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Shattered Space: Between Zoom and film, creating a new theatrical experience

The text "Shattered Space: Online Interactive Theatre" is set in a futuristic font and set against a galaxy background.

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published June 16, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here

A new company is launching audiences into space with an exciting confluence of new technology and theatre. In Shattered Space by The Scattered Players, audiences take on the role of Star Jockeys aboard a spaceship which travels through a solar system visiting different planets on the verge of a major cataclysmic event.

The concept of Shattered Space, and the sophisticated programming underlying it, is a promising harbinger of what’s to come as people like Shattered Space Lead Engineer Chris Uehlinger continue to create new digital theatrical experiences.

Shattered Space is very impressive work. How did you achieve it?

Chris Uehlinger: … the 2 big web technologies that underlie this project (the WebRTC streaming stuff and the WebGL 3D stuff) are “both shallow and deep”. To truly understand WebRTC you’d need to do a deep dive on the history of streaming protocols, VoIP and telecommunications, but you can also follow a simple tutorial and learn how to use the user’s webcam and microphone in a web app pretty easily. You can (and many people do) spend years learning how to build beautiful worlds with 3D, but you can also get surprisingly far by just following the tutorials on the ThreeJS website and then looking through their open source examples for things you’d like to use in a project. These topics both look unapproachable from a distance, but once you’ve got a single foot in the door they can feel very empowering in terms of the kinds of things they let you create.

How long has your team been working on this? 

In early March (as all my spring shows were getting cancelled) I approached Lance (Bankerd), Matt (Payne) and Ben (Abraham) with the idea of doing a fully online immersive show. I was inspired by a recent immersive show I’d seen by Submersive Productions in Baltimore called “See Also”, and it had gotten me thinking about having a show with a non-linear story that the audience can explore in any order.

How long did it take you to program, design the ships, create a working system, etc?

It’s been about 3 months of work, and while a lot of it involved things I’d done before, a lot of it was happening at a new scale. For instance, I’d prototyped a video conferencing app at my day job, but never built one for a production product. This app has to work immediately on whatever device the audience members want to use, which meant we not only had to build a video conferencing app, but we needed an admin dashboard with real-time reporting of errors and audience connection issues.

I’ve got to shout out to our Stage Manager Liz Richardson, Marketing Director Donna Ibale, and Marketing Intern Mark Uehlinger (my brother) who are our crack tech support team. As each show is about to begin, we’re all on a Zoom call monitoring the company email account, the error logs, and other metrics to make sure everyone who bought a ticket is able to get in and isn’t having issues with their microphone and camera. They’ve gotten really good at finding patterns where certain errors can be solved quickly with certain solutions, and to the extent this show successfully runs, it’s down to their diligent efforts behind the scenes.

The 3D models of the ships and stations were mostly purchased from CGTrader (mostly chosen by Lance based on the visions put forward by the devisers), the planet materials were designed using an awesome open source tool by Rye Tyrell that creates procedurally generated planet materials based on a whole bunch of parameters. Certain parts like the “Cosmic Rapids effect”, the Ansible and the blue AI face were built by me whole cloth, and in a perfect world I would’ve liked to work exclusively with custom 3D assets. But given our limited time and resources, building 21 custom models wasn’t in the cards for this show.

What was training like with the actors?

The first rehearsals were on Zoom, since I was still building the app deep into the rehearsal period. The cast was split into 5 rehearsal groups for a lot of the process, and on one particular week we brought the groups into the app during their rehearsal time so they could see what the actor experience would be like. We collected feedback and iterated based on that to make sure the app would work with each person’s setup.

For instance, many of our actors are using mobile phones for their performance, so both the audience and actor apps have to work on mobile, and have almost all of the same features as the desktop versions. We also have a “headless” version of the actor app without the audio/video stuff that some actors use to look at the ship’s chat, inventory, etc. All of this came from having a tight iteration loop where we sought actor feedback and responded to it quickly, sometimes within a day.

I’ve gotta give a lot of credit to the actors here: They were patient, understanding, and quick to adapt to a platform that was changing under their feet every day. This kind of tech can only work if folks on the artistic side trust the folks on the technical side, and us folks on the technical side have to earn that trust by holding ourselves to a high standard of quality and accountability.

How do you see this kind of technology affecting local theatre going forward?

We’re going to be in quarantine for a while, and it’s going to be extremely rough for local theatre. But the good news is that people still want theatre if we can find ways to bring it to them.

I’ve seen a lot of people using Zoom to put on productions of existing plays, and I think that is a totally valid choice. But I also feel like when you take normal linear theatre and move it from the real world to digital, it starts to blur the line between theatre and film. At a certain point, if we want to do film we have to get good at cinematography, editing and the other skills that make good indie film good.

If we want to be different from film, we have to do what film can’t do, and make something that is undeniably live. That’s not easy: Most of the current canon of plays weren’t built for this at all, and the technical tools available are still rough. Shattered Space required a humongous technical effort, and is not something many companies can probably reproduce. I’ve seen folks like the Pandemic Players in Baltimore use Zoom and some other apps (which hide the Zoom UI) to put on shows that play with the videoconference medium in clever and thoughtful ways. I feel like there’s a middle ground that combines the nonlinear storytelling of a show like Shattered Space with a slightly modified off-the-shelf video conferencing app (like the Pandemic Players use) to allow more companies to put on shows like this.

And if they can, they may find (like we have) that they are no longer really “local” theatre. Although most of our cast is Baltimore-based, we have some folks in Boston, New York and Florida in this show, and we’ve had audience members from other continents. We could see a real flattening of the theatre economy, where good local work starts getting international recognition. And if that’s how things play out, that would be really exciting.

What if other producers want to replicate this experience, or build projects like this?

My plan is to open source the code when we’re done. If someone else has the technical know-how to deploy servers and get this thing running, I’d like to give them a good starting point. But the codebase for this show has a ton of duct tape, vestigial parts that no longer do anything, workarounds for the different ways Chrome and Safari handle audio/video stuff and weird tie-ins to the ARKit app that I’m using for the AI motion-capture stuff. And so it won’t be an easy plug-and-play kind of thing.

