Deeper Dive Into Making a Play for Virtual Performance

This is our process as I remember it. If you’re considering making work in a similar fashion – a ‘Zoom Theatre’ play – this may be useful to you.

NOTE: To read a description of the play, click here. If you want to read the script or watch the performance, contact Briandaniel.

Preamble: Before the Writing Process

As the world slows in March, I adapt my middle school production of Spin the Lonely World to a remote reality. Like every theatre teacher adapting to our sci-fi world, I learn to use OBS to capture the screen, and we film the thing. While I master the contours of the form, filming this instead of performing live proves to be a mistake. Months and hundreds of hours editing later, and I’m still waiting for a collaborator to finish the final edit. 

And yet, when the new semester begins and I’m ready to make another play, I’m excited. 

Things are shitty. I’m constantly terrified. This virus is ripping through the Latino community, of which I’m a member, and I’m old and queer enough that this isn’t my first pandemic, and my neuroses flare up. Concentration is hard.

And yet, as I’ve mentioned on my blog, problem-solving excites me as an artist. As much as my focus is shot to hell, there are puzzles to figure out, discoveries to make. Specifically, how do we make theatre at a distance? How can we be inspired by our limitations without dwelling on the crappy situation?

Part 1: The Given Circumstances

When I write a play, I start by the identifying what I call the container. These are the limitations that we place on ourselves as writers, what OKGo calls The Sandbox. The rules to create the rules.

Here they are:

1. As our process is conducted over Google Meet, the form is not the problem. The form is the container itself. The play will be made up of scenes that work over video. We are not fighting video: it is our canvas.

Therefore: the actors never pretend to be in the same room with each other. (And we will not record the scenes beforehand.)

Therefore: my challenge is to figure out how to make moments of tension, love, disconnection, drama, and comedy that use the form. A mic breaks at an inopportune time, someone turns off their camera out of rage, a devastating hang-up, someone is live during a disaster someone else can only witness… These are what we can do online better than onstage.

2. Covid does not exist in this world. This is not about Covid, this is an escape from it. 

3. Distance is a theme. 

4. As always, the play is for and with my students. The quarantine decimated my department, but I have five stalwart actors ready to be part of our process. And the needs/desires of these five also define the container.

What I ask the five:

  • How much rehearsal do you have the energy to do? This dictates the length and complexity of the play. (Answer: a full-length, but not a long one.)
  • Do you want to play many characters, or do you want to play one with a full arc? (Answer for all: one.)
  • Note: they also offer they prefer a realistic tone.

Part 2: Creating the Play

I start with their strengths and our experience. My students have all worked with me before. One has been in five of my plays. I know they are fearless improvisers, and that they are great at being present in a moment and creating characters; however, long form is not in the wheelhouse.

We generate lists.

One list: What kinds of scenes use video? Video calls, of course; Twitch / gaming; Youtube videos; cooking shows, etc. 

Another list: What words and phrases do you associate with distance? 

Another list: Stories and movies where distance plays a major role.

These become ingredients. We begin with improv, using the different prompts built from combining elements from those lists.

These are not gelling because much of the online improv we’d previously done pretended that they were in the same space. I realize that the strongest scenes are the ones where the concept is predetermined. 

So I do more prep work and bring scenarios to class. I say, “Your job is do a puppet show for your friend, and when you want to tell them you got engaged, the mic goes out.” And then we see what they create.

With a bit more structure, we mix improv and devising. For improv, I use those specific prompts and invite multiple versions of the same concept. For devising, I send the students to breakout rooms to rehearse moments. 

Sometimes I email them before class with attributes for their characters. I ask them to invent a character name, and a screenname, and a bio. Then, in class, I ask to see certain characters interact with each other with specific intentions. 

I look at what we create and find narrative threads that intrigue me. A scientist on the other side of the planet, for example. An astronaut going to Mars. 

Early on, I was intrigued by the idea of a romantic comedy over distance. “The movie Contact, but like You’ve Got Mail,” I’d thought. And yet, as we build the play, scenes that are awkward or sad or angry have the greatest heat. More than one storyline about familial distance bubbles up. 

One day, they pretend to be gamers. And the activity is electric. This will be important to the play – if not the backbone, then at least significant.

