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Breaking the 'digital divide': PlayMakers shows this season to happen virtually

Kane Smego credit to Huth Photo.jpg

Kane Smego, the writer and performer of "Temples of Lung & Air" performs on stage. The show is Playmakers Repertory Company's first show of the season. Photo courtesy of Huth Photo.

No eating, no drinking and silence your cellphone — from your living room, that is — the show is about to begin.

PlayMakers Repertory Company and other theaters and companies across the country are working to reach audiences remotely and are adapting to performing in empty venues.

Michael Perlman, associate artistic director at PlayMakers said this season, performances will be virtual. The theme of Playmakers' 2020-21 season is titled “All Too Human.”

“The theme of the season was always All Too Human,” Perlman said. “When we really had to look at what we might have to do to shift because of the realities that we’re facing, it still felt like All Too Human was quite appropriate.”

Filling in the blanks

Two of the performances in the season are pre-recorded versions of live one-man shows. The other four will be produced without live audiences.

“We’re not a film company, we’re a theater company,” Perlman said. “It’s hard to say exactly how it will be different but it will be different.”

Perlman said this season will have an addition of a video designer and a new video editing process.

“It will certainly enhance the show if they hear things they want to play again, they'll be able to turn the volume up, they'll get a different look at these actors up close and in different ways,” Perlman said. 

Perlman directed "A Christmas Carol" three years ago and is now transferring it to a radio version for this season. Perlman said they are hoping to capture that old-fashioned feeling of sitting by the fire, listening to the radio and letting your imagination fill in all the blanks.

'A huge enhancement'

Jacqueline Lawton, a UNC professor in the Department of Dramatic Arts, is the playwright for "Edges of Time," which will be performed in 2021.

“If anyone saw 'Hamilton' on Disney+, they have an understanding of what it looks like to watch filmed live production,” she said.

Lawton said that the first couple of weeks their rehearsal will be virtual and then the crew will be working in smaller numbers and will keep their distance from each other while in person. 

“More people will actually get to see the play than had we done it in person,” she said. “Not everyone can travel, a lot of us aren't traveling right now, and that's definitely a huge enhancement that more people will be able to experience the play than before.”

Jules Odendahl-James will be directing "Edges of Time."

“Even when we have a digital divide — where things feel a little alienating as opposed to being in a space with the warm bodies and all the immediate attention of a live performance — the kind of storytelling that’s going to be done is compelling to really work in this format,” Odendahl-James said.

Odendahl-James said they are planning to film it as if you were sitting and watching a performance.

“We will try and shoot from a couple different angles so you can see the performer on stage,” they said.

"Edges of Time" is a one-woman show starring Kathryn Hunter-Williams. It introduces audiences to labor activist and journalist Marvel Cooke. 

“I think there's a perspective that Marvel can offer us in journalism, in changing technologies of journalism, and in the changing dynamics of the U.S. from her life perspective that are absolutely essential to know about today,” Odenbahl-James said.

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'The best option out there now'

Kane Smego is the writer and performer in "Temples of Lung & Air," the first show in the season.

“The main themes are around race as it’s connected to the American South,” Smego said. “It’s a fuse of poetry, rap, beat boxing, comedy and acting.”

"Temples of Lung & Air" premiered at PlayMakers in 2018, got picked up for a run in Detroit and then was selected to do a performance as part of a theater festival in New York City.

“Luckily, when we did the premiere of it that ran at PlayMakers, we shot one of the shows from two angles with local filmmakers,” Smego said.

The premiere footage was originally shot for promotional reasons and is now usable for the virtual season. 

“Luckily, it’s not a large-cast show, that could be a little harder to convey or translate to video,” he said. “Because it’s just a one-person show I think it should still have a strong effect.”

Smego said he thinks folks are adapting to experiencing art in a digital space even before quarantine with YouTube, Instagram and other modern platforms.

“There's definitely no substitute for being on an actual stage and being able to see faces,” he said. “I like to connect with the audience.”

Smego hopes to have virtual talk-backs to enable important conversations after the show. 

“I think for people who have been craving a live performance it’s definitely the best option out there now," he said.