Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Transforming Theatre

When theatres closed down because of the coronavirus, so many people were suddenly out of a job: actors, directors, stage managers, costumers, dressers, lighting designers, set designers, painters, technicians, sound designers, prop masters, conductors, musicians... the list goes on. A massive crew brings a production to life, and I know so many people who've been hurt by this shutdown. 

But shutting down is essential because people are dying from this virus. I have so many friends who've lost loved ones to this virus: parents, mentors, students, teachers, friends and family. We had two neighbors pass away from the virus. One was a nursing assistant who died because the hospitals didn’t have enough PPE in the beginning. 

This is an unprecedented time, and as an artist I wondered how I could help. I checked in on friends and neighbors. I shared info about what was going on in New York City, and I shared what I knew of how to protect against the virus. My sister-in-law’s friend was living in Shanghai as a teacher, and she immediately told us about masking up. I’m pretty sure she saved our lives.

There was so much trauma. I felt like I lost my voice, but then people in Italy sang, so I sang.

A friend told me New Yorkers were singing, “Lean On Me” to essential workers, so I opened my window and sang.

Then a production company I’d worked with Off Broadway, 16th Note Productions, contacted me about doing a video of a song from the new musical, “Starcrossed,” and I was so thankful to put on some makeup and get into character and sing!

I started filming more episodes for my webseries, Laura Loves NY. In addition to my usual running around the city, documenting life in NYC, I filmed and edited 4 Zoom interviews: rising star Deb Snyder, hilarious puppeteer-comedian Wayne Henry, herb writer and soap makers, Tina Sams and Maryanne Schwartz; and Constance Cooks who's been hosting wonderful weekly cooking shows on Instagram.

I did a Zoom reading of Steel Magnolias with my former castmates. We had done the show in NY a few years ago.

That was my first foray into Zoom theatre, and it seemed to work. People still resonated with the characters and the story. We all laughed and cried.

So when I was asked to audition for Mixing It Up Productions’ Zoom presentation of the new play, “The Broken Closet,” I had a sense of what worked. I put the pdf of my script on screen and looked into camera, so it seemed as if I was talking directly to the other characters. I positioned the lights I had for self-tape auditions around my laptop so I was well-lit. And I did my usual actor work of breaking down the beats of the scene, focusing on what my character wanted.And you know what? It worked! I booked the gig!

Rehearsals were fascinating. Our director, Kristen Penner, helped us with the pacing, because for those who have Zoomed before, you know that hearing and talking to your fellow Zoom participants can be wonky. So imagine trying to do a dramatic scene where you have to break down and cry. Or fall in love. It can be done. Just like any theatrical experience, as an actor, I commit myself to the character living her life in the story of the play. There's just this extra technical experience of doing it all on Zoom.

“The Broken Closet” was about a family grieving the loss of a young woman - a daughter, a sister - who’d died from a heroin addiction. With all the stress of COVID, I wondered how the play would be received, but it seemed to resonate with folks, and we all felt the catharsis of tears.

Then I was asked to audition for and booked “The Cribbage Game,” which dealt with 3 middle aged folks finding the next chapter of their lives at a beach bar in Mexico. It was a beautiful piece, and I enjoyed playing Claire, a breast cancer survivor who goes from uptight spinster to a woman blossoming with love.

These plays have truly been a gift, and I’m so thankful for the playwrights who have continued to write about people trying to connect during challenging times. And I’m thankful to the producers who are putting theatre out there in new and innovative ways.

Theatre will always last because audiences want to be transported by a story that’s happening in real time right before their eyes. Theatre is a shared experience, and it truly can transform us all.

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