Last spring, the novel coronavirus pandemic forced many onto video conferencing platforms such as Zoom to conduct meetings, work, school, worship, and a variety of other normally in-person activities — and theater makers were no exception.
One New York-based playwright produced a creative product befitting life’s switch to the digital world: “Couples,” a new play by Sean Grennan written in April 2020. The play was designed specifically to be performed and produced on Zoom rather than on a physical stage.
“Couples” centers around virtual couples counseling. Leading character Dr. Sharon Mercer, a therapist, uses Zoom for her sessions with the belief that allowing couples to be in separate spaces, unpressured by one another’s presence, will encourage optimal openness and honesty, and therefore get the best results from counseling.
The play has been produced via Zoom around the world since spring of 2020, and Lynchburg’s community theater group, Renaissance Theatre Company, is performing it for its first production of 2021 in February and early March.
Renaissance Theatre Company put its own twist on the digitally-oriented play: a live, on-stage performance for a limited in-person audience, set as though it were on Zoom.
“Couples” will be the first play performed by the group in its new space at the Miller Center, following the company’s move from the Commerce Street theater after partnering with Lynchburg Parks and Recreation. Limited in-person viewing options are available, following COVID-19 guidelines.
“We’re doing our best to try to get some live theater out there and keep people safe,” Cheryl Carter, president of Renaissance Theatre Company’s board of directors, said.
The play called for seven actors ranging from ages 20 through 60s. Though a small cast — which was ideal for a pandemic, Carter said — it allowed for diverse representation. She added Renaissance Theatre Company saw many new faces audition for this production, for which she was “thrilled.”
In addition to a small cast and crew, other pandemic-friendly factors influenced Renaissance Theatre Company’s decision to select “Couples” as its spring play, Carter said. Since the performance is set on Zoom, the format allows for actors to maintain social distance and not interact in one another’s faces. Actors do not even speak in each other’s direction. Rather, they speak directly toward the audience as though looking out from Zoom video squares.
To portray a Zoom set-up live on stage, actors had their own mini-sets on separate platforms raised to different heights, giving the illusion of video squares on a screen.
“We felt like it was as safe a play as we could possibly try to put on up there,” Carter explained.
Despite being written for Zoom, Carter said the play itself has nothing to do with the pandemic — a welcome relief.
“We’re all kind of ‘COVID-ed’ out,” Carter said.
Although Renaissance Theatre Company planned live, in-person shows at the Miller Center, Carter said since the play is designed for performance over Zoom there was a “safety net” if coronavirus restrictions prohibited live performances and the group had to pivot.
In January, actors began rehearsing virtually over Google meet.
Virtual rehearsals were not without hiccups — unreliable internet connections, accidental muting, and timing issues among them — but such virtual-related challenges lent an authenticity to the performance, as well as ad-lib opportunities. Some incidents with muting and poor internet connection are written into the play’s script.
Doing virtual auditions is not an uncommon practice for many actors, particularly when auditioning for a part out of the area. Virtual rehearsals once cast in a role, however, are a little different, said actor Libby Jefferson, who plays Dr. Sharon Mercer in the production.
“It’s still effective, I think,” Jefferson said of cast bonding and virtual rehearsals as the group prepared for the show. “We’re building character development. We are still engaged. We’re still getting to know each other as people, but also as characters. I think that aspect still exists. It’s just a different format. It’s different sitting in front of your computer and not having that physical interaction with someone, but again, to a certain level you still do.”
A unique challenge Jefferson and the rest of the cast rose to meet was learning to perform effectively without being able to see fellow cast members and their actions live on stage.
While on a video call, the cast could see each other’s facial expressions or hand waves and take cues from the motions, feeding off each other. On stage in their own separate spaces looking straight ahead instead of at one another, pretending to be on Zoom, that visual aspect was lost. In-person rehearsals honed in on how actors could tell when a character was waving or trying to speak in their respective Zoom square, making timing and behavior adjustments crucial to delivering a convincing performance.
“We’ve had to get a little creative thinking about how to still be effective when we’re doing it on the stage, versus doing it virtually, or being able to see each other,” Jefferson said. “Maybe, for example, instead of just waving, you’re coughing, or you’re patting your foot, or you’re doing something to still express that you want to say something, or you’re trying to get someone’s attention.”
Valerie Daugherty, a Renaissance Theatre Company board member, actor, and former leader at the now disbanded Appomattox Courthouse Theatre Company directed the play, a year after directing Renaissance Theatre Company’s sold-out performances of MASH.
Daugherty is not new to theater and directing, but directing in a pandemic was a learning curve that required creativity and adaptation. She said the rehearsal process was more or less reversed from how she normally runs things.
Instead of beginning rehearsals in-person, being able to give notes and finesse timing or other stage factors in the moment of rehearsals, Daugherty made notes for each actor and gave them out at the end of every week. The cast and crew started getting to know each other virtually rather than in-person first, another shift from normal proceedings.
Daugherty praised the cast and small crew for adapting to unconventional practices.
“It’s all been good,” she said.
By the beginning of February, actors met to rehearse in person at Fort Early in Lynchburg, allowing them to bond as a cast, cultivate greater chemistry between characters, and feed off each other’s acting cues — including learning how to perform without looking at one another, an unusual aspect of this particular live performance. Interacting in person is crucial for developing a strong performance and personal connection, Daugherty said.
Health precautions were taken to make in person practice and shows as safe as possible. COVID-19 guidelines were implemented throughout the production and performance process of “Couples” and have been maintained by Renaissance Theatre Company since the pandemic hit last year.
“My biggest concern is the safety of our actors and our crew,” Daugherty said.
Actors were screened for temperature and symptom checks before gathering in person, Daugherty said. Once together, masks stayed on and social distance of at least six feet was maintained.
When live performances occur, Daugherty said attendees must likewise have their temperature taken before entering the theater, comply with socially distanced seating and masking requirements. Sanitizing increased in the facility. Actors remained socially distanced on stage, wearing clear masks during performance as well as backstage at all times.
“I think theater, just like anything else during this season, we have to accommodate,” Jefferson said.
Renaissance Theatre Company is thankful to produce live theater at all, Carter said, however limited the audience.
“I’m excited for the production,” Carter said. “It’s a good, light start to the year. It’s a great way to kind of step outside of the box and do something completely different.”