There is a day when I realize the energy is gone. I scrap my plans, and instead ask them to spend 20 minutes coming up with theatrical ‘gifts’ for each other. I teach them the Macarena. One student shares a bunch of pictures of his cat. 

I realize this is the energy we need. That no matter how dark the play gets, we need to embrace this idea that we’re creating gifts for each other. 

Part 3: The Writing

As these tensional moments and storylines emerge, I realize I want them to all feed into the same story. Even the TV-based A-story / B-story structure is unsatisfying. I reluctantly abandon the idea that we’re creating a comedy. Mysteries and grief stories allow us to fold multiple narratives into the same thread, as the story of the ‘now’ is figuring out how it was caused by the ‘then’. A family working through their grief and uncovering secrets left behind by the missing family member – it’s not new territory, but it’s rich. 

Importantly, the theme of distance makes more sense with a grief story. A character is missing in the present, so we can only see the pieces of her left behind online.

I know that there are other plays shaped by similar themes a famous one everyone is producing, for example, falls under the Bury-Your-Gays trope that I hope to subvert- and I borrow from my far more mature Small Steps.

As the story emerges, there are practical things to consider. I want to be able to rehearse multiple scenes at the same time, so the play is built to accommodate that, and most scenes require only one or two characters. I also structure the scene order to give actors time if they need to move sets or change costumes. Finally, I want the play to challenge the actors to make bold choices, so I push big emotional turns in there.

I rarely precast, and this is no exception. I have four boys in the class of five, so I wind up writing every character with male pronouns knowing one will change. This is also useful in the devising process, as the role belongs to the play, not the actor. Some of my students are LGBTQ+, an element that they and I want to bake in to their roles, but an element that I know to hold off until the re-write.

The play is nearly finished, and I share the script with the students. Their enthusiasm is… quiet.  We do auditions, but after warm-ups our 50 minute classes make this virtually impossible. I decide to do something a bit dangerous: I have them rank their personal preferences. The theory is that a) I can tailor the script to them after casting, so it’s not about having a perfect fit, and b) every bit of enthusiasm is vital to this process, the play will live or die by the energy they put in, and casting based on preference will give us the greatest chance of enthusiasm.

It works. 

There are some idiosyncrasies. For one, I cast the role with the most scenes to the actor who is in an RV heading to California. My actor who is best at physical acting is largely a voice. And yet, whenever I give the students the option for more rehearsal, they go for it. 

Part 4: Tech Week and the Performance

Tech is hell. The traditional headaches are non-existent – my tech students send the actors their costumes and props and lights and makeup well before they’re needed, and I jerry rig a sound set-up. It’s the internet, them’s the problem. The internet is fussy for two of the actors, and for me, too. We’re using a program that has great camera resolution, even for the rickety Chromebooks (something that thwarts Zoom), but needs more bandwidth than the actors’ families have available during the rehearsals. I create three or four backup plans if the live performance should buzz out.

“Lexington, if the internet fails, you jump in and improvise a Drama Llama episode for the Public Access Portland. It doesn’t matter where in the script we are.”

Fortunately, the kids know their characters so well that when hiccups happen, they’re prepared.  

We perform.

The internet holds. 

We’re live, focused, and the audience is blowing up the chat.  Every mistake reminds us that it’s live, and the last performance is nearly flawless. For the first time in months, it feels like pre-pandemic theatre. 

People who have never seen my work with teens catch the show. Grandparents watch it. Out of state cousins and friends. Artists and writers. Teens in theatre programs. We have a bigger audience than anything we’ve ever done. 

And then we rest. 

In ten years time, I probably won’t have too many productions of The Secret Lives of Gamers and Dead Astronauts. High schools don’t often need small cast plays. But I will still have the Youtube recording of this production, a special one. A play that meant the world to me.

And one that I hope helps others make their own work in this weird time.

I Suppose Updates are in Order

It’s been too long since I updated. When things fell apart, I let this website sort of rust. I also put on ten pounds.

I’m back to report that making theatre in a pandemic is hard, but still possible.

Piper received a reading via the Hyde Park Theatre.

Small Steps has an elaborate workshop at UC Davis, and with an Austin-based company, I’m looking for partnering organizations in hopes of a rolling world premier. It started as a play about someone who struggles romantically and offers to go alone to Mars. Act I, he’s on quarantine, and Act II, he’s going to Mars, so it makes sense both thematically and as a play that can be practically produced.

