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BWW Interview: Rebecca Wahls, Chelsea Radigan, Ruthie Rado of SPARK at Who What Where Theater Collective

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BWW Interview: Rebecca Wahls, Chelsea Radigan, Ruthie Rado of SPARK at Who What Where Theater Collective
Image courtesy of Who What Where Theater Collective.

Who What Where Theater Collective, founded by Rebecca Wahls, Andrew Reid, and Zach Wilcox, is known for their unique productions set in interesting venues. Last year, they teamed up with Ruthie Rado to perform her play, Spills, inside a house. Who What Where and Ruthie are teaming up again for Spark, a romantic comedy about Scotti and June, who fall for each other at Club Spark, a seedy sex club. This time instead of a house, the stage is Zoom. Spark, directed by Chelsea Radigan, is a one-time virtual reading, which is going to be livestreamed on YouTube on April 30th.

I sat down (virtually of course) with Chelsea, Ruthie, and Rebecca, co-artistic director of Who What Where, to talk about Spark, the challenges of putting on a live virtual reading, and much more.

How did Spark get onto Who What Where's radar?

Ruthie: On St. Patrick's Day, Chelsea was set to direct an in-person reading of Spark. We obviously had to cancel for safety, and we put the whole play on pause. Once it became clear the COVID-19 crisis was going to stretch on for months, Rebecca and Who What Where saved the day and offered to produce a virtual reading.

Rebecca: Who What Where produced a full production of another play of Ruthie's, Spills, almost exactly a year ago at this point. It was funny as all of this was kicking off, there were a lot of texts going around between the cast, Ruthie, and team being like 'Wow, what a different time this was last year when we were making a play together.' But anyway, we produced that pretty successfully last year so, it seemed a pretty natural fit to me that Ruthie had this thing planned, and I wanted to be able to support her.

Was Spark originally going to be a digital production or stage production?

Ruthie: It was written before COVID-19, so it was envisioned as a stage production, but there are some elements of the production that are going to be an interesting challenge to stage. The freedom of a virtual performance and not having to stage certain intimate scenes or stage combat or physical comedy bits, and let the stage directions do the heavy lifting is actually a great format for this script.

Chelsea: Totally! I'd like to add that there was something particularly comforting and exciting about Rebecca and Who What Where's gameness to take it on now, digitally; having seen Spills, which featured nontraditional staging and audience configurations, I'm aware of their dexterity and innovation - qualities that certainly bolster the transition to a virtual platform.

What has been the greatest challenge of putting together this show?

Rebecca: We're lucky enough to be digital natives and so, I think like the act of putting this together as a live digital reading rather than a live in-person reading has just been a fun, small challenge in a way. I know that this technology exists. How do we make it do what we need to do? How do we make the online presence of the thing? We have to put the program online because you can't pass out the programs. How do you livestream Zoom to YouTube? Figuring out all of that stuff has been fun.

Ruthie: One funny tidbit, two of our original cast members couldn't participate because they were already booked for other virtual readings the same night!

Rebecca: I also have to keep explaining to people - it is in fact a live reading. I think that many people assume that it will have been previously recorded. So, I kept reiterating - 'No, you will actually be watching the reading live in real time.'

Chelsea: Anything can happen!

Ruthie: A few weeks ago, Chelsea directed a virtual reading of my play, Break, for the Actor's Center, and one actor's internet disconnected for five minutes.

Chelsea: Truly, in the middle of the play.

Ruthie: In the meatiest part of the play, their internet just went kaput. We had to send them the invitation to get back onto the meeting and there was this whole tech scramble. And so, we hadn't planned for it, but what happened was...we put on some smooth jazz music, turned on my video, and we did a little dance party, and took song requests.

Chelsea: Ruthie has this incredible smooth jazz DJ persona that she has been hiding from us, and it came in at just the right moment, thankfully.

Rebecca: Yeah, it has been cool to work on so many different projects in this new version of the world that we live in. It is great to have these workouts - working out all of the kinks and different things that could go wrong. And now we know to tell actors to sit as close to their routers as they can! But, there is still so much that could go wrong in theatre. It's live theatre!

Chelsea: Something that was really lovely and unexpected about Break, apart from the jazz sesh, was the utility of the react/chat function on Zoom, and what that told us about the engagement level of our audience. Folks got candid! When you're sitting in front of a screen at home, I think there is a different willingness to interact. You know, especially with comedy, in the theatre, folks can be shy, folks can be not totally sure if vocal response is okay...perhaps the layer of digitization/separation offers some comfort and freedom there. So, we get to see who is LOLing, who is sending heart emojis, and you get these real-time responses of how folks are following along with the storytelling. Particularly in the case of big reveals, and romantic connections building, that's really fun to see.

Ruthie, your previous play was Spills about three people coming together to explore their sexuality. Spark is different in that it focuses on two lovers, Scotti and June, who are being kept apart by others who don't want them to be together. What inspired you to explore this side of romance?

Ruthie: Well, I was interested in writing a rom com that was current. So, we have the two love interests. We have June who is at the beginning of the play identifies as cis het woman. And, she falls in love with Scotti, who is non-binary security person at the club where the play takes place. So, I was interested in making a rom com that wasn't the heterosexual, kind of dated story that we are used to. But, it is still very much a rom com that follows that comforting formula that we all like where two people fall for each other, and then a miscommunication breaks them apart, and then one of them is dating a villain, so they can't be together. Then everything works out and there is a happy ending. I was interested in taking that formula, and putting in characters that I'm not used to seeing on stage or screen and also, putting them in a location that we aren't used to seeing, which is a sex club.

What do you hope people take away from Spark?

