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Center Stage: ASU Theatre experiments in virtual storytelling, expanding beyond the traditional stage

Is virtual theatre still theatre? Or has the pandemic created something else?

"The performance and visual arts podcast that steals the spotlight." Illustration published on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

Peter Vezeau:

A quote from American author John Steinbeck reads "The theatre is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed." With the global pandemic, theatres across the country have closed their doors and moved into virtual spaces. Which begs the question, is virtual theatre still considered theatre? To discuss this, my guest, an ASU theatre major, has shared stories over the last year about canceling shows, virtual shows, and a new show this semester, "Heddatron."

Ann Ethington:

Hello everybody. My name is Ann or Annie. I'm a theatre major at Arizona State University with a concentration in acting.

Peter Vezeau:

Annie, thank you so much for being here. What we brought you here today is to talk about the question of is virtual theatre still considered theatre. First off, you mentioned before we started that you were in a production before COVID and that had to get canceled. Can you tell me about the experience? Was it a one day issue? Was it over the course of weeks of discussion?

Liam Boyd practices for the role of Joseph in Light Switch, on Friday, Jan. 19, 2021, in the basement of the Fine Arts Center on ASU's Tempe campus. The cast of Light Switch is practicing for the play in separate rooms due to COVID-19.

Ann Ethington:

It was a stressful time. We started the audition process just about a year ago from right now. That was when things were just starting to build up. They were starting to become cases in the U.S. Everyone was just kinda like, "everything's going to be fine. Everything's going to be fine. We just gotta be safe. We'll be fine. We'll be fine," And of course we weren't. So everything kind of imploded during the spring break time in March. And so during that time, we had gotten an email from the director and the producers about how rehearsals were postponed until further notice.

It sucked. And so we were all like in a group chat together, just like, "OK, we're going to be holding off for like a couple of weeks." There's talks about like postponing the show days, pushing it back. And then after a while it was talking about doing the production in the fall, which for "Addams Family," it would work out really well because Halloween themes, everybody was really excited about that.

And then of course it didn't happen. We've gone on to online only classes and everything like that. The location that this production was supposed to be in, doesn't have strict guidelines for like quarantine dealing, but it would still be a really complicated thing to maneuver around. And it is a complicated thing to maneuver around.

Peter Vezeau:

Yeah, I think what was difficult about that time, especially in February, March of 2020, you kind of saw it trinkle in before just this massive wall that we all hit. We would see some students in our classes wearing some mask and saying, "Oh, it's not that serious. You don't really need to wear those," and now we have millions and millions of cases.

It really just went out of hand. And that spring break, when everyone was out traveling. It just all had to go virtual otherwise we would've been in a way worse spot. What was it like then? Having to have all that work put into a production and just seeing it not come to fruition?

Ann Ethington:

It is incredibly heartbreaking. Like there was another situation where I wasn't able to finish a final performance of another show. And that was absolutely devastating for me. But what happens with the show being canceled and the set was being built and everything like that, for all that to just like not happen. For all of it, just to stop. And there isn't a final result. It was really difficult. I know we had a very similar experience here with "The Crucible."

Rachel Bowditch. She put like her heart and soul into that production as well. And so I know everybody involved there had been working hard as well as everyone involved with "Addams Family." It's just absolutely heartbreaking to put so much effort and work into something, into art. And no one gets to see it.

Peter Vezeau:

As performers, as creators, designers, there's this massive group of people that put in so much time and effort. I remember even in the fall, I believe it wasn't until October or November that "The Crucible" set finally came down and I got to walk pass it a few times. 

It really is a shame because you see how much thought went into just a set alone and you imagine that for the full-scale production. It's devastating. You were in a show in the fall called "Hedda Gabler." What can you tell me about adapting to this almost new world that we live in now? 

Payson Johnson practices for the role of Henry in Light Switch, on Friday, Jan. 19, 2021, in the basement of the Fine Arts Center on the ASU Tempe campus.

READ MORE: Preview: 'Light Switch' brings attention toward representation in theater

Ann Ethington:

It was an incredible experience for sure. It was unlike anything I've ever done or unlike anything almost anyone has ever done. That's one thing that I think is kind of exciting to see all of the new developments and techniques coming out from us adapting to this new kind of environment that we have to live through. 

It was really absolutely difficult at first, trying to find a space in your own home to be physically active in. There's having to consider the camera and how you interact with it, knowing the boundaries of where the frame's edge is so you don't overstep it, especially for certain blocking. 