I was a playwright for Camp Shrewd, a mixed media piece that involved authoring letters, which were also turned into podcasts. I also made a piece of virtual theatre with the Vortex as part of the CoviDecameron project.

Theatre in educational spaces is still happening, so I’ve had a handful of productions.

I’ve continued teaching. Our school is mixed in-person and remote, almost entirely outdoors, which has made for the most difficult semester of my life.

Funny enough, while the circumstances are miserable, I love problem-solving, so there are these constant spurts of joy. Figuring out different improv games that we can play that are mixed in-person and online, for example. Creating a piece of devised theatre that is specific to the format. Even just jury rigging a microphone to work in a way no one ever intended. We are solving problems that never existed, and we are making bits and pieces of art that was unimaginable a year ago.

One major piece of art is my new play for my high school actors titled The Secret Lives of Gamers and Dead Astronauts. I wanted to make a play for the online format, one composed of Zoom calls, Instagram posts, Twitch Streams, even public access TV moments – and to write a play that took place in a world where Covid didn’t exist. There are some thematic crossovers with Small Steps, both because I’d already done some of the intellectual and artistic work to related to distance and because there’s some cool shit in Small Steps that I wanted to do with high school actors (like using a camera to artificially remove gravity).

Our performance was last week. We performed online, from six locations that we’d sent props and set pieces and costumes to. And it felt alive. Because we were streaming, we had all of the danger of a live performance – things could fall apart, we’d need to improvise, we’d need to problem-solve. And people from all over the country could watch the play.

I don’t know if anyone else is ever going to produce this play. My cast was tiny – five actors – thanks to Covid, and this is hardly optimal for high school plays.

And yet, what we made was something I’ll value until I’m dead.

Long time readers, you know the drill. I’ll revise the play, make a page, and post it ASAP. Also, I’ll do a longer summary on how we built this play. Contact me if you’d like to either watch the performance or read the pre-performance draft of the script.

Love to you all.

Spin the Lonely World

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Yes, the title is

begin anywhere, little one; spin the lonely world, and where you stop is where you start

by Briandaniel Oglesby

Or

Spin the Lonely World (for short)

I have an affection for the occasional obnoxiously long title. I don’t care if it comes across as pretentious, I don’t care if there’s no space in the imaginary marquee; the ridiculous title declares that the play is significant, and I WANT that for middle school actors.

I’ve finished polishing the Virtual Performance draft. I have spent hundreds of hours on Google Meet / Hangouts over the last 100 days, and I’ve figured a few things out. For Spin the Lonely World, I left most of the original dialogue and scenes intact, annotating suggestions to Zoomify it. The one exception was a piece that was originally supposed to be improvised and slapstick, something that fell apart in the virtual performance rehearsal room.

I’m working on editing the filmed version of the play with one of my high school collaborators. It’s a slow job. It’s unlikely that I’ll be sharing screenshots.

 

An Update on an Update

In response to a petition calling out White American Theatre, I tweeted a bit about how virtually every problem of racism in American theatre starts in high school. We learn about playwrights first from our high school productions and literature classes, after all, so it’s unsurprising that our understanding of ‘Great Theatre’ starts with Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, which reproduces white centrism in American theatre.

Because it’s a song I’ve sung many times before, I didn’t elaborate, and I certainly didn’t offer any solutions. As a mixed-Latino playwright who reads as white, I have Big Feeling and Thoughts, sure, but I want to take up less oxygen right now, and my identity is less specifically useful than when I was asking theatre-for-teen folks to be inclusive to the LGBTQ+ community. Right now, I feel like all I can do is say, 1) Hey, theatre-for-teen folks, how can we make our practices less racist? and 2) Hey, Theatreworld, theatre-for-teens is a big deal, deserving of the same responsibilities (and respect and attention) as the LORT crowd.

Anyway, I haven’t updated in a while. The world has turned upside down. Obviously, we could not produce Spin the Lonely World in a traditional way, and I have a student editing the virtual version we filmed. I’ll update a bit more soon.

begin anywhere…

Spring Break. Reflection time.

