As I sit comfortably on my rear end, patiently waiting for the world to drag its sorry self back to normality, a small company of actors and creatives is forging ahead with an idea: what if normal can be new.
Now we’ve all heard the phrase “The New Normal”, but few of us have an inkling of what it is, nor how to make it come to fruition. But, in an unassuming house in the western suburbs of Sydney, a live musical performance is taking shape.
As I walk through the front door of the Who’s Your Baghdaddy house, I am greeted by producer and musical director Steven Kreamer and a joke about cleaning my hands. A cursory glance around the entrance hall reveals poster after poster of COVID protocol – how to clean your hands, how often, how many people should be in each room, what distance to stand from other people – it is clear that this is a theatrical production in the age of a global pandemic.
And so, in that theme, the musical will be streamed live from the house, with each actor having their own room to perform in. It’s rather reminiscent of some reality television program about isolation – doors are closed and no-one can make direct contact.
The lounge/dining room has been transformed into a control room; audiovisual equipment and streaming technologies are stuffed into every corner. The audio technician even has to use a flight case as a seat, although I feel this is more of a professional style than a requirement. It’s all pretty epic for what would be described as an experimental production – as far as I know, nothing like this has really been done before. It’s so cutting edge that even the mounts that attach the cameras to their stands have been digitally designed and 3D printed.
It is a hive of activity. I have arrived on their last day of technical rehearsals and they are in full swing.
As an actor who has worked on many film sets, it all seems fairly familiar, and yet as time goes by I realise how different it is. For a film set, there is one point of focus; everyone gathers around a camera or a monitor and sets about dealing with one thing, one-shot.
Not here… there are nine rooms; eight containing actors and one cupboard space containing a one-man-band. Each actor sits alone in his or her room with a wireless microphone, a boom mic, a small camera, a monitor with the video output on it, and several studio lights. Everyone is live at once, and the production is mixed in real-time, with live video effects that have been specifically designed and programmed for this production. It is a monumental effort.
What makes it even more astounding is that the director, Neil Gooding, is currently in New York. Locked away and only contactable by video link, he is streamed into the lounge room; his face a constant feature in the corner, the digital camera on top of the screen a small reminder of his omnipotence. For us it is 2 pm… for him, it is 12 am… and we are only halfway through the day; he’ll get no rest until after 4 in the morning.
There are breaks for the company though; the actors slowly appear from their rooms to the communal hallway and stand about chatting quietly (at a safe distance, of course, mediated by the stage manager). With all the equipment, some of the rooms can feel quite claustrophobic, and I can only imagine how tiring it must be, performing alone. The greatest challenge, I am told, is even though each actor has a screen to see the other performers, they cannot look at that screen as their eye line must remain directly at the camera’s lens. So they just have to trust that they are reacting in an appropriate way to what their scene partner is doing, hopefully as rehearsed.
I don’t see or hear much of the performance. As they are all in different rooms, and there is no speaker system, I hear and see only the performer who’s in the room with me. But in spite of this separation and seemingly physical restriction, from what little I see on monitors, the piece has a fair amount of movement. The show has been choreographed by Leah Howard, and cleverly so. It is a whole new challenge to choreograph actors for film who never see each other, let alone interact together.
There are some perks to this style of production that, as a performer, I find enticing. Each actor is shown in a fixed camera, meaning that anything beyond the reaches of the vision of that camera is fair game to the actor. And so just below cameras and screens are water bottles, scripts, props, costumes and other paraphernalia that I would be very envious of on stage. There are also a few cheats, that sit just outside the lens’ view; “movie magic” one might say…
The question that arises is – is this not just film? Is this really theatre, or just some weird in-between thing.
To be honest it comes back to the question on everyone’s lips; what is the new normal? Theatres will no doubt open their doors in the near future, actors will return to the stage and audiences will once again be able to watch their favourite performances in a live arena. But I can’t help but think that our industry is forever changed by the events of the last few months. It has opened up our imaginations to think about what theatre could become. We have not seen a great change in theatre for a very long time…. Is this the evolution that brings us into the digital age?
But that is a grander question for another day. For the time being, I am excited to see how this production turns out. I will be watching when it streams next week, eager to see how the imagination of the few, may lead the way for the many.
For more details visit: www.curveballcreative.com.au