Form follows function: Creating new theater works in COVID-times

Young Footliters Presents: What We May Be -- through Aug. 23, $5

PIP Presents: Oscar

Extended! Through Aug. 24, 7:30 p.m.; free (reservations required)

Gigi Goodvin and Rana Saba (top) and Samantha Falduto perform in Young Footliters ‘What We May Be.’ — courtesy Matt Falduto

The theater community in eastern Iowa is antsy.

In the five months since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered stages across the country, theater artists here — a region that boasts multiple professional theaters, countless community theaters and new eager startups laying claim to their own vibe at a rate of at least one or two a year — have been making due as best they can. Online readings, both formal and casual, have exploded: Riverside Theatre performed its summer Shakespeare production of Winter’s Tale as an online reading; Mirrorbox Theatre’s weekly Out the Box series has landed multiple times on TimeOut NY lists of the best theater to livestream. One group, Our Virtual Stage, has dedicated itself to reading through all the short plays of local playwright Duane Larson. Another, less formal, group of friends has been gathering online to read through BBC Radio adaptations of Neil Gaiman novels.

But eastern Iowa’s talented crop of playwrights knew that something more had to be done. The trend was teased with the skillful cabaret compiled by Christopher Okiishi for Riverside Theatre’s Sweatpants and Slippers Online Gala in June. But now it’s coming into fruition. This weekend, two shows opened that were not just beloved scripts that talented artists made work: They were written specifically for (and in one case about) our current situation.

Before COVID-19 hit, writer/director Matt Falduto was scheduled to direct a Sherlock Holmes script with Young Footliters, a youth theater that performs out of the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.

“… it couldn’t happen. But we knew the actors and the audience are craving theater,” he told Little Village via email. “So [program organizer] Liz Tracey approached me and asked me to write something that could be performed over Zoom. From the start it was important to me that it was a live performance, not a recorded video. I wanted it to be an event, not something you just watch whenever, because that’s what theater is.”

Falduto’s play, What We May Be (through Aug. 23, $5), is not just written to be performed over Zoom, but is set on the platform. It follows a group of young students attending classes, working on projects and just generally hanging out as kids, circumscribed (as we all are, nowadays) by the online situation. And the show is explicitly set during the pandemic, in the early part of the year when we were all still finding our way.

“The actors were all in from the moment we started. They understood these characters really well because, well, they are these characters,” Falduto said. “I think what was great about it for them was it gave them a chance to process these feelings that we’re all going through. It gave them a safe way to talk about how the pandemic has changed things. And the play takes us through what everyone was feeling during the first weeks of the pandemic, when we didn’t know that much and so you hear the characters asking questions like, is this real? Can young people get it? I think we all need this play honestly. We all need a way to process what we’re going through.”

Another show that opened this week steps away from the confines of the internet for a strictly socially distanced performance (due to the limited number of seats available, they quickly booked up their initial run; they have added an additional show on Monday, Aug. 24 at 7:30 p.m. (reservations required)). A group of friends, calling themselves PIP (Pandemic Inspired Players), knew that their eagerness to work together again was mirrored in audience eagerness to experience performance — but they also knew that a show written pre-COVID just wouldn’t cut it.

“Originally, Jocko [Motyko], Val [Davine], Trent [Yoder, who also directed the show] and I were looking at published scripts because we wanted to perform together again. We’d recently closed God of Carnage with ICCT, and we’d worked so well together as a cast,” playwright Nicole DeSalle said in an email.

Trent Yoder as Alan, Nicole DeSalle as Annette in ICCT’s January, 2020 production of ‘God of Carnage.’ — EMcKnight Photography

“We thought if we could select a script and practice over Zoom, we’d have something ready for the future. Eventually we realized that it would probably be quite a while before things were back to normal. At some point, Trent suggested we do an outdoor performance in his yard, and so we started brainstorming how we could do that safely. All we needed next was a script in which it would be believable for the actors to remain six feet apart for the entire performance, and we decided it made sense to just create one from scratch.”

The result was DeSalle’s Oscar, a play based on conversations between four neighbors — “so their porches create a boundary that feels organic,” DeSalle said. She worked closely with the other cast members in developing the show, which had risen to the top of several concept pitches she made to the cast. The challenge of creating a show where not just the audience but the cast would remain distanced was ultimately one that DeSalle found she enjoyed.

“I’ve discovered that I actually work best when I have constraints. For example, I write a lot of flash creative nonfiction, and knowing I have to create something that is less than 1,000 words makes it fun, like a game,” she said. “This was kind of like that. It was fun to start by brainstorming why a group of people might naturally keep their distance from one another, and also to think about settings that would work best outdoors. … As far as actually writing the script, I was more prescriptive with stage directions than usual. For example, at two places in the script, Jocko’s character, Luke, gives beers to his neighbors. So the script indicates that he sets them on the porch railing. I did that so the cast could see that I’d thought about how to keep moments like that socially distant, with the caveat that it might change once we started blocking.”

The cast of ‘Oscar.’ — courtesy of Nicole DeSalle

Falduto appreciated the unusual challenges his medium brought, as well.

“Rather that push Zoom away, we embraced it,” he said of the frequently maligned platform. “We want to show that we can be creative on Zoom, we can create art on Zoom, we can use Zoom to fill our hearts and souls. What’s been really interesting has been re-learning theater in this medium. There is no blackout in the traditional sense so we had to create that. The acting space for each actor is their own home, usually their rooms, so we had to figure out how to make that work. Entrances and exits are very different on Zoom. And the order in which they ‘enter’ a scene determines where their video is on the screen so we had to work that out to create the best effect. The actors had to be their own sound technicians and play the effects from their computers so the sound came from their acting space. There’s been so many little technical details that we had to figure out. It’s been a fun and challenging theater experience. My hope is that kids learned that theater doesn’t always have to be on a big stage with lights and a huge set and all of that. Theater can be anywhere — even live on the Zoom.”

As we trudge into a fall that looks to be as challenging as spring and summer have been for live performances, these creative solutions become ever more important.

“I think anyone who loves theater would agree that what makes it special is the very fact that it’s live,” DeSalle said. “It’s a shared experience. The actors feel the audience, the audience feels the actors. Emotions are palpable, and the theatrical space is charged with energy. For an hour or two, everyone is transported, and I think the four of us wanted people to once again have the opportunity to experience that.”

And, Falduto points out, when it comes to creating these experiences online, Gen Z may be our best bet to make it tangible and real.

“One of the advantages of a cast of younger actors is they understand technology. It wasn’t hard for them to get into the Zoom experience at all. I think it might have been a lot of harder for a group of actors my age to shift to performing on Zoom, but the kids — they are digital natives. They get it.”

Regardless, the way that we experience theater has been fundamentally changed for at least the near future. More work created within these situations is bound to be forthcoming. And it’s no surprise to see seeds of that germinating here in eastern Iowa.

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