The middle school play is finished. Ish. There’s always a mess, always something I have to figure out in rehearsal. Apologies I make to the actors.

We started devising around images and songs that the actors brought in. Emerging from this – stories of transformation. A rose that could kill or grant eternal life; a crow that grew into human form, something about ‘soul eaters’, wood that became a living puppet, and so on.

I fell in love with these stories. Some seemed to pull from Pinocchio or The Tempest or the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, despite these being unfamiliar to my students.

The systems of magic didn’t line up, however. I couldn’t compress everything into a singular narrative.

For years, I’ve wanted to use the La Ronde structure – short plays connected with a character passing along a ring to another character until we circle around to the first. My twenties was about making short work, but I stepped away because who other than David Ives made their career on short work? Even when I wrote fiction, the question was always about when would you tackle a novel?

And so this presented the opportunity to finally write that play.

[Yes, La Ronde involves people sleeping with each other. I didn’t talk about the source material when I wrote the play.]

Seven interlocking short plays. In each, a magical transformation. In each, a major character hands a ring to a minor character, who then has a story built around them.

And every night of performance, we’ll randomly draw which play we’ll start on.

Middle school usually invites camp. It’s a ridiculous time in life, after all. And we can parody adulthood.This play only dabbles in camp. Students who advocated for comedy instead found that their work bounced into melancholy endings. Dark fairy tales.

Okay. And what about titles…

I resisted one word titles. I wanted to steer away from Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, with which this play has much in common.

So. The newest middle school play is tentatively titled: begin anywhere, little one; spin the lonely world, and where you land is where you start

If I find another title in the process, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, okay, let’s lean into the sixteen word title.

And it begins…

A new semester, a new play. Middle school.

After three years of going in with a starting point for my middle schoolers, I decided that I wanted to start fully from scratch. A blank page. Scary place to start.

Week one and two, I focused on developing ensemble, playing with stage image, and getting the kids more comfortable with devising and improv. Skills skills skills.  After that, I had them bring in images and songs that “spoke to them,” that evoked worlds that they wanted to inhabit. We did devising of stories around some using tableaux and storytelling, scenes around others, and improvised moments around others. We then listed out the most memorable moments.

On Monday, we first practiced a sort of long form improv, which I directed in the moment.  For this, I begin with a prompt, then ask the kids to create that moment. I’ll request to see a different scene that’s inspired by what I saw. I then had them improvise scenes based on the previous weeks’ work.

Yesterday, I asked a bundle of questions related to the the work they’d done. For this, we built story.

Today, I’ll be bringing them concept… and away we go.

The Apocalypse Project, post

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The Production

A tough production process on this one. Our calendar wasn’t helpful to tech or rehearsals, and a bout of food poisoning benched me for a few crucial days, but the actors stepped up and made magic.

 

This is the hardest play I’ve written at Skybridge. It’s a big swing; I think it paid off.

Now, my theatre is micro. I can get 40-ish seats in there. I’m not trying to fill hundreds of seats; I’m trying to squeeze enough chairs to serve my audience. This means I can focus on the play itself, not on marketing. This also means that we can play with staging to integrate how we do the show with the story itself.

My tech director / set designer and I were in sync, and we decided to elevate the audience to remove them from the performance space. In a play in which the adults have vanished, we liked the idea of removing them from the performance space itself, to have them bearing witness to the action but literally above it.

The play imagines the world having fallen apart on February 14, 2020. That’s less than two months away, so all cultural products are built out of the stuff of the current moment. Old Town Road and Lizzo, being primarily disseminated via digital space, are left as memories, but turn up in a memorial conducted on the anniversary of The Disappearance.

So, one benefit of this play is that we only spent about half of our budget. The apocalypse is cheap.

We start in Altierra (‘Alternative earth’), a small, pure democracy / collective in the outskirts of Austin. A fight and water crisis leads to the expulsion of a group of four. It’s these folks we follow throughout the play, as they find their way to a small fascist farm, to Sad Disneyland, to a washed out hometown and a flooded New York, while dodging traps set by Firestarters and a feral child. Eventually they make their way to New Eden, which is in Canada. This happens as one character, who has been living in a sense of hopelessness, seems about to die. He sits in the audience.

