- Courtesy Photo
What does a theater production look like during the time of COVID? The creativity and innovation of theater artists has provided plenty of different answers to that question over the past year, but for Salt Lake Acting Company's new streaming production Alabaster, it allowed for the collaboration of a creative team that was working together across a geographical span from Hawaii to New York.
Originally planned as part of Salt Lake Acting Company's 2019-2020 in-person season, playwright Audrey Cefaly's Alabaster deals with a photojournalist documenting stories of women with scars, and one of whose subjects is a survivor of a catastrophic tornado in a small Alabama town. While the state of the pandemic was still in tremendous flux at the time SLAC artistic director Cynthia Fleming was deciding which play would mark the company's first solo production in more than a year, and what presentation format it would use, Fleming says it was clear to her that this play's themes made it the right choice, whether or not it was a perfect choice for a virtual production.
"I kept it because the story is even more relevant now than it was [at the time it was originally planned]," Fleming says. "We've all experienced loss, and we've all experienced trauma. ... There are some elements that of course, if it was live, would be more impactful, and I think will get lost in the digital world. But the heart and the humor and the healing aspect does shoot through the computer screen."
The decision then was how to present it virtually. Though SLAC presented the co-production American Dreams in October 2020 that involved a streaming presentation of the actors performing live, Fleming opted for a recorded production. "With live, the sound is such an issue, and the potential technical problems," she says. "It takes you out of the experience immediately. I thought to do a mash-up of everything we've learned up to now, and that filming it would result in a really good product. You don't have to worry about an actor's computer going out."
Once the form of the production was clear, it opened up the opportunity to bring in members of the creative team from coast-to-coast (and beyond). Director Martine Kei Green-Rogers is based in New York, while actor Reanne Acasio (who plays the photographer, Alice), lives in Hawaii. Yet all of the principal technical crew that was hired for the original production—lighting designer, production designer, makeup artist and more—are based here in Utah. It was crucial to Fleming to keep them on, even as she had to communicate to them a different vision for how their work would be realized.
"Paying them and getting them to work, and at the same fee as if it was live, was important to me," Fleming says. "So it was an incredible thing to watch, for instance, a lighting designer have in her head a huge picture, and get that to be small. Also, I told them that the actor will need to build their set, do the tech work with the lights, so keep it simple, simple, simple. You don't want to complicate their lives any more than it already is right now just being alive."
For Hawaii-based cast member Acasio, being on the receiving end of all of this technical work was a unique experience as well. "Theater from home required me to be more than the actor," she says; "I had to be the set-builder, the props assistant, the wardrobe assistant, the lighting assistant, the sound assistant, professional box opener, and more. It was a wonderful way to practice being a well-rounded artist."
Acasio adds that acting in this kind of virtual production required a different approach even from her experience acting in independent films. "Acting for a recorded virtual theater piece from my bedroom is almost like playing a different sport, but still using the same techniques," she says. "In films, I'm usually acting with a scene partner in-person, and not often interacting with the camera itself. I think most of us know how taboo it is to make eye contact with the camera unless specifically told to. But with virtual theater, my scene partner is on my computer screen, and I'm very often acting as if my webcam is my scene partner."
The recorded production of Alabaster—edited by Utah filmmaker Kenny Riches—incorporates a wide range of skills artists have had to adapt to and learn on the fly over the past year. And while Fleming expects that some of these technical innovations will carry on even once live theater is common once more, she believes that the most important lesson she's learned is where priorities should be.
"We all have these stories in the theater of how 'I performed with a 102-degree temperature, I threw up then I went back on stage,'" Fleming says. "We all have those stories, but that can't happen anymore. It's about people first, and making sure everybody is okay. ... If we need to cancel one show, we cancel one show. I mean, we've been cancelled for over a year."