Now, if anyone in the web tech world wants to help the theatre world, this would be a great opportunity to do so. It’s hard to find folks with the kind of streaming tech expertise needed to build tools like this, but a few folks working together on an open source solution for this would probably help a lot of people out. If anyone has the desire and the time (a lot of time) to help, feel free to contact me via chris dot uehlinger at gmail.

What can we expect from The Scattered Players next?

We’ve got a lot of ideas for similarly nonlinear immersive shows, some of them specifically kid-oriented, some of them exploring different genres or mechanics. Right now our focus is on making Shattered Space successful, but in a month or so we’ll probably be able to talk more about what’s going to happen in the fall. Stay tuned!

Theatre artists gather in vigil to honor black lives lost to police violence

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published June 5, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here

On Monday, June 8, Galvanize DC and Actors Arena will host “Making Space To Breathe/Gathering To Grieve” outside Arena Stage at 7 p.m.  The artist-driven vigil is being held to create a safe space to acknowledge what everyone is going through and to honor the lives of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others taken by police brutality.

Local artists and prominent DC theatre community members will speak. The current list of presenters (subject to change) includes Jade Jones, Temídayo Amay, Psalmayene 24, Felicia Curry, KenYatta Rogers, Kasai Rogers, Jefferson A. Russell, Ines Nassar and Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi. The team has planned an invocation, and appropriate songs and spoken word recitations.

The water facing Molly’s Study will be the front of the event. The organizers plan to maintain proper social distancing and encourage all attending to wear masks. There will be a plot laid out with “X”s marking places six feet apart to stand. The crowd will, if needed, wrap around the sides of Arena as well.

We spoke with two theatre artists and Galvanize DC organizers: Jefferson A. Russell (he/him/his) and J. J. Johnson (he/him/his).

Russell is confident that there will be enough space to safely accommodate a decent enough crowd. For those who cannot attend in person, the vigil will be streamed through Facebook Live and Instagram.

Russell and Johnson want everyone to come to, or stream, the vigil: theatre folks and non-theatre folks, black folks and white and non-black POC allies alike.

“We are gathering in an effort to make people know they’re not alone, to acknowledge that we are in this together, that we are seen and we are heard,” Russell said. “It’s to be able to acknowledge that, yes, we are all feeling this. It’s a safe forum to put these feelings and speak those truths. We live it, so there it is.”

Johnson agreed, saying that when incidents occur, it can sometimes feel very lonely. “It’s nice to reinforce community, to reinforce that we’re not alone and that there are methods to deal with this,” he said.

Russell has a uniquely personal perspective on the behaviors of the police.

“I used to be a Baltimore police officer, and I’m not ashamed of it, but I don’t live in that place. I’ve always been the person I am, even though that was over 20 years ago. But at the same time the reasons why I became a police officer are completely counter to the sh*t that we see, pardon my language, but the things that we see especially in the past few days.” Regarding the police presence at some of the protests:  “They’re aggressive. It’s counter to the ideals of law enforcement. They come in and it is not a thing of the objective being to de-escalate a situation. They, generally speaking, bring the energy to escalate the situation. And it’s like a personal thing that these police officers have, it’s a shallow sort of ego thing. They can’t be wrong.”

“It takes everyone to do the work, you know,” Russell said, “I would think and I would hope that it’s not just the DC theatre community, but the country and the world. It’s not just about, ‘Oh, they just want to be heard, so let’s let them be heard.’ No. It’s never been about that. We recognize we gotta take one step at a time, but, good God, man, what else does it take? Folks don’t like us protesting in any kind of way; there’s an issue with every which way a protest is made regarding equity and black lives. And it’s a thing where white people are uncomfortable with that, and I’m okay with that, because we have to be okay, because that’s the only way for something true, something real…to change.”

Russell and Johnson spearheaded the efforts. Jjana Valentiner, a co-organizer, worked with Arena Stage to get the outdoor space. All three are members of the steering committee for Actors Arena, an organization that previously collaborated with Galvanize DC on mental health workshops for black people at Arena Stage, including “Conscientious Theatre Training”centered around dismantling racism led by Nicole Brewer.

“We had talked about something for Galvanize to step forward and do, centered around black mental health,” Russell said. “Little did we know.”

Social media is being used to spread the word about the vigil, as well as email outreach and connecting with their built-in communities. Johnson said that he hopes black folks will find their community and find ways to engage with like minds online.

“When I was 20-something, I was just getting introduced to the Internet and social media wasn’t a thing, so we weren’t so connected back then,” Johnson said. “When you were alone, you were really, really alone. And so now you have the option of connecting with like minds and nurturing yourself almost instantly, which is a great privilege…that’s different for every demographic and group of people.”

Galvanize DC was established in 2005. Johnson and Russell’s previously worked with #BlackLivesMatter efforts include working with the group to create a video and collage to honor Trayvon Martin and town forums at Forum Theatre and the Silver Spring Black Box. One forum was to come together as a community, similar to the vigil planned for Monday, and another was a conversation with the Montgomery County police chief about creating better understanding between both communities.

Russell and Johnson said that this vigil continues the Galvanize DC mission of supporting artists of the African diaspora and all black lives. Both spoke to the importance of standing with trans black people.

“Our trans brothers and sisters are being beaten and killed, sometimes by our own,” Russell said.

“Just for existing,” Johnson said.

“Just for being who they are,” Russell said. “And that is the most ridiculous thing. So yes, all black lives matter.”

Moving forward, Russell and Johnson believe that DC theaters must commit to anti-racism efforts. As Russell put it, “Making Space To Breathe/Gathering To Grieve” is on June 8.  Protests will eventually subside, but the work continues.