Ruthie: A throughline of my work tends to be unfussy, honest, and joyful sexuality. So, I don't think that sex is something that is shameful or negative, even in new scripts with a liberal bent, sex is often a negative force. I think it could be a wonderful force for good that brings people together, and I think there is some comfort when you see someone else going through something that you have experienced that is not talked about often. And for instance with Spills, we saw a lot of people relating to the story and saying 'I've never seen anything like that on stage before.' And 'it really made me feel less alone to know that other people also feel insecurity around their sexuality' or that 'they feel that they have to meet certain expectations or that they have these miscommunications with partners as well.' So, I just hope that it shows that sex can be fun and funny.

BWW Interview: Rebecca Wahls, Chelsea Radigan, Ruthie Rado of SPARK at Who What Where Theater Collective
The cast and creatives of Spark.
Image courtesy of Who What Where Theater Collective.

Chelsea, how did you approach directing Spark? Did you approach it differently from other works that you have directed in the past?

Chelsea: Yeah, to a degree, I think by necessity. But actually, at the core of it, you have to engage the same fundamental principles of storytelling - are the relationships clear, is there dramatic tension and build, is the emotional impact there...those things carry over in importance no matter the platform, right? There are certain aspects a director naturally dreams about that don't necessarily translate super well; things as simple as eye contact are tricky. The barrier in physical connection is hard. But, in another way, it's also very freeing because we're hyperfocused on our words and the delivery of those words by the actors. The lit nerd in me really revels in the fact that we get to hone in on the text so much, and in that we're inviting folks at home into their own imaginations when it comes to the design and the spectacle of the world. I think in this case, people's imaginations are probably providing the most fun theatrical experience that they could have, rather than us trying to do it for them. There is also a really beautiful opportunity for increased accessibility through using these platforms. Many folks who wouldn't ordinarily be able to get to the theatre - for myriad reasons, maybe there's an access barrier, a price barrier, a geography issue - can experience this story now, and there is a real empowerment in that.

The show is set in the seedy Club Spark. How are you going to immerse the audience without a physical set?

Chelsea: Key stage directions and descriptors are going to get us partially there, and I think there is a mental and imaginative immersion that is actually heightened, in a way. Rather than being imposed with someone else's vision of what Club Spark looks like, the version that you're envisioning in your head is what you get to play with - and it's probably just as fun, if not more.

Ruthie: We put together a refreshment menu that we are encouraging people to prepare at home. There are house cocktails and snack suggestions. That will be a fun culinary immersion into the world. We also have fabulous actors who are so good at juggling different roles in act one and two - a lot of them. Their performances will show the difference in the environment between the act changes, specifically Silas Brigham and Lisa Hill-Corley. I think you'll see the difference between how deliciously creepy they are in act one and how they completely change in act two - will really set the scene.

Ruthie: And, there's this voyeur thing too, where the audience - we can't see them but they can see us, so they are getting a peek into our world and that feels very appropriate for this play.

Chelsea: Oh yeah. A hundred percent.

Ruthie, when you were writing Spark, what made you decide to set it in a sex club?

Ruthie: When I write a play, I tend to have an image that really grabs me that I think is ripe for drama and comedy and conflict. A sex club has a lot happening and there is a lot of room for misunderstandings and fun little story lines, and interesting characters, and it almost feels like the forest of Arden or something. Then to have a main character in who isn't of that world - I thought was a really interesting contrast.

How can people support theatre artists during this time?

Rebecca: For this project, it really mattered to us that any money we raise goes straight to the artists. That would be the case with any staged reading event we do, but we are lucky to have digital fundraising tools set up too: Who What Where has a PayPal and a Venmo, and we are making those both available for donations. Any donations that we get for the duration of this project go straight to the artists.

Chelsea: If I had to shout out an organization in our local community, I think theatreWashington is just so fabulous. They have expanded the already incredible Taking Care initiative, which is now providing emergency financial relief, especially for freelance and contract theatre professionals, AKA those who are responsible for most of the magic we see on our stages ordinarily. Although I'm happy for the break from grind culture and the pressure to constantly produce - which rarely leads to good work - this format really lends itself to developing new work, hearing the play out loud, and I'm up for anything that puts money in the pockets of artists right now.

Rebecca: I also want to point out that Who What Where is specifically set up as a playground for artists - we don't have a season, and no one's livelihood is dependent on us making certain fundraising goals. It's always been a project-by-project operation. I feel really lucky that, in this moment, that means we can say 'Whatever donations we get go straight to these artists.'

Ruthie: In a non-monetary sense the way to help artists is to keep the excitement and the dream alive. If this crisis stretches on for months or more, there are going to be a lot of artists struggling because the arts can be fickle to begin with, and it can be difficult to make a living and keep going. So, just tuning into these Zoom readings and supporting any sort of artist that you like - buy a print on Instagram, tune into a virtual concert - that keeps the dream alive, and reminds us that we are all connected. It does what art does best, even if imperfectly, it reminds us that we are all in this together.

Chelsea: One of the things that I really love about this play - and Ruthie's writing in general - is that it has radical representation to it in terms of gender and sexuality. There's an honest inclusivity. It is coming from a place of joy, and wanting to seed comfort and connection, and often through comedy. The two things that my life is missing in quarantine are comedy and romance, so, there you go.

Spark is being live streamed on YouTube on Thursday, April 30, 2020 at 7 p.m. It is recommended for ages 18 and up. (Note: Think of it as Rated R.) While there is no nudity, this play features descriptions and dialogue of consensual sexual activities. All donations are going to the artists. For more information, check out Who What Where Theater Collective's Up Next page.

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