Anyone yearning for a live theater experience, or the closest you can get to one in these COVID times, will want to check out “Theatre for One: Here We Are,” offering a digital connection which brings together one audience member and one actor for an intimate virtual performance.
“Theatre for One” was created in 2010 by Christine Jones (best-known as the Tony Award-winning scenic designer of shows including “American Idiot” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) and originally housed in a mobile theater booth and performed in New York City public spaces. People would line up outside the booth and wait their turn for the one-on-one experience.
Court Theatre had been thinking about the possibilities of producing “Theatre for One” even before the pandemic shut down live productions.
“We liked the public art aspect of it and the fact that it could exist outside of our physical theater space,” says Court executive director Angel Ysaguirre. “We contacted the folks there about six months before the shutdown and those talks continued when they later decided to try a digital platform.”
As in previous iterations, Jones enlisted eight playwrights to write short plays (5-10 minutes long). But now having to factor in online access, Marc Downie, a lecturer in the media lab at the University of Chicago, came on board to build a new digital platform — a teleprompter-like apparatus which allows actors to stare directly into the middle of the screen and maintain eye contact with the audience member, which is something you can’t really do on Zoom. (Unlike other online theater offerings, here actor and audience can see each other.)
“The digital booth actually mimics that entire process from the experience of waiting in line together (here in an anonymous chat room) to going into the booth and being there with the actor and then coming out and chatting about what you just saw,” Ysaguirre explains.
In honor of the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States, the plays in the virtual edition were written and directed by Black, Indigenous and Women of Color; the actors are all Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
The plays, which focus on the current political moment, the pandemic and the racial justice movement, are “Thank You for Coming. Take Care.” by Stacey Rose; “What Are the Things I Need to Remember” by Lynn Nottage; “Pandemic Fight” by Carmelita Tropicana; “Here We Are” by Nikkole Salter; “Thank You Letter” by Jaclyn Backhaus; “Before America Was America” by DeLanna Studi“; whiterly negotiations” by Lydia R. Diamond; and “Vote! (the black album)” by Regina Taylor.
During each free, 90-minute session, four actors will perform their piece up to 15 times. You can sign up to experience it at a given time slot but you can’t sign up for a specific play; it’s the luck of the draw. However, you can sign up for more than one slot in order to see multiple plays.
The actors who are performing from their homes have been supplied with a sophisticated tech kit featuring a laptop, an iPad and a camera, plus instruction on the complex system from the Court production team.
The unique set-up also requires a commitment on the part of the audience member. No checking your phone, snacking on some chips or talking to the dog. The live experience is boiled down to its very essence: the connection between performer and audience.
Elizabeth Laidlaw performs “Before America Was America,” Studi’s autobiographical piece about her grandmother and how she learned what voting rights meant in the context of being a Cherokee person.
Because life amid the pandemic of the past year has afforded little interaction with people except perhaps family and close friends, Laidlaw feels it’s the right time for a connection with someone from outside that circle.
“I think spending time with someone you’ve never met before can lead to a meaningful exchange, which I think is going to be really good for the soul and nurturing in a way that I don’t think we’ve had all year,” Laidlaw says, adding that she has to be ready for surprises. “Some people will be very quiet but others may talk back to me. I have to be ready for this to be more of a conversation.”
Chris Anthony, who directs the piece and has long worked with community-engaged theater, says the actors in the productions are more than up to the task of the one-on-one theatrical experience.
“Actors here are trained to support a scene and this is really asking an audience member into your scene,” Anthony says. “So everyone of these plays is an improvisation on some level because it’s going to always change depending on who you’re talking to.”
Like all virtual theater over the past year, “Theatre for One” is a stopgap to keep people connected to live theater until everyone can get back into the room together.
“I think people are really missing the in person experience right now,” says Ysaguirre. “These microplays offer a unique opportunity for one-on-one connection at a time when the need for new stories is more urgent than ever to make sense of ourselves and the world around us.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.