“It’s gotta be real, it just can’t be cosmetic. It just can’t,” Russell said.  “Especially at this time, when there is severe lack of national political leadership, we have to do the work ourselves. That goes without saying. That would be the case even if 44 was still in the office. We have to do the work ourselves. He would be out there saying that. He said that yesterday. The work is up to us.”

The 2020 Helen Hayes Awards go virtual

The 2020 Helen Hayes Awards

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published May 19, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

On Monday, May 18, the night when the DC area theatre community would have been celebrating the 2020 Helen Hayes Awards at The Anthem, honoring theatre excellence in area productions for 2019, theatreWashington took to its Facebook page to announce that the celebration will go on as a virtual event.

The move comes amidst a slow and uncertain reopening of the greater Washington area as state governors and mayors propose the reopening of their respective jurisdictions, for which social distancing measures and venue capacity limits remain in place.

“We have reached the decision to move the celebration online as a completely virtual event, foregoing an in-person event in late summer,” theatreWashington wrote on its Facebook page, “and will present the Helen Hayes Awards, open to everyone, at a date to be announced soon.”

DCTS confirmed with Amy Austin, President and CEO of theatreWashington, that the event is coming together now and will take place this summer.

“It is also important to us to preserve the tradition and prestige of the Helen Hayes Awards. We want the virtual ceremony to be joyful–to find beauty, comfort, reflection, and inspiration in each other and in our art,” the Facebook announcement continued.

“We’ve heard great feedback and ideas and we’re in the middle of the deliberative process of re-shaping the event.” Austin confirmed that the show will retain its original co-hosts, Felicia Curry (2018 recipient and 2020 nominee) and Naomi Jacobson (13 time nominee and two-time recipient).

“First and foremost,” the Facebook announcement continued “we are committed to allocating as many resources as possible in direct support to our community as we face the uncertainty ahead.” A signature program for theatreWashington has been its support all theatremakers in need through the Taking Care COVID-19 Emergency Fund.

“While it’s sad that we aren’t able to gather in person, this email felt like an inevitability, and theatreWashington is absolutely making the right call,” Amber Gibson, a nominee in the “Best Ensemble” category, said. “This isn’t a year for us to gather in-person, and their resources are better directed to assisting out of work artists and theaters through the Taking Care fund.”

The 2020 Helen Hayes Awards nominees and presenters.

Up-and-coming company Like Fresh Skin pushes the boundaries of live Zoom theatre

A screenshot of Zoom. The cast of Too Solid Flesh is rehearsing for their upcoming live performance. A sunny meadow is seen in the background of each actor's screen.

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published May 15, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here

“O that this too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” Hamlet cries out in his first soliloquy of the eponymous Shakespeare play. And as Shoshana Tarkow (she/her, resident director) and Megan Lohne (she/her, resident playwright) of Like Fresh Skin discovered, many young people in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic find themselves feeling the same way.

Through Too Solid Flesh, written by Lohne and inspired by the young characters from three Shakespeare plays and Adelphi University theatre students’ stories, young artists were given the chance to process their feelings as their lives have been affected by the coronavirus and to explore a new form of immersive, technology-driven theatre.

The play incorporates live performance, pre- recorded videos, apps like Tik Tok, a video game, chat boxes and other games like Pictionary and presents it all over Zoom.

WHAT IT IS

When the COVID-19 quarantine hit New York, Lohne and Tarkow did a Zoom call together. Playing around with the platform, Tarkow said “Let’s push this platform to its limit in seeing what it can do, and let’s try to use it in ways no one else is using it and let’s create something that’s interactive and immersive and is narrative-driven and all of those things,” she said.

Lohne sent out a questionnaire for the Adelphi students. 18 students responded and are now part of Too Solid Flesh, with original characters written for them by Lohne, inspired by the experiences that they shared.

“The answers that came back to us were so genuine, truthful and honest, that we really just thought, this is a great springboard to create something,” Lohne said.

“You’ll see that it’s not the text, it’s not the Shakespeare, but it’s the ideas and the feelings of how big it is to not be able to graduate in real time, to not be able to finish out a semester, to be relocated to a family home where there’s all kinds of things happening there for you that make you almost feel not empowered anymore,” Lohne said. “It’s like you’re a kid again, right at this moment when you’re about to become an adult. And I think that’s very powerful. It’s so interesting when we see this with teens, with people who are age appropriate. I think they attach onto it very easily and it means something.”

The play, as it has evolved, concerns an anxiety-ridden student, O, who tries to find a connection while trying to do online distance learning, to “save her from her thoughts and herself,” as well as many other young characters inspired by those in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.

HOW THE SHOW WAS MADE

Too Solid Flesh uses various emerging technologies, from Zoom to next-generation apps. Among these technologies include specific sections that have been pre-recorded for different purposes; Tik Tok, used in both a presentational and interactive way; a video game in an observational capacity; Pictionary; chat boxes; and the Zoom live performances themselves.

They are constantly developing the piece, actively fixing it and changing it throughout the rehearsal process. For Tarkow, in both this virtual setting and in the previous theatre work Like Fresh Skin has done in the past, rehearsing a show that requires an active audience can be unpredictable.

“When you invite them to interact, you have to prepare for all of the ways that could go wrong, as well as all of the ways that could go right,” Tarkow said. “It’s sort of this teeter-totter between making sure that the narrative is there and the acting is solid…and all of that stuff you have in any normal production, and then simultaneously, structurally – it is working? – technically – are things falling apart? – there’s sort of two conversations after every rehearsal, in a debrief. And then we move forward.”

In order to ensure that all of the different modes of technology can be used efficiently for performances, four stage managers are on the project, including one designated stage manager as the media and content supervisor. All of the materials are on one Google Drive.

“It’s really been a team effort to accomplish that,” Tarkow said. “We are 100% blessed to have all of them on board for this.”

“A lot of it honestly came from the students, things they are interested in, things that are inspiring to them on social media,” Tarkow said. “It feels very timely and very contemporary to be using things that are their means of expressing themselves anyway.”

