With theaters closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both venues and individual artists are attempting to reach out to their audiences. Some theater companies are streaming archival video of past performances, and others are moving into the realm of podcasts. Some individual performers have taken to streaming monologues and dialogues from home, via Facebook or YouTube.
Local theater artist Dylan Arredondo, who had been acting in a production whose run was cut short by the pandemic, quickly determined that while these usages filled a need, it was neither an adequate response to the circumstances nor the best use of the technology at hand. With that in mind, he started recruiting some of his colleagues and collaborators into a new project, the Performance Interface Lab, to imagine the shapes that performance can take during quarantine and to prepare for theater in the post-pandemic world.
A survey of 2,762 D.C.-area theatergoers published on April 14 by Bethesda-based Shugoll Research indicates that even when the CDC does lift the recommendations that have left our theaters closed, only 31 percent are likely to immediately return to attending live performances. If a vaccine becomes readily available, it will still take time for attendance at live performances to recover. For artists, experimentation and adaptation becomes a necessity.
On March 21, Arredondo posted the first of a series of “Quarantine Movement Chain Letters” to his YouTube channel. They each feature a performer creating a dance picking up where their predecessor left off. The sequences are playful and cathartic for frequent theatergoers who will see many a familiar face, but the most ambitious project of PIL so far is what is designated as “Lab A,” a trio of new short interactive plays to be experienced by a single audience member over a phone or computer.
If there are any unifying themes of the three plays, they may be generosity and receptiveness. Each scenario is an opportunity to decide whether to accept the role one is offered.
These themes are most explicit in Pete Danelski and Jordan Clark Halsey‘s woolgatherings, a daydream like vignette. The term “woolgathering,” a figure of speech meaning indulgent daydreaming, is held among most etymologists to have had a literal origin, in the activity of picking up the loose tufts of wool left on bushes and fences sheep have rubbed against. Such efforts could take years to collect enough to spin a skein of yarn so the phrase became a metaphor for absentmindedness.
At the appointed time, a person receives a phone call from either Danelski or Halsey, promising to introduce one to their mutual friend who is getting married, and the participant has been engaged to help prepare a hope chest—essentially a dowery reinvented. As a participant, you might find yourself engaged in woolgathering, too. In my case, participating in the PIL from my brother’s childhood bedroom, I found my attention drawn to one of his dust-covered toys, a scale model of a Porsche 959, which in turn inspired my own reveries from which I formulated my gift.
A fantastic adventure awaits in Joan Cummins and Susan Stroupe‘s OUT OF TIME. You are assigned the role of a master mapmaker who receives an email from an old colleague known as “The Captain,” and soon one is screen-to-screen with the Captain’s new apprentice (Stroupe), equipped only with an old journal you as the mapmaker once left behind. As a metaphor for how our sense of time has changed under quarantine, where it is hard for many to distinguish between weekday and weekend, between secular days and holy days, there has been a “disruption in the normal flow of time” and an opportunity has arisen to travel to the end of time. You, in turn, are charged with collaborating with the apprentice in charting the map to eternity. A playful improvisation of drawing exercises, philosophical musings, and picaresque banter is in store for you, and in the end you will have mapped your own personal cartography of time.
Lily Kerrigan and Matthew Marcus‘ Couples Therapy is the most naturalistic play offered by the Lab, which might seem odd since so much of Marcus’ previous work as a playwright has fit squarely in the science-fiction and fantasy genres. But considering we are living in one of the scenarios that science-fiction prepares us for, it may not be so strange. You receive an email, ostensibly from Lily’s therapist. In their onscreen persona, Kerrigan and Marcus are Lily and Matt, a couple seeking counseling while sheltering from the coronavirus pandemic. The two are in an open relationship, but they cannot go anywhere. The challenge is to be the therapist who can listen to them, ask them the questions they need to consider, and tell them what they need to hear. Ultimately, the real question is not if Lily and Matt can work things out, or if they should try, because you are the protagonist in your own story, and you have to decide whether to consider the ethical consequences of your questions, prompts, and advice. The real question is: What do you believe they need to hear from you?
These and other experiments may or may not be repeated, lead to more ambitious works in future, or be scalable to larger audiences once we enter the new normal. The important thing is that they are being performed now.
Lab A performances run until April 26, and OUT OF TIME has been extended to May 3. Tickets are pay-what-you-can.