Features

Using ZOOM to Create Theatre by Suzanne Willett

When the news hit in the spring that theatres in New York were going to be shut down, I–like many of my fellow theatre-makers–was devastated.  Our movement company, 10C, had been developing our third science-based piece throughout the fall and winter of 2019 and the quarantine felt like we drove 50 mph into a wall.  Shortly after the shutdown, I began taking mental health walks in the city.  As I continued venturing out, I could not help but notice new sounds: the silence, the birds, and ambulance sirens. I noticed that the sirens provided a morose counterpoint to these natural sounds.  All of them, however, contributed to a new soundscape, one that I had never heard before. I felt it was imperative that we capture this snapshot of NYC sound, as it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We wanted an experience that would closely resemble a theatre experience. 

In early May, I proposed to the company the idea of exploring a ‘NYC soundscape’ show.  We began to explore the idea further, hammering out a show structure.  We did not want our audience to be ‘Zoom fatigued’, so we settled on a thirty-minute run time, breaking that down into six five-minute pieces exploring the pandemic soundscape of the city:  EMT sounds, silence, birds, thunderstorms, apartment sounds, and the 7pm holler.

   Since our company consists of seven people, the scenes were divided into either duo or solo pieces.  We then initiated a six-week flexible development/rehearsal schedule for these duo or solo artists.  The pieces would then be reviewed by a weekly group check-in where the pieces would be reviewed and given tweaks or suggestions.   During the 4th-5th week of rehearsals, our stage manager held separate meetings with each piece’s creators to address their specific tech needs.

In applying Zoom to theatre, we looked at it from four perspectives: creative, stage management, front of house, and production.   In terms of Production, our first decision was whether to record or perform live.  It was decided that (even with glitches due to people’s bandwidth) that the quirks of Zoom were a charm factor such that people would be getting the full experience of a live show with the occasional problem.  The final show was a live Zoom performance that included two pre-recorded elements.  While the show was live, we did record the show (via Zoom’s menu) so that we would have a video for posterity/grant purposes.

We then tested a Zoom to FB Live throughput vs. a simple Zoom throughput.  One of the advantages of FB Live is a potentially larger audience as that audience avoids Zoom’s sign up barrier.  As we tested the Zoom to FB Live throughput, however, the video from Zoom would drop.   Given the time we would need to restore the signal, we decided that a straight Zoom show would better suit our needs.  The question then became: would we use Zoom meeting or Zoom webinar?  We decided on Zoom webinar because we felt the webinar application–advertised as a ‘virtual lecture hall or auditorium’–would lend itself better to a theatrical presentation.  In webinars, Zoom has two participant distinctions:  attendee or panelist.  For our purposes, attendees (who do not interact with one another) mapped to audience members and panelists mapped to the performers (audio and video enabled).

In applying Zoom to theatre, we looked at it from four perspectives: creative, stage management, front of house, and production.

A last consideration with production was the scheduling of the event time.  We scheduled the show a half hour before our actual show time.  This had front of house implications that will be discussed in the results section.

From a creative aspect, we held a series of meetings exploring Zoom’s tech features.   Probably the biggest conversations we had were around virtual backgrounds.   We employed virtual backgrounds both as single and moving images.   For example, in Gavin Barber’s “Birds” piece (16:35) the video of the bird is being projected onto a piece of cardboard.  In “Odd Apt Sounds”, the cue cards (22:04) are a virtual background projected onto a piece of cardboard held in front of the actor’s computer camera.  The stage manager then turned on and off the respective actor’s video to simulate the silent movie cue card.   In “7pm Holler”, Julianna Mitchell and I applied virtual background to achieve a surrealist result (24:30).  We used a pre-recorded video of Julianna’s dance using virtual background, and then superimposed Julianna onto herself to elicit the inner conflict felt by a person during the 7pm holler.

We used a mixture of pre-recorded and live sound.  One of the most creative uses of live sound was foley artist Broderick Ballantyne’s application during “Odd Apt. Sounds” (22:36).  Through a series of sound effects, Broderick and fellow artist Jacob Louchheim playfully recreate a Zoom meeting gone awry.  Here we hearken back to silent movies on a new tech platform.

