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“Layers of Distance”: On Loop as a Pandemic Play

Charly Evon Simpson’s new play On Loop, which premiered at the end of February 2021 at Barnard College, marked the fourth and latest installment in the New Plays at Barnard initiative, founded and led by the play’s director, Alice Reagan. On Loop was drastically different from any work Barnard has produced in the past: it marked the theatre department’s return to in-person production and required a range of special precautions and innovations.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Barnard had staged wholly virtual work on platforms ranging from Zoom to Switcher to vMix. But, like subsequent departmental productions, On Loop resulted in a unique blend of Zoom and in-person theatre. Beginning in late January 2021, actors and team members were able to rehearse in the room together for the first time since the sudden shutdown of campus last year. As the dramaturg, I was part of the team that adopted a hybrid model, which allowed us to incorporate virtual participants—one actor, our assistant director, the playwright, and many members of the design team—along with seven actors and a limited creative team live on site. Though rehearsed in-person and performed live from a theatre, the performances were streamed out to a virtual audience via Zoom with nobody in the room but actors and technicians.

This new way of working was not without its challenges: there were countless ways in which we had to reinvent the wheel in order to adhere to COVID protocols. All Barnard community members wishing to access campus during the spring 2021 semester (and beyond) were enrolled in a program of frequent testing and health screening. Mask wearing and social distancing were required in all spaces. This applied to the rehearsal room, too. Masks were worn (as they were for performances), distanced blocking was enforced with the use of measuring sticks, and a stage language was developed in which cast members tossed props to one another to maintain distance when passing objects was required. “I did not want to emphasize the fact that the actors were distanced,” Reagan said. “I wanted it to look as ‘normal’ as possible.”

A moment in the play that, under different circumstances, would have been an unremarkable stage direction—an actor taking a sip of water—became deeply symbolic of what we were working to do. Alone onstage, the main character, Jo, played by Michaelle DiMaggio-Potter, brought her mask down, took a drink of water, looked around, and brought her mask back up again, which allowed both herself and the audience a much-needed moment of pause. “That moment was the most normal in the play,” Reagan disclosed. “It almost made me weep because it was so normal. It wasn’t anything we had to surround or anything we had to take care of. It was just the truth. It was an actor taking a sip of water.”

Overcoming the technical and emotional obstacles we faced in adjusting to new rehearsal procedures required a focused effort and was no small feat. The hybrid structure posed technological challenges far beyond what we had anticipated. Initially, we had planned for me as the dramaturg to take on the additional duty of managing the computer, which housed our virtual participants during both the rehearsals and production. Since this Zoom was used by actors, designers, the playwright, and the assistant director, we opted for a multiple-camera view, utilizing several webcams to maximize visibility of the stage. Because of this, and because the sound quality was often poor—requiring those on Zoom to communicate via the chat function—I found myself immediately overwhelmed by the many moving pieces. To alleviate this, we hired Celia Krefter, a student who also worked as the assistant lighting designer, to manage the virtual participants and wrangle the technology required to allow them to be present.

Alone onstage, the main character, Jo, played by Michaelle DiMaggio-Potter, brought her mask down, took a drink of water, looked around, and brought her mask back up again, which allowed both herself and the audience a much-needed moment of pause.

As we moved into tech, we used a program called Discord, in addition to the traditional comms system with technicians on headset, allowing the virtual designers to communicate with those of us in the room via voice channels and a typed chat. This created the added challenge for those of us who were hooked up to the program, because we had multiple voices in our ears at once—another technological hurdle that Krefter helped minimize. Furthermore, according to Reagan, no one was operating at the top of their game because we were all anxious, sad, and worried. “Self-care and group care had to rise to the top in terms of what we were doing, and that was a challenge,” acknowledged Regan. “Another challenge was keeping 10 to 20 percent of my brainpower focused on the COVID strictures, which took away from feeling relaxed in the room.”

A woman drinking water and sitting down on a chair surrounded by other chairs and onstage "woods".

Michaelle DiMaggio-Potter in On Loop. Director: Alice Reagan. Set Designer: Lex Liang. Costume Designer: Kara Harmon. Lighting Designer: Stacey Derosier. Sound Design by: Broken Chord. Video Designer: David Pym. Photo credit: Hunter Canning.

The stage manager, Anna Pettit, recalled that she was more scared of getting COVID for the potential repercussions that would have on On Loop than for her own well-being. There was a palpable sense that each of us was working towards something larger than any one person; the gratitude we felt to be able to return to making theatre in the room together instilled in each of us a sense of seriousness and intentionality. This foundation allowed for deep trust to grow. “Even with all of the distancing and masking, if somebody had gotten COVID during the process, it would not have been good for the production,” Krefter said. “I don’t think there is a way to do a perfect job. We had to trust each other with our lives.”

Building this trust in one another was even more challenging than it would have been in a typical process because of the long months each of us had spent away from theatre and each other. Rather than undermine or challenge the play’s central tenets, however, this initial feeling of distance worked in concert with Jo’s story, mirroring the distance she feels from herself: we fought, as she does, to overcome our fears of sharing ourselves with other people.

Early in the process of developing the script, Simpson had described what she referred to as the “layers of distance” in the piece. The first is a Brechtian version of alienation between performer and audience, highlighted in the play’s style, which, in its use of direct address, is conspiratorially self-aware of its own function as a play. The second, more immediate, version of distance is in the way the pandemic infiltrated the play’s veins: not only were the actors physically distanced from one another in their blocking, the audience was physically distanced from the theatre space, watching the performance on a screen.

