Overcoming 'Zoom Theatre': Silent Sky

The cast of "Silent Sky" at George Fox University: Annalee Coon (top left), Linnaea Russaw (bottom left), Elyse Bradford (center), Jenny Fournier (top right), Danny Walker (bottom left).

Oregon Pandemic Theatre Series: Part 1

By Troy Shinn

What do you do when you’re an actor and can’t interact physically with your fellow castmates? How does a program director put on new performances without violating social distancing requirements?

While all kinds of businesses, venues and performers have seen their art stifled during the COVID-19 pandemic, dramatic artists may have been hit the hardest. Not only is casting, rehearsing and performing made more difficult, it’s just generally not easy to replicate the look and feel of live theatre via remote methods.

But some Oregon directors and performers didn’t settle for laggy videos and choppy remote readings. Instead, they took advantage of the performance cancellations and new social distancing regulations to create entirely new forms of dramatic theatre that were tailored to remote audiences and media.

Take the performance of Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson that took place at George Fox University in November. Rather than rely on Zoom or Facebook Live, the crew created its own video editing and streaming software, which allowed the actors to perform from separate spaces and still appear to the audience to be sharing a single, collaborative “stage.”

Another cast photo, this one displaying how each actor's custom background helped to combine the digital space. All photos courtesy of Elyse Bradford.

If that all sounds pretty complex to you, that’s because it really is. It’s no small feat to reimagine a show from the ground up in order to clear the hurdles that come with virtual theatre. But in order to understand just how theatre in Oregon has adapted to pandemic restrictions, you have to first understand how the realities of social distancing affect the actual making of performative art.

During pandemic times, those in the theatre scene have taken to calling these remote style performances, “Zoom Theatre,” whether they are actually hosted on Zoom, Facebook Live or some other platform. But the term “theatre” actually refers to live, in-person stagecraft. A recording of a performance or a reading of a play doesn’t fully meet this definition, and dramatists argue that a recording can’t capture the same connective elements that bind the audience together with a live performance.

“There really is nothing like being there in person and getting a real feel for the show,” said Danny Walker, a junior at George Fox who played the role of Peter Shaw in Silent Sky. “I don’t think anything can replace that.”

Things like lighting, costuming, stage direction and all the other pieces of art that go into a theatrical performance are designed to heighten the live experience. With remote viewings, there’s a real barrier to eliciting these same reactions.

It’s also important to understand that the plays themselves weren’t written to be performed remotely. Scenes often build to physical climaxes, whether they’re choreographed fights, dances, embraces or kisses. To accomplish the same dramatic effect on a computer screen poses real challenges.

In Silent Sky, for instance, a theatrical re-telling of the real story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, there’s a scene in which two characters are supposed to kiss. Instead, they had to do a physical approximation, with the actors turning ‘toward each other’ on their respective screens and stepping out of the frame in a symbolic representation of their embrace.

That obviously wasn’t the only kind of hurdle that the cast and crew had to clear, however. They had to find ways to make “Zoom Theatre” more engaging overall -- more like the real thing. At George Fox University, located in Newberg, the first step was figuring out how to avoid Zoom altogether.

“I hate Zoom,” said Walker. “I use it for class and it just doesn’t work really well for live performance. What everyone was hoping for was a platform just made more specifically for streaming.”

To get such a platform, they’d have to invent it themselves.

To accomplish this, the theatre department turned to award-winning technical director Bryan Boyd to create an entirely new form of video streaming software, one that could incorporate all the elements of theatre they already knew how to do without gunking up the performance with laggy video and the disconnect that comes from actors speaking to each other through computer monitors.

The room Bradford performed and streamed from during performances of "Silent Sky" by Lauren Gunderson.

The result is nothing short of visionary. The new software allowed actors, each performing from different rooms, to appear as though they were occupying the same space. The technical crew could use the same system to direct lights, sounds, projectors and screens that altered the actors’ screens in precise ways.

If characters were supposed to be occupying the same room, their backgrounds would match or even be shown as two halves of one projected set, combined visually to look like the same space.

The result not only received rave reviews from the audience members who saw it, but the undertaking also received recognition from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival board, which gives out awards annually to celebrate exceptional efforts in the dramatic arts.

The organization even created brand new awards categories in order to award the entire Silent Sky technical crew with an ensemble win for all the creativity and innovation that went into the new software. Boyd, the technical director and frequent honoree of these regional awards, also received a special one for his efforts in creating the program.

A shot of the control room, where Assistant Technical Director Emma Boyd watches along and readies lighting and sound cues for each virtual space.

“It’s insane what he did with the projections and everything,” said Elyse Bradford, who played the lead role of Henrietta, of Boyd’s work. “Just from hearing from the audience … people really were able to get a better sense of where we each were in the space.”

But what about the troupes that can’t rely on the resources of a renowned private university? Or how about the actors, composers, light engineers and others who are just now entering the world of professional theatre during a pandemic? For those answers, check out the second article in this Oregon Pandemic Theatre series that’s coming soon.

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