Forced Frontier by John Tomlinson
Online theatre is now a forced frontier. As time progresses in this interesting and introverted period of history, creatives everywhere are scrambling to find a way to keep creating. Here in Lake County, we are no different. Statewide restrictions have changed the face of theatre, hopefully only temporarily. In its fifth year, Shakespeare at the Lake is a co-production of Mendocino College and Lake County Theatre Company, this year presenting Romeo and Juliet. Of course, this year was different. We went from outdoor Shakespeare to online Shakespeare: the following discusses how we adjusted to digital performance.
The biggest challenges became finding the technology to deliver the program, connecting to one another in a convincing way, and creating a theatrical sense of setting with photographic visual language. Some positives: the circumstances created extra time to work on the language, and a unique respect for the work, and the opportunity to work, from everyone involved. Overall we pulled off a completely unique dramatic offering, and had a good time doing it.
Moving On- …line
Moving the show online presented many challenges. Technically, socially, interpersonally, and emotionally, the obstacles mounted. We had several questions to answer. How do you go from everything physical to entirely virtual? What computer tech and applications will we need? How can we keep or enhance the interactions between actors, that social component of a theatre group which forms a cast into an ensemble. How do we bridge the emotional space between characters to bring a believable performance? Once we got the green light from the college administration to go virtual, we set to work answering these questions.
From the outset, we liked the format of a radio play, as it allows the mind to create its own imagery, similar to reading a book. At the same time, the tradition of attending Shakespeare at the Lake is an outdoor experience. We wanted to replicate how our particular setting, the scenic beauty of Clear Lake, plays a major role for every Shakespeare at the Lake production. I think we found a happy medium. By bringing some scenery and sense of place, yet not showing the actors, we allowed audiences to create most of the world mentally.
The technical challenges of this show confuse me still. I remain very grateful to know technical advisors who saw through the chaos and found the means to deliver a director’s wild whims with finesse. They gave solid sound support to the story with FX and music, and delivered an audio / visual package that lived up to the director’s dreams. How, you may ask?
Over several drafts, we mapped out the flow of voices, sounds, and pictures, searching for a means of delivering a digital performance with the highest possible fidelity. We faced the challenge of balancing sound through teleconferencing apps, and the need to couple the sound effects, music, and video.
Also, we battled feedback, as an open mic in the tech room causes a disorienting feedback loop. Through trial and error we blended two Zoom rooms, one for the actors and one for the audience, and used OBS, a broadcasting tool, to blend the actors’ sounds with the FX and visuals (from PowerPoint).
All in all, it turned into a puzzle that we solved.
The tech room – with five computers, two soundboards, four headsets, extra monitors and a serpentine mass of wires – created a framework to unify all of the cast’s voices, plus sound effects, musical effects, and a visual parade through Lake County.
Now we needed to bring the performance to life. Thankfully we had a cast up to the task as well.
In a virtual setting, the actor faces several challenges. How will actors project a sense of presence to an audience they will never see or feel? Accessing the physical side of a character is essential for actors. So sitting in front of a laptop on Zoom creates a real obstacle to the actors’ work.
Secondly, what can possibly replace theatrical awareness, a pressing momentum that fills entire theatres with wonder? A play’s momentum builds from the awareness of each other, actors, audience, and all, being in the same space at the same time. In this shared space, all involved live through a story from start to finish with no pause button or rewind.
Also, how will actors connect with one another across the divide of teleconferencing technology? Actors thrive from each other’s energy. With the distance between us in the virtual world intensified by the weeks of lockdown we faced at the beginning of rehearsal, actors longed for a means to connect.
Actors rely on physical relationships with other actors to show the audience what is happening. Directors rely on blocking, moving characters around the stage, for the same reason. Without this, we must create this context in a soundscape, particularly in expressive use of the voice. Ultimately, we had to trust in the actors’ creative spirit, and their instinct to connect beyond the restrictions of the form. In the end I think they did quite well convincing audiences of a fictional community that comes to life.
How they did it remains a mystery to me. We did take some steps to help. We allowed time for the cast to bond as a group. Once a week we would spend half an hour of rehearsal time just visiting. I felt this may help to bridge the social gap created by tele-meetings. Many of us met through online rehearsal, and still have yet to meet face to face. But we got closer.
In the beginning, the shared times were strained and awkward, like many forced social settings. By the end of the rehearsal period, people would stay during their breaks to chat, and really try to get to know each other. I think the instinct to connect with others, vital to theatre as a whole, deeply affected this show.