Beyond the performance, students are also taking to social media, using Tik Tok, Instagram and even one Tinder account to interact with each other and audiences as their character. They’ve also started doing Instagram Story takeovers to help share who their characters are and to help create buzz.

“I will say that as the director, in the room, I’ve noticed a sizable difference in how connected they are to their characters since they’ve started doing this,” Tarkow said.

CONTEXT FOR TODAY’S CLIMATE AND TECHNOLOGY

It’s been a learning process to explore new ways of playwriting and engagement with Zoom.

For example, the company has been attempting to re-create the experience of immersive theatre where oftentimes the audience gets subdivided into multiple spaces and has experiences in smaller, more intimate settings, and then gets brought back into a big physical space, where they have a group scene. To emulate that physical movement, Lohne and Tarkow  tried using Zoom breakout rooms.

“Our experience thus far has been that there’s a lack of forward momentum that is caused by doing it in Zoom that doesn’t exist when people are walking in a physical space,” Tarkow said. “So in order to not halt the narrative, and have there be this waiting to see what’s next, we are going to be cutting back on our use of breakout rooms, and sort of re-evaluating.”

According to Tarkow, it is important that whenever you’re doing something, any kind of theatre, but specifically something that is groundbreaking or changing structures, to always sit back and say, “What is the value of doing this thing? What are we gaining?”

For Lohne, the process of playwriting over Zoom has allowed for quick and efficient troubleshooting and communication. While in Zoom rehearsals, Lohne can rewrite in real time, and she has been revising the play to account for technical elements and timing.

“We’re very collaborative, and I think that generates these very cool, exciting new forms of theatre that we’re really trying to push the bounds to what that can be for us and our company,” Lohne said.

A NEXT STEP PROCESS

This kind of innovation is vital in a world where many educational institutions have not yet made final decisions on whether students will be returning to the classroom in the fall, and pre-existing online universities that offered arts programs could benefit from more streamlined live performances. Like Fresh Skin hopes to make performances like this a “next step process.”

According to Lohne, some of the early responses from audiences who have come to rehearsals were that it really hit home, which is what the company wants to do with this piece. She hopes people will leave the play thinking about what’s next and allowing themselves to live in their emotions a little more.

I do hope that it actively makes them consider, ‘What do I miss?’” Lohne said. “I can’t tell you one conversation I haven’t had with a friend, who brings up missing something, however small it might be. I miss walking down the street to get frozen yogurt. I miss meeting up with friends and sitting, like less than six feet apart, on a park bench. It’s very simple little things and I think if we can ignite that big universal truth, we’ve done our job.”

Tarkow agrees. She said that when they first sent out the questionnaire, she thought that she would receive reactions from students asking for something light and fun, an escape. It turned out that what they really wanted was to process what was going on and work through it in the best way they knew how: the performing arts. Tarkow said that it excites her to create a new kind of theatre, and she wants theatre makers to be excited, as well.

“I hear so much dismay and so much giving up on the arts right now, like ‘We will come back stronger than ever,’ but it doesn’t address what happens until we come back,” Tarkow said. “And I think there is the potential to create moving, affective, beautiful entertainment given the technology available to us now, and that I hope that we move beyond live streams and pre-records and staged readings. Not that there isn’t value in all of those things. But I hope we move into something that feels a bit closer to what you feel when you’re in a theater.”

The Washington Ballet’s youngest dancers struggle to find their footing during the company’s COVID-19 layoff

A group of people gather around a table of food at an outdoor food drive.

By Ilena Peng

This article was first published April 14, 2020 in The DC Line here

Rather than performing Swan Lake at the Kennedy Center this week as originally scheduled, the dancers of The Washington Ballet are among those stuck at home due to the COVID-19 public health emergency. The performances have been rescheduled for June, but the resulting layoffs have left some of the youngest dancers — who are completing the final stages of their training in TWB’s studio company — hit hardest by the financial burdens of the unexpected break.

Professional company members, who are signed under a union agreement, are employees who are eligible for unemployment benefits during layoffs like this one. But studio company members are not classified as employees, receiving a weekly stipend of between $250 and $300 in lieu of salaries — and like freelancers and gig workers, they do not typically qualify for unemployment. 

Under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, passed by Congress last month, studio company members not claimed as a dependent by their parents may now be eligible for unemployment benefits. Company manager Catherine Eby said the dancers have been encouraged to apply for benefits, but added that it is too early to determine if their applications will be approved.

Eby likens being in the studio company to being an intern. The 10 studio company members often perform with the company but train with The Washington School of Ballet’s highest division. They are students in their “last step” before becoming a professional dancer.

“Financially, this will definitely be harder on the studio company, who won’t have access to the same public benefits that a company member would,” Eby said.

TWB hopes to return to its studios after DC’s stay-at-home order is lifted (it’s currently set to expire April 24), but the timeline will ultimately depend on how the COVID-19 crisis unfolds and the rules established by local and federal officials. Under ordinary circumstances, the company guarantees both main and studio company dancers 37 weeks of employment a year, with a planned layoff in the summer.

“This is just unexpected — the layoff we had planned at the end of the season, they were all expecting and could plan for,” Eby said. “This of course was not something anyone was planning for.”

Without a weekly stipend or unemployment benefits, studio company dancers like Abigail Granlund are left to rely on savings after unsuccessful searches for jobs that no longer exist. She has applied for babysitting, retail and receptionist jobs. Granlund inquired about returning to a restaurant she used to work at, but the business closed its doors the next day.

“I kind of sent my information everywhere and [to] whatever was open at the time,” Granlund said. “I was kind of desperate for anything, whether it was $5 or $10, I didn’t really care. I unfortunately have failed at all my attempts to get a second job, but at this point I’m just praying that finances will come in time.”

Company member Gian Carlo Perez launched a Facebook fundraiser for the studio company on March 15, which received more than 100 donations totaling nearly $9,000. The funds will be distributed evenly among TWB’s 10 studio company members. Perez said he was happy both to see the amount of support TWB had and to be able to help the studio company.

