Three weeks before its open, the Bard College Theater and Performance Program’s production of Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest” was canceled amid COVID-19 closures. Faced with the question of how to carry on, Fisher Center Artistic Director Gideon Lester called the play’s director Ashley Tata with a proposition: Would she be interested in reconceiving the project in a digital space?
Tata, seasoned in multi-media theater and performance, seized the opportunity. In collaboration with the students, the team quickly began etching out a plan that would not only transfer the work to a virtual stage but reimagine it for a new platform. The resulting product will be livestreamed April 10 on YouTube and Facebook, where the digital curtain will be raised at 7 p.m.
“It was very depressing to think that the work our students and Ashley and her team put into the project was going to go to waste,” Lester said. “I think it’s very important, in a time when everything has been canceled, to show our students that we can’t just give up and that art can really flourish in times of extreme challenge.”
At the time of the play’s cancellation, the production team and students had been rehearsing the piece together for three weeks. This foundation gave the group an idea — or an image — of what the play would look like and made the move to digital easier to do, explained Tata.
“The good thing about the material is that it is actually conducive to being an online experience,” Tata said of Churchill’s “Mad Forest.” “I wonder if we were working with different material if it would have been correct to reconceive it just for the purposes of doing it. But I think that in this case, there’s a strong dramaturgical foundation for resetting it in a virtual space, which we’re realizing even more with the rehearsals that we’ve been having.”
With new constraints, the goal of the new iteration was not to film the play as it was when they left off. Instead, Tata explained the team quickly re-imaged the work as a virtual production, complete with its own vocabulary and look. To do so, the production brought on an additional designer to consult and help with the technological transition. All elements of the work, including scenery, choreography and lighting, were assessed and adapted.
“This isn’t a theater production that we’re putting on a webcam,” Tata said. “Everybody’s reconceiving their media, basically, for this format.”
The rehearsals, too, were transferred online — a dramatic shift for students who suddenly found their time being spent perpetually in front of screens that had newly morphed into classrooms, social spaces and practice rooms. Since launching the project as a digital initiative, Tata said they have been adjusting rehearsal time from four to five hours a night to accommodate this new strain.
“It is different when you’re in a space with other people; you can kind of get lost in being in that space and time,” the director noted. “Accordingly, we’re finding that it’s useful to reduce the amount of ‘rehearsal hours’ at a time because of the intensity of being in front of the computer for that period.”
Adding an additional element of responsibility, each student — equipped with a handful of tools (like cameras) — has been placed in charge of managing their own staging, costuming and production from their home studios. From a logistical standpoint, Fisher Center Senior Producer Caleb Hammons worked closely with the production staff to solve the “puzzle” of getting these resources to the students, which required a coordinated effort to send items to their home addresses. Hammons explained Bard is not alone in trying to figure out how to keep the show going in the wake of closures, noting that productions across the country have been working to make emergency protocols and concessions to allow streaming.
“What I think is unique about this is that this is not just putting a camera in the theater and filming the live performance to an empty audience and streaming it out there,” Hammons said, echoing Tata. “Ashley is actually reconceiving the piece as a digital experience. And I think that is something that everyone I’ve talked to on the professional operational side of things has been really impressed by.”
So what will this experience look like? The production will be staged, so to speak, on the conference platform Zoom. The feed will then be sent YouTube and Facebook for the audience to view. The production will utilize tools inherent in the Zoom platform (in addition to some specially-coded functions) to decorate the scenes and virtually move between characters.
To make this element more cinematic, Tata explained that before they found a more permanent solution they practiced ways of tricking the system to make cuts or replicate camera movements. In order to get a reaction shot, for example, the actors played with making noises in their microphones so that the camera cuts to them (on Zoom, the camera defaults on whoever is talking when set to “speaker mode”). Tata added that while in this mode, the camera sometimes makes interesting cuts on its own. Since these early days of experimentation, the team worked with a coder to expand the capabilities of the platform so they no longer need to use these tricks.
“What I think is interesting about any kind of use of technology is finding the place where the technology kind of is breaking,” she said. “And then you break the technology and see how you can make it an artistic form.”
In production stills from the rehearsals, the actors appear to be unified by digital backgrounds. Whether in a grid format — where all of the characters can be seen at once — or in smaller ensembles depicting just two or three actors, the digital scenic design works to create a cohesive space, even though the students are in their individual rooms.
As for the feeling of seeing a live performance, though streaming may lack the immediacy of the theater, intimacy remains. In some aspects, the exchange creates closer ties between people, with the actors inviting audience members into their homes, albeit virtually, and viewers do the same.
During the “Mad Forest” livestream, viewers will be able to interact with the production through the chat functions on YouTube and Facebook, allowing for some feedback to be passed on to the actors through the assistant directors.
“It won’t be as immediate as, you know, the breath of an audience or the laughter of an audience or the stillness of an audience, when necessary,” Tata said. “But I feel like it will at least encourage [the students] as they move through the evening performance.”
And while the event on April 10 marks a monumental achievement, the level of involvement that the students have been able to experience also has been a vital part of the project.
“They’re helping us learn as much as anything else,” Tata said, explaining that the digital production has opened up some of the traditional boundaries between the students and production staff, allowing the actors to have a more hands-on artistic experience. “I think the more they realize that, I think the more exciting it will be for them.”
She added: “I’m trying to encourage everybody to feel like we’re all in this kind of sandbox together.”
Top Image: Rehearsal image from Bard College Theater and Performance Program’s production of Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest."