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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Timely Retrofuturism of UC Berkeley’s Virtual Theater

On April 24, UC Berkeley’s production of Snowflakes, or Rare White People was supposed to open at the 500-seat Zellerbach Playhouse. In the sci-fi comedy, black and brown women run a far-future America, while two of the last remaining white people are confined to an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. For the seniors in the cast, it would be their last performance in college, perhaps the last performance of their lives, as they were interviewing for jobs in consulting, teaching, marketing.

But on Monday, March 9, a week into rehearsals, the play’s director, Mina Morita, came down with a sore throat.

That same day, Berkeley suspended most in-class instruction. The next day, one of Morita’s actors had to fly home to be with her panicking parents. As the week progressed, playhouses across the country began closing their doors, and Morita—who’s also the artistic director of San Francisco’s Crowded Fire Theater Company—was asked by a medical epidemiologist friend working with the San Francisco Department of Public Health to help “humanize” and get out the messaging on Covid-19. "Express vulnerability,” Morita advised. “Acknowledge all of our emotional state, our exhaustion, our confusion, and the connection between our choices and our community well-being.”

With that fractured, frazzled state in mind, she stayed up late scrounging for a way for the show to go on, to keep some kind of “outlet for the creative impulse” during the pandemic. She read a 15,000-word document circulating among the theater community, “Teaching Theatre Online: A Shift in Pedagogy Amidst Coronavirus Outbreak.” She commiserated with other directors abruptly canceling their productions. Then she had an idea. She called Snowflakes’ playwright, Dustin Chinn, quarantined in New York as the city warped into a dystopia possibly worse than his imagined Nueva York, and he quickly gave his blessing: Snowflakes would still premiere—as a radio play.

What’s a radio play? Many of the Gen Z cast members asked themselves. How can you teach acting over Zoom? What do we do with the playwright’s notes? In the script, Chinn writes of Meghan, the female lead: “Her style is super bohemian. It screams brunch … She is the whitest woman anyone has ever seen.” What does the whitest woman ever seen sound like? Where do the chase scenes, flying cars, holograms, tasers, and Bollywood dancing go? Is this even possible? Morita didn’t know. “Thank God it was a comedy,” Morita says. “I don’t think I could do Chekhov during a pandemic.”

On the Monday after they returned from spring break, which for most was nothing more than a scramble on where to quarantine, the cast logged onto Zoom to find Morita with her laptop and her bindered script propped on a shelving unit in her guest bedroom. “All right,” she said, her sore throat gone, “here we go into the great unknown.”

Morita began rehearsals by asking each of the 20 members of the cast and crew to share updates and feelings from the day. “I braved the grocery store and finally got my hands on some rice.” “My summer internship was canceled.” “My family’s bakery had to close down.” “I hope it’s OK I don’t turn my video on tonight. Just one of those days.” The students were already spending up to five hours a day staring at a grid of twitchy faces in classes run by professors with varying technical savvy and views on the ethics of teaching at all during a pandemic. Rehearsals would run three and a half hours. Some ate dinner between takes. The sun set in several directions in the windows behind them. Cast members on the East Coast recited their last lines from bed, after midnight. I attended several rehearsals in March and April.

Technical difficulties often halted the creative process. An actor’s Wi-Fi would freeze mid-line, and they couldn’t restart the scene until he unfroze. Morita had considered staging the play live on Zoom, as others have attempted, but varying internet connections made that too risky. Instead, as they rehearsed, they’d record their takes into their iPhones or microphones and send the files to a shared Google Drive. Morita would select the best takes, and sound engineer Elton Bradman would scrub away the passing trains and roommates playing Call of Duty in the next room, and then mix them all into a seamless file.

Where actors can normally escape domestic drama at rehearsal, rehearsal now broke into their scattered and stressful homes. A few stayed in all-but-abandoned dorms, rationing meals because they had lost their jobs. The day before assistant director Sienna Bruinsma, a junior studying psychology and theater, was set to fly home to Portland, her parents had developed many symptoms of Covid-19. She would end up staying in the living room of a classmate’s parents’ house for so long they included her as a resident on the 2020 Census. Nick Ferguson, a senior who plays Benedict, the “whitest man anyone has ever seen,” decided not to return home to his immunocompromised mother. He’s been sleeping in his boyfriend’s parents’ home office for two months. “It’s scary to let anyone view the rehearsal process; it’s unfinished,” he says. “On top of that I’m trying to impress my boyfriend’s parents. That’s kind of hard when my character is super loud and crass.” (Benedict bellows things like “The least I can do is rub one out for the cause.”) At breakfast one morning, his boyfriend’s mother asked, “I heard you last night talking about reintroducing yourself into the white race. What's that about?”

