Creating Theater in the Time of Quarantine

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When the pandemic struck America, it forced us all inside and deprived us of many activities and contacts that we had grown accustomed to and maybe even taken for granted. Across the Capital Region, thousands of theater artists and audience members were left with canceled shows. Many came up with the idea to keep creating and the urge to carry on.

Three great friends, Evan Jones, David Rook, and Brian Sheldon took their creativity, years of experience, and relationships and forged a new theater company, Quarantine e-Theater. In doing so they joined a movement across the country giving birth to a new form of theater. Theater had been presented online before the quarantine but it was usually a static camera recording a show that had been staged in the theater. This new e-theater as Evan Jones calls it is live, interactive in a way and very collaborative with a lot of participants contributing.

The three knew each other through frequent collaborations at over a dozen theatres in the once bustling community theater scene and a near religious devotion to support each other’s work throughout the Capital Region whether it be at Sand Lake Center for the Arts where Brian is the Managing Director, Confetti Stage Inc. where Evan directed David in one of last year’s best productions, Edward Albee’s “Seascape” or Albany Civic Theater where Brian directed David and Evan in a rollicking “Peter & the Starcatcher” a couple of seasons back. David and Evan are currently board members of ACT.

David Rook signed up for his monthly Zoom account as soon as he heard Governor Cuomo shutting down New York on 3/12 and entering the state into the New York Pause, instinctively knowing that this online social meeting platform would be valuable in the days to come. “I thought, I’m going to need it. I didn’t know on what basis I was going to need it. I thought, maybe, for two weeks.” The men had already had plans to get together and read plays electronically. They read “Zoo Story” and “True West” and were discussing reading plays on Facebook when David, a lawyer, suggested they not do that as to not infringe on the intellectual copyrights of the playwrights. David messaged Brian and Evan “Why don’t we do original plays?” A couple of minutes later Brian messaged back and said “Why don’t we raise funds for local community theaters?”

Every week they have read a different short work by a local playwright and the playwright has designated the beneficiary of that week’s reading. 4/2 brought “Food for Thought” by Stephen Henel benefitting Confetti Stage Inc., 4/6 was “Two Sisters” by Rich Landers benefitting Albany Civic Theater, 4/13: “10:45 PM” by Brian Sheldon benefitting Sand Lake Center for the Arts and Circle Theatre Players, 4/20 they presented “Objects are Closer Than They Appear” by Steve Maggio benefitting Not So Common Players and coming up this Monday is “Would You Like Franz Liszt With That?” by James Alexander benefitting Schenectady Light Opera Company. There have been 187 donations totaling $6,138. In the four weeks with more coming in through the mail.

Across the country, in Los Angeles, Jason Weiss founded No Pants Theatre Company through the same impetus of wanting to create and accessing the means in which to do it. He had been discussing doing a play reading of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” by Stephen Adly Guirgis with friends when the shelter at home order was enacted in California. He chose the play for “Two reasons. One, it had a big cast and two, I’ve always wanted to play Judas and I knew Stephen. So, I called a bunch of my friends, well known actors from TV, Broadway. And everybody got back to me and said, what about letting people watch this?”

He went on to describe that first performance “And so we did this on 3/20 and a reviewer just happened to be watching, reviewed it and at the end, I said during the talkback ‘For all you know, none of us are wearing pants.’ So, that’s when it started, No Pants Theatre Company. The following week, we did a production “Of Good Stock.” I called some well-known actors, we had a Tony award winner on that one, Daisy Egan.

“So, we did that and started a Facebook page and within a week, we had 1000 followers. I said let’s see if we can get more people involved. We had a 48-hour play festival. We had 189 actors, writers, directors, producers over 6 continents and we had 34 ten-minute plays. That’s when we ran into our first problem, we got Zoom bombed. We had all these people jumping in and putting up horrible images on our screens. So, I ended it abruptly, went back into my settings and changed all settings so nobody could comment, nobody could turn their cameras on and nobody could escape all the mutes.”

Church & State Live

The next week was their production of “Church & State” by Jason Odell Williams which brought No Pants Theatre Company to the Capital Region’s attention. It’s about a Senator from North Carolina who is finishing his re-election campaign when there is a shooting at the school his children attend. He is questioned by a reporter and in his grief and frustration, he asks how can there be a God who lets these shootings continually happen. He decides to address his crisis of faith in a campaign speech. The play has been produced three times in the last couple of years around Albany and the playwright is very accessible and a committed advocate for gun control having done a FaceTime q&a after the Sand Lake Center for the Arts productions last October.