“At the end of the day, they’re performing at the level of the company members,” Perez said.

The Washington Ballet Women’s Committee, an affiliated fundraising and social group, launched a fundraiser on March 16 to provide aid to TWB company and studio company members, as well as students in the Washington School of Ballet’s professional training division. As of April 13, the fundraiser had raised more than $13,270 of its $20,000 goal. The money is distributed to the dancers electronically each week.

The Women’s Committee also held a food and essentials drive on March 19 to support all TWB dancers, as well as the Washington School of Ballet’s professional training division. The drive, while originally envisioned as a weekly event, has since been replaced with care package deliveries to dancers with food, cleaning supplies and other personal care items. A private donor has also contributed $3,500 for Amazon gift cards to allow dancers to buy necessities without going to stores, and a TWB volunteer provided more than $3,400 in Giant Food gift cards.

Studio company member Rench Soriano said he was planning to talk to his landlord in hopes of temporarily renegotiating his rent. His parents had wanted to transfer some money to him but encountered problems because Western Union’s retail locations near them were closed.

Soriano is from the Philippines and could not return home, as the country is in lockdown. He moved to DC last December for his first season at TWB and his first-ever opportunity to dance in a professional company.

“Moving to America was such a dream for me, and I was looking forward to doing a lot with TWB,” he said. “Since all of this is happening, it’s just a little bit disappointing, but I’m looking forward to June — hopefully [Swan Lake] is going to happen. I hope the show goes on.”

Soriano has been staying busy with online classes for ballet, stretching and other workouts. But he said the layoff is “just really tough times” for dancers, who are accustomed to spending most of their day in the studio.

“Being home whole days a week is just painful because we spend our time in the studio a lot,” Soriano said. “We wake up, go to the studio in the morning until 6 at night, so it’s a big loss.”

Studio company member Peyton Anderson, who has been doing daily workouts and ballet classes online, said the layoff is pushing her to take better care of herself without relying on her work to keep her in shape and positive. She added that she is seeing “a lot of positivity” online among artists who have harnessed social media as their new stage.

Anderson has taken virtual classes with TWB ballet master Ruben Martin, TWB dancer Katherine Barkman and TWB artistic director Julie Kent. She added that she hopes this period of social distancing will end up fostering greater interest in the arts. Companies like the Paris Opera Ballet and Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet have uploaded entire ballets online.

“Maybe when all this is over, people will want to come see [the arts] more in person because in history anytime during a disaster, the arts have always been a gateway out of sadness and whatnot,” Anderson said. “So I hope that people just turn to the arts more after this and find inspiration.”

Olney Theatre is running Zoom classes for kids and adults: Here’s how it’s going

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published April 13, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Although performances and the National Players tour have been canceled at Olney Theater Center, the artistic staff, education staff and the National Players have found a new way to stay engaged with the community — through eight hours of Zoom classes on Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. All classes are free of charge, ranging from master classes and courses, to business advice, seminar-style discussions and storytelling. The classes began as open to the public, but, as of April 8, require registration through a Google Form on the Olney website. As of today, Olney Theatre offers 22 classes.

“The reason why we wanted to start doing classes online was we wanted to stay connected to our community, from the very young to adults who are curious about how we do what we do,” said senior associate artistic director Jason King Jones, who teaches Directing Shakespeare For A New Era, Resume and Audition Tips, You Are Your Own Business and Storytime. “We’re offering them for free because we want to encourage as much participation as possible. Besides with so many people suddenly out of a job, the last thing we’d want to do is try to take money from people struggling right now. Of course, if people have a great experience and want to donate to us, they are certainly welcome to do so.”

With each instructor using Olney’s single Zoom account all day, they’ve developed a system of logging off at 55 minutes after the hour to make time for the other person to log on. Each instructor serves as the host of each Zoom meeting, and the new registration model gives more agency to the host, as Olney has encountered difficulties with intruders, a problem that other educational environments have faced. Jones himself has had to kick people out of Storytime classes that were being disruptive. In New York City, security issues led to Zoom being banned in public schools.

“Our initial plan was to kind of have an open door policy and allow people in but it only took about five days for some nefarious actors to decide it would be more fun to troll our Storytime site and our classes with trollish behavior,” he said. “So we deleted all of those open Zoom meetings and then created a registration system through Olney so people register with us.”

Olney asks parents to register their kids, and adults to register themselves. The company is able to monitor who is registering on an individual level, to ensure that everyone is being forthright with their identity, and already has been able to red flag an individual who they identified as not being entirely forthright in trying to register for Storytime. Once registered, participants receive a new link and password to the Zoom meetings.

“The downside of that is that access is more limited, so our participation numbers may skew a little bit smaller initially, but our hope is that the security measures we’ve put in place will then encourage parents to see that this is a safe opportunity for their kids, a safe and secure learning environment,” he said. “We re-launched everything and everything is already going so much better.”

A lot of the Zoom settings now allow for more host controls that are not provided in the default settings: participants can only chat with the hosts, not each other and only the host is given control over participants’ mics and cameras, annotating white board and generally the features that Zoom has. If the host chooses to then allow for participation, the host is in control of that.

“In order for us to effectively teach our classes, we had to make some more stringent restrictions on how people get access to class and what the host can allow in order to have a controlled learning environment,” he said. “You know, if you’re in a classroom, you have classroom management techniques that just aren’t available using a video conference software, other than muting people’s microphones or muting their cameras or just removing them from class.”

For Jones, Storytime is a family affair, and the class provides a function that is otherwise inaccessible right now.

“Storytime seems like an obvious one in some ways, because libraries are closed, preschools are closed, some parents may not have a lot of kids’ books lying around,” he said. “I happen to have quite a few having gone through two kids and collected a lot of stories, and knowing that I like to read stories to kids, why don’t I offer that as a thing for parents to be able to give that opportunity to their kids?”

