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BWW Blog: Devising Theatre in Zoom School©

The process of creating the Fall 2020 Experimental Theatre Wing mainstage production…. entirely on Zoom.

BWW Blog: Devising Theatre in Zoom School©

At NYU Tisch Drama, freshmen are not permitted to be in any official Tisch shows for numerous reasons. So, needless to say, as a sophomore I was pretty excited to be able to audition for Tisch shows last fall! However, last semester, Tisch Drama was completely online because of Covid-19, putting a damper on my plans for this school year. I auditioned anyway, even though I was slightly concerned about doing theatre over Zoom.

I am in the Experimental Theatre Wing, and our studio mainstage production last semester was a piece that was going to be devised from the Greek classic Philoctetes and Audre Lorde's essay "Poetry is Not a Luxury." I was unsure about how devising work would happen with everyone in a completely different location, only united through boxes on a screen. Then I met the director, Deena Selenow, when I auditioned, and I knew that, if I was lucky enough to be cast, I didn't need to be so unsure anymore.

In my audition, I had to do a monologue and have a joke prepared. I was actually more nervous about the joke than the monologue! I did my monologue, and Deena asked me to do it again, as if I were on facetime with my scene partner. Such a small adjustment brought a whole different kind of intimacy to the piece, a Zoom-theatre-specific type of intimacy. Then I told her my jokes (I made a list of theatre puns I had come up with over the years), and she actually laughed! The audition experience was so lovely that I was overjoyed when I got the email that I was cast in the show!

The process began with a standard read-through of both the texts. After our initial read-through, we read through the materials several more times with different castings and ideas of how to read it, and in between read-throughs we discussed our thoughts about the pieces and how they are connected to each other and in our own lives. Our melodramatic reading sparked conversation about pain and loneliness, like that of Philoctetes. When we read the Lorde essay interspersed with the play, we spoke about ideas of societal norms, like gender roles and compulsory heterosexuality. Because of the cast's openness, we accelerated at a fast pace, both with our ideas for our piece and with getting to know each other.

After the beginning with the read-throughs, Deena, our director, told each of us to choose a piece of Philoctetes that we were interested in exploring. The next day, we all showed up with seven completely different pieces of the text with which to play. This is where Zoom really began to become another character of our show. Deena instructed us to find new and interesting places and angles in our living spaces, and we began integrating Zoom with our interpretation of the text. The first night when everyone came up with a little performance of the piece of the play they chose was really the catalyst of our excitement about performing over Zoom. Obviously, a Zoom production is very different from a live theatre production, but like there are elements of live theatre that cannot be achieved on Zoom, there are elements of a Zoom production that cannot be achieved on a stage.

Soon after that experience, Deena began giving us writing prompts that were based on the themes and text of the play, the essay, and our work thus far. We had five minutes to answer big questions, like "What are your thoughts on the 'Greater Good?'" and "What would you undo?" Our answers were all strikingly personal, and some were humorous and charming and even wise. We were somehow bonding through our Zoom boxes. With our prompts, Deena began creating makeshift scripts with the pieces of the play we each chose, along with some she chose, interspersed with our writing prompts. However, for most of the writing prompts, there was no one specific person who was supposed to read each one every night. The writing prompts were not assigned. We all loved the element of surprise in this, and in our final product, we didn't know who was going to read each prompt, making our show completely different every night. Either it was in the script that one cast member would choose another to read, or our lovely stage manager would privately message us on Zoom shortly before. Along with our writing prompts, we also made movement pieces, did fun warm-ups together, and just talked about our lives, which really brought us together.

As we developed our script, each member of the cast had a one-on-one meeting with Deena and our stage manager, Emily, to talk about our ideas for each of our individual sections. From these meetings came amazing ideas, including movement pieces, music, and new ways to use Zoom that I had never seen before. Each person came up with something totally different, unique, and interesting, with the genius help of Deena and Emily. When we began experimenting with putting it all together, it worked like magic. We had devised an entire show.... On ZOOM. After our first few run-throughs of our piece, even though we were still working out certain kinks, I couldn't believe I was ever hesitant that a Zoom devised piece could be beautiful and interesting. We were using Zoom in ways I didn't know were possible. In one of our sections, an ensemble member placed her phone camera positioned as though the audience was looking through the crack under her door. In some of the other sections, ensemble members played with lighting with what they had in their spaces and moving their computers. In my section, I continued our experiment of using multiple cameras, and everyone had two cameras, pretending to fight themselves.

It was also important to us to incorporate some kind of audience participation, so we used the chat. The chat had been an integral part of the way we got to know each other, and Deena encouraged us to keep our chats coming during the real shows! We involved the audience in the chat by directly asking them questions (some were even the same as our writing prompts!) and commenting our own (relevant) thoughts in the chat, hoping to stir some conversation and create some connection and intimacy. We also experimented with the Poll feature on Zoom webinar. We found out later from audience members that they really appreciated being included in this way at our talkbacks after our performances.

We ended up naming our show This Is How We're Doing; or Not Philoctetes. This show was one of the most incredible, rewarding theatrical experiences of my life. It was my first college show, my first Zoom show, and my first show that featured my original music. Somehow we came together through our Zoom boxes, from all over the country. Through the process of the show, we lived through fires (literally), our roommates getting Covid-19 (this happened to like three or four of us), a terrifying election process, and really just the nightmare that was 2020. Being in this cast gave us a sense that we were not alone. I know for myself, I am so grateful that I got to be part of this process, and it really opened my eyes to the possibilities of Zoom theatre. As much as I love and miss live theatre, I don't think Zoom theatre should go away when live theatre returns! Zoom theatre is a completely different experience, and it is so incredibly accessible. My parents saw my show from the comfort of the couch in our house in Florida. People from all over the world came to see our show because they actually could. I think that our experiment in human connection over the internet was proven to be successful. This show was not only an amazing experience for us, but also some audience members expressed their feelings of joy that somehow we created for them. One man told us that it made him "happy to be alive that day." In a time as difficult as corona-times, theatre can still be important, even if it's not in person. The power of art really knows no bounds, and the process of our show really enforced this truth for me. Artists are still creating even in some of the most difficult circumstances, because not even a pandemic can kill art.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Sydni Dichter