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.
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.
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.
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.