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Mirrorbox Theatre reflects on Out the Box, its thriving 2020 virtual series, closing with ‘landscape’

Out the Box: landscape

Online—Friday, Nov. 20 at 8 p.m.

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An audience-eye view of an early Out the Box reading in spring, 2020. — Christina Kroemer

When everything seems to be going wrong in a world shifted askew by the weight of our own tears, that’s precisely when we turn to faraway lands to bring us hope: the arts. Of course, it’s 2020, a time when the arts we consume have been strictly confined within a small rectangular screen. But sometimes the most extraordinary things, the most life-changing stories, step outside of that box.

Mirrorbox Theatre’s Out the Box series has acquired national and international attention for its savvy and one-of-a-kind work all within the confines of the Zoom platform. A series of weekly readings live-streamed to a select audience, Out the Box has been thriving ever since the stage lights went out in March. Other than the weeks following the murder of George Floyd and a week after the devastating Midwest derecho, the show continues to go on.

As founder, artistic director and board president of Mirrorbox Theatre, Cavan Hallman has produced all of the shows in the Out the Box series, cultivating relationships with artists, selecting plays and collaborating with the casts.

“What I really love about this series and how it speaks to our specific goals is that it’s not a production,” Hallman said.

Rather than trying to recreate something that is only meant for that special artistic space together on a stage, the series is truly maximizing the video format to highlight great writing and great stories.

“I really believe in the idea of acknowledging where you are in a given moment,” Hallman said. “There’s a real power in letting a thing be what it is.”

He doesn’t like the idea of referring to the series as “Zoom theater,” preferring to relish in this crucial moment by considering it a very specific and unique art form, a cousin of theater.

This success story was once merely an idea, one born as Hallman says most of his best ideas are — “while washing dishes and watching The Office.”

Mirrorbox Theatre’s Out the Box series has been presenting readings since March. — series logo

It was a difficult choice, but the right choice. Thwarted by COVID-19 two weeks away from starting rehearsals for their first show of the season, Hallman decided that they couldn’t let the pandemic stop theater in its tracks.

“It occurred to me that readings were something that was possible and possible quickly,” he said.

As quickly as the series came together, it just as quickly rose to the top of the nascent format, featured numerous times on Time Out magazine’s “What to Watch” list. Hallman had no idea that this was going to take off, but it became a very important part of what Mirrorbox Theatre does as an organization and the pride the theater takes in its creative space.

“The caliber of the artists we’ve had the privilege to work with has definitely been surprising,” Hallman said. “But on the other hand, I think that a lot of artists, myself included, really believe that if you do good work eventually people will notice.”

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Emma Durbin, a Chicago-based playwright, is one of those artists who noticed. A long-time fan of Mirrorbox Theatre, Out the Box was one of the first Zoom performances she had seen.

“Cavan seems really cool,” she said. “He always introduces everyone and makes the audience feel very welcome. So I decided that I needed to send him my play.”

Emma Durbin’s ‘landscape’ has its Iowa premiere as part of Mirrorbox Theatre’s Out the Box series on Nov. 20. — show poster

Durbin is the writer behind the season finale, landscape — a piece with a time travel element immersed in the world of rock-climbing and the characters’ battles against patriarchy and racism.

A recent BFA graduate from the Theatre School at DePaul University, Durbin workshopped this particular play with theater professionals, four of whom will be joining her in its debut with Out the Box.

“This play is a lot about people acting in ways that they haven’t acted, telling people how they really feel about the world and others,” Durbin said. “That arc is coming to fruition in the real world and is the lens that I’m writing from right now.”

She noted how the theater world is going through a major shift, with people asking for “white American theater to be better and to stop being so white,” she said.

This shift is slowly happening through Zoom, Durbin said, a platform where you have to be incredibly honest with the situation of the world that we are all currently navigating.

“As much as Zoom theater sucks a little bit, it’s so much easier and comfortable than to be trapped in an audience during a reading with not-so-comfy seats,” she said. “Zoom is welcoming, accessible, free and with very little barriers to appreciate the arts.”

Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers, an actress and a lecturer in the University of Iowa’s Theatre Arts department, is reading one of Durbin’s characters in landscape. She, too, has admired Mirrorbox for years, ever since they first started producing theater.

Riverside Theatre Line of Descent
Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers as Anna in ‘Line of Descent’ — Riverside Theatre

“Cavan makes really smart choices and knows how to do really special theater literally in a box,” Mooers said. “No bells and whistles, just really great work.”

Although this will be her first time acting with the Out the Box series (her initial opportunity in the summer was derailed after a classic “break a leg!” moment — her husband’s leg), Mooers is beyond grateful for the gathering capabilities Zoom lends to creative people.

In fact, this platform has relieved her fears of a performer’s irrelevancy in a pandemic world. The translation of skills and storytelling makes her, and the theater department, feel good, she said.

Mooers carries this gratitude into her classroom, where she strives to instill “presence” in every lesson for her students.

“They need to feel like they’re not in their kitchen, an immersive experience with others, a value to their presence,” she said. “Our students didn’t sign up for online university, and it’s so important that they know their presence is relevant and important.”

Although there are many challenges that come with acting through your webcam, the immersive leap was never a challenge for Mooers, who said she is used to sitting on a dark stage with a sole chair as she works to convince the audience that she’s in a castle.

Britny Horton, a third-year MFA acting student at the University of Iowa, has been both an actress and a director for the Out the Box series, which she said “both have their challenges.”

Jo Jordan, Caroline Price and Britny Horton survive a round of rapids in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Men on Boats.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

“As an actor you have to figure out how to connect with the audience that’s watching you,” Horton said. “As a director, you have to create a vision for a piece that’s on a virtual platform that can be complicated to use.”

Nevertheless, she said she believes that Zoom is a beautiful opportunity for the marriage between an actor and director. If not for Mirrorbox Theatre, Horton believes she may never have had the chance to dive into her ambitions as an artist. The series came at a time when everything was shutting down, a time when she was experiencing a lot of anxiety about when she could be an artist again, a creative again, with an artistic outlet.

“Out the Box provided a wonderful space to come together and collaborate,” Horton said. “And then to get paid for it in the middle of a global pandemic, that makes it even more special and affirming for those involved.”

Testing the electric currents, Horton thrived because she never felt like she “had to submit to the powers that be” when voicing her opinion.

“That doesn’t usually happen,” she said. “As a POC artist, I felt seen, I felt heard.”

Her experiences with Zoom and the Out the Box series have empowered Horton, proving to herself, she said, that she is an actress but also so much more.

“Even the masters are now beginners,” she said. “We’re all on the same level trying to figure this out. Mirrorbox has been able to bring artists from all over the country and the world. By doing that, they have set themselves up for longevity and to be a leader in this new world.”

Mirrorbox Theatre intends to host 40 new readings next season, with its 2020 finale premiering Friday, Nov. 20. Audiences can register to watch landscape as a Zoom webinar, starting at 8 p.m. CST with a required password given on sign-up. The performance is free, but donations are welcomed.


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