By Gabrielle Bohrman
Let's Make a Theatre Company's logo. Photo courtesy of Let's Make a Theatre Company's Instagram.
It was mid-April. The Coronavirus Pandemic’s toll on New York was at its peak, many classes had gone virtual, and Professor Scott Adkins had a crazy idea.
After ending a Zoom meeting with his former Playwriting class, he realized that most of his theatre students faced a summer of lost internships, jobs, and opportunities. Though they were excited to reunite virtually, he sensed their apprehension surrounding a career choice dependent on live performances.
Before he had time to change his mind, he messaged Theatre and Performance major Leah Bickley asking, “What if we made a theatre company now? This is the absolute worst time, but what if we just did it? What would it look like?”
Bickley, who loves crazy ideas, immediately rounded up most of the members via social media. Within a few weeks, 13 theatre conservatory students started meeting regularly on Zoom to discuss how they as students could contribute to keeping the spirit of theatre alive in a technological space.
Thus, Let’s Make a Theatre Company was born. A scrappy collective of Purchase College theatre students, they directed, marketed, and produced their own, original works within the confines of quarantine and social distancing protocols. Confronted with the challenge of recreating live theatre’s communal effect amongst audience members and performers, the company experimented with the structure and delivery of their plays.
“The impetus was really this exploration of when you don’t have a physical space to bring people together to watch a play, does theatre still exist?” says Adkins, who acted as the company’s faculty mentor.
Bickley, whose Purchase College acting debut performance was cancelled in April, says she couldn’t wait around for another opportunity to come her way.
“Now to feel like the world isn’t even supporting our craft, it’s kind of up to us to take ownership and leadership of what we love, and do it for this new age of theatre,” she says.
Let’s Make a Show, which premiered Sept 4 on YouTube Live, featured five original pieces ranging from Sara Meade’s radio play Dolphin Detective, to Leslie Flores’ Disney princess-inspired Jupiter’s Greetings. The performance filled a virtual auditorium of 180 concurrent audience members who mingled and supported the cast in the live chat. The video’s 460 total views included the Purchase College students and other friends, family members, and staff.
Besides swapping the Humanities Theatre for a computer screen, the production supplied many of theatre’s usual hallmarks, from long rehearsals to ridiculous costumes.
“Tech week really didn’t feel any different emotionally than any other tech week I’ve done,” says actor Trevor Johannasonberg. “Afterwards, everyone turned into a typical theatre kid and was like ‘I’m gonna miss you guys so much!’ That’s how I knew this was actually a show.”
From the start, in addition to creating new work, LMATC’s mission stressed an education and redefinition of theatrical possibilities. They immersed themselves in the digital theatre world, watching and analyzing dozens of broadcasted plays, skits, and monologues that proliferated online during the beginning of the pandemic.
Professor Scott Adkins. Photo courtesy of Scott Adkins.
Rather than restaging a previously written play for Zoom, like Bard College did for Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest,” the company decided to write entirely new plays that cater to the online environment. Johannasonberg notes that just as a normal Hamlet production mistranslates on Zoom, Dolphin Detective and other LMATC plays would not work on a real stage.
“I kept using the term ‘Frankenstein Theatre’ when people tried to put normal theatre on Zoom,” he says. “We realized that we shouldn’t be writing what we know, we should be trying to adapt. That’s the whole point of the company.”
To avoid the ominous grid of floating Zoom heads, some LMATC directors asked actors to film their lines separately and then sequenced the videos together, producing a movie-like effect. Bickley’s The Right Now Show with Trevor Johannasonberg: At Home Edition, embraced Zoom’s flaws by parodying talk show hosts like Jimmy Fallon, who moved their shows online. Complete with aptly placed laugh tracks and failed celebrity interviews, Bickley wrote the piece so that actors could improv to smooth-over technical difficulties.
“My cast was so open to my ideas. The skeleton was there, and they filled it with their amazing talents and personalities,” she says.
Visual artist Lenore Hernandez painted the virtual backdrop for the voice-over actors in Taina Carrion-Perez’s “Miguelitos,” a tragic story set in a Latinx community. Actors in Ellen Walz’s episodic “The Wilsons,” shot their parts in separate, but similar looking, locations that, when spliced together, viewed like a TV show. Walz even makes an appearance as the villainous, but seriously misunderstood, cockroach in a $50 costume she bought on Amazon.
“It took me so long to film my part because I had the costume hidden in my costume,” she says laughing. “I was too afraid to put it on.”
Ellen Walz in her cockroach costume. Photo courtesy of Ellen Walz.
Yielding to a technological platform required the company to deviate from their stage-oriented training and learn new skills. To reach audiences through the screen, actors naturalized their movements and diction to perform within the confides of a selfie-camera.
“In theatre, when people are watching you from a distance, your body actions have to be very big,” says Theatre and Performance major Izabella Hamboussi. “When it’s constant close-ups like this, your facial emotion is everything.”
In addition to acting in multiple pieces, Hamboussi stage managed the performance and learned to operate the livestream app Streamyard. After uploading the pre-recorded plays, Hamboussi ran the broadcast live on YouTube, adding music, graphics, and countdowns in real-time. Directors learned to deliver cinematic feedback, sometimes asking actors to move their video cameras or adjust their volume. Many edited their own pieces for the first time, quickly becoming experts in software like Adobe Premiere Pro.
“I think you learn the most under pressure,” says Walz, who added a theme song and animation effects to The Wilsons. “It was like, ‘figure out how to use these tools now, or the piece isn’t going to get done.’”
To give members time to focus on their online classes, the company went on hiatus and won’t resume activities until the fall semester ends. Without revealing too much, Bickley says that another series of livestreamed performances, or possibly a musical, is in the works. The company will likely expand its membership too, after they received a flood of audition requests in the chat following Let’s Make a Show.
She adds that the collective is not a temporary placeholder, but a long-lasting community that can exist outside the constricts of the pandemic. Following in the footsteps of other student-run acting troupes, like Donald Glover’s NYU sketch group “Derrick Comedy”, she wants LMATC to become a career resource for its members.
“I hope that if an opportunity is presented to one of us, that we all come up together because we’ve worked so hard already,” she says. “We’re like a little family and we just want to see each other succeed.”