PTP goes virtual

By Page H. Gifford

Empty stages and shuttered theaters are the norms during the pandemic, but it is not deterring those who insist theater still has value even if it is viewed on zoom.

“I think it’s the best we can do at the time to keep theater alive,” said Persimmon Tree Players member George Gaige. Persimmon Tree Players is branching out on its own with a new, original performance.  “Ernest in Isolation,” is an original play written by member Tom Green, based on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest.”

Green explained that after struggling to try to put on “Moon Over Buffalo” in the spring, and ultimately figuring out that virtually distancing only works for certain types of plays, the idea surfaced during rehearsals decided that he needed to write a play intended for Zoom.

“There were some pretty funny mishaps that I thought everyone could relate to in these times of socially distant communication.” He then set out to find a play that was in public domain to use as the backdrop that would meet a few criteria such as it should be relatively well-known, comedic, could be performed on Zoom, and need only a fairly small cast.  “The Importance of Being Earnest” checked all of those boxes for me. I wanted it to be based on a fictional theater troupe and began thinking about ways to plug “Earnest” into a Zoom setting as a “play within a play.”

Green has adapted children’s plays from the original books and also wrote “Aesop’s Avenue,” an original children’s play.

“Writing the play was a little terrifying and the idea of writing a play for adults was daunting,” he said. He started to brainstorm ideas and said he had many different iterations in his head but couldn’t settle on a format. He read Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” multiple times and used it as a basis for a summer theater class he was taking at Longwood University. After the class ended, he had a breakthrough.

 “I saw potential in using Earnest as the guiding story for this virtual medium, and began writing,” he said. “The idea to have it be a community theater group needing to adapt the original “Earnest” to virtual and fighting through all of the obstacles of that became the heart of it.” He finished it in August. “I still left that process not being able to determine if what I wrote worked or not, but we went ahead with auditions.  When I heard it live, it clicked.  We treated it as a “living document.”

   Green says “Earnest in Isolation” was the result of all of these experiences and obstacles. It is about a community theater group trying to do exactly what PTP tried to do this past spring with “Moon Over Buffalo” and finding ways to keep theater alive in a time when they are unable to gather on a physical stage or be in front of a live audience.

“It embraces the love of theater and the family bonds that theater creates. It is about rising above the challenges in these times to create and share the stage as actors with an audience.”

   Green admits the experience has been very rewarding but misses the camaraderie and relationship-building of being in the theater together, and it has made personal connections hard.

“I also know it is challenging for the actors to act in a box, but I have to say that they have done an amazing job of adapting.”

Speaking of the actors, some are local and others are as far away as northern Virginia, Syracuse, New York, and Ocean Shores, Washington. Much of putting the cast together was through networking with local actors, PTP members, and other theater groups.

The principal benefits to doing a virtual play were that we could cast actors from outside the area, we didn’t have to travel to rehearse or have production meetings, and anyone in the world with a decent internet connection can see our production,” said Jen Starkey, a PTP veteran. “And with our production costs being much lower than they are with one of our  onstage productions, we’re able to offer a pay as you wish pricing option for tickets so that the cost to watch the performance won’t be prohibitive for anyone.”

 Gaige views it from an audience standpoint.

“On the plus side, you can sit in the comfort of your own home and see a quality performance in your pajamas,” said Gaige.

As an actor in the Zoom production, Starkey, it is a vastly different experience from what she is used to. She explains the director has to have a different mindset when looking at a play through Zoom. For Green as the director, this was an added challenge.

Stages being wide open spaces, directors and actors have to adapt to a new form, similar to film and television where actors are used to speaking in boxes. For Starkey the most demanding aspect was blocking.

“The actors enter the “stage” in a specific order so they’re positioned correctly on the screen, and then making sure they know in which direction to look, which often isn’t the direction in which they see the other characters on the screen.”  She admits it was a learning process for her and Green because of the technical aspects of virtual theater that they were unfamiliar with.

She credits Technical Director, Shannon Montague, with creating the finished product that the audience will see. Unlike film or TV cameras that have the luxury of panning, the camera on computers is stationary and requires someone who understands the result of how things work on Zoom. To actors used to moving on stage, they can feel the restraint.

“As an actor, interacting with other characters when I wasn’t able to face them was extremely difficult and, at times, made me feel unconnected to the other actors.  I had to rely on Tom’s direction to make sure that the way I was portraying Sarah was complementing what the other characters were doing onscreen.”

That aside, Starkey revealed her thoughts about her character Sarah Foster.

“She is the actress who portrays Gwendolen in the community theater’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”  She thinks she’s a talented actress, but as with most performers, her insecurities tend to get the better of her, which makes her lash out at all of the other cast and crew members,” she said. “She’s pretty difficult to work with, but underneath I think she’s just worried that the performance of the play is going to be awful.  And her lack of confidence is heightened by the fact that she’s far too old to be playing the part of Gwendolen.”,

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