Occidental’s theater department goes digital, taking the black box to the Zoom box

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Julia Driscoll/The Occidental

When Occidental’s new president Harry J. Elam Jr. announced July 15 that classes would be remote for the Fall 2020 semester, he said the theater department planned to introduce virtually rehearsed, produced and live-streamed plays to adapt to remote learning. Now weeks into the fall semester, guest director Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx and the cast have begun rehearsals for “Scenes from Metamorphoses” by Mary Zimmerman.

According to Muñoz-Proulx, one of the biggest struggles in adapting a play to this new online format is maintaining audience attention.

“I find that after a minute of watching a screen, I’m just not engaged. I’m not interested,” Muñoz-Proulx said. “We are working to crack this riddle. Through acting and design and movement and staging, how do we keep the audience engaged?”

For Muñoz-Proulx, that means focusing on the language of the piece, and not allowing the show to be mired in technical noise.

“We’re not doing all the bells and whistles,” Muñoz-Proulx said. “I literally just hear the musicality in your voice and the cadence and the punctuation and the intention, so we get really specific about storytelling and meaning.”

That approach also extends to the staging of the show, according to Muñoz-Proulx. While the technology available to the team is impressive, Muñoz-Proulx said he is avoiding the use of flashy effects, instead mimicking the minimalist environment of black box theater.

“I really like creating void-like, purgatory-like play spaces that are abstract enough to invite the audience to contribute their own imagination,” Muñoz-Proulx said.

According to professor Susan Gratch, chair of Occidental’s theater department, postponing or cancelling the fall productions was never considered.

“Right away when we started planning for the fall, we said, ‘We’re doing productions. We’re not going to skip out on this,’” Gratch said.

There are difficulties in adapting to the remote format, Gratch said, but it will allow for the unique opportunity of a cast to be made up of actors across the country, and even the world.

Haowen Luo (first year) is spending his first semester as an Occidental student at home in Qingdao, China, but heard about the production through his acting class, “The Power of Performance,” with theater professor Sarah Kozinn and decided to audition.

“I can imagine myself in the future talking to my kids, and saying, ‘Hey, you know during the pandemic, I did a Zoom theater production online?’” Luo said. “This could be a one-time experience. I just decided, ‘Let’s go for it!’”

Kozinn served as the department’s liaison to Muñoz-Proulx, so when Luo asked if he could audition, she helped point Luo in the right direction.

Auditions were made to resemble the department’s normal audition process as much as possible, according to Gratch. Actors waited in a Zoom call together, while individual actors were pulled out to a breakout room with the directors who would decide casting.

Just as the play itself has moved out of the theater and onto the computer screen, Muñoz-Proulx and the technical crew have had to find new ways of filling their familiar roles.

According to Gratch, costume designers will help actors find clothing already in their wardrobes that fit their characters, scenic designers will work on planning virtual backgrounds for each scene using green screens sent to each student and lighting designers will guide actors through stringing LEDs in their rooms so their faces are lit when the curtain goes up.

“I don’t yet know what all these ingredients will turn into, but we’ve assembled a really tremendous team, and a really tremendous cast, and a really exciting, famous, award-winning script and I’m really looking forward to seeing what that turns into,” Muñoz-Proulx said.

According to Gratch, actors’ involvement in the technical side of performance, like setting their own lights, will be beneficial to their self-sufficiency in theater moving forward.

“If you have to make your own audition tape, this will empower those students that now know how to do that, how they can create something convincing,” Gratch said.

But as the cast and crew work hard to adapt the play to be performed online, Luo has dealt with the added challenge of a nine hour time difference between LA and China. That means a 3 a.m. alarm for Sunday rehearsals, on top of his classes which often stretch into the early hours of the morning, Luo said.

In spite of these hurdles, Luo said he is doing the show because having art in his life is extremely important.

“I believe I can amuse myself, I can make my life around me happy,” Luo said. “That cannot happen if I didn’t learn about art or if I didn’t know how to be creative.”

Muñoz-Proulx said there is one line in “Metamorphoses” when the characters gather for a feast as the play comes to an end that especially resonates with the hardships collectively faced during the pandemic. 

“Someone says, ‘Do you remember apples? Do you remember the smell of apples?’ and they all just pause, and breathe in,” Muñoz-Proulx said. “There’s so much I’m remembering now, and I think that moment of sitting at the table and remembering a prior time, it just gives me chills.”

While it may not be perfect, Muñoz-Proulx said he hopes the reintroduction of theater will give the audience the time it needs to heal.

“I hope it is a grounding exercise where we’re invited to pause and reflect, and even look away from the screen out the window and marinate,” Muñoz-Proulx said. “I think successful art grinds us to a halt in that way. I think sometimes just the simple action of pause can cause us to well up with tears or have our heart start racing and connect.”