His 11-year-old daughter Gwen and 5-year-old son Elliot often show up as “guest artists” who participate in the readings. Elliot models good behavior for being a good listener; Gwen sometimes reads the books. Every time, Jones welcomes everyone at the top of the hour and goes right into it, reading “basically what’s on the shelf” in his house: Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak, Marissa Meyer, Dr. Seuss or various books on animals and nature they have.

“I see my job as basically a person they could log on to and see some stories being read,” he said.

Using Zoom for Storytime has had its ups and downs beyond disruption, Jones said. He has to be more mindful of his posture while reading books to a laptop camera and change up the location in his house based on what activities his kids and wife are doing at the time.

“I take some time with each page, I look at their faces on the screen, I try to mute them because sometimes there’ll be other noise around and I watch their reactions,” Jones said. “If they’re reacting with the books, I make sure they have some time with it. So I’m following their faces on the screen and that’s the best that we can do right now.”

Jones runs a plethora of other classes for Olney that are online, including Directing Shakespeare for a New Era, which examines how directors can view Shakespeare’s works in the current climate.

“I’ve been directing a Shakespeare play for National Players every year for eight or nine years, so it’s very much on my mind of ‘how do we direct shows now in this world?’” he said. “It’s about understanding Shakespeare’s relationship to gender, to violence, to the technologically advanced society in which we live; it’s understanding how these plays speak to us differently. Rather than requiring artists to adhere to some kind of outdated mode of telling the story, it’s giving people permission to meet the plays where they are in this time and day.”

In just the first week of running the classes, the company has already amassed a far reach. The demographics collected from registration show that people are attending these classes from within D.C., Maryland, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, South Carolina and California.

“There certainly are other theatre companies that are offering some classes or some coaching, but I would say that at least in the D.C. area we are unique in the volume of classes we are offering,” Jones said.

In a world shut in by COVID-19, three DMV theaters find innovative uses for Zoom

A gif of a man performing an exercise move. He is bringing his elbow to his knee while standing.

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published April 8, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Zoom is a common mode of communication for the world affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and colleges use it for online classes; companies are using it for meetings; friends and family use it to stay in touch during a time of social distancing. For theatre companies, Zoom has proven to be an innovative tool to push forward the communal spirit of art in new ways, from online classes that go beyond the norm for theatre companies to livestreaming performances to the public. Here is just some of the interesting work that is being done by DMV theatre artists to maintain community and creativity. 

Virtual Fitness at Synetic Theater

At Synetic Theater, Virtual Synetic Fitness classes are currently being offered over Zoom, which utilize Synetic physical theater techniques to give participants workouts. The class is taught by Synetic company member Alex Mills (he), who has been with the company since 2008. 

“Because we are a physical theater, training has been an important part of our company since its birth,” education director Christopher Rushing (he) said. “We do training like three to four times a year with our company members, and then when we’re not doing training with our company members, we offer a fitness class where company members can attend for a reduced or free rate. But then we figured we’d also open it up to the community.” 

Rushing said they initially looked into YouTube Live because of its accessibility, but decided on Zoom because of the ability to have both privacy and participation options, since it’s easy to pull up those who are using their own camera and participating, so Mills can give feedback. 

“Obviously it’s different doing a fitness class online inherently because I’m by myself, I kind of get stimulated by having people in front of me, and you know, seeing the progress, how it’s going,” Mills said. “But using Zoom, I still actually feel like I’m with a class, because I can see people, I can still give technique notes or clarifications.” 

Typically, when the class is run in person, it takes place in Synetic’s rehearsal studio, The Factory, where Mills would lead across the floor work that used the entire large space. Now that the class is online, tests are conducted for lighting, sound with a snowball mic and the company’s EpicCam HD camera 20 minutes before class. But besides not having the space, there actually is not a huge change in what can be taught, because “a lot of things that we do or that we do in training can be done, quote on quote, ‘in place,’ so to speak,” Mills said. 

He also feels an extra layer of support, because people are actively like “I want to get up and move, you know, I want to do something,” he said. “It’s even more kind of that level of participation, it actually feels increased.”

Mills divides the class into four sections: cardio for about 15-20 minutes to keep participants’ heart rate going; stretching and technique work to slow it down, which is broken in various categories (isolation work, coordination exercises, pantomime, etc.); muscle work such as arms, shoulders or legs; and ending with a specific set of leg or core exercises. To explain movements, he demonstrates them from a few different angles, describes what muscle groups are activated and tries to put imagery in participants’ heads.“A lot of it is show and tell,” Mills said. “That’s the luxury of it being visual, is that I can go and do the movements with them, and then and say ‘Well, here’s what I need to correct, keep your head straight, lift your knees up, toes pointed,’ all those details. So I mean, it’s easy to communicate. Granted, I wish I was there to be able to give physical adjustments, to say isolate this or move this shoulder. But it’s still translating.” 

Rushing has been taking the class and said he enjoys learning Synetic physical theater techniques. The first time Synetic tried out using Zoom for the class before opening it up to the public, it was after the indefinite postponement of Life Is A Dream, for which Mills served as movement director, and when people were practicing social distancing but it hadn’t been officially requested yet. 

“Our company kind of all had gone home and they’d all been working with this common goal in mind and now that was gone,” Rushing said. 

But with Synetic Fitness coming back, it gave the company a new way of coming together. 

“It was cool to see how excited everyone was that it was coming back, and like, the energy, even though it was through virtual means, was like, palpable,” Rushing said. “It was really exciting and fun to be a part of. Even though I wasn’t teaching it, I was just producing it and making sure everything was running smoothly, it was still a really cool experience to see how excited everyone was and just how thankful people were to have that connection and that release again.” 

It’s that kind of release that Mills believes can help artists maintain a sense of sanity during this time. 

“We can get so stuck in our rooms, in our houses, and feeling like we can’t get anything done. I think just having that release, that physical release, is good for your own sanity, for real,” he said. “And feeling like you’re doing something — and a lot of us are, we’re still creating things, we’re still doing stuff — but physically doing something, moving our bodies, you know, makes it feel like, okay, I did that, I did that for an hour.”