The first half of rehearsals was just us kind of more analyzing character and analyzing interactions that are possible through this medium, and once we were all able to move into our performance space, which everybody had two microphones. 

One microphone was in their ear. It was like a Bluetooth earpiece that connected to a Discord server where we could hear everybody else in their respective rooms. And we could communicate to each other that way, as well as like the traditional like stage mics. The very tiny ones that you put on your face with the stage tape and everything, and that goes up to the tech booth. 

They check levels and everything like that, and they incorporated it into the final footage that is streamed to the audience. That was a really good way to adapt to the issue of communication with all of us being in individual rooms.

Everyone brought their own laptop, which we could watch the live feed from. So we could kind of use that as a reference point to see if there was anything wrong, which was actually very beneficial as well. Another thing that is basically an inevitability with how experimental this kind of theatre is, we had to be able to communicate to the tech booth, if there is some kind of technological issue. Like, for some reason, our Bluetooth earpiece stopped working. So we couldn't hear anybody else or anything like that. 

Anything that was a problem, we had a signal that we sent to the camera in our room. And whoever was watching, like the feeds of everybody, somebody was like in like a very kind of like "Mission Impossible" setting with all the cameras, and they have like, they see each of us in our rooms and it's all set up. 

So if they see someone flashing that symbol, they know that there's a problem and we need to fix it right away. There was somebody in the hallways in between all of our rooms that would run around and help us with mics, anything like that.

Having all those security features in place, I think really helped to make a difference in making this show successful. It was inevitable that we were going to have technical difficulties in this medium. 

You have to be prepared for when things don't work, but we were so prepared to handle those issues, that it didn't really even negate from the show very much, from the final production that people got to watch from all over the world.

Peter Vezeau:

I think that is a very interesting like pros and cons situation that we have in a virtual theatre, as a medium. You can't really communicate as clearly and effectively and directly, as you can in a normal setting. From what you told me, it seems like that didn't really go away. It was just more refocused on the situation we're in.

One thing that was interesting to me, that I heard about the show was that you guys actually incorporated these transitions between scenes using these picture frames. So if you were watching the show, you would see someone in their own room, but then you would scroll past this virtual wall to see another actor and another picture frame. 

What do you think about incorporating that in a virtual setting? And do you think that might be something that exists in theatre even after the pandemic is over?

Ann Ethington:

Absolutely, it would probably exist. What was very cool about having this production all done online is it became a very new, very unique presentation of a theatre production. So it was really cool to see. 

The way our director would always describe it to the people at the beginning of each show is "magic," is what she would call it. But instead what it really was, was a whole bunch of really hecking talented people working. I don't even know how long, like how much time they invested into making "Hedda Gabler" as complex as it is in a digital medium. 

We had the green screens, there was fading in, fading out, placements of cameras, everything like that. And so some of those picture frames we had to work with trying to make it look like we were in the same room next to each other. Even though we were on opposite sides of the building, and so that required fine tuning. 

So if I'm going to be right here for this scene and I'm talking to Hedda Gabler, we referenced like the screen and how it looks to the live feed, and we just would put sticky notes on the wall to be like, this is roughly where her face is. It was really cool to see all of that hard work and this experimenting pull off in a really incredible way. 

There was editing that no one would have thought of in a traditional theatre format, like there was a scene where some of the characters got drunk. Their cameras were getting all "wooshy" and distorted and twisting around and getting bigger and smaller. 

They layered some of those people's videos with others. When one character, he leans his head over and he ends up showing his head in the other person's picture frame. But he is massive compared to her. If anybody saw the show, like his face is like the size of her body and it really gave an incredible impression, which would not have worked on the stage. 

So I definitely think some of these ideas, these discoveries that we made can absolutely be incorporated into future stage performance shows, as well as taking off as its own form of theatre. 

Peter Vezeau:

Yeah. I think that, especially with arts and performing arts, and experimenting and adapting to your situation leads to some incredible discoveries that I don't think would have been utilized otherwise.

Ann Ethington:

I mean, William Shakespeare, there was a huge plague through all of Europe during William Shakespeare's time and there were multiple encounters where the theatre was closed, and so they had to work around that. 

I think a really good way to describe it is every obstacle is an opportunity. All the obstacles that we faced for doing a digital format theatre production turned into a lot of opportunities of discovery and creativity that we would not have found if we hadn't had to do this.

Peter Vezeau:

That's incredible, and I love what you said there, "every obstacle is actually an opportunity." That is a wonderful outlook to have. 

And like you said, you're also reaching a broader audience. Theatre is very much about being in the same room and you are now able to reach people in different states, maybe even different countries and allow them to see this production that otherwise would have been only seen by whoever can make it to the building on time.

