TFANA and Bard Fisher Center Present the Premiere of MAD FOREST
Theatre for a New Audience and the Fisher Center at Bard join forces to present the professional premiere of the groundbreaking undergraduate Bard College Theater & Performance Program production of Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest, created by acclaimed experimental theater and opera director Ashley Tata and performed and broadcast live online for free using a specially modified version of Zoom, Friday, May 22 (7pm EST), Sunday, May 24 (5pm EST), & Wednesday, May 27 (3pm EST). RSVP in advance is required to view each performance. Details for how to access the stream are available at www.tfana.org. Caryl Churchill's 1990 play is set in Romania just before, amidst, and in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the repressive Ceaușescu dictatorship-mere months before the playwright developed the play with director Mark Wing-Davey and a group of drama students during an immersive visit to Bucharest. Reimagined as a digital presentation by a professional creative team and Bard student performers, this 30-year old work approached from a 2020 point of view powerfully resonates with our current global state.
The Fisher Center presented a single performance of Mad Forest on April 10, 2020, as a project of UPSTREAMING: the Fisher Center's Virtual Stage, with 12 student actors performing from quarantine in remote locations across the country, in front of an audience they couldn't see-but whose comments on YouTube and Facebook Tata sent them as they performed. TFANA Founding Artistic Director Jeffrey Horowitz was one of the thousand-plus people to experience this performance-and the innovative, geographically transcendent theatrical form it took. Horowitz contacted Gideon Lester about the possibility of TFANA and Fisher Center at Bard collaborating to continue to investigate the production and co-produce three additional performances for a wider audience. For the resulting new dates, Tata aims to incorporate any discoveries made in the month since the production was first performed.
Jeffrey Horowitz says, "This is a relationship of like minds. Bard and Theatre for a New Audience-and Gideon and myself-share a respect for storytellers who are expanding boundaries. What Ashley and the cast and team of Mad Forest made is something I hadn't seen before. They're in the territory of making a new form. The company had rehearsed together for two weeks before being shut down due to COVID-19. In the resulting Zoom production, I could feel the humanity of the actors' longing to reconnect and overcome their isolation. Ashley built on this and made something new. It's powerful not because there is a Pandemic, but because director, actors and designers are exploring in a fresh way how Mad Forest comes alive on Zoom not as a replacement for live theatre, but as another way performance can happen."
Says Lester, "The bravery of TFANA was exemplified in the moment where Jeffrey emailed five minutes after the initial performance, and said, 'I think we have to figure out a way to make this happen.' That's breathtaking at a moment when everybody's faced with the epic difficulties of the pandemic and the shutdown. To say 'let's build a bridge and work together' is fantastic. And that is also what's really exciting about the project-it's a first indication that this could be a really fertile artistic period. Rather than simply stopping, really interesting artists are going to find a way to open up new pathways and ways of reaching audiences."
This production of Mad Forest began in a more typical manner: students had rehearsed in person, together, and planned on performing Churchill's unconventional account of totalitarianism, surveillance, revolution, and the complexities of life therein at the Fisher Center. But on March 13, Gideon Lester called Ashley Tata about the growing impossibility of performing for a live audience, as students would soon be encouraged to leave campus and lockdown orders would, a week later, go into effect statewide in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Later that same evening, Tata already had a bold plan; rehearsals going forward would be held virtually. The Mad Forest creative team and cast would band together (via quarantine) to not merely translate what had already been rehearsed and designed to video, but to entirely reimagine the play for a new form of stage.
Tata enlisted the help of Eamonn Farrell, a director and designer for Anonymous Ensemble, who, in the role of Video Designer, brought with him the experience of having collapsed the formal and geographic borders of performance using Zoom in the AnEn work Flight. Andy Carluccio, a designer, engineer, technologist, and student of Farrell's at UVA, had recently begun writing customized Zoom code, and was brought on as the production's video programmer, creating a modified version of the software to enhance its visual and storytelling abilities and allow for camera editing in real time. Farrell worked with Carluccio and the rest of the existing creative team and cast to build an aesthetic and performance style that would use the webcam-led nature of the work to naturally create an air of surveillance and bolster the play's arc from fraught silence and suspicion towards revolution and violent outbursts of speech. The video elements simultaneously evoked television in 1989 in the Socialist Republic of Romania, drawing on the centrality of video within the revolution.
Tata writes, in a Director's Note, "We found the material breathed differently in this space...State-run, regularly televised addresses are the medium of choice for dictators. As it was for the Ceaușescus. Churchill's play references the days when the television station was occupied by revolutionaries. They opened the doors so citizens - victims of the regime - could testify and bear witness to how governmental policies had affected them for decades...Transitioning to this format and incorporating it as a design and meta-theatrical element seems almost obvious."
Farrell says, "This moment has forced us to innovate in ways that theater probably had to do anyway in order to survive. Ashley and I definitely had this feeling of, 'we are making this New Medium together, figuring it out' - how we're not just going to survive this moment but creating a new set of tools and aesthetics that our field can have going forward."
For the reimagined production, designer Afsoon Pajoufar scrapped the original design for the stage and created around 125 individually designed virtual backgrounds against which students would greenscreen themselves; the greenscreens, lighting equipment, Bluetooth earbuds, props and costume pieces, and hardwired internet connections, when needed, were sent to student actors in their remote locations. The cast's work ranged from traditional Stanislavski-based "table work" to learning to meticulously choreograph points of focus to look at and emotionally engage with-using the imagination to manifest a scene partner to their location. As rehearsals held via Zoom moved forward towards production, the platform morphed into its own fragmentary, poetic stage.
Tata says, "Quite resonantly now this is fundamentally about a group of people living during a pivot point in their lives and their country and the world. All of the issues of not knowing what the future looks like, of making decisions about what the future might look like before it even arrives, and how it colors how we look at each other and our communities-all that is very much at play in this text and in this world."
Mad Forest's cast, returning from the first performance, includes Phil Carroll* (Bogdan/Translator/ Vampire), Andrew Omar Crisol* (Grandfather (Bogdan's)/Angel/Boy Student 2), Lily Goldman* (Ianoș/Painter/Old Aunt), Tim Halvorsen* (Radu/Boy Student 1), Mica Hastings* (Flavia/House Painter), Azalea Hudson* (Grandmother (Bogdan's)/Scribe/Someone With a Sore Throat), Ali Kane* (Lucia/Girl Student), Gavin McKenzie* (Mihai/Doctor/Wayne/Soldier/Patient/Ghost/Soldier 2 (of Rodica's Nightmare)), Taty Rozetta* (Irina/Rodica/Waiter), Violet Savage* (Florina/Student Doctor), Yibin (Bill) Wang* (Gabriel/Grandmother (Flavia's)/Toma/Bulldozer Driver), and Charlie Wood* (Priest/Securitate Officer/Soldier 1 (of Rodica's Nightmare)).
The creative team includes Afsoon Pajoufar (Scenic Design), Ásta Bennie Hostetter (Costume Design),
Abigail Hoke-Brady (Lighting Design), Paul Pinto (Compositions and Sound Design), Daniel Safer (Movement Direction), Eamonn Farrell (Video Design), Vanessa C. Hart (Production Stage Manager), Andy Carluccio (Video Programming), Sean B. Leo (Video Engineer), Shane Crittenden (Properties Master), Anisha Hosangady* (Assistant Stage Manager), Maggie McFarland* (Assistant Stage Manager/Sound Operator), Laila Perlman* (Assistant Director) and Angela Woodack* (Assistant Director).