Through Facebook, Sara Paupini saw a post of the playwright’s that No Pants was doing a free reading on YouTube of the play which we had all become familiar with. I had used the play in my acting class which Brian Sheldon had taught for me one week and asked why I wasn’t submitting it for consideration for SLCA’s season. Berkshire On Stage reviewer Roseann Cane joined us for the Berkshire Theater Group production, directed by the playwright’s wife Charlotte Cohn (who eventually played the wife Sarah in the No Pants production). She told Local Actors Guild of Saratoga Artistic Director Jeremy Buechner about the play and he scheduled it for the spring of 2019. This play had gone viral and become irresistible before the lockdown but here we all are from our couches in Albany watching this play and playwright we admire so much with a terrific performance by Rob Nagle in the lead who created the role off-Broadway. During the national broadcast one of Jeremy Buechner’s questions about which line had the deepest impact on them was asked of the cast.

There is a great freedom to producing readings on Zoom. No rehearsal schedule as we know them, no sets, no budget, no constraints on time, geography or money during this netherworld of “the pause” as we know it. You are confined to your box like The Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares and your interactions with your castmates are all verbal. Not everyone’s equipment is equal and there will be frozen screens and sound drop-outs or distortions that make the actor sound like an adult in a Peanuts cartoon. Sheldon calls it “restricted accessibility.”

Both these companies, Quarantine e-Theatre and No Pants Theatre Company have done at least four productions in this short time, had unplanned live occurrences during their productions, reached out to folks they may never had to have the opportunity to work with due to schedules or geography in the work-a-day world and explored the great potential of this new art form, but is it theater?

Jason Weiss

“The one thing we absolutely need for it to be considered theater is an audience. Without an audience, it is just rehearsal,” says Weiss. But, as David Rook brings up, there has been live television with an audience going back to Ed Sullivan. Evan Jones says that for him “The three things necessary for theater are dramatic writing, actors and an audience.” Brian Sheldon offers that there is an interchange with the audience and there is the ability to interact with the audience in the talk back following each performance. “Now, we have the opportunity to create this intimate experience across the globe while the audience has their own individual intimate experience at home,” Jason Weiss offers.

For me, one of the factors that tips these productions into the theater box is the community created, fostered and grown with Quarantine e-Theatre. Waiting for a broadcast to begin, you can see the screen fill up with actors you’ve known and worked with over many years along with new and unfamiliar faces. There is the ever-present ribbing between the Q e-T’s founders and their feigned disregard for area actors George Filieau and Steve Maggio which can feel cliquish or warmly familial, depending on your perception but it is undeniably loving. Introducing each play, there is a representative from the beneficiary company who addresses the crowd. Last week, Brian Avery spoke for Not So Common Players as board members Sally Burke and Elisa Herrington-Verb attended as well.

The Capital Region was positioned beforehand to see Quarantine e-Theatre flourish through its many years of nourishing and developing over 60 companies and thousands of participants which only gets stronger every year. There are a number of new play festivals-ConfettiFest, Actor & Director showcases at ACT, LAGS, SLCA and Colonial Theatre’s one-act festivals. “This gives the opportunity to many great plays that have not been selected before to get their chance to be heard. James Alexander who we’ve all loved for his musical performances (“The Wild Party,” “Cabaret”) with his booming voice is making his Capital Region debut as a playwright with this Monday’s show.” So, they and their audience are raising money, they’re making new connections and building a stronger community, stretching and growing as artists, attendants and dramaturges all while being confined to their homes.

Evan Jones summed up “We’ve all done a lot in the community. We’ve all been everywhere, worked everywhere. For me, personally, this is the first time I’m truly proud of what I have done. We’ve raised $6,100. in a month for four different theaters. We’ve covered the budgets for a number of these company’s productions. I’m proud of my work on “Seascape” and “The Heiress” and “Frost/Nixon” but this is different. The pride I’ve felt for my shows as a director has been a selfish artistic pride and this is a much bigger, a much larger thing than that.”

David Rook takes the mic. “What I like about these guys, these two other guys here, I don’t know what shape this will take but I know these guys are really committed, they’re generous, they’re smart, they’re really talented. We don’t know where this is going to go but I think we’ll find someplace for it as long as there’s somebody who has interest in participating.”

NEXT UP

Sunday 4/26 4 pm
“If You Are Reading This” by Samuel Garza Bernstein
Presented by No Pants Theatre Company on YouTube
https://youtu.be/UOxNe2AoG74

Monday 4/27 8 pm
“Would You Like Franz Liszt With That?” by James Alexander
Presented by Quarantine e-Theatre on Zoom
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88584672785?pwd=d1IxdkNVOXVSWjVoZnZEQ3R1UlRIQT09

OTHER CAPITAL REGION THEATER ONLINE:
Capital Drama Club, Ghostlight Radio, Home Made Theater’s Shuster Series, Illuminate Theatre’s Talk Back Tuesdays, Troy Foundry Theater, Will Kempe’s Players’ Bardcast & Zoom Readers.

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