Carysbrook season kicks off with virtual play

By Page H. Gifford

Under the new direction of Sharon Harris and a newly appointed board, the Fluvanna County Arts Council is trying a bold way to serve their faithful audiences by going virtual during the pandemic. Many theaters have gone dark but this has not stopped them from going online to perform. Carysbrook Performing Arts Center is kicking off their virtual season with a play for our time called “The Niceties.”

“The Niceties” is a two-person, dialogue-based play, centered on a professor and a student during office hours. Director Jessica Harris describes how it unfolds when a conversation about the student’s paper quickly escalates into a lively debate over opinions on who gets to tell the story of American history, and why.

“We learn about the characters as individuals, watch as they struggle to make sense of each other’s beliefs, and see them aim to connect. In this time in our country, dialogue and conversation often feel futile, if not impossible,” said Harris. “And too often in our conversations, genuinely listening to each other is the first thing to go. The Niceties is a play about what we do in these moments, and how we strive to connect beyond.”

This was an opportunity for the performing arts center to go beyond its comfort zone and present thought-provoking performances.

“As a theater-maker, I’m incredibly energized by this moment in our world. Namely, I’m excited to craft work centered around telling stories that too often are not amplified, and around leaning into the digital moment.”  After discussing with members of the Fluvanna County Arts Council and hearing their interest in doing the same, Harris says she was excited by the opportunity to bring The Niceties to the area.

Local actors Tanaka Maria and Misty Vredenburg take the leads and are both experienced and gifted performers, says Harris. Tanaka is a third-year University of Virginia student involved in numerous productions and the president of a black theater troupe. Misty is a local actor who has been involved with theatrical productions at Live Arts and PVCC, as well as with the U.Va. Acts program.

“Their profound thoughtfulness and empathy are matched only by their natural stage presences,” she said. “The show deals with weighty and challenging topics that require dedication, empathy, and bravery from the actors – and Tanaka and Misty have so wonderfully met this challenge.”

Harris said she chose “The Niceties” for a variety of reasons. Whenever she directs, she tries to identify one of the two main themes of the show.

“For this production, the underlying themes I’ve identified are a shared sense of humanity and a striving for understanding. Thus, a large part of my directorial vision for this show has been cultivating a genuine and thought-provoking community with the actors, as well as fostering an understanding of the other. This atmosphere and environment naturally helps the characters feel more authentic, as we have created a brave space for making and growing together.”

Throughout the play, there are missed signals in the conversation, eagerness to connect that goes awry, and oftentimes, a lack of listening or understanding one another. I hope that by leaning into these relatable moments, we are demonstrating to the audience that the messiness of conversation, understanding history, and progress are a part of the fabric of our humanity. I hope The Niceties, use both the familiar and the different to underscore the importance of examining our societal and individual consciences, and how we can move collectively through these moments.

The challenge with Zoom is that there is no stage, live audience, or the overall theater atmosphere that gets the adrenalin pumping. It is an odd and detached way for doing theater but revolutionary in that it can bring it home to so many who may for one reason or another be unable to attend live theater but still have the experience of good acting and a moving story.

“In terms of the digital aspects, the play lends itself nicely to the Zoom format in that there are only two actors, and the conversation takes place during office hours,” said Harris.

The play will also feature an after-show dialogue with the audience, which they will be doing through a question and answer period after their Sunday performance.

“I’m excited about using this moment to enable more connection with audiences and thrilled to share new stories with the FCAC.”

Harris explains the challenges of doing a Zoom performance, something that has exploded in the arts and given performers a platform to express themselves.

Perhaps most obviously, a large challenge of directing a virtual play is not being able to share physical space. As actors and creators, we often pull passion and spark from being in person, having someone to bounce ideas and dialogue off of and being able to engage with the audience. Not having these immediately present is difficult,” she said. “These actors are having to respond to one another having never met before in-person and are unable to see and hear the audience. In that way, the in-person connection is tough to replicate on Zoom.”

Harris said there are advantages different from what traditional audiences are used to.

“I think an advantage to a virtual play is that, through Zoom, we have a window into the hearts and minds of the characters. Quite literally, we have a small square through which we are seeing them while this alters what we can see of their physical movements,” she said. “In many ways, it requires us to focus and be attentive to what’s being said. It’s a shift in our understanding from the theatrical to the literal – to the present. Our ears are more finely tuned, and we have to remain so attentive to the moment. For this play, in particular, this focus and sense of sharing close space with the actors are truly powerful.”

She adds the they are exploring the different capabilities of Zoom from screen-sharing to chat features and beyond.

“It’s been a wonderful challenge for us to utilize the medium to its fullest.”

Harris hopes that audiences leave “The Niceties” with more questions than when they arrived.

“It’s the kind of play with complexities and nuances that leave us as audience members examining ourselves, our interactions, and the world around us. There’s often no clear right or wrong in this show, and the dialogue challenges us to reflect. It is exactly this ambiguity and empathy that I hope leaves an imprint on the hearts of the audiences, and one that I’ve been grateful to share with the cast.”

She adds, “I hope that folks get to experience this one-of-a-kind show. I’m so grateful to the FCAC for giving us this opportunity. I look forward to continuing to tell these stories, to asking these probing questions, and to creating boldly at this moment.”

To attend the Niceties performance online, visit to sign up and tickets are free but donations are gratefully accepted at PayPal.

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