Synetic offers a link to each class that’s available for a week afterwards for people who can’t attend it right at that time. It currently runs on a pay-what-you-can basis. Soon, Rushing said, Synetic will be expanding into school aged virtual options, during the school day as well as after school options. Synetic is currently working with Alexandria City Public Schools to deliver one of their family series shows as a streaming show. 

This Vessel Is A Fragile Thing at 4615 Theatre 

For 4615 Theatre, This Vessel Is A Fragile Thing  by Britt A. Willis (they) was the company’s first foray into online readthroughs, by streaming a Zoom meeting to Facebook Live on March 23. The script has been around for some time, and during the first video call between 4615 Theatre resident artist Ezra Tozian (they) and Willis since the beginning of social isolation, Willis said, “Oh, it would be really cool to do a live reading of this and stream it, would you want to do it?” 

Tozian had always been the first person Willis thought of to read for the role of The Body. This play’s messages spoke to Tozian. 

“Being a nonbinary performer, person, human, whatever, and also going through the whole body positivity thing, well, how does one come to terms with their body?” they said. “And then like, what does one do when the idea of your body or what you’re promised is taken away or changed without your consent? I definitely got that from the play and it meant a lot.”

Tozian asked artistic director Jordan Friend (he) if 4615 could produce the show as part of the EP program which allows resident artists to pursue side projects. Friend’s response? “Absolutely, let’s do it.”

For Willis, this play was written in one week, but it was a hard piece to write and make feel complete. Though it is not autobiographical, the play reflects their feelings and relationship with bodies and chronic illness and their issues with the current body positivity culture. 

“Often, I feel it still kind of puts the onus on people with bodies that are perceived as different or outside of the norm by our society,” they said. “It says you have to love yourself, and if you don’t, that’s a problem, when the truth is, it’s very hard to accept and love your body in every way possible, when that’s not how society functions, society hasn’t changed to do that as well and also I don’t always love my body, and that’s fine. It’s a body. And it’s okay that I don’t always love it. It’s a special play to me because it’s the first time that I very honestly engaged with those questions in my writing.”

Willis was the host for the Zoom meeting. Though they initially looked into the differences between Twitch and Zoom, they eventually decided on Zoom for its ease. According to Tozian, the cast all had at least basic experience with Zoom beforehand, so things like changing names were not hard to figure out. 

The night before the readthrough, Willis did a practice run on their personal Facebook page. The cast rehearsed the same day as the readthrough, doing a runthrough with director Jon Jon Johnson, who gave notes on how to make it feel more like a live performance and how to draw focus using Zoom.

“One very cool thing that we couldn’t tell in the meeting is Jon Jon suggested people turn off their cameras when they weren’t in a scene, and on our meeting screen, the person would still be there but their box would be black,” Willis said. “But in the Facebook video, the way streaming works, it just drops the person.”

The result of this was that there would be long stretches where the Facebook livestream would just show certain actors performing and Willis saying the stage directions on screen, even though everyone was still on the call. At some points, it would be Tozian alone on screen. According to Friend, it was lovely to watch. 

“It gives the feeling of someone being alone onstage, to have it just be our lead actor for a while and have sort of the company reappear,” he said. “It’s exciting because I think it lends a dynamic to the experience that can’t normally be there.”

For Tozian, this experience was a little bit like combining theatre and film acting together. 

“I’ve been in the theatre long enough that I just speak loud all the time, so that’s why I have a hard time with a lot of film stuff,” they said. “I had to have my headset half out, just to make sure I wasn’t blowing out the mic or getting super fuzzy. Most of the time it was actually okay, it was kinda just like doing a readthrough, frankly, that’s kind of what it was, but every now and then reactions would take an extra second.”

It was also hard, Tozian said, because over Zoom, it was difficult to talk over each other or cut each other off, which happens frequently in this play, without it getting super fuzzy. That aspect of the script dynamic got kind of lost, they said. But with this group of actors who just made it work, it didn’t prove to be a problem. 

They said that it still felt similar to performing live. 

“To me, it felt the same as doing a live staged reading,” Tozian said. “So I thought that it was really fun, I had the same endorphin rush that I get after performing, it was great. It felt very normal, I guess.” 

Willis has argued that Twitch is a form of theatre (“it can be affected by the audience, it is live, someone can mess up”), and having live functions similar to Twitch could make it a little closer to what they perceive as theatre. But they think this one worked incredibly well. 

“I love that we did it live, I love that we didn’t try to turn it into something more film-like,” they said. “It’s not meant to be, it really can’t be, so I appreciate that we just committed to a reading. I think as a reading, it functioned really well. I got to hear a group of outstanding actors read this play, so it was absolutely great.”

Friend said that in the long run, 4615 is not doing this because the company thinks it equals live theatre; they’re doing it to give voice and support to D.C. playwrights. 

“I don’t want us to pretend like we’re doing this instead of normal staged readings,” Friend said. “One of the things that we wanted to do was more work to help D.C. playwrights get their work displayed and trumpeted and workshopped. It’s so important for new plays to be heard out loud for the playwright and to raise awareness about these playwrights and their work. So I think the real benefit is there, not so much in 4615 creating content that substitutes live theatre because it just doesn’t.”

According to Friend, the company will probably do more play readings “to kind of keep the embers glowing, but mostly we’re in a phase of planning, just kind of figuring out what the next chunk of time is gonna look like,” he said. 

On The Wings of a Mariposa at Adventure Theatre MTC 

Similarly, at Adventure Theatre MTC, the company’s recent digital sneak peek presentation of next season’s On The Wings of a Mariposa by Alvaro Saar Rios also used a Zoom meeting that was streamed to Facebook. According to artistic director Chil Kong (he), the company was deciding between Bluejean and Zoom, and picked Zoom due to its ease of use. 