Night by night, though, the cast “found the funny,” as Morita puts it, by patiently workshopping the right tone for each syllable in the script. In the first scene, a character gives the audience a lesson in what he calls, with affected panache, “hwhite” history. “Where have they gone, these great pale herds?” he asks. The actor playing him, senior François Lemaitre, had initially been instructed by Morita to model the character after David Attenborough—eminently genteel and inquisitive.

That tact had worked during in-person rehearsals, but now, detached from his swooping gesticulations, it sounded flat. “In radio you have to bring your whole body into your voice,” Morita told him. “Stand and act as if you’re still on stage. And just for fun, try again in a sing-song-y way. Let your voice reach beyond the screen and hug the audience.” He stood from his desk in his childhood bedroom and bellowed the lines as if leading into a ballad from a Disney musical. More dynamic, certainly, but a tad too earnest.

For several rehearsals, the versatile voice actor Rick Gomez (Band of Brothers, Sin City, My Gym Partner’s a Monkey) helped coach from his home. Much of his guidance came simply from his joie de vivre—bracingly out of step with the daily news—and showcasing how voice can reveal character and build narrative with inflections, impediments, pauses, lilts, and filigrees. “Just play, play, play,” he said. “Ask yourself, where does my character find texture, what words is he uncomfortable with?” He suggested Lemaitre try whispering his lines. “I’m always amazed when I take away volume, so many other tools can come out.”

His whispered take scaled a range of textures: “[beaming curiosity] Where have they gaw-on, these, great, PALE, herds? [pivot to light, matter-of-fact, rapid-fire sing-song] Most of us would agree that it began with the Mass Gluten Purge of the 2010s; [slower, more stentorian] and the Great Mayo Contamination of 2048.”

This process repeated line by line. For Morita, the architecture of Zoom at least offered some small directorial advantages. Through the grid, she could see how lines were landing with the rest of the cast (who’d normally be standing behind her offstage). She also encouraged everyone to keep their microphones on, to hear their reactions to each take.

The virus’s death toll bloomed, students’ family members got sick. The job market they were graduating into deteriorated from the worst in a decade to the worst “in nearly a century” to the worst “in American history.” But gradually, the entire cast became more invested, recording new takes and sending Morita suggestions for their characters in off-hours during the day. Bruinsma said it was “empowering to make something when everything else was getting unmade.”

World-warping catastrophes have both decimated and invigorated the dramatic arts. After the fall of Rome, theater faded from the Western world for 800 years. Plagues, on the other hand, have birthed some of history’s most consequential plays; you’ve seen the memes of Shakespeare productivity-shaming you as he burps out King Lear and Macbeth while under quarantine. Broadway alone sold a record 14.8 million tickets last year, and that pre-pandemic momentum will help propel a gradual return. Still, theater is straining to do theater without theaters. Most shows are simply canceled, years of planning and months of rehearsals wiped out. There are furloughs, layoffs, and bankruptcies. There are also Instagram readings and emergency relief funds. Hamilton will stream on Disney+.

Some companies, like the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, are taking footage from live performances and dress rehearsals, usually reserved for internal archives, and releasing them online. Others are retrofitting their playhouses, hoping stay-at-home orders ebb in time. This summer, the Barrington Stage Company in western Massachusetts is producing only sparsely cast, socially distant plays—"no kissing and no swordplay"—and removing 70 percent of its seats. Still others are finding ways to keep the swords, remotely. Qui Nguyen has altered the stage directions to his 2011 Dungeons and Dragons–inspired She Kills Monsters, among the most widely staged plays on college campuses today, so it can be performed on Zoom. One actor can punch beyond the left edge of her screen, and a disembodied fist could fly in from another’s right. Not as gripping, but it broadens who can perform, he says. “Some D&D players had wanted to do the play for years, but they were handicapped, or didn’t have the budget. Now they can do it.”