And that’s when one of the members of the audience begins to speak. This person is a surprise to my actors. I asked parents, and requested that they keep the fact that they were speaking a surprise.

This person reads a letter from the missing adults.

I wrote it on a day when I’d received a particularly painful rejection, and revised it on a day when we had some intense discussions in our community. This moment is the most present I’ve ever been in a play, it’s what I want to say, and I’m okay with that. This play isn’t the most polished one I’ve put in front of audiences, and there are some Frankenstein seams, but I am proud of this piece:

THE LETTER

Listen my dears, young ones. You are in so much pain in a broken world. You are of age before you should be, and though we say this from a distance, we see you.

My dears. Go on.

What you have taught me is this: Life is clawing past yet another disappointment, it’s scratching at the dirt, and it’s even finding joy in the scratch. It’s grabbing the hand that’s offered you, getting up, and grabbing who else fell down to bring them up too. 

Yes. We, the ones who came before you, are imperfect. And we’ve passed many of our faults on to you, as you will to yours. And if aliens came to visit, they’d see creatures who… can think and know the fragility of life. Know the scarring. Know our own imperfections. And yet they’d see –

We humans, we build, we build again, and the best is when we learn from those what fell before. We stare rejection in its teeth and we say, nah. I matter. From city rubble, we hear laughter and singing and we see grass that was called weeds once upon a time break through the cracks in sidewalks through sheer force of will.

We are stubborn, us human creatures.

This is what you’ve taught me, you know. You who save each other.

So this is what I give you back: You are loved. Each and every one. Forever. Go on, my dears. Go on.

The Semester

My life is divided into semesters now. The academic calendar has been brilliantly conducive to my writing process, but it also means that I chart time through semesters.

This semester, I had a reading of Small Steps in Davis, Ca, through Bike City Theatre; the other Brothers, Sisters, Santos through UC Riverside’s Latinx Play Project. During the intermission of Small Steps, my mother texted me. She liked the play, even though there’s gobs of cursing. Small miracles.

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Although these plays are still looking for homes, it’s a pretty special thing to know they’re being read in places I love.

I’ve also been part of the Hyde Park Theatre’s writer’s group, and finally workshopped Piper. This one is too early in its development to build a webpage.

The Apocalypse Project, which is this semester’s Play-for-Teens, continues to develop. Often, theatre-for-teens is viewed as ‘practice for the REAL THING that you do when you’re an adult.’ Schools and educational theatres across the country produce ‘Junior’ versions of standard commercial musicals, and there’s something truly obnoxious about that. Imbedded in this is that theatre-for-young-actors is lesser. Yes, I would love love love to see The Untitled Pirate Play or And Then, She Picks Up the Sword performed by adults, but I don’t see the work we do as pretend practice for the real thing. It is the thing. And one element that I love about The Apocalypse Project is necessarily for and about young actors.

The Next Steps

Well, as of a little over a week ago, the script is pretty much done. As expected, I didn’t have time to update on my process while knee-deep in that very process.

When I last updated, we’d decided to destroy the world – to eliminate all of the adults through some mysterious rapture. Okay. Cool. So we started with a situation as a concept.

And, uh, that was a choice. I documented here.

Theatre is made up of time. It is our most precious commodity. You can make brilliant theatre with no money and lots of time. (The inverse doesn’t exist, except sometimes SNL.)

The challenge, I learned, with starting from a world is that gobs of the time goes to discussing the rules of this world.

Instead of building character or story, my actors debated whether or not there would be electricity. There was a general disbelief at the level of havoc our nuclear facilities would have on the environment in the post-apocalyptic scenario, because Fukushima  happened when my oldest collaborator was nine. 

This didn’t mean that the process was unsuccessful. It meant that I often felt frustrated, and that this frustration was my own fault. It also meant that I was more of a source for the story than I normally am. A third of the play takes place in a communitarian compound before the main crew is expelled – these story choices, which would normally emerge from a devising process, I had to invent.

This gave me an insight: Devising by adapting a specific property works because it’s something that gets the entire team on the same page in an efficient way.  This is true even when we’re adapting a technical element like a set design or genre or even just a picture that a student brings to class (and not a text like The Jungle Book).  Research-based work is challenging because everyone needs to have done the same research. Because I came into class with the sandbox defined, I spent my time sharing about what the sandbox meant to me.

