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Acting on a virtual stage

The new theater production utilized a virtual medium instead of the traditional live performance.

By Aimee Martinez, Valley Life Editor

COVID-19 left Valley College's Theater Department without a stage and relegated its actors to their homes, but through phones and computers they managed to reenact Caryl Churchill's play "Love and Information."

In 57 scenes, 20 actors — ranging from ages 19 to close to 80 — explored the different ways people receive, process and translate information in their lives. The department struggled to find a play that could adapt well to the virtual medium, and the flexible structure of Churchill's piece did just that. The script contained no scene or character descriptions, not even a separation in dialogue; the only details were the scene's title and content. The play is divided into seven chapters with different vignettes and new characters in each one. The way these interactions are represented is entirely up to the director.

"It's fun because [the writer] gives you the opportunity to do as you think and feel as you feel in that moment," said 28-year-old theater major Cristina Miller. "There are so many scenes, but they all kind of connect in a way. So, it's beautiful in that sense."

Director Cathy Susan Pyles would read through each scene with the cast and ask if any part spoke to them. Sometimes her interpretation determined the story and the casting, such as in one scene where a man does not remember his wife. To her, this depicted Alzheimer's disease and required older actors. Other times Pyles embellished other actors' ideas.

The first two weeks of rehearsal consisted of 60 appointments according to each team's availability, where Pyles spent 30 minutes with each group reading through the script and deciding details such as who will play what part. Thirty-one-year-old actor Ross Bauer expressed how it was good to see people's faces and hear their voices live.

Most of the time it made sense to divide the dialogue into every other line. Actors created their own character backgrounds and Pyles helped them develop their characters and storylines. In a scene entitled "Mother," actress Kristina Sullivan played a woman who, at 13, gives birth to a daughter. Her parents decided to raise them as sisters.

"You might like to know, mum's not your mother," said Sullivan to her co-star on the screen next to her. "I'm your mother. Did you listen?"

To prepare for the role, Sullivan, Pyles and her co-star worked together to figure out her family history, asking various questions: What are the family dynamics? Is she living at home with her daughter? Is she having another child? What is prompting her to say this now?

Bauer said he would read his part over and over again, identifying the words that acted as beats, finding the mood shifts in the dialogue as well as the appropriate reactions to statements the other actors would make. When rehearsals came, the scenes he practiced changed. Pyles' interpretation worked better than his own and though he had to relearn them, he found in it a lesson on how to analyze a script.

Short pieces were recorded first with the more challenging ones left until the end. Depending on the scene, it could take two to three or nine to 10 takes. Some of the main difficulties came in scenes with fast pacing and overlapping dialogue. Zoom can only handle one person speaking at a time.

"It does help that we're able to see each other on our monitors," said Bauer. "But without that human presence, it's something we have to overcome. It's something every student actor is going to have to learn how to do for the time being."

Other difficulties included poor Wi-Fi connection and recording quality, as well as sound and audio glitches at times. For some scenes, each location required similar lighting and framing to portray characters being in the same room. Pyles would tell the actors to put a teddy bear in their designated line of sight to help.

Miller faced her own set of challenges, being three hours ahead in Ohio to visit family at the start of filming. Since she was staying in a cabin, Miller needed to make sure she had service as well as the time and space to film. Miller's philosophy in dealing with Zoom was to accept the format, play with it and talk just as she would if she were on it because it would be more challenging to pretend otherwise.

For Bauer, though the play is not as visceral as it would be live, he says it gives him a chance to practice the craft however he can. Miller similarly expressed how it was beneficial for them to keep their mind busy, to collaborate with others and not be alone in these times.

"Especially when it comes to love, pretty much that's usually the motivation for anybody to ever do anything," said Sullivan. "Maybe they love a person or they love money. Whatever it is, I think at the root of it all, the main theme of the play is really relevant and would resonate with any type of person, which I think is great because anybody can watch it.”


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