Remote theater also broadens audiences. "The barriers of access are gone," says Mandy Greenfield, artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The Tony Award-winning WTF will run its entire summer program, which includes performances by Bobby Cannavale, Anna Chlumsky, and Audra McDonald, in audio form, via Audible. "I could not face adding to what felt like a creeping apocalypse," she says. "We work like beasts year-round preparing to shoot out of a cannon. If we don't shoot out a cannon, what are we?" Among the plays are Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club. "It's about women in a hotel in Thailand recovering from gender confirmation surgery. And because of this audio format, women in a hotel in Thailand recovering from gender confirmation surgery could hear the play."

Morita ultimately decided Snowflakes could be just a bit bigger than a traditional radio play. By uploading the final cut to Vimeo, the audio could be accompanied by ten 3D renderings of futuristic, would-be sets from the scenic designer, Tanya Orellana, that seemed equally inspired by Tron, Pedro Almodovar, and, as she noted in one rehearsal, Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first black female licensed architect in America. Embedded within, almost as if in a pop-up book, were the actors themselves, their headshots Photoshopped above realistic sketches from Wendy Sparks, the costume designer.

On opening night, May 1, the crowd started to gather on Zoom. Laura Hay, who plays Meghan, was on a couch flanked by two jumbo-sized Russell Terriers and her parents, her father dressed up in a Windsored tie. Sienna Bruinsma sat in a lounge chair as her newfound quarantine family stood behind her. Wil Leggett, UC Berkeley theater department's production manager, set his virtual background to an empty cabaret theater. Thirty-seven screens soon filled the room: the cast, faculty, and invited guests. It wasn’t a 500-seat sellout, but nerves, anticipation, and relief were palpable in their eager eyes. At 7:08—”a true theater start time,” Leggett quipped—Morita, wearing a glittering gold dress from her home office, asked everyone to join her countdown from 10. At zero, they went to Vimeo on their own browsers and pressed play.

A violin swirled, a crowd murmured, and a set appeared: silhouettes of a crowd in the foreground, a cherry red backdrop and pineapple yellow curtain, with a bronze sign above reading, “WHEN WHITE PEOPLE RULED THE EARTH.”

Although everyone muted their microphones, most kept their videos on, offering the cast the rare opportunity to watch a playwright react in real time to what they made of his creation. Chinn sat on his couch in a button-up and blazer and frequently doubled over laughing—when Meghan says, “The only classical music I fuck with is Beyonce”; when Benedict brought maximalist whiteness to the line, “To live our best lives we have to feel all the feels. And you can only feel all the feels when you do all the things.” They could also see a cast member’s relative fall asleep on the couch. It wasn’t as rollicking as playing to a packed house. But they had found the funny throughout. It was bittersweet, a near-tangible vision of what would have been. It was also something new entirely.

Eighty-six minutes later, the credits rolled and the grid filled with silent applause, staggered because some had trouble buffering the play. Mikee Loria, who plays a gift shop employee who lets Meghan and Benedict escape the museum, received a bouquet of roses from his sister. Morita read a quote from Louise Bourgeois: “Art is restoration. The idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented—which is what fear and anxiety do to a person—into something whole.”

Leggett stopped himself to cry more than once; it was the final show after seven years at Berkeley. Producing Snowflakes, he said, took a combined 13,000 hours. “Wherever you go in your lives, your ability to adapt and make art during this time is what you should take with you.”

This isn’t the future of theater, Morita had told me earlier. “Theater is when we come together with our whole bodies. No computer can make you feel that same sense of wonder. Heartbeats actually synchronize when you’re in a theater together.” She imagines we’ll return to playhouses slowly. “Maybe it’s a few people who feel safe together in their germ pod gathering around a fire to watch a cellist play and two actors perform a single act. Or it’s a parking lot. Or under the trees.”

For now, it's Zoom—and the slight awkwardness of the sign-off. One by one, the students log off for the night, trading a triumphant stage door exit for a fade to darkness.

Updated 5/13/2020 1:33 pm ET: A previous version of this article misspelled Wil Leggett as Wil Legett.

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