One of the most interesting mixes of live and pre-recorded video is seen in Stephanie Cha’s, “Silence” (9:00).  Here Stephanie begins with a pre-recorded video of her grocery shop in Brooklyn and then onto her quiet journey home through the street and subway.  As she reaches her apartment door, she transitions to a live feed and addresses the silence she’s experiencing not only on the outside, but also on the inside.  The switch from video to live feed gives the viewer a more immediate sense of place and setting.

Zoom boxes represented a particular challenge.  While Zoom has no ability to determine the arrangement of the boxes, Jennifer Marinelli and Hannah Carne do an admirable job of synchronizing their movement in “EMT Sounds” (5:27).

Stage management was critical to our final production result.  Samantha Stone, our production stage manager, acted also as our technical director via the use of shared screen.  In order to do this, she was set as a webinar host shortly after she logged on.  Our audience saw the show through her screen.   In fact, there are points throughout the video where her mouse can be seen.   Samantha, as a host, used video stop/start to control the flow of the show.  For example, Samantha ends Broderick’s “Thunder Canyon” by turning off his video through her machine (27:52).   If Broderick had turned off his video at this point, the audience would see him exit character, lean over his machine, and turn his feed off.  We did not view this as an optimal performance result. 

Samantha ran the majority of audio via a standard cue list.  However, there were times that live audio was used.  Most notably it was Jacob Louchheim’s narration during “Thunder Canyon”.  In addition, Gavin Barba provided the virtual boyfriend to Stephanie while she is in her apartment during “Silence”.  Gavin was physically not present in this piece and therefore the character is only represented verbally.

Front of house was guided by what we determined our audience experience would be.  For us, we wanted an experience that would closely resemble a theatre experience.  Therefore, we set a number of initial settings for the webinar.  For attendees, we disabled chat mode, muted participants upon entry, disabled attendees’ video and did not allow attendees to raise their hand.  In order to unify the audience view of the show we selected the ‘Host View’ for the attendee video layout; therefore attendees would be seeing what the stage manager had on her screen. 

After the show, we assessed our work through both viewer feedback and a post-mortem analysis.  We discovered a number of pluses: scheduling rehearsals on the actor’s own time; actors can rehearse from separate geographical locations; the variety of the show from piece to piece; and the reach of the show outside of the U.S.

We encountered a number of challenges due to the technical decisions we made in regards to settings.  We found that having the show seen through the stage manager’s shared screen disallowed attendees to change their screen from Speaker to Gallery mode.  Deselecting the chat was seen afterward as a negative as the audience could not interact during the show.  The randomization of boxes was also seen as a challenge to creating a common or uniform place for a scene.  By far, our biggest challenge was scheduling the webinar ½ hour before the show.  Attendees logged on up to 25 minutes before the show started when we were doing tech.   This occurred, even with numerous emails sent out with the correct show start. 

Overall, we learned that you can achieve a successful, engaging theatrical experience via the Zoom platform–one that can move and be dynamic.  As a company that constantly plays with science and technology, successfully implementing a show on an electronic platform for creative purposes falls within Silver Glass’s mission statement.  As we move forward onto our next production, Time, we will probably drop shared screen so that viewers will be able to switch between modes.  In addition, chat will be enabled during the show to enable audience interaction.  We look forward to revisiting Zoom, exploiting more of the quirks of the platform, and creating a show that is more responsive to our audience. 

Silver Glass Production’s mission is to develop and produce socially relevant theatre from a unique perspective and in doing so, promote community dialogue.

Website:  www.silverglassprods.org

UpcomingTime an exploration into the changing nature of time during the pandemic.
Where: Zoom
When: Sat, Oct 24th @ 7pm
Tickets: $10 and under.   https://time.brownpapertickets.com/

Suzanne Willett is a Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference Finalist, Bridge Award, Women’s Works Short Play Lab and Fresh Ground Pepper Play Ground Play Group Finalist. NY Productions: Life (Players Theatre, 2019), Chaos/Absolute Zero (Players Theatre, 2018), Rock, Paper, Scissors (Arctic Fridge Fest, 2017), Wonder Company (Dixon Place, 2017) Fall Pieces, a collection of experimental shorts (Dixon Place 2015); Tompkins ’88, a play about the Tompkins Square Part Riot in 1988 (Metropolitan Playhouse 2015); Robert McIntyre, a man’s struggle with his paralyzed hand (Manhattan Rep 2014). MFA in Playwriting, Hollins University. Member: Dramatist Guild, 29th St. Playwrights Collective.

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