neck up and perform to an audience a foot away from their faces. Theatre artists have dealt with this challenge in several ways: developing acting techniques for Zoom, focusing on development work rather than performances, and staging scripts which embrace the dystopian, online environs of Zoom.

Actor-director Arti Ishak has developed several techniques to tackle the challenge of acting over Zoom. Ishak, one of the eight actors in Durbin’s landscape, has collaborated on several Zoom productions since March, including Monty Cole’s American Teenager, a gender-jumbled Zoom adaptation of My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Omer Abbas Salem’s Mosque4Mosque, which she is currently directing for Steppenwolf’s SCOUT series.

Initially, Ishak was drawn to experimenting with what blocking could be accomplished via Zoom, but finding the space for staging limited, she soon moved towards a simple directing style. Now Ishak emphasizes language and actor connection. The latter is especially challenging. The same lag which can make a family Zoom call uncomfortable makes a Zoom reading’s pace deadly. To keep the tempo of a performance, she has had to direct actors to interrupt each other and anticipate their cues. “It’s tough,” says Ishak, “because you don’t want to encourage them to not listen to each other, yet you need the cue to come at the end of the line. One to two seconds at the end of every line can add an hour onto a Zoom reading.”

Ishak also directs her actors to act for the proximity of Zoom. Framed in a perpetual closeup, actors can borrow from the intimacy of film, making small choices go farther. The key has been to focus on the actor’s eyes. “The way that you can tell what someone’s thinking is seeing their eyes,” says Ishak. “Keeping the text at the very top of the screen where the camera lives has been super helpful, because I’m able to give the audience my eyes.”

Despite the technique which Ishak has developed for Zoom actors, she still believes that Zoom theatre is best for development work rather than full blown performances. “You can’t stage a play on Zoom. You just can’t,” said Ishak. “Zoom theatre is best for focusing on the words, developing a script, and being able to create more opportunities for folks who have never written before to develop their work.” Still, the Zoom development process leaves physical staging to be desired, “We’re in the middle of talking about whether we should pause until we can be in person for some of the development projects I’ve been working on. I do think if you’re going to create an alive medium, there needs to be some workshopping in a live space.”

While some artists, like Ishak, are focusing on development work, others have had some success presenting plays that embrace—or at least cleave to—the virtual setting. Actor-playwright Aaron Lockman directed their original play Gun on the Desk, a science-fiction political thriller, with The Point Theatre Project in April via Zoom. The play included several scenes where characters speak through computers, which worked seamlessly with the Zoom format. Moreover, the play shared some uncanny similarities with the present situation. In the first act, fearing an alien invasion, the human colony in which the play is set issues a stay-at-home order. The play was written a few years back, so its resonances with the present moment were unintentional, but effective; as Lockman notes, “Zoom lends itself really well to a feeling of claustrophobia.”

Lockman sees the potential of Zoom to democratize both theatre-making and consuming. Their play was streamed to Facebook, where it received a few hundred views from people who otherwise would have not been able to see the production. “Usually audience members have to be available that night, but if they were interested, they could have watched the play for two weeks,” says Lockman. “It left a very wide window.” From a producing standpoint, as long as somebody on the production team has a paid Zoom account, there would be no outlay to book a venue for performances—one of the largest expenses and barriers for early career playwrights like Lockman to showcase their work.

Until more plays are specifically written for Zoom’s claustrophobic environment, its use beyond development work remains limited. However, because it offers independent artists an inexpensive way to develop and produce their work for a wide audience, it seems unlikely that Zoom theatre will disappear after the pandemic and could even become a frequently used tool for aspiring playwrights.

The 2020-21 Season Ahead

Institutions, unlike individual artists, face a different challenge: programming a yearlong season which will entertain their subscribers, bring in sufficient revenue, and attract new audiences. Some theatres, such as Raven Theatre, have chosen to delay the start of their 2020-21 season in hopes of staging live, distant performances in the early months of 2021. Others still, such as Jackalope Theatre Company and Court, are planning to embrace the virtual medium.

Jackalope Theatre Company was one of the first theatres to announce its virtual season back in July. Recognizing that Zoom fails to capture the mystique of a live performance, Jackalope canceled its originally planned 2021 season and plans to use the upcoming year for developing new plays and offering audiences a window into the company’s process.

Incoming artistic director Kaiser Ahmed has chosen to use this season to evaluate Jackalope’s trajectory. “We’re looking at how our past, present, and the future all kind of converge and then letting that be a driving factor of our season,” says Ahmed.