This semester in spring of 2021, almost a year since we've first experienced COVID, you are now in a show called "Heddatron." Tell me what you think your experience in a virtual production will now help you with this virtual production. 

Ann Ethington:

Right now we are about halfway through the rehearsal period. We've got about a month until show day. It's absolutely stressful. More stressful than in-stage productions. I will absolutely say that. And I think a part of it is just because everyone is so inexperienced. 

We don't have a very clear format of what is the best way to go through with virtual productions. So it's a little kind of like flying by the seat of your pants. It requires a lot of flexibility. 

There's been a couple of issues with Wi-Fi issues with certain actors, as well as just finding out how we can do these kinds of productions because "Heddatron" is a completely different play from "Hedda Gabler." It's not set a hundred years from now. It's set in like, I think it's the '90s, if not modern time, and there's robots. We've gotta be in a jungle. So it's a completely different beast that we have to relearn almost. 

And all of them are communicating with each other. Everyone's sharing pointers. This is what we did for "Hedda Gabler." This is what we did for this other production that we did. So it requires a lot of patience and flexibility with the Wi-Fi issues because everybody's from their own location. So not everybody has the same Wi-Fi.

That will be a different story once we move into the building. We're done with all blocking for the most part. And we're starting to do reviewing, finalizing what the ideas are that we want. And then once we get into the space, that's when everything's really going to kind of knit together.

It's scary. I remember for "Hedda Gabler," I felt like the last month of rehearsal was just all one big tech week. It took a lot of time to get all the technical difficulties fine-tuned and taken care of. It turned out really well. It worked out great in the long run, so I will totally do it again. If it helps with the overall production of the show.

Peter Vezeau:

Yeah, and I'm really excited to see the show, but I want to circle back to the question that started this all off, why we're talking about your experience in a physical theatre, in a virtual theatre. It just boils down to is virtual theatre still theatre? Is it a sub-genre? Is it an entirely different beast? What would you classify virtual theatre as?

Ann Ethington:

Well, I think a part of that is we need to define what is theatre.

Theatre is we have a play, right, or a script that is rehearsed by a group of actors and performed live in front of an audience. I 100% think that this form of theatre that we're doing right now is theatre. 

You can call it a sub-genre if you want, because it is different, but it is actors live in front of you performing a rehearsed piece. Like you were talking about, it's a form of theatre that I think can reach out to more people. 

It's very similar to like Disney+ releasing a recorded version of Hamilton. It's recorded, but it's still a live performance. It's still theatre that everybody has access to watching, compared to having to go to a Broadway production that costs a couple hundred dollars that someone might not have, or it's too far out of the way for them to travel to. I feel like this could very easily be the new theatre for the masses.

We talk about that a lot in our classes and talking about theatre. Shakespeare was a form of theatre that was for the masses and really encouraged that. I feel like this is the digital theatre for the masses that everyone can have access to. Everyone can watch. It's accessible in a digital age.

Peter Vezeau:

That is a really good point to make, the idea of us entering this new era where virtual theatre somehow isn't theatre. It's the same thing that people experience when theatre evolved into a proscenium stage. It's that picture frame stage that we all see it in today. It's constantly changing, constantly evolving with society, with the era that we're living in.

I think that's one of the main appeals of theatre. You can do plays ages and ages and ages old, but they still are able to be done in a present setting and even adapted upon and evolved to match how we present theatre in the modern day.

Ann Ethington:

This is something that really excites me. I love seeing all the discoveries that people are making all across the world. I talk with people who have done short film productions and stuff like that in new adaptive ways, because we have to. It's almost kind of like we're being picked up by the universe and thrown into the pool of creativity through this pandemic in order to discover new things that we wouldn't have if we weren't forced to.

So I definitely want to see this as a positive thing that can lead to more positive things, positive discoveries, reaching out to people who have never experienced theatre before, experience the art and beauty of theatre, because nothing is more accessible nowadays than digital shows. You can get it on your phone. It's super easy. So why can't we make theatre that accessible as well? 

Peter Vezeau:

Well, thank you so much for everything we discussed Ms. Ethington. Congratulations for all the success you found before the pandemic and during the pandemic. Best of luck to you, the cast, and crew of "Heddatron."

Ann Ethington:

Thank you so much for having me.

Peter Vezeau:

My thanks again to Anne Ethington. Be sure to catch the virtual play "Heddatron" this March by going to the Herberger Institute Box Office website. For The State Press, I’m Peter Vezeau.

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