Post from October, 2020

The Zoom Show

Sunday, 11. October 2020 22:51

We just closed our first ever virtual production, which, because we do not have the resources of SNL, we did it with Zoom. Here are some things we learned:

  1. Familiar terminology has different meanings—or no meanings. The term “closed” above indicates that the last streaming of the performance is over. There really is no final performance in the new world. “Opening” is similar, in that the actors are home, watching themselves in a streaming show, a luxury never afforded in a live theatre situation.
  2. The Zoom format is a workable format for creating a virtual production. We did a great deal of research and a whole lot of experimenting and discovered that there are a number of tools and switches and controls in Zoom that allow the director, via the Zoom operator, to control the arrangement of actors on the screen, to allow off-stage voices, and to determine what the audience sees and hears. Zoom managed well does not require that every show look like the opening of “The Brady Bunch.”
  3. Material must be chosen carefully. Unlike the empty stage which will accept, and conform itself to virtually any material, the Zoom format, for all of its flexibility, does have some limitations, which, in turn, limit what sort of material will play well and what will not. The fact that each actor is isolated in their own window is the most basic limitation. Some gimmicks, like passing a prop from window to window, are possible, but that’s very much the extent of window interaction.
  4. There are significant differences for actors. Virtual production is different from both film and stage. The actor receives information from some portion of the screen, but must respond to the little pinhole of a camera above that screen. And the actors are close enough to the camera that eye movements are perfectly visible to anyone  watching. And each actor may be seeing a different thing on their screen. And there is no audience feedback, which is almost incomprehensible to the stage actor, who very often builds their performance based on audience response.
  5. There are significant differences for directors. The director has to think cinematically, but within the restrictions of the form. Instead of blocking, they have to deal with the order of actors on the screen and with who is visible when and who disappears when. It’s a very different sort of thinking for either a stage or film director.
  6. Set design is completely different. The design and execution are virtual and, of course has to be backed with green screens in situations which keep the actors safe. Then there is the problem of making an individual background for each actor and then figuring out how those backgrounds will match when put beside each other on the screen.
  7. There are significant differences for all the staff. The stage manager’s work is very different. Light cues are minimal. There is now a Zoom operator who is the person who is actually determining the looks and is in control of the recording—if there is one. As noted, the audience is virtual, which changes the function of the front-of-house operation and the box office.
  8. What you see is not always what you get. Zoom has its own recording rules. For example, character names disappear on the recording unless you tell Zoom to record them. Sometimes ghosts of a just-exited character appear unbidden, and weren’t seen until the recording was viewed.
  9. Murphy’s Law is alive and well and does exactly what it says it will. Because of the newness of the medium and the multiple layers of technology, there are hundreds of things that can and do go wrong, many of which were never before encountered in a play production. Fixing one problem does not mean that there is not another waiting just around the corner. Backing up work is a necessity.
  10. It’s doable. It’s not easy. But even with all the problems, it is possible to mount a virtual production that is stands up dramatically and has solid production values.

This is not a complete list, of course, but will suffice to outline the major areas. Within each area, we learned hundreds of things, some large and some small, but all significant, because even the tiniest thing matters to the success of such a production.

And we’ll do it again. Using what we’ve learned but anticipating new challenges, we are now in production for our second attempt at this new format—with a very different show this time. We, of course, are both scared and excited.

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