“We’re trying to be creative and fun, doing some interesting innovative things,” Kong said. “We’re soon to be the first to really attempt distance rehearsals and we’re figuring out all of the technical strengths and weaknesses and how do you tell a story within this medium that you can’t really control? You know, we’re used to teching a show. So we’re learning a lot and we’re flying the plane while we’re building it.”

During the livestream, Kong had four screens operating at all times: Zoom itself, showing the actors’ faces; the chat box that was on his second screen; the Facebook live stream that he had an on iPad (because he “can’t be on the same system because it pulls so much energy and bandwidth to have it on the same system, it would literally crash everything,” Kong said); and a fourth screen with Instagram, which is connected to the ATMTC website, to check people’s comments. 

“It’s not easy because what you see during Zoom isn’t necessarily what’s presented online,” Kong said. “Along with the marketing team, we’re all kind of tagging, checking each other so that if there are any glitches or faults, we are on it. And it’s not just one person, it’s like three of us who are on top of it, and I have one separate production stage manager who’s dealing with the Zoom itself. So it’s a lot of bandwidth, a lot of people power once we get it up.” 

He’s been speaking with Silicon Valley consultants to figure it out, as well. “There are a lot of specifics within Zoom that you can learn, but I think what I have faith in is that the smart people who will learn how to use this, and not just Zoom, like any other platforms, is that you’ll learn the idiosyncrasies of each of them, and then figure out how to use that to help you tell your story,” he said. 

Kong said that using Zoom with three young children from the ATMTC Academy and professional actors proved to be a lesson into how to connect without looking at someone’s eyes and learning what can be heightened using this platform, which proved to be acting that is more reliant on sounds because Zoom is sound-powered. For example, actors found that they needed to use gutturals before speaking in order for their videos to be highlighted on Zoom. 

“The weird thing about the way this works, is that I have to connect with a dot, and so what’s happening is a lot of the the acting has to be about connected to something that doesn’t exist, and hope that the expressions that you’re presenting in your voice – so it became a lot of auditory responses as opposed to connecting visually one on one,” Kong said. “In a weird way it’s like watching a lot of people who don’t know how to connect.” 

Kong connected this to his work with kids on the spectrum, who he said are amazing actors if they are told what the people are feeling; if you scripted it out for them, they can react in an interestingly natural way. 

“It’s actually not that different for what we’re doing online; we’re scripting the emotions that are being presented to you and then you have to react to those things that are scripted, and not as much on the total visual,” he said. “So it’s a whole other style of acting.”

According to Kong, this is not a replacement for live theatre. 

“At the end of the day, we will never be able to replace one-on-one human interaction, but we did want to at least tell the story so you can see it,” Kong said. “I think what was great was that everybody understood that this was a digital presentation, that this was a sneak peek into the theatre piece, and a great way to get excited about it, but it wasn’t the actual thing and our marketing team was really good about explaining that.” 

For Kong, Zoom also exemplifies the beauty of one-on-one human interaction outside performance. He is on several leadership panels that deal with the API racism that is happening right now, and is in a group of artistic directors of color who are all new leaders in the DMV. Some other members of that group include Maria Manuela Goyanes from Woolly Mammoth and Raymond Caldwell from Theater Alliance, and they’ve been holding live panel conferences every week using Zoom to discuss how COVID-19 is affecting them and their work. They generally keep the topics loose, but they have that space to discuss and share with each other. 

“We were the first one out of the gate to do a digital gala, so I talked about what we learned from that, and the only way that we can make things better is all of us talk to each other to figure out what’s working, what doesn’t work,” Kong said. “The dissemination of information is really, really exhilarating because of Zoom and these public panels in a way that hasn’t happened before.” 

Before, he said, it used to be just people putting Facebook posts up and hoping for enough critical mass. But now it’s creating one-on-one connections that you can create on a conference call. 

“You know, it’s weird, this is one step above the old days of ‘on the phone,’” he said. “And so you can see people’s interactions and though you can’t truly trust your gut instincts about what you feel on a video call, you have a closer connect than just a phone call.” 

The future of Zoom and theatre: how long can theatre last like this? 

According to several of these artists, for live streaming performances and staged readings, this form is something that needs to be assessed if it were to be used for an extended period of time. 

“I think it would be a really different case if we were looking at converting our entire audience to a virtual audience,” Friend said. “In a way, it’s more akin to pop-up theatre in that it’s about “Where are the places where we can put something up where we know that people are already congregating?’”

Kong said that it will take certain people to truly make this platform work for them. “Here’s the thing, the innovators, the ones who figure this out, they’re the ones who are really gonna succeed beyond this, I think,” Kong said. “‘Cause they’ll figure out ways to generate revenue easier for themselves. But it’s really tough for us, in an art that is completely reliant on personal one-on-one interaction. So it is harder for us to make money this way, but there are ancillary ways to make money.”

But for people who are learning to take advantage of online options like Zoom and receive income from it, it can be the only way to receive income right now. That’s the case for Mills right now.

“That’s what’s hard right now, theatre artists in particular, is that we were doing stuff, or we should be doing something or working on something and we can’t,” Mills said. “And actually what I found is that this could be a totally viable option even when this whole thing is over. Just because I have people from New York taking the class, or people who couldn’t be here in person to do it, so I think it’s something that we could still offer once we’re back up and running.” 

For many struggling artists right now, one staged reading is not enough to survive. As Friend said, it was the first time they did it (This Vessel Is A Fragile Thing)  and people are not going to donate every time they do it. 

“There’s a novelty to the process that gets everyone excited, but I think there’s a law of diminishing returns,” he said. “I don’t think this is a sustainable way for us to support our artists, I think we need to support our artists through emergency funds, and, you know, better unemployment laws. I think there are much bigger forces at play that need to happen for how we support our artists. I’m deeply grateful to everybody who gave, and deeply glad that we were able to compensate our artists, in a way that’s not insubstantial, but we’re not taking care of anybody’s rent on a staged reading, you know.”