Building this trust in one another was even more challenging than it would have been in a typical process because of the long months each of us had spent away from theatre and each other.

Yet another version of distance was experienced by those who were remote participants in the production, especially actress Asha Futterman, who played Grammie, and assistant director Madison Hatchett. After Futterman—who we already knew would be remote—gave a wonderful audition for the part of Grammie, we realized that the ghostly role would lend itself well to being played by a virtual actor. The concept of the show, including the set design, was modified accordingly to account for the technology required to bring Grammie to the stage. Grammie presided over the play with warm omniscience, urging Jo along her journey from a Zoom screen behind a scrim. From her home thousands of miles away from New York, Futterman had to anticipate her cues in order to make the timing come out right in the room, often beginning her line in the middle of the preceding one to account for the transmission delay.

Meanwhile, Hatchett, who was in California, became our eyes and ears on Zoom, viewing the play—as the audience later would—filtered through a screen. Though Reagan was adamant that we were not making a movie, the camera’s presence was undeniable and required care and effort to make what we saw in the room translate effectively. This distanced version of directing gave Hatchett a chance to draw on her interest in filmmaking, and she compared the way she helped shape the camera’s view of the stage to being in an editing room: “It was almost like looking at your post shots and having to edit in real time, giving feedback you would give to an editor in a screening room.”

Together with videographer David Pym, Reagan worked to make sure that what the camera captured was as close as possible to the experience of being in the room. Pym live edited each performance, catching different parts of the stage on different nights. “We decided it was just like a real audience member sitting in the theatre,” said Reagan. “They’re looking in different places.”

A man reaching out to a woman from whom he's distanced. Both are surrounded by chairs and the onstage "woods".

Michaelle DiMaggio-Potter and Surya Buddharaju in On Loop. Director: Alice Reagan. Set Designer: Lex Liang. Costume Designer: Kara Harmon. Lighting Designer: Stacey Derosier. Sound Design by: Broken Chord. Video Designer: David Pym. Photo credit: Hunter Canning.

The play’s design team also experienced this distance, working in ways that ranged from fully remote, to hybrid, to in-person. To ensure a safe six-foot distance, costume designer Kara Harmon suggested modifications verbally, relying on the actors to adjust their clothing accordingly. Scenic designer Lex Liang worked in the room to assemble and fine-tune the empty set during the day, returning home in the evenings to watch tech rehearsals on Zoom. For designers, this dual perspective was a crucial step in the process, allowing them to see and hear how their work would translate on screen.

Though Reagan was adamant that we were not making a movie, the camera’s presence was undeniable and required care and effort to make what we saw in the room translate effectively.

A central challenge of the whole project was navigating between these two worlds of performance: the physical and the digital. Simpson, who throughout rehearsals had remained a virtual participant, was able to attend the second-to-last performance in person. For her, that experience provided an entirely new look at the show with which she’d grown so familiar onscreen. She noted a marked difference in the energy of the piece between its two mediums: “I usually think of TV and film as the place where you can do the small stuff, and theatre as where you do the big stuff,” Simpson said, “but in this case, I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a whole other layer to that!’ Yes, we can do the big things, but they feel differently in this space.” For her, feeling the energy between everyone, and feeling the lack of audience energy, was interesting: “While watching it, I was like, ‘Right, I’m watching a performance. I’m not watching a tech rehearsal. No wonder acting this must be hard.”

Actor Blessing Utomi, a member of the chorus, noted that a silver lining of livestreaming performances was making the play accessible to friends and family flung far and wide: “I had a friend who is in Scotland and she streamed it, and I had friends all over the world who were streaming it and texting me. If we can do it with this then couldn’t we still be able to do it in the future?”

In the play’s epigraph, Simpson informs her readers: “This may be more of a ritual, a searching, a release, a healing, a yearning … than a play.” Yet On Loop is inextricable from its form as a piece of theatre. It is in its existence as a play that it offers this healing. For those of us involved in the production, working on this play helped each of us begin to mend ourselves in order to offer healing to our audience in turn. Based on feedback we received, it would seem that this balm was transferred even through the mediating filter of Zoom. “It was clear that our time in the room with each other was so healing and was what made the process the process,” Krefter mused.

The hybrid production was, in our opinion, a success. “I hope it threw down a gauntlet and said, ‘Look what we can do,’” Reagan declared. “Yes, we have all these strictures and yes, it’s not easy, but not a person got sick. And we made art inside of that and it was a step towards being in person and being a community again.”

In looking ahead toward theatre’s imminent return in the wider world, our process’s emphasis of care can teach us many lessons about how to pave a path forward—not back—to a new era of in-person theatre. “I think the amount of group care will continue to be high,” Reagan predicted, musing on the lessons she took from her work directing this production. Moreover, the hybrid format allowed us to extend this care to a broader audience than previously possible, something that felt rich and vital in our ability to utilize technology to approximate a long-missing theatrical experience.

As theatres begin to invite audiences back into their spaces, slowly but surely, these invitations can reach farther than ever before. Though physical distance may remain for some time, theatre has always been and will always be a way to bring people closer to one another and to themselves. The two need not be incompatible.

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