A Whole New Space: Doing Theatre for an Online Audience
By: B. Dwayne Craft
Theatre is the aggregate of all of the arts. Literature, acting, visual art, dance and music are all parts of the experience. At its core, theatre is the combination of the playwright's words with the visual designer's language of scenic, sonic, light, and costume imagery. It's a symbiotic relationship between the visual and the literary to be sure. The words, no matter how brilliantly written or imagery laden, are always reinforced by the visual and auditory arts contribution. After all, the audience comes to our theatre to be told a story and to be transported to a different world where people dress differently, the lighting shapes their mood, or the scenic tableau is alien and new or comforting and familiar.
Sadly, the vast majority of us cannot be together to provide the audience with the usual accessories of sound, sets, lighting and costumes. Because of the pandemic, our quarantine, and social distancing, theatre artists everywhere are reimagining where theatre happens to tell their stories, and how to share their truths. Theatre throughout history has been more resilient than the plague and this pandemic should be no exception. With the use of the high tech tools we have at our disposal, we can still tell our story, share our truths, and transport the audience to different worlds just as effectively. We just have to be smart and creative about how we do it. Considering the current pandemic the online environment may be your new theatre space for the time being.
There are a multitude of online platforms for group meetings that can be utilized to present live, immediate, and virtual theatre. Whether it is Zoom, WebEx, Google Meet, or any other platform, the fundamental decisions a director must make about which is used will be based on a number of factors.
Copyright is the first and foremost consideration. Proper permission to broadcast the live or recorded performance of a play is absolutely necessary. Many playwrights will be delighted to grant permission for a live reading or performance of their work in an online format, but might not allow a recording of the same work to be shared at all. Personally, I feel that the live format bears greater fidelity to the intention of live theatre, but I would still allow a recorded version of my works to be shared in a limited way. In any case, this is something the producing company should discuss with the publisher and playwright well before trying to produce a work online.
Audience and cast size are also considerations. Some platforms have a finite number of participants who can view and participate, while others are better suited to viewing a recorded performance. Technical requirements should be fully investigated before selecting a platform for your performance.
In selecting a platform, ask yourself a few questions. What do you want the audience to experience? Is it the actor's expressive face breathing life into the lines, or is it the overall experience of the story being told? Both are perfectly valid approaches, but different tools may be needed. Choosing the correct platform may determine how much you can share visually and how many people can share in the experience. Vet your tools with a test run. Have a virtual rehearsal trying out each tool you are considering. Many online platforms are free to use and some that normally charge for a subscription have graciously allowed free use for a limited time or offer subscriptions at deeply discounted fees to support our community of artists during this pandemic.
Consider creating an "online curtain speech" to guide the viewers if you are producing a live performance. Instructions on how to view the performance will enhance and redirect the audience's focus to where the director intends. A grandmother watching their grandchild may not know the difference between speaker view and tiled view. A brief user guide or step by step instructions tailored for your chosen platform may be the "show saving" element to the online performance.
VOCAL PERFORMANCE and SOUND DISCIPLINE
Dialogue: Ideally, the dialogue of the play will do the majority of the storytelling. In order for that dialogue to work, the timing, pacing and delivery used by performers must be precise. Few things rob a staged reading of its magic more quickly than the feeling that it is being narrated instead of performed. To that end, the actors and director should fully commit to whatever rehearsals are necessary (preferably using the same online platform they will use to present the play). Performers should know their part, but memorization may be optional. A saving grace for online performances is the lack of necessary lead-in time for actors to memorize lines. One pitfall to avoid if the play is not memorized is the sound of pages being turned by actors as they progress through the script. Training your actors to place their pages in a way that minimizes this distraction is important.
Given the reality of the various shelter in place and quarantine requirements, it is highly likely that actors will be in an environment shared by family members. Directors should encourage actors to create a space where ambient noise is minimized and perhaps even ensure that anyone quarantined with an individual performer understands the need for minimal sound intrusion. Additionally, when the actor is out of the scene they should mute their microphone to minimize ambient noise. Imagine the most dramatic vocal performance ever delivered by an actor being interrupted by a parent calling them to dinner, or a younger sibling asking them to play. "To be or not to be, that is the question...no Timmy, I can't play monopoly right now I'm performing...whether it is nobler in the minds of men..." You get the idea.
THE VISUAL MEDIUM
One benefit of doing a performance online is the lack of cost in producing scenery and costumes, but always remember that theatre is still a visual medium. As a result, if the actors' faces are your primary visual medium, make sure to spend time rehearsing those facial expressions and training them to emote between the lines. They will always have to be "on" with their presence and characterization. Someone in the audience will be looking at them.
Background visual noise is something to consider as well. What is behind the actor can pull the audience's attention away from the actor's face or the image on screen. A neutral background is most definitely the best route. A messy bedroom is not the visual environment for creating the world of a play. Having your actors trained to maintain their focus and intention while performing includes eliminating things that distract from the performance. It's not just about continuing to emote, it's about the rest of what they are doing. To roughly quote a fellow playwright on the pitfalls inherent in online performances, "There's nothing worse than watching an actor try to perform and they're petting their cat."
