Two local theaters pushing boundaries with experimental filmed plays
Companies selling tickets to genre-crossing online productions, but is it still theater?
Later this month, two San Diego theater companies will be among the first in the country to experiment with online stage productions filmed with advanced, multi-camera editing technology.
North Coast Repertory Theatre and Backyard Renaissance Theatre are now rehearsing plays that are being filmed with costumed actors working remotely in front of similar scenic backdrops so the videos can be edited together to create the illusion that they’re in the same room.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, public health authorities have banned live theaters from reopening until either a vaccine or viable treatment is available. In the meantime, theater companies are filling the void with a wealth of online programming to keep audiences engaged and hopefully donating to keep the struggling organizations afloat.
Most of the online offerings so far have been Zoom-based plays, archived rehearsal videos or Facebook Live interviews, behind-the-scenes talks, cabarets and classes.
Results have been mixed, and most theaters haven’t been able to sell tickets for their digital fare due to labor union restrictions. But as it becomes increasingly clear that live theater may not return in 2020, companies are now testing new technology that will create a more theater-like viewing experience that’s worth the price of a ticket.
Artistic leaders at Backyard Renaissance and North Coast Rep say their customers are curious and intrigued by the new concept, but it will never replace live performance.
First up locally is North Coast Rep’s “Human Error,” a medical mix-up and cultural divide comedy by Eric Pfeffinger that will be available for video streaming June 15 to 29.
Company artistic director David Ellenstein describes the production as “a grand and expensive experiment” that probably won’t make its costs back. But he said it’s important to his staff and patrons that the company keep producing art, despite the difficult circumstances.
"(Theater) happens in the moment in front of the audience every single time we do it. It’s artificial by nature,” Ellenstein said. “This is a stopgap attempt to stay active and keep our audience engaged and present a really good play that’s so relevant right now.”
“Human Error” is among the first Equity-cast plays to be produced nationwide since the pandemic began. Four union actors and a union stage manager, as well as two non-Equity actors, are being paid four weeks of wages to cover two weeks of rehearsals on Zoom with director Jane Page and two weeks when screener links will be sold to the public for $10.
Ellenstein said the cast — which includes Allison Spratt Pearce, Jacque Wilke and Terrell Donnell Sledge — were recorded on Zoom filming scenes from their homes at three different angles so if two performers are in a scene together they can appear to be facing each other for shared dialogue.
The script adapts well to having actors in remote locations and the finished video will have special effects and design elements, Ellenstein said, but audiences should still expect to see a Zoom-based show.
“It won’t be something you could film if someone was in the same room, but it will be augmented,” Ellenstein said. “It will feel more produced and calculated in how we do a story.”
Backyard Renaissance Theatre is taking a different approach for Richard Greenberg’s “The Dazzle,” which will be available for screening June 20 and 21 only. Based on the lives of New York’s famously eccentric mid-20th century Collyer brothers, the play is being filmed at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, with the actors on different, but complementary, sets. Stand Up 8 Productions is filming the actors separately and editing their performances together for the completed film.
Backyard artistic director Fran Gercke, who co-stars in the play with company co-founder Jessica John and Tom Zohar, said his company negotiated with the playwright to produce a filmed play that will be presented via streaming links for $20.
Although the finished product will be on film, Gercke said stage director Rosina Reynolds has worked to create a true theater-like performance environment that honors the script. Scenes written to require touching or hugging are instead being done solo in a memory or dreamscape style. And scenes that couldn’t be done with social distancing rules are being reinterpreted by the addition of a narrator, played by Anthony Methvin in a style reminiscent of the stage manager character in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
“You don’t know what you have until you go into the editing room and put the footage together, but we’re trying to create a very cohesive story and a cohesive aesthetic,” Gercke said.
Like Ellenstein, Gercke said it’s impossible to re-create the feeling of a live theatrical experience, but he hopes the “Dazzle” experiment will come close, at least until the theaters can reopen.
“I think of this as a tool that is available and we’re taking a tool intended for one use and using it in another unique way,” Gercke said. “Even given the troubles we’re going through, this is an exciting time to explore different avenues for presentation.”
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