One big difference holding rehearsal in Zoom, it meant extra time to focus on the text. In Shakespearean plays the words hide so many levels of communication. Emotions, actions, and even clues about the social order dwell within the elevated language. Every year we spend a lot of time breaking down the language. But in person, at some point we put the talking aside and start moving – and then the actor’s instincts start flowing as the text and the body connect.
With no need to study blocking, the actor is focused entirely on the text. But acting uses the whole body. How can we replace that? About two thirds through the rehearsal period, actors began turning off their video feed. Seeing yourself on video is like acting in a mirror, which is problematic. Also, being on video, others can see the actors more clearly than ever. Both make an actor self-conscious in rehearsal. Now, with cameras off, the actors can move about freely, and characters begin to take shape.
The actors are not the only ones challenged by the new setting. We are also challenging our audience. In a radio play, we do not get to watch the action of the play, and we lose all of the gestural language of the characters. So we used the extra time to invest in a deeper understanding of the text to make up for this loss. Character work, textual analysis, and the search for the characters’ intentions needed to be developed more than ever.
Shakespeare at the Lake aims to show off the natural beauty of Lake County. When we moved online, we puzzled over how to do this in a radio show. We decided to use photos of the area in a dramatic way to enhance the story. We added some visuals with scenic photos from the area. To keep it theatrical, we used a foam board model of the stage and placed it in different settings for photo shoots. This playful connection to a sense of space inspired me.
We added amazing scenic photos from cast and crew members. It is simple to get good footage of beauty when you are surrounded by it, like we are in Lake County. We coupled this with interesting angles of the stage model in natural settings (sometimes digitally altered). By combining these visual aesthetics (nature in its glory beside a cardboard and cloth model) we made our own virtual village of Verona. To keep the audience guessing, we added some abstract moments, and even a digitally enhanced crowd at the party.
We used sound effects to create more atmosphere. We added original music, composed specifically for this show. It was added from the tech room – some recorded, some played live while we performed. All of this got blended together (on soundboards and computer apps) and sent into the audience Zoom room. After the show was complete, the actors would move from the actor room to the audience room. We would have some Q&A and talkback time. Closing night we even had a digital cast party.
We got the opportunity to play in an entirely new format. When difficulties arose, I would try to remember this. People’s advice to me often included phrases like “working without a manual” or “no playbook” or “uncharted territory.” This provided some comfort. But the challenges were far outweighed by the process. In being able to connect with others in a meaningful way, we created a short lived theatre group just like any other play. We became friends, and missed one another when it ended.
This format we created technically forced actors, whose craft already relies on trust, to push that trust even further. I thank them all for trusting in me to pull something together that we can all look back on with joy, and maybe a little pride. I thank them for trusting each other as actors do, to create a world that fulfills the Bard’s words created so long ago. But most of all, I thank them for the absolute trust and faith needed when it came to the presentation technology. The actors met in a different Zoom room, where they could not see the visuals, and could barely hear the sound effects and music. Their faith that it was all paying according to plan elevated the show. No hesitation entered into their performances.
Finally, and happily, opening night magic happened, even online. I was amazed to see the growth of characters during rehearsal. As a director, the evolution of roles through rehearsal is everything. But in theatre, opening night magic sees a whole new level of connection between characters. This happened on virtual opening night as well. The cast jelled, and everyone’s characters grew into living, breathing people. Actors explored new, subtle ways to express the words and the work, and the town of Verona, put up in cardboard and cloth buildings, explicitly and distinctly came to life.
When restrictions on gatherings began in March, we had already begun planning for Romeo and Juliet outdoors. Then word came out that Mendocino College would be moving to remote learning for summer. LCTC petitioned the administration at Mendocino College to allow Shakespeare at the Lake as an online performance. I am still thrilled to continue this process in whatever form it could take, and thankful to LCTC and Mendocino College for the opportunity.
Dramatic arts may be changing in the face of this global pandemic, but at the heart it is the same. It is a gathering, and brings a sense of purpose and community to performers, technicians, and audience alike. It provides an outlet for the creative spirit, as well as a tonic for the isolation these times bring.
John Tomlinson is a member of Lake County Theatre Company. He has directed several shows, most recently Oklahoma!, Chicago, and the Taming of the Shrew. As the Program Director for Shakespeare at the Lake, he has directed five Shakespeare at the Lake performances. John teaches Theatre Arts and Film at Mendocino College Lake Center and Woodland Community College, Lake County Campus.
You must be logged in to post a comment.