There are some ways to include your designers and technicians in this process. Consider using design renderings for both set and costumes to introduce the show and introduce characters. I'll be using examples from my play, The Perfect Ending, for illustration. At the beginning of the performance, or just prior to it, you could share the scenic designer's rendering of what the set would have been if it were being staged in a traditional way.
Characters can be shown as well. Instead of having the actors' faces on the screen as they dramatically or comically perform their lines, consider using the costumer designer's rendering for them as their avatar. You could even have the actors create their own illustrations of their characters.
Costume Rendering of Mother
If you don't have designers doing renderings or stage models, you can look for royalty free images or purchase stock imagery that suits your purposes. Remember that all images online have some sort of copyright, and it's very important to secure proper rights before using anyone else's intellectual property.
If you don't want to use static images, you have other options to create that visual for the audience. Seek permission to have your stage manager or an actor perform as a narrator to describe settings and characters as they are described in the stage directions. Always use the stage directions that are descriptive of the physical presence of the character or the setting in which the action takes place. Never use the blocking directions included unless there is a very specific reason. Don't use stage directions such as "the character moves upstage left". Most audience members won't know upstage left from downstage right. However, two actors for whom the stage directions read, "They embrace and kiss passionately" might need those to be relayed to the audience given that social distancing precludes both embracing and kissing passionately. Just remember, to respect the playwright's ownership and copyright, make sure you clear this with the publishing company first.
By doing using voiced stage directions you can allow the audience to build a mental picture of the world where we want them to live for a while. The setting I envisioned for The Perfect Ending was described as " Stylized 1950's living room OR blank stage with furniture to suggest living room setting. The original production used projection to announce the end of the world to great effect. An 8ft X 8ft stylized TV screen provided the projection surface by using an inexpensive rear projection material (TRAPEZE) that can be purchased from a variety of stage supply houses.
So, while a director is free from the constraints of needing to actually build an 8ft by 8ft TV, the intention remains that the audience be given a skewed vision of the traditional 1950's household. You might consider having the stage manager/narrator describe the setting in this way, "Imagine a 1950's living room in all of it's glory. Everything is colored in that ubiquitous avacado green and tannish yellow so common to the era. A couch, father's easy chair, and of course a television as a center piece are exactly where you expect them. Only some things aren't quite right about this living room. For one thing, television is giant, almost 8ft and all of the walls are slightly off angled. Our setting is almost a cartoon of the perfect 1950's living room". Spoiler alert if you haven't read my play, but the world does end...kinda. So at the end of the play, the narrator or stage manager might voice over, "On the TV Screen the image of a mushroom cloud plays as the lights slowly fade". Which would be absolutely true to the stage directions I wrote.
If you don't have renderings by your designers and you can't secure rights to the images you want to use, consider doing the unthinkable: Tell them instead of showing them. For example, in my play The Perfect Ending, a large part of its success rested on the distorted 1950's idealism represented by the mother's overly perfect persona. Consider using the character description as a way of introducing her. In The Perfect Ending, Mother is described as "'The perfect 1950's Mother.' She alternates between the perfection of June Cleaver to the raging lunatic. Her switches should be rapid and, when she catches herself, she should instantly revert to the image of wholesome perfection." So, prior to her entrance I might pause the action to tell the audience about her. Something along the lines of, "She is the ideal 1950's mother in her exquisite June Cleaver dress, complete with perfectly positioned crinoline, and is the very image of wholesome perfection." I know many directors cringe at the idea of breaking the rhythm of a scene by doing this. If so, remember that it can be done prior to the performance if prefered. With large cast shows, it might be asking a lot of the audience to remember these descriptions.
DON'T FORGET FOLEY
Foley is defined in part as "the addition of recorded sound effects after the shooting of a film." So a little live action foley can add a lot to your online production. This is another way you can include your technicians in the production. A few months ago my students did a staged production of several 1930s radio plays. During our production, we used our stage hands to create sound effects on stage much as they would have done it in the studio for radio plays. Doors opening and closing, doorbells, phones ringing, etc were all created in front of the audience. All of these can be done live as the play progresses with very little practice. Seeking out royalty free sound effects to use might also help in the overall effect. If you choose to break the fourth wall and introduce characters with their character descriptions, a sound effect before each introduction (think of a record scratching sound) might keep the pacing and continuity of the play intact.
STAY TRUE TO THE PLAYWRIGHT'S INTENT
Most playwrights want to work with whoever produces their work. The publishers are very good about passing along requests for changes or line alterations for competitions. Given the nature of our current situation, many writers, publishers, and artists are making extraordinary efforts to ensure that you can perform in this environment. Respect those efforts by making sure that any alteration, any change or adjustment you wish to make is approved by both the publisher and the playwright. More importantly, ask yourself if the playwright's intent for the piece is going to be communicated faithfully when performing it online. Make sure it's the right fit for your cast in that setting. Also, make sure you wash your hands.
About the Author
B. Dwayne Craft has taught theatre at Bob Jones High School in Madison, Ala., for more than 20 years. He lives with his wife, Katie, his children, Barrett and Kennedy, a cat named Stella and a turtle named Sparkle. His plays have won multiple awards at both the state level and within the Southeastern Theatre Conference Secondary Play Festival. He holds a master's in theatre from Florida State University and a master's in educational leadership from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.