Now, I should mention that we have about 60-70% of the rehearsal hours that my favorite HS-aged company has, and 3 hours per week generating material is not the same as doing two or three or more 3-hour sessions with a group of collaborators. In a perfect world, I’d have more time.

I do think that work created collaboratively can often become about or reflective of the collaboration itself metatextually. (And this isn’t a bad thing: one reason there’s a push for diverse voices of playwrights in American theatre is the accurate presumption that there is something autobiographical in the work that lends authenticity.) In the case of the Apocalypse Project, the first third of the play takes place on a communitarian compound, which is chaotic and loud, and intentionally has the characters discussing lots of subjects simultaneously. And this is what my classroom-theatre feels like.

To build a lot of this, I would give them a prompt, ask them to come to a circle, and ‘popcorn’ out something like, “Rumors you’ve heard about something that’s happening in the country.”

The caveat for this specific activity is that each rumor is independent of the others, so that if someone suggests something that does not fit with the reality we were building, it would evaporate. Someone could say something like, “California fell into the ocean” without it shaping the discussion, so that someone else could say, “There’s no water in LA. They call it The Boneyard.”

One activity that was fruitful had the students writing a character name and then something about them on an index card. “Mr. Avers, a cartographer.” And then we’d draw from this stack and they would improvise a dramatic monologue or scene.

Often I had specific prompts for improvised scenes.  Sometimes these prompts directly pointed at the play (“Scrapper does something to get kicked out of the compound”) while others were exploring the concept through something next to the play (“Show me the world’s worst president.”)

Casting

I should mention that we always establish early on that anything we create belongs to the room. I try to have multiple students inhabit different characters throughout the process. While occasionally it becomes obvious that one actor MUST play a specific character, the shared creation of character prevents hurt feelings when it comes to casting.

In my entire career at Skybridge, I have never had problems with casting, knock wood. That said, this time around I realized that I needed to cast the play before finishing the text. I needed their voices in my head. I needed to know who was comfortable with what.

I had an hour to cast. I pulled monologues from the play for each character, printed a packet for each, and gave it to them in advance. I gave them a cover sheet that asked them their comfort for a variety of actions onstage, including killing, dying, and, of course, kissing and falling in love.

The kissing/love questions had the biggest impact on the play. I was surprised that, with one exception, they were as uncomfortable falling in love onstage as they were with a stage kiss. Based on the auditions, I had to overhaul the action to align with who was comfortable with what.

And Then What

I took a day off of work, rented a motel room, and gave myself a writer’s retreat to finish the play. I’ve never done this before. It was both glorious and hellish.

I had a workshop lined up for when I got back. I had a couple days for tweaking and revisions before printing.

We’ll continue to revise in rehearsal.

A Couple More Notes

  • I have a heavy hand in my plays because I want a unifying vision. If you are looking for ways of replicating elements of my process, I would recommend creating work that has more of a mosaic final product. The amount of emotional toil that went into Deleted Scenes, Twelve Huntsmen, and even Two Truths and Lies was less than this or Icarus because the moments in the plays were created largely independent of each other until I connected all the dots.
  • Theatre is art in time, and with this kind of intense process, it’s REALLY important to know how much time something is taking. It is also practical: I don’t want to leave an actor backstage for 45 minutes or f**k up rehearsals and spend ten minutes on something trifling without realizing it.
    • A page of dialogue with a ‘standard’ format is about a minute of stage time
    • A better gauge is word count. We clock in at about six minutes for 1000 words.
    • I know that I’ll have a higher word count for moments where there’s simultaneous dialogue, which is part of my style.
    • I know that there will be a lower word count / page count for more action/stage direction, and I try to account for this in my formatting.
  • My philosophy is to make a play where not every actor has the same line load, but every actor has something interesting to do. The fewer lines you have, the more interesting they need to be. In Romeo & Juliet, the Prince has the fewest number of lines, and you best bet they’re some of my favorites. One ‘the crew’ leaves the compound in the Apocalypse Project, the other actors become sundry strangers others meet along the way.
  • The Apocalypse Project feels less finished than my other work, but I like the heart-space it occupies. It took me about three additional days to understand what I was doing with the ending, and now that I know, it’s what I want to say.