The company’s programming reflects all three of those time periods. In honor of its past, Jackalope will release archival footage of past performances accompanied by artist commentary. Meanwhile, its Living Newspaper initiative will release short plays based on current events throughout the year, speaking to the present.

The flagship programming, however, is Jackalope’s future-facing work: its New Frontier Series.  The series will develop four full-length works by playwrights Terry Guest, Daria Miyeko Marinelli, Omer Abbas Salem, and Calamity West. Audiences will have the chance to peer into the playwrights’ processes through panel discussions, interviews, table readings, and final workshop readings in April and May.

The impetus behind the New Frontier Series is twofold. Firstly, Ahmed and Jackalope recognize that Zoom theatre’s strength lies in play development rather than performance. It is more advantageous to show the process of production than to showcase a finished product in a medium it was not intended for. Secondly, Ahmed cites the need for new plays spawned from the present crisis. “The plays that we want to produce, and the content that we want to produce, has to come out of this moment,” says Ahmed. “A play written in February is dated compared to a play written in April just because the world changed so much.”

The season will be a chance for Jackalope to develop new work in preparation for the post-pandemic era, and to flesh out its online infrastructure. Ahmed doesn’t foresee the newfound focus on digital engagement changing post-pandemic. “We are developing our digital presence this year,” says Ahmed, “and it will continue to be a large part of our identity moving forward.”

Still, Ahmed remains eager to get back into a live performance space. “Zoom theatre is not theatre. Not theatre at all,” says Ahmed. “It will never achieve it. We can get closer, but our real true work is still on the stage.”

Court Theatre is likewise approaching the 2020-21 season as a time to engage viewers more intimately in the process of theatre making, rather than enchanting them with productions. This season, at least one of Court’s four productions, Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, will be staged fully online. Like Jacakope, Court will give the audience a behind the scenes look into the play itself and the process of producing it. The production will be accompanied by extensive supplementary content including virtual discussions with the artistic team and digital seminars on the historical setting of the play.

Court has also introduced a new digital initiative: its Theatre & Thought Series. This series will consist of four Zoom readings of classic plays and a series of discussions surrounding each play led by artists-scholar pairs. These discussions are meant to give the viewers a deeper understanding of the play from a directorial or dramaturgical standpoint.

Derek Matson, a professional dramaturg and translator of theatre and opera, is working with director Vanessa Stalling on Court’s presentation of Caryl Churchill’s Fen. This will be the first Zoom theatre piece that Derek has undertaken. “It’s going to be a classroom experience for the participants more than it’s going to be a theatre experience,” says Matson. “It will be something like a book club around their reading of the play.”

Knowing that his dramaturgy work will be shown to the audience — rather than just the actors and artistic team — has altered Matson’s approach, but not by much. “When you’re doing dramaturgy, often you’re very focused on what information the actors need,” says Matson. “I’ll probably look into more overarching historical information because that’s what the audience is going to ask about. It’s the kind of thing that I would need to read and dig up anyway.”

The biggest adjustment will be dealing with the lack of audience input, especially since Matson now has to engage an audience over a medium stained by the connotation of business meetings. “I don’t know how we will make sure the audiences are with us. That’s kind of one of the key things in this work: you’re feeling the temperature of the audience. It’s about sitting in a space with them. We actively make decisions after we’ve sat through those previews with those audiences. We change things accordingly so that we can keep them engaged.”

Matson predicts that Zoom theatre will outlive the pandemic. It allows artists to produce at a low cost and makes theatre more accessible to a wider audience, including audiences in rural spaces. To be sure, regardless of whether or not Zoom theatre itself endures, the theatre industry will find itself changed. Remote theatre provides opportunities to create work with a broader range of artists for a wider range of performers. It allows theatre companies to pull back the curtain and allow audiences to appreciate the unseen and underappreciated work that goes into creating live art.

Still, to stress these opportunities minimizes the damage that the pandemic has wreaked on the theatre industry as a whole (and pulls focus from fundamental problems that were already there). Theatres around Chicago are going out of business. Artists, some of whom were struggling to make ends meet on stipend pay even before a global pandemic, are choosing to find work in more “essential” industries. It is difficult to watch Zoom theatre without mourning the loss of its live counterpart.

Matson is eager to go forward in his dramaturgy work, but he finds it hard to see beyond the loss of live theatre: “Right now I’m still processing my own heartbreak for the loss on behalf of an entire industry. I think there’s so much hardship right now that it’s hard for me to look at the potential.”

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