Tuesday, July 28, 2020

It's all happening at the Zoom

My heart goes out to actors doing Zoom readings. (Also to playwrights). Actors need to relate to one another. It’s hard when they’re in different locations and everyone is just staring into a camera.

A Zoom reading is no one’s first choice, but during the pandemic it’s that or no theatre at all. And if there’s one plus it’s that everyone in the world can watch instead of the population in the near vicinity of your venue.

But the conditions are less than ideal. You’re watching isolated boxes. The actors’ heads are different sizes, volumes are not level, the quality of the audio is mixed, the picture freezes, there are internet glitches, actors forget to unmute themselves or go on or off camera, they can’t feed off the energy of the audience, new audience members join and pop up on the screen, picture quality varies, etc.

And for comedy writers it’s especially hard because we don’t hear the laughs. I liken it to watching really bad softcore porn.

I’ve had a couple of play readings and I must say the actors really rose to the occasion. In one reading all of the actors were in the same room and boy what a difference that made. As Zoom readings go I've been super pleased.

And I did get something out of them. By seeing the number of participants I was able to see whether the audience was locked into the play or whether they bailed. It’s harder to just leave a theatre in the middle of a performance. You have to really hate it. But for a Zoom reading, it’s as easy as clicking off any TV show that no longer holds your interest. And face it, we’ve all developed itchy trigger fingers.

No one left my readings. So forget the laughs, the audience must’ve been invested in the story and characters. I’ll take it. I’ve seen other Zoom plays where an hour in it’s like someone yelled “Fire!” in a theatre.

That’s useful input for the writer. What about the actor? What does he get out of it? Number one, a chance to act. Again, it’s the only game in town. And two, a chance to be seen. Like I said, I’ve watched a number of Zoom readings and have been introduced to some wonderful actors that I might never had known about otherwise.

Another advantage for young writers trying to break in – it’s easy to schedule readings. Get your friends or actors you know and put it together. No arranging for a theatre or conference room. No having to put out snacks. You can record it and go back and analyze what worked and what didn’t. You can also invite as many or as few friends to view it as you like. It’s generally easier to get a Zoom audience. They don’t have to drive to a theatre, park, maybe pay a babysitter, and if the play is awful they can check their email or play games (keep your cameras off).

As time goes by I suspect Zoom plays will get better. We’ll learn how to smooth out the rough edges, the technology might improve, and actors will get better as they get more comfortable with the medium. And my sincerest hope is that by that time, we have a vaccine, can all go back to live performances, and never have to do another play reading on Zoom again.


Mike Barer said...

I loved the two Zoom readings of Cheers.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

My local amateur theater group did a Zoom reading the other week that I thought was really clever and creative in its use of props, camera control and the physical space each actor has around their camera despite the limitations. It's here, if anyone is interested - a half-hour mock TV documentary on the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, written and directed by one of the group (who is a former professional actor): https://youtu.be/lBwE--ZH1Ak


VP81955 said...

I might try that Zoom option for table reads for my two rom-com feature scripts. "Stand Tall!" and "Fugitive Sweetheart." Get about a dozen actors, half in principal roles, the other half in a variety of bit parts at different points of the screenplay.

Troy McClure said...

Ditto what Mike Barer said.

If you're taking requests, could you please do a Zoom reading of your Room Service episode, and get John Ducey to reprise his role as the waiter. His delivery of "OK" was gold!

stephen catron said...

Richard Nelson (playwright) via The Public Theatre did a terrific job writing a play just for ZOOM. The premise was a family trapped at home speaking to one another on ZOOM. So it worked. Then he did another and I had no desire to watch. Why? Even extremely well written theatre is just not that interesting on ZOOM.

No said...

I got the Simon and Garfunkel reference in the title. It is indeed all happening at the Zoom when it comes to social media. S&G need to get with the times.

I think when done creatively, this new state of internet affairs could turn into a new genre. Late night comedy has been doing it pretty effectively for awhile. This year is going to be an iconic one no matter what. I can't wait to be ruthlessly ridiculed for the society we live in today by future people.

jenmoon said...

As an actor, I'm glad we have Zoom, because the people playing group sports are utterly screwed. It's better than nothing/getting the virus while still trying to do things in person. I've literally done double the shows this year than I did last year. Rehearse whenever. I've done plays on the opposite coast. My theater career is going super well on Zoom.

But that said, I'm in play rehearsals now and I concur it's not exactly clear that I'm supposed to be flirting with Little John when we have a bunch of people onscreen. Oh well, what can you do. At least it's called out in the script. I am amused at the sword and stick fights (we're doing "Robin Hood: The Musical") on Zoom, though.

Amusingly, people seem to think I'm better at acting over Zoom? Go figure.

Liggie said...

A few months ago, the "Orphan Black" cast reunited on Zoom for a charity-benefit reading of a couple of episodes. Watching Tatiana Maslany switch characters every other line would be something. It's on YouTube.

This brings up a Friday Question. There are services that record audio readings of spec scripts, with professional actors performing the dialogue. The screenwriter then has an audio file they can send to studios to accompany, if not replace, a printed script. How often are these recorded readings used in studio submission offices, and with the pandemic are they a useful way to keep otherwise idle actors working?

Sue T. said...

Thanks for the Simon & Garfunkel pun in your headline. I loved "At the Zoo" when I was in high school.

blinky said...

I predict in 5 years if we are still alive that most meetings will be by teleconference and the technology will be so advanced that Zoom will be like listening to 78 records by comparison.

VP81955 said...

Frank Beans and Sue T., I do believe it, I do believe it's true.

HooperSquare said...

You might find interesting the zoom play I've been working on - it's only one actor but we've managed to light it and do the sound properly while still keeping some interactivity with the audience so they are part of it. Details at here