Bridget Murphy sits alone in her room. What once was a theater full of audience members is now a computer screen. And instead of sharing the stage with her scene partners, she now clicks into a Zoom conference.
“It was nerve racking because I really wasn’t used to that kind of format,” Murphy said. “I’ve done staged readings before, but in a Zoom format, I was just like, ‘Am I going to be able to get this character across? Are people going to be looking at me skeptically because I have a theatre degree?’ I’m glad I was able to put that to the side.”
As a 2020 recipient of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Acting, Murphy has grown accustomed to the spotlight. Through four years at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, she has undergone intensive performance training to prepare for a career in the visceral arts of theatre and film. But how could she have known that in the era of COVID-19, her first post-graduate gig—playing the role of Harper Pitt in the Community Theatre League’s production of Angels in America—would consist of sitting alone in front of her laptop?
As businesses across the country are temporarily closed or limited in the interest of public safety, theatre makers have had to get creative to stay connected with their audiences. “Virtual theatre,” defined as the act of putting on a live performance through an online platform, has become an increasingly popular way to continue producing shows.
While Seth Sponhouse, executive director of Williamsport’s Community Theatre League (CTL), acknowledges that nothing can replace the thrill of a live performance, he found virtually producing Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to be both a fruitful and challenging experiment.
“Theatre is really a collaboration between not only the performers but also the audience,” Sponhouse said. “So we know that virtual theater isn’t the same. We know that it’s not a substitute but rather a whole new creation and kind of a new creative thing. . .With bringing a show to Zoom, you take away all of the connections that people have between the scenes.”
“From a producer standpoint, we want to make sure that the show we’re putting out there tells the same kind of story,” he added. “You have to make sure that you’re getting actors who are able to communicate so much through a little screen. So it’s challenging in that way.”
Murphy, who grew up performing at CTL and considers it to be her “hometown
theatre,” was flattered to be asked to participate by Philip Vonada, director of the online production. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is a timely piece, considering its examination of the 1980’s AIDS health crisis.
At the same time, she had some reservations about playing such a complex character in this new medium.
“When I read the script, I was like, ‘Oh crap, this is going to be really hard to convey on a computer screen.’ Murphy said. “Harper has pill problems, she’s in an unhappy marriage with a closeted husband, she wants family, she’s scared of everything. . .But I actually ended up using some of my acting training techniques from school and that really helped me get in my body and come up with my own physical gestures to give Harper. That was just for me, but it helped me along. (The show) ended up being very entertaining.”
‘Theater is the process’
CTL is not the only theatre in town that has experimented with virtual productions during the coronavirus pandemic. Studio 570 is an up-and-coming Williamsport-based company whose mission involves producing work using “found spaces and unique locations.” It has tried out the trend by putting on two classics: Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Jared Whitford, Studio 570 founder and artistic director, helmed the productions by emailing the casts a list of detailed character descriptions, conducting an initial read-through on Zoom and running a “traditional” rehearsal with notes, after which he stopped and worked with the actors through specific scenes before the online performances.
Though Whitford is proud of his casts for their hard work and determination, he admits that he found the process of creating art through a screen to be quite frustrating.
“It becomes less about working the material and more about facilitating the material. You lose half of your directing power, because you’re not in the room, you’re not seeing the interactions live.”
After trying the trend, Whitford can definitively say he is not a fan of virtual theatre.
“I really can’t think of any benefit. It’s a lot of work to put out a product,” Whitford said. “And as we know, when theater is just a product, it’s not what it’s meant to be. Theatre is the process, theatre is engaging with an audience. Theatre is meant to be a living, breathing organism.”
‘Support all theaters’
While Whitford does not see any more virtual productions in his future, both Studio 570 and the Community Theatre League are excited to continue engaging their audiences in other ways. Studio 570 has moved toward more static content and vows to come back bigger and better than ever with a full season resuming in January of 2021, according to Whitford.
With Lycoming County’s induction into green phase on Friday, June 5, CTL has green-lit its summer camps and youth production, Bring It On: The Musical, under the precaution of updated health policies. Both theaters are re-evaluating their plans for the fall.
In a time where the term “essential” is not to be taken lightly, some may wonder if theatre is truly necessary for a harmonious world. However, Sponhouse urges those who have turned to the arts for entertainment during the quarantine to reconsider.
“We know that we’re not a health facility and we are absolutely not saving lives in that aspect. But I truly do feel that theatre saves lives; I feel like theatre changes lives,” Sponhouse said. “Everyone’s turning to Netflix, everyone’s turning to movies and shows—and those are artists that are creating all of that. Those books that people are reading and those movies that people are watching to help them escape—the reality is that they are all pieces of art. So it’s important that we’re taking care of the arts right now.”
Whitford also stressed the need to continue supporting the arts after this hard time has passed.
“When this is all done, I want every single person to go out and support all theaters. Not just one theater—every single theater. Because as a theater community, we need the support from everyone,” he said. “Go see every single piece of theater you can. That’s how we’ll survive after this.”