The complicated world of university theatre: Too Much Zoom Makes Us All Go Blind

By Liz Nicholls,

You can learn to use the subjunctive, make meringues, prune junipers, do a downward-facing dog, tour the Prado, or say screw you in Gaelic … online. No problem.

And theatre? You can attend a lecture on Roman theatre, or read Titus Andronicus, online. But can you teach, or learn, acting, the mysterious human connection that goes into the performing arts … online? Or create a play, cast it, rehearse it, then produce it live … on a digital platform instead of a stage?

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That is the question, instead of to be or not to be, facing university drama departments these days. It’s complicated. At the U of A, some classes are online, others are in-person and distanced, with cohorts in separate dedicated rooms so that interaction is strictly controlled. Professor David Ley, an expert in voice, “reimagines the work on a daily basis to deal with distancing issues…. I walk around with a stick so that if I have to give students a physical correction I can do so without encroaching on their space.” But the elaborate precautions are worth it, he says. “There is a lot to be said for our ability as humans to be affected by personal presence and even in our masks we are buoyed by this connection!”

The U of A’s Studio Theatre season opens in early December with three in-person socially-distanced performances of Chrysothemis, by U of A playwright-in-residence Meg Braem, commissioned specially for graduating theatre students.

At MacEwan University, too, it’s a hybrid of online and face-to-face classes, with hopes for live shows in March/April.    

At Concordia University, Dave Horak, the much Sterling-ed artistic director of Edmonton Actors Theatre who’s taught at both the U of A and MacEwan University, is experimenting. Originally he’d been hired to direct a production in the fall term. Times being what they are, a full-bodied production onstage didn’t seem safely workable.

Instead, Horak has been working with his 10-member student cast on a “creation-based project” that’s now designed, given the rising COVID stats, exclusively for presentation online. Too Much Zoom Makes All Of Us Go Blind, broadcast live starting Nov. 20 on CUE TV (Concordia’s website), is a volley of original short plays inspired by the long-running production Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind by Chicago’s venerable Neo-Futurists.

Horak’s idea was that”if we’re going to do something on Zoom, it might be great to have the students do the writing,” he says. “I wanted to tap into what they’re interested in, their voices.”   

Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, which ran 50 weekends a year from 1988 to 2016, was a live ever-changing Neo-Futurist experiment in random rotation (pricing by dice throw) and performance art brevity. Their object: 30 plays in 60 minutes. “The aesthetic is that they’re personal, they’re a bit political, they’re fast-moving, they play with genre…. The essential thing is that the plays are all really short, and that works so well in the online world,” says Horak, citing his own “limited attention span for watching full-length anything online.”

The Concordia casting wasn’t limited to theatre students. Like the actors themselves, the plays are diverse. “They run the gamut, from realistic kitchen-sink drama to wild theatrical experiments with lights, sounds, images, movement.… Some are monologues; some are full ensemble pieces. And I’m really trying to make them theatre, not movies.”

Edmonton audiences who saw Horak’s holiday season production of Burning Bluebeard at the Roxy on successive years, already know something about the Neo-Futurist aesthetic that found its way into  Concordia project. (Bluebeard playwright Jay Torrence is a former Neo-Futurist artistic director). “They’re interested in (gathering) an ensemble  from different walks of life. They’re not all actors; some are poets, playwrights, musicians, circus performers….. It’s almost like a cabaret of different skill sets. Somebody sings a song, somebody does a tightrope walk, or a dance. It’s a mish-mash of genres,” says Horak.

At Concordia, casting is open to all, not just theatre, students. For Too Much Zoom Makes All Of Us Go Blind “they’re learning dramaturgy, learning playwriting, learning design. Some of them are wanting to be mentored in directing…. My job is less a director and more of a facilitator, organizer, coach.”

In Zoom rehearsals,“I’d suggest a prompt and say ‘you have 10 minutes to write something short’.” says Horak. “Or ‘here’s a newspaper article; write a poem based on 10 words you find in it’.… And ‘what if this turned into a play? Who would be speaking?’”

“It’s always driven by who they are, what they care about, how they see the world, what they want to say,” says Horak of his actors. He was curious about that. “Everybody,” he discovered, “is spending a lot of time questioning what’s the point of doing theatre? of being creative?”

At Concordia, where like the U of A and MacEwan, some classes are online, others in person, Horak’s rehearsals are Zoomed in two-hour instalments. “The students have gotten very good at giving each other feedback,” he says, “which is a skill, especially when the pieces are new and all so personal” and the actors are often playing a version of themselves.

Last week the lineup for Too Much Zoom Makes All Of Us Go Blind was still in flux. But Horak estimates there will be nearly 20 plays, ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes.” And the hour-long production will be performed live, from a bunch of homes. “We’re playing around with green screen technology,” says Horak. “The actors are all creating little studios in their homes…. We have a program where we can put two people in the same virtual space. And three or four of them are actually cohorts anyhow.”

Unlike many of his fellow theatre artists, Horak is himself a student of technology, and unafraid of tinkering. “It’s a lucky thing, but I was trained as a computer tech when I was in my 20s and early 30s, in Toronto, gigging as an actor…. A bunch of former actors were looking to hire and train theatre actors and musicians as technicians — because we’re friendly! We can go into banks!”

What has surprised Horak about the creation project he initiated is that “the plays, “short but full-length,” are not all about COVID. “That’s embedded, maybe. But they’re about Now, about these particular people living in the world today, and dreaming about things that have been, and hopefully will be again.”

“Some are songs; some are dances. One is set in the 1950s.… They’re about isolation, uncertainty, not knowing, political statements about diversity.” Compared to skits or sketches, “there’s a bit more weight to them, but they’re still fun and entertaining.”

Too Much Zoom Makes All Of Us Go Blind runs Nov. 20 to 22, and 27 to 29, 7:30 p.m. on CUE TV. Tickets are free, and the link is here.


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