Before COVID-19 related shutdowns, DG member DAVID HANSEN had taken up the discipline of writing one short play every morning as a way to process reflections on what he called “both grief and memory.” He asked actors to perform a few of the pieces, which he put on social media. After COVID-19 emerged and theatres began to physically close, he was approached by Cleveland Public Theatre to produce more short plays together as a single piece, live online. Theatres that continue to perform online under COVID-19 restrictions are faced with a myriad of options regarding digital presentation, among them the choice between live and recorded performance. According to CPT’s Artistic Director and Guild member RAYMOND BOBGAN, “We approached the whole shutdown from the beginning that if we were a doctor; we would still practice medicine, even without a doctor’s office. We wanted our performances to continue to be live.” The result of this collaboration was Hansen’s Savory Tanha (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble), a “virtual memory play” presented live and online the first weekend in July. The creative team dedicated extensive rehearsal time to technical elements. “A neutral background was either high- or low-lit, in an attempt to create the illusion of a shared space,” Hansen explained over email. “We took advantage of the medium to deliver the lines directly into the camera, sometimes in extreme close-up. An audience member commented that the eye contact made them feel like they were actually looking through the eyes of whichever person was being spoken to.”
Indeed, the challenges and opportunities presented in Hansen’s short plays reflect the many obstacles as well as opportunities that COVID-19 restrictions have presented to Ohio Guild members and theatre companies alike. Member LISA LANGFORD saw one production of her new play Rastus and Hattie canceled, but another production was adapted into an audio play for a month-long run at Chicago’s 16th Street Theater. Langford also reports that, “I finished working on several plays and got to collaborate with actors all across the country for two readings via Zoom.” Likewise, a COVID-19-related delay for the chance with a television show has led member VERNA CRAIGHEAD GREEN to premiere the pilot for her show Redd on YouTube. Since it was released late last summer, it has already received over 1,000 views.
Theatres like Cleveland’s Playwrights Local, a Guild Affiliate Theatre, continue to pursue alternatives to traditional live theatre. According to Artistic Director David Todd, “Over this fall, we concentrated on workshops and readings conducted via Zoom. Over the winter, we’ll be releasing a series of radio plays, which were funded by a grant from the Ohio Arts Council. We’re still hoping to present three stage productions toward the back end of this 2020-2021 season.” Likewise, Akron’s Rubber City Theatre, also a DG Affiliate Theatre, has also pivoted to digital and online offerings. Their one-man production of A Christmas Carol, originally planned live, was instead given Equity permission to be livestreamed directly from the performer’s parents’ home in South Carolina.
COVID-19 related restrictions have allowed playwrights and producers to think in new ways about the medium of their craft, and some of these changes may be here to stay. Rubber City Theatre’s Artistic Director Dane Leasure reflects, “I don’t think digital theatre or livestream options are going away. We have had people from all across the country watch the show.” Similarly, David Todd of Playwrights Local shared that, “Workshops and readings can benefit from being conducted virtually. We can use an out-of-town actor in a reading, include a guest teacher from a remote location, and also disregard weather concerns for an event in January.” But, he adds, “We’re not necessarily rushing to abandon our primary live work just yet. Hopefully, we’ll learn how to better employ technology for specific purposes in